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 actions are both characteristic and endearing: The cat “looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean,” “sharpens his paws by wood,” and “fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted.” In this sequence of actions, Jeoffry is both an individual and every cat. The poet also anthropomorphizes Jeoffry, although the human motives attributed to him never clash with his feline nature: “For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor./ For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.” Smart artfully combines the image of cats sniffing each other with the idea that it shows courtesy. The other two-thirds of the poem celebrate the many virtues of Jeoffry and cats in general, often with strong religious associations. That “one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying” is a sign of his mercy; to Smart, it also implies biblical uses of seven, such as the seventh day being the Sabbath. Smart writes that the Children of Israel took cats with them when they left Egypt. There is even humor, as when Smart praises the cat as “an instrument for the children to learn benevolence on” or says of his cat’s voice, “it has in purity what it wants in music.” The last third of the poem describes Jeoffry’s activities and “varieties of his movements.” Again and again, one can imagine the friskiness of Jeoffry and how much it means to Smart. “For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life,” Smart writes. Jeoffry has learned many tricks that show his “patience” and walks to the rhythm of music. Moreover, his motions form a microcosm of all animals: He swims, creeps, and, “though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.” Interestingly—and in keeping with the scientific interest Smart shows elsewhere in Jubilate Agno —the poet has discovered the static electricity from stroking a cat: He sees this...
(This entire section contains 722 words.)
“fire” as both protection against “the powers of darkness by his electrical skin” and “the spiritual substance that God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.” Jeoffry’s character admirably mixes opposites. As Smart writes, “For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest./ For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.” Also “he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.” At one point, Smart interrupts himself with “Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat./ For I bless the name of the Lord that Jeoffry is better.” Smart may well have seen himself in the incident, blessed by God but beset by adversity.
Jubilate Agno is composed of numerous fragments. Critics debate the relationships among them or even if they form a poem rather than a daybook collection of notes in poetic form. Except for the first two lines, every line in the poem begins with either “Let” or “For” (one view holds that these lines are to be read antiphonally—that is, one “Let” line read with a “For” line read in response). Some fragments do not have sections of both kinds, although the section containing the lines about Jeoffry does. Generally, the “For” sections are more personal; “My Cat, Jeoffry” begins each line with “For.” In this structure and counterpoint, Smart was influenced by Anglican liturgy and biblical literature such as the Psalms and the Prophets. Specifically, Smart owes much to Robert Lowth’s De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (1753; Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, 1787). The poem is written without traditional rhyme and meter. Smart relies on similarity of structure and sometimes similar length for unity between lines. Above all, Smart’s extreme sensitivity to the sound of words both enriches his work and provides patterns to tie it together. He is especially fond of alliteration, as in Jeoffry “duly and daily” serving God or “at his first glance of the glory of God.” Smart also coins new words or adopts old ones, again sensitive to sound, as when he onomatopoeically describes the cat’s play as “spraggle upon waggle” (as a noun “sprag” is an archaic term meaning “a lively young fellow”). Humanizing metaphor is basic to the work; Smart’s genius is that the religious and anthropomorphic levels do not obscure the literal level. Smart also excels in sharp, visual metaphors as when he writes that Jeoffry “camels his back,” an apt description of a cat arching in anger. Elsewhere in Jubilate Agno, Smart explains his theory of art in terms of “punching,” in which the impact of the words on his readers’ eyes convey the visual impression that Smart intended. Jubilate Agno, while not composed for publication, is central to Smart’s career. Through its experimentation, he went from traditional eighteenth century verse to something much more personal and, in many ways, modern. Some critics believe that it anticipates William Blake’s poetry in both the idiosyncratic form and the deeply personal theology conveyed in multiple ways.