One of the most delightful and best-known poems in praise of a house cat, Christopher Smart’s “My Cat, Jeoffry” is actually one section of a much more complex and difficult work entitled Jubilate Agno (Latin for “Rejoice in the Lamb”), composed while the poet was locked in a private madhouse because of religious mania in 1759 or 1760. Despite the bad reputation of eighteenth century hospitals for the insane (which Bedlam, for instance, deserves), Smart’s institution was liberal and his time there not totally unpleasant. Already a well-known writer, he was allowed pen and paper, a garden in which to work, privacy, social visits—and the company of his cat. The separate title later given this section comes from its first line, “For I will consider my Cat, Jeoffry.” Smart combines naturalistic, careful observation of feline behavior with religious interpretation. The result is that Jeoffry carries the symbolic weight without losing his vivid individuality, and Smart conveys love of his pet without becoming too precious or sentimental. The first image is of Jeoffry, “the servant of the living God,” worshipping “in his way,” “wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness” and then leaping up after “musk” (probably a scented, catniplike plant), “which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.” Anyone can see a house cat in these motions, chasing its tail and then leaping up for catnip; Smart’s artistry is such that the reader is also able to see it as a kind of worship.
The first third of the poem outlines Jeoffry’s daily habits just as Smart had his own habits, which included writing some lines of Jubilate Agno every day. After worship, Jeoffry “begins to consider himself.” Again the...
(The entire section is 722 words.)