The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.