Poetry Friday: 1939 (on behalf of the early 1760s)

English: Christopher Smart, engraving of an oi...

Christopher Smart, a poet who made out of mental illness something mysterious and beautiful (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1939, a poem surfaced for the first time in print, having lain for almost two centuries in manuscript form: an epic, sprawling, phantasmagorical poem composed by Christopher Smart while he was an inmate in St. Luke’s Hospital for the Insane, Bethnal Green, London from 1759 to 1763.  This is from the truly bad old days, the days when care for the mentally ill was so barbarous as to make One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest look like an episode of the Muppet Babies.  Smart was confined, essentially alone except for the company of his cat, and the occasional visitor, for four years.  In that disturbed and confined space, both physical and mental, he devoted himself to a mystical contemplation of God and the universe, and to his writing, and what later emerged (with the aid of thoughtful editors) in the mid-20th Century was a work we now call Jubilate Agno, which first saw the light of day under the title Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam in 1939.  Of the hundreds of lines in the poem, perhaps the most famous and celebrated is the passage where he turns his attention to his lone companion, a cat named Jeoffry.  The whole passage is a bit long, and I’ll just give you a taste of it here—an excerpt from the middle of Jubilate Agno:

“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 considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
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.”

Smart—I’ll be honest—bewitches me more than his skill may deserve: I’m not at all sure how much of what I love in the poem is intention, and how much is happy accident.  But I’ll credit him with all of it: the madcap scramble of the phrasing, the way the poem balances the chaos of imagery with the strict order of the cat’s life (his ten steps, etc.), the strangeness of the repeated “For” that precedes every line (a note: “Let” and “For” are the only words used at the start of a line throughout the 1,200 line poem) that makes the whole poem feel like a list of preliminary clauses leading up to a thought that is never quite spoken.  Is it genius or madness on a schizophrenic level that causes him to ascribe so much meaning to his cat’s every motion—the leap of the cat as a capturing of incense at prayer, the (static?) electricity of him as a shield against dark powers, the mercy present in the cat’s willingness to let some prey escape and live?  The poem is so packed with thoughts—sometimes apparently satirical, as when Jeoffry graciously considers his neighbor only after having considered himself, but at other times seemingly very sincere, as I think Smart is when he proclaims that a house would be empty without him.

I am also bewitched by the phrases that elude me—what does it mean that Jeoffry goes “brisking about the life” and how does that ward off the Devil?  What does it mean that a “Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger”?  In honesty, though, none of the phrases really elude me—they get swept into the rush of feeling a connection with Smart, a sense that he really is seeing what it is to be a cat and that all the words are trying to herd me to a place where human language doesn’t quite go.  I feel myself stepping out of humanity, just slightly, and into the metaphorical shoes of what it would be like to be a cat and a Christian at the same time—to be aware of my animal nature and to see an embrace of that nature as somehow an act of devotion to a God who did not take my form and yet who praises me.  To worship in my way.  I can’t imagine how many hours Smart spent, kneeling in his cell, filled with visions of glory and simultaneously watching Jeoffry be a cat.  I think those hundreds of hours must be more or less prerequisite for tackling the kind of poem he set out to write.

I mention several times above that this poem bewitches me—it has done so for so long that, at one point, while proctoring an exam (the term we used in Canada was “invigilating”, which I like much better than “proctoring”), I mused on Smart’s poem and composed a poem of my own about my cat, which owes homage to Smart, of course, but operates very differently (most of the time—the attentive will of course see images that are more or less translated directly from his work).  I’ll offer it here, without further commentary about it, as another musing of mine on Smart’s poem, and perhaps it will reveal as much or more about my thinking than my prosaic attempts above have done.  This is a poem by me, entitled “Houdini”:

“My cat’s eyes cross
As though he can see other worlds.
He is altogether strange and mute,
Silenced as though soul-scarred.
His limbs are long and unsteady;
He wrecks himself upon the laws of physics;
He is the chieftain of the noises of night.
When his face closes as in sleep,
He is the smiling Buddha transcendent—
He has fed upon the counsels of the wise.
But dreams trouble him.
When lost in them, his whiskers tug at his face
Like tethers to the land of time.
The world outside his walls is not entirely real,
He doubts my existence on weekday afternoons,
Then denies his agnosticism in the evening light.
He serves no useful purpose—
All his actions originate in his deepness of being.
He accepts companions but not friendship.
He is beyond pity or envy;
His peace leaves him indifferent to the suffering of others.
He does battle with the inanimate world
To express his glory.
He is a creature possessed and unpossessing;
He breathes as though inhabited by fire.
He is the household spirit; he is motion and shadow—
He refuses to be known.
He refuses to be known.”

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