My Cat Jeoffry

10 Sep 2012 |

Christopher Smart (1722-1771) was an English poet and satirist. His story is one of art, debt, cross-dressing, drama, and cats. Readers of this article should feel free to draw parallels between Smart and furries, real or imagined.

Smart was an artistic youth with a seemingly misguided romantic focus, writing a poem at age four to challenge a rival for the affections of a twelve year-old. He was also delicate, avoiding physical exercise due to asthma attacks, a complaint widely disbelieved by those around him.

He attended Cambridge University, incurring a substantial debt in the process in the hope that this would be covered by his future career. To that end, he accepted several long-term contracts that tied him to Cambridge and prevented him from easily moving to the burgeoning publishing community in London.

He enjoyed some success in this time, winning a scholarship for Latin poetry, and working as a translator for Alexander Pope on an ad hoc basis. However his income was not sufficient for him to discharge his debts.

Smart gained some notoriety for his satirical plays, where he would act some of the female roles himself. This was considered unusual and led to rumours about his sexuality, a concept continued by today's critical interest in Smart's poetry, particularly its perceived gender-bending and phallic imagery.

He moved to London to work in the Grub St publishing scene, a collective of poets, low-end publishers and booksellers. During this time he continued to draw his wages from Cambridge, a ruse that was eventually discovered, cutting Smart off from his main income.

To try to make ends meet, Smart became a prolific writer. He contributed to a variety of magazines on top of his own plays and poetry.

Smart also got caught up in petty personal politics on Grub St, a 1752 equivalent of a flame war. Siding with Henry Fielding against John Hill in a 'paper war', Smart spent a great deal of time contributing to the growing vitriol, culminating in his epic poem The Hilliad. While he gained notoriety, such navel-gazing didn't pay the bills, and Smart foundered in growing debt.

To manage his debts, Smart looked for charity amongst his friends. This led to personal problems as Smart became branded a moocher. Desperately, Smart accepted a 99-year contract to single-handedly publish a weekly paper. In 1756, at age 34, he had a breakdown from the stress.

Smart was interred at St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics on Old St. He fell into a religious mania and was pronounced incurable.

St Luke's
I visited the long-demolished site of St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, now replaced with retail and a block of post-war flats. (For those who know London, it's opposite the William Blake pub on Old St, just west of the roundabout.) St Luke's Church (pictured) stands about 100m down the road. Photo by @bastett.

During his time in the asylum, Smart wrote his two great works. A Song to David was published in 1763 to acclaim that has grown with time, notably through Robert Browning (in the late 19th century) who ranked Smart alongside Milton and Keats.

Smart was eventually released from the asylum, only to be arrested for debt in 1770. He died in prison in 1771.

In 1939, Smart's Jubilate Agno - which includes the canto For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry - was discovered and published.

Smart sees Jeoffry as godly, an opinion I imagine sat well in Jeoffry's mind. There can be no doubt that Jeoffry was loved by Smart, to the extent that he sees God in Jeoffry's morning ablutions. Nowadays, Jeoffry is Smart's best known work.

The full text of For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry is below.

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.