“For I am of the seed of the WELCH WOMAN and speak the truth from my heart.” Happy Birthday, Poet Christopher Smart

“For in my nature I quested for beauty, but God, God hath sent me to sea for pearls.”
— Christopher Smart, from “Jubilate Agno”

Christopher Smart, born on this day in 1722, spent over 10 years of his life locked up in mental institutions (a kind term for what such establishments were back then). He seemed to suffer from some sort of religious ecstasy (although “suffering” is not the right word at all). He was overcome by the love of God. It made him tremble with happiness. To quote my Dad, “I see no problem.”

Smart was born in Kent, and after his father’s death when he was 11, he was taken under the wing of the Vane family (his father had been a steward at their home). The Vanes made sure he went to college, Pembroke. He became friends with Alexander Pope, and also somehow became acquainted with Dr. Johnson. He had problems right off the bat with drinking and money, irresponsible with both. He was arrested in 1747 for not paying his debts. He needed to make a living. He moved to London. He worked as an editor. He got married. In 1756 he was sent to an insane asylum and he stayed locked up until 1763. His wife left him during his incarceration, but in general he had not alienated his friends, and most stood by him, trying to help him out, financially or otherwise (he had two children by that point).

While he was in the asylum, he wrote A Song to David. It was published the year of his release. You can see in it Smart’s essential qualities, one of which is a love of lists – lists/outlines seemed to organize his high-flying rapturous thought processes. He can’t BEAR how much he has to say about David, and so he tries to break it down, break David down into the essences, which takes the form of a list. Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and so on. Smart’s language is startling, right off the bat. There is energy in the language. He is not lost in quiet contemplation. He is right up against it: he needs URGENTLY to speak.

He died in 1771. His life was chaotic, but his confinement was almost a blessing in that it allowed him the space to write without the pressure of having to make a living by it (a struggle for most writers). I am hesitant of making a blessing out of madness – even when some good art comes out of it. Anyone who has experienced madness to any degree will know that nobody would ever choose it. But madness does have its compensations. You’re not supposed to say that, but it’s the truth. As Dr. Johnson’s quote below suggests: Smart’s madness was benign. It didn’t cause him or others agony. He wanted to praise God. He would fall to his knees in the middle of public squares, lost in the rapture of God’s love. Well, I’ve seen such people all over New York. Perhaps a bit annoying if you are trying to walk down that sidewalk, but other than that, what’s the harm?

In his most famous poem, the one most often quoted today, Christopher Smart sat and watched his cat Jeoffry stretching and playing in the sun, and became overwhelmed by God’s nearness and presence, obvious to him in every ripple of muscle in the cat’s body. The poem that resulted from his awe-struck observations is one of my favorites of all time: “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]”.

Christopher Smart’s influence was local during his own time, but he has easily crossed the centuries following his death, and new generations of readers continue to discover his wonderful work. Allen Ginsberg spoke of him as a huge influence. In Smart’s poem about his cat Jeoffry, you can almost feel Christopher Smart “rapping” about the cat, riffing … a la the Beats of the 40s and 50s, with complete confidence in what Ginsberg, centuries later, would call “first thought best thought”. I don’t believe first thought is always best thought. Sometimes “first thought” needs to go through an editing process. But Smart’s sound – a voice murmuring over and over, turning around and around the same topic – can be heard in poets centuries later.

Smart’s lines don’t look like other poet’s lines (at least not in the 18th century). His lines look like the lines from poets in the mid-20th century. He often begins all lines with the same word, giving the verse an incantatory feel. His lines are long and conversational, they look like the lines of “Howl”.

And about his “cat poem”:

First of all, check out this gorgeous post.

Second of all: Hope was the living embodiment of Christopher Smart’s lines. Of course this is true of most cats. I’d just sit and watch Hope do her thing, enjoying witnessing her mind and body working to accomplish a goal, conquer a foe, get her needs met, whatever. And she’d do something, and I’d immediately think of this or that line from Smart’s poem. A continuum between Hope and Jeoffry. The world changes. Technology changes. Cats do not change.

I put together this post years ago when I started commemorating people’s birthdays. I used photos of Hope to illustrate. I miss her so much. She was the best. I love you, Hope.

For she can creep

For every family had one cat at least in the bag.

For she is tenacious of her point.

For every house is incomplete without her and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.

For she purrs in thankfulness, when God tells her she’s a good Cat

For she is the tribe of the Tiger

For she can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.

For she counteracts the powers of darkness by her electrical skin and glaring eyes.

And here is the long-awaited Cat Poem. It is a prayer of thankfulness that cats exist, that Jeoffry is there with him in the asylum, to be contemplated, to be treasured.

For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.


Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, 1948 bebop collaboration:

“When I think of death
I get a goofy feeling
Then I catch my breath
Zero is appealing
Appearances are hazy
Smart went crazy
Smart went crazy.”

Dr. Johnson:

“I do not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen, and I have no passion for it.”

Robert Graves:

[He] wrote A Song to David in a lunatic asylum, and when his collected poems were published in 1791, it was omitted as ‘not acceptable to the reader.’ This poem is formally addressed to David – Smart knew that he was no madder than King David had been, and a tradition survives that he scrabbled the versese with a key on the wall of his cell.

Christopher Smart:

The beauty, force and vehemence of Impression…[is] a talent or gift of Almighty God, by which a Genius is impowered to throw an emphasis upon a word or sentence in such wise, that it cannot escape any reader of sheer good sense or true critical sagacity.

Michael Schmidt, in Lives of the Poets, writes:

However [Song to David] was written, they remain a wonder and a mystery, begotten of the Bible, of broad and deep learning, and of some catalyst that made a confusion that poet resolved, against chaos as it were, to put in some sort of order.

For the word of God is a sword on my side – no matter what other weapon a stick or a straw.
For I have adventured myself in the name of the Lord, and he hath marked me for his own.
For I bless God the Postmaster general & all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen & Shelvock.
For my grounds in New Canaan shall infinitely compensate for the flats & maynes of Staindrop Moore.
For the praise of God can give to a mute faith the notes of a nightingale.

Is it nonsense? Yes. Is it nonsense? No.

Northrop Frye:

“[Alexander] Pope’s ‘Messiah’ is not musical, but Smart’s ‘Song to David’, with its pounding thematic words and the fortissimo explosion of its coda, is a musical tour de force.”

Peter Porter:

The purest case of man’s vision prevailing over the spirit of his times.

Richard Rolt, Westminster Journal, 1751, reviewing Smart’s Poems on Several Occasions:

[The poems have] all the glowing fire … that can enrapture the Soul of Poetry, and enliven the Heart of the Reader.

Thomas Percy, letter to Edmond Malone, October 17, 1786:

Poor Smart the mad poet.

Robert Graves:

It is not impossible that when Smart is judged over the whole range of his various productions – conventional in form as well as unconventional, light and even ribald as well as devotional, urbane or tender as well as sublime – he will be thought of as the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Of the significant poets of the later eighteenth century, sometimes termed the Age of Sensibility to distinguish it from the Augustan Age of Pope and Swift, a high proportion went mad. Like William Collins and William Cowpoer, Christopher Smart is rarely discussed without reference to his clinical insanity.

Fanny Burney, journal entry, September 12, 1768:

[Smart sent] a most affecting Epistle to papa, to entreat him to lend him 1/2 a guinea…How great a pity so clever, so ingenious a man should be reduced to such shocking circumstances. He is extremely grave, and has still great wildness in his manner, looks and voice–’tis impossible to see him and think of his works, without feeling the utmost pity and concern for him.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, letter to T. Hall Caine:

A Song to David [is] the only accomplished poem of the last century.

Marcus Walsh:

Smart’s Hymns are imaginative poetry, hymns only in name, making too few of the inevitable practical compromises to be acceptable in popular congregational use.

Christopher Hunter, Smart’s nephew:

[He was friendly, affectionate, and liberal to excess.

Michael Schmidt:

Smart’s originality is the product not of a candid, puzzled, anxious personality like William Cowper’s, nor the lucid, nostalgic and humane sensibility of a Goldsmith. It’s the product of a distinctly poetic imagination, using that term in a classical sense. Smart seldom composes verse: he is a poet rare in any age, most rare in the eighteenth century, a spiritual enthusiast and a consummate verbal artist. He might resemble Blake, only he has greater formal tact, a better ear, a better (that is, a less didactic) nature. His poems exist to celebrate God, not to cajole, instruct and persuade us.

Christopher Smart, on his time being locked up:

“For they work me with their harping-irons, which is a barbarous instrument, because I am more unguarded than others.”

From “With Christopher Smart”
By Robert Browning

Armed with this instance, have I diagnosed
Your case, my Christopher? The man was sound
And sane at starting: all at once the ground
Gave way beneath his step, a certain smoke
Curled up and caught him, or perhaps down broke
A fireball wrapping flesh and spirit both
In conflagration. Then—as heaven were loth
To linger—let earth understand too well
How heaven at need can operate—off fell
The flame-robe, and the untransfigured man
Resumed sobriety,—as he began,
So did he end nor alter pace, not he!
(full poem here)

John Butt on A Song to David:

The poem is unique amongst the lyrical poems of the century in its expression of religious ecstasy within the confines of the strictest formality.

Donald Davie:

The greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth.

Dr. John Hawkesworth, on visiting Smart after his release:

He replied very quick, ‘I cannot afford to be idle;’ I said he might employ his mind as well in the country as the town, at which he only shook his head.

Allen Ginsberg to students in a “Basic Poetics,” class, May 26, 1980:

“The reason I want to lay Smart on you now is (that) his line is basically the same line I used for Howl. I didn’t get the Howl line from Whitman and I didn’t get it from Robinson Jeffers or Kenneth Fearing, who are the American precursors of long line, nor from the 19th century British poet Edward Carpenter, who was also as a student of Walt Whitman, writing long lines – but from Christopher Smart. Kerouac’s long line comes somewhat out of Christopher Smart also. Smart is smarter than anybody else around. His language is smarter than Pope or Dryden. Their’s is very stiff, compared to the liquidity and intelligence and humor (of Smart), as well as classical scholarship involved, as well as a pure vernacular improvisation and contemporary quotidian reverence.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson to James Boswell, on Smart’s Universal Visiter, stopped because of his insanity:

I wrote for some months in ‘The Universal Visitor,’ for poor Smart, while he was mad, not then knowing the terms on which he was engaged to write, and thinking I was doing him good. I hoped his wits would soon return to him. Mine returned to me, and I wrote in ‘The Universal Visitor’ no longer.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Smart never could escape the stigma of madness, which prevented A Song to David and other later works from receiving the esteem they deserved. He died in debtor’s prison, a melancholy end that haunts me whenever I reread Jubilate Agno and A Song to David.

Christopher Smart, on gardening at St. Luke’s, October, 1762:

“Let Pink, house of Pink rejoice with Trigonum a herb used in garlands–the Lord succeed my pink borders.”

John Kempe, Gentleman’s Magazine (1823), remembering when Smart visited their home as a child, to listen to John play the flute:

I have often soothed the wanderings of his melancholy by some favorite air; he would shed tears when I played, and generally wrote some lines afterwards.

Michael Schmidt:

We readily assume that he wrote in madness, that what he wrote, in its forms and themes, partakes of his derangement. Or we divide the work into sane and “insane” and judge the parts by distinct criteria. But his madness can be seen not so much as a disorder as alternative order, his religious vision not as eccentric but as direct, comprehensive. To say an artist is “mad” is to say very little. What matters is what he makes of language. Smart makes passionate poetry.

He is not an imitator even in his translations, which hold the original in a form and language that make no concessions. He feels and conveys the force of the poetry he admires. His intution is attuned to a broad tradition, not caught in the rut of convention. Marcus Walsh calls Smart’s mature style “mannered, religiose and self-conscious” – and each becomes a positive critical term, for together they produce a “homogenous” style that “unifies” – the crucial word – “a number of divergent influences”. It is the paradoxical combination of influences, biblical and classical, and the disruptions his imagination registers, that make him outstanding and eccentric. Learning and accidents of biography delver him from the bondage of Augustan convention into the sometimes anarchic, vertiginous freedom of Jubliate Agno and the originality of the Song to David. He has few heirs.

Christopher Hunter, on his uncle’s breakdown:

Though the fortune as well as constitution of Mr. Smart required the utmost care, he was equally negligent in the management of both, and his various and repeated embarrassments acting upon an imagination uncommonly fervid, produced temporary alienations of mind; which at last were attended with paroxysms so violent and continued as to render confinement necessary.

Fanny Burney, Memoirs of Dr. Burney (1832)

[Smart alternated between] partial aberration of intellect, and bacchanalian forgetfulness of misfortune…[He was pious] though fanatical rather than rational.

Christopher Smart on Horace:

The lucky risk of the Horatian boldness…Horace is not so much an original in respect to his matter and sentiments … as to that unrivalled peculiarity of expression, which has excited the admiration of all succeeding ages.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language, on “Jubilate Ago”:

The great chant from the Jubilate, “For I Will Consider my Cat Jeoffrey,” is superbly poignant, as it celebrates Smart’s asylum companion. At certain moments, here and elsewhere in Jubilate Agno, Smart becomes a precursor of William Blake.

Marcus Walsh, Christopher Smart: Selected Poems (1979):

[In Smart’s poems] every creature worships God simply by being itself, through its peculiar actions and properties…. The well-known lines on Smart’s cat Jeoffry, far from exemplifying a childlike naivety of vision, are an elaborate demonstration of how each closely observed act may be taken as part of the cat’s divine ritual of praise.

Donald Greene:

[Smart is] the earliest of the outright rebels against Newtonian and Lockean ‘rationalism’.

Christopher Smart:

“For there is no invention but the gift of God, and no grace but the grace of gratitude.”

Christopher Hunter, June 25, 1771, a month after his uncle’s death:

I trust he is now at peace; it was not his portion here.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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25 Responses to “For I am of the seed of the WELCH WOMAN and speak the truth from my heart.” Happy Birthday, Poet Christopher Smart

  1. Paul H says:

    From Smart to Ginsberg by way of Whitman and Lawrence, of course. I am fascinated when the distinction between poetry and prose is blurred. Some argue that poetry can only be written as verse, but that is clearly not so (cf. Wilde’s prose poems, much of Woolf). It remains ineffable, and I’m perfectly happy with that. Great post Sheila.

  2. sheila says:

    Yes, Whitman! He, too, has those long meandering conversational Smart lines.

    I just love Smart’s stuff – you can tell he wrote it for himself, if that makes sense. I love that it has traveled the centuries.

  3. sheila says:

    Paul – have you read Michael Schmidt’s book? I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but I absolutely love it and use it as a reference book all the time. He was an editor of poetry – not a critic – and so his “take” is quite unique. He does not come from an academic perspective, but a fan perspective. I love his thoughts so much, although I disagree with some of his assessments. Wonderful writer!

  4. Paul H says:

    I haven’t read it, but I’ve seen you refer to it several times. It’s going on the list. It’s huge, though!

  5. sheila says:

    Way huge! I don’t think I ever read it straight through – just a chapter here, there, dipping into it. Eventually I got through it all.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Oh, you did it again! I majored in English literature and don’t remember any mention of Christopher Smart. (Perhaps I was sick that day?) I will be reading more of and about him very soon. What a treat. Thanks for sharing!

  7. sheila says:

    Kathleen – You’re in for such a treat! I took all kinds of poetry classes in college and have no memory of encountering him either. I was introduced to him through this poetry newsletter I was signed up for in the late 90s – the cat poem was the Poem of the Day and from then on I was HOOKED!!

  8. Heather says:

    That’s a new one for the collection, Sheila. These religious visionaries are really fascinating to me. Swedenbourg was another, though he was not a poet, but everyone did think he was mad. Blake is the most obvious. I wonder what exactly he saw on Peckham Rye? Are the poems a product of the visions or merely inspired by them? I like how light Smart is. Blake tends to be heavy except for a few of the Songs of Innocence, though it’s really apples and oranges. Thanks again!

  9. sheila says:

    Heather – I love Blake, too, but you’re right – he’s heavier. He’s more of an evangelist. Smart just sits in his own glory of God, it seems – he has no interest in persuading or proselytizing. I mean, his observations of the cat – some are quite prosaic, others leap into transcendence – I love his outlook. Doesn’t that cat just come to life??

  10. Bob says:

    I am very attracted to Smart. Is this a good thing or bad thing? I think he could have guided me through the streets and sewers of Dublin, (Maybe with Elvis along). Sheila – if they called us all up, do you think you would go? Sorry, but it is three in the morning and at three in the morning these are good ideas. I’d love to have Joyce punch me over the meaning of an Irish Wake. —- You in???

  11. Jennchez says:

    I am ashamed to say I did not know who Christopher Smart was. I am familiar with ” A Song to David” but was unaware of the author. I love these posts of your Sheila, I’ve learned more from you than I ever did in any of my University Lit classes. Love “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry”. I believe that every proper cat should have a proper name :)

  12. sheila says:

    He’s really kind of under the radar. But yes, great stuff!

  13. Rinaldo says:

    And again my sole contribution will be to mention that Benjamin Britten set the poet you’re talking about. Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, for choir and organ, sets several of Smart’s poems, including the cat Jeoffry. The piece runs slightly under 20 minutes, and I see that YouTube has several performances.

  14. Jessie says:

    For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
    ha ha! what the hell. that’s amazing. This poem is new to me and I love that circling through mundane and sublime. I can guarantee now that any cat in my future will be called Jeoffrey. Great post.

    • sheila says:

      hahahaha I know! Totally mundane and sublime. I love the camel back line!

      I just love how this 18th century kitty cat – living with him in an insane asylum – is immortalized!

  15. gweenbrick says:

    Beautifully written post. I found your blog through a link from the author Jincy Willet and I have enjoyed reading it. I vaguely remembered Christopher Smart but I am newly taken with him after reading your endorsement. I look forward to becoming one of your regular readers!

    • sheila says:

      Thank you so much! I love Jincy Willett’s stuff so much – haven’t read her latest book yet. I love it when she shows up here to comment. She’s awesome.

      Thanks again – Christopher Smart is definitely worth further investigation!

  16. Jared Sanford says:

    Thank you, Sheila, for this delightful post. I was first introduced to his work by my dear friend Anna Biller by way of Benjamin Britten’s wonderful cantata Rejoice in the Lamb some years ago. Practically every day I look upon my cats and think of the lines: For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest/ For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion. I also just love the (Kit’s not my kits’) incantatory use of blank verse. What a poet!

    • sheila says:

      I love that Britten’s work has been brought up in this thread by multiple people! I was unaware of it and have had so much fun discovering it.

      I have the same experience – I think of this poem often, almost every day, when my cat does something that Joffrey – and all cats – do. I love the simple celebration of it: celebration of the more transcendent elements of life itself, but also a celebration of the specific behavior of cats – God seen in the everyday, the habitual.

      “Incantatory” is just the right word, Jared!

      Side note: I love Anna Biller’s work so much. :)

  17. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Oh, Hope.

  18. Carolyn Clarke says:

    This, all this, hurts my heart but in a good way.

  19. Melissa Sutherland says:

    I look for this one every year. Especially for the Hope sightings.
    My two feral cats from West New York who moved up to NH with me in 2010 are gone now, ashes to ashes, and in spite of my advanced age I’ve adopted six year old Wally. He’s the love of my life (of course).

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