In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revels in a classic cat poem written by a man in confinement
Who invented ‘free verse’? Walt Whitman (1819-92) often gets the credit, although his decision to write in free verse – unrhymed poetry without a regular metre or rhythm – may have been influenced by the Biblical Psalms. Before Whitman, the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart also wrote a wonderful poem which prefigures Whitman’s psalm-like free verse; rather pleasingly, a section of it is about his cat.
Jubilate Agno (‘Rejoice in the Lamb’) bears the clear influence of the Psalms. But what Christopher Smart did was to take the rhythms and syntax of the Psalms and transport them to his own four walls, in order, not to praise God directly, but to praise his pet cat. Here is the ‘My Cat Jeoffry’ section from the much longer poem.
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.
Christopher Smart (1722-71) spent a number of years incarcerated in St. Luke’s Hospital, Bethnal Green, London. He was deemed to be mad, although Samuel Johnson famously questioned the reasons behind Smart’s confinement: ‘I did 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 any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.’
It was while he was confined in St. Luke’s that Smart wrote much of his poetry, including the remarkable Jubilate Agno, which was written in around 1759-60 but not published until 1939. It’s remarkable to think that this poem, which could have had a much greater influence on Anglophone poetry if it had been published during Smart’s lifetime, had to wait until after not just Lyrical Ballads and Leaves of Grass but The Waste Land until it saw publication. Would we have got a Whitman, or something similar, earlier than 1855 if English and American poets had had Smart to guide them? Would Romanticism have been different?
An idle speculation, perhaps, although the poet-critic Donald Davie suggested that Smart might one day come to be considered ‘the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth’. Certainly, Smart stands between the Augustan orderliness of Pope at the beginning of the eighteenth century and the liberation and Romanticism of Wordsworth at the end of it. Smart still wanted to create some form of order out of the chaos around him – including the inner chaos of his own troubled mental health – but he finds it, as Whitman would do a century later, not in the perfectly poised heroic couplets of Pope’s neoclassicism but in his sprawling verse lines inspired by the Psalms of David. Smart even wrote a poem titled A Song to David, although it, like ‘My Cat Jeoffry’, remained unpublished until long after Smart’s death.
In his vast and compelling survey of English poetry, The Lives Of The Poets, Michael Schmidt draws a comparison between Smart and Blake, calling the former less didactic and with a better ear, as well as ‘greater formal tact’. And we can see these qualities in abundance in ‘My Cat Jeoffry’. Neil Curry, in his book [Christopher Smart] (By: Neil Curry) [published: June, 2004], describes Jeoffry as the ‘most famous cat in the whole history of English literature’, and the 74-line excerpt from Jubilate Agno may well be the greatest cat poem in the language.
The poem is religious: Jeoffry, like Smart (who was confined partly because of his religious fervour, coupled with financial difficulties), serves ‘the living God’. If for Milton, writing on his blindness, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’, then Smart – in whom we can detect the influence of Milton – they also serve who wreathe their bodies seven times round with elegant quickness as they leap up to catch the musk. (‘Musk’ here probably refers to some sort of catnip which Jeoffry is trying to get a whiff or lick of.)
The other details Smart provides, and the way he describes them, brilliantly convey the personality and movements of our feline friends. Any cat-owner will doubtless identify the truth of Smart’s observations, whether it’s Jeoffry ‘look[ing] upon his forepaws to see if they are clean’ or ‘work[ing] it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.’ Even the slightly unconventional syntax Smart uses to describe these poses seems appropriate, as if he is bending the language into a more suitable shape for capturing the distinctive catlike movements of Jeoffry.
These details show the depth of their companionship, and remind us that animals are often real friends to those with mental health struggles: uncritically providing friendship and affection and a constant reminder that that person is not alone. Smart, by all accounts, enjoyed relative comfort in St. Luke’s, including the use of a garden. But he was still confined there (he remained in confinement from 1756 until 1763), and Jeoffry’s company appears to have been of inestimable comfort and value to him.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.