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"MY CAT JEOFFRY" Christopher Smart (1763) The brilliant but mentally disturbed Christopher Smart wrote his famous passage from his Jubilate Agno, "My Cat Jeoffry," while confined in a mental hospital between 1759 and 1763. As Smart's only companion, Jeoffry provided a focus for his religious energy. The poem presents Jeoffry as a feline, but also as an emblem of God's divine greatness. Smart incorporates the complicated numerology and abrupt declarations for which he became famous in later centuries; he received little critical acknowledgment in his own lifetime. At 75 lines in length the poem adopts the form of the Psalms, antiphonal in its cryptic statements designed to answer one another. Each line begins with the word For, establishing a cause/effect relationship between God and the beasts of his creation, which include man.
The speaker begins, "For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. / For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him." Smart's work viewed the human world as a reflection of the Supreme Being, and he filled his verse with praise for that power. The speaker describes the cat as one who "worships in his way," allowing Smart to launch a brilliant description of typical cat activity that he relates to the ritual of worship. The cat "performs in ten degrees" after having received God's blessing, and he begins to "consider himself." Smart suggests that the cat possesses a power of introspection that humans lack. He establishes Jeof-fry as one from which humans might learn positive behavior, an idea that extends throughout the poem.
In the next 10 lines Smart follows the word For with a number in adverb form: first, secondly, thirdly, and so on. Each action Jeoffry takes remains familiar to the reader, so Smart proceeds to teach with simple illustration. For example, he writes of his cat, "Thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended," "For fifthly he washes himself," and "For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post." After Jeoffry's 10 actions "he will consider his neighbor," as in kissing "in kindness" another cat that he meets. He also takes time to enjoy his world, "dallying" frequently enough that "one mouse in seven escapes."
At the conclusion of Jeoffry's day "his business more properly begins. / For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary." In Smart's view the cat "counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin & glaring eyes. / For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life." Smart contradicts the common view of cats as creatures linked with the devil and Satanic ritual. Not only is Jeoffry not a creature of Satan, he actually helps protect his cell mate against evil forces. Smart introduces the idea of electricity in this imagery, an allusion to natural power to which he will return later in the poem. Jeoffry's use of his natural powers supports his life spirit. Smart's transformation of the adjective brisk to the verb form brisking demonstrates an adept use of wordplay and proves delightful to the ear. The term will later reappear.
Although Jeoffry helps fight the devil, "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." The phrase Angel Tiger acts as antithesis to demonstrate the contradiction between the state of grace and the natural state. In other words the cat has learned to suppress any natural evil instincts, but only through God's help and in desire for the peace God's presence allows. As the speaker explains:
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.
Smart next skillfully inserts cats into biblical history, although the Bible never mentions a cat, claiming that "the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the / Children of Israel from Egypt" that every household must have one. He then moves abruptly to the present scene, writing of the Hebrews, then the English: "For every family had one cat at least in the bag. / For the English Cats are the best in Europe." He again adopts wordplay in his wry use of the common phrase in the bag, with its connotation of something assured. Smart follows with a delightful catalog of reasons why Jeoffry as an English cat deserves the title best in Europe:
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.
Smart creates another ingenuous term with waggery, as Jeoffry's natural force of motion is compared to that of gravity. As surely as Jeoffry coexists with gravity's constraints, he also exists and gains power from the knowledge of his state of grace. Smart continues to contrast the natural with the divine, simultaneously establishing the two states of being as closely related.
"MY MUSE, NOW HAPPY, LAY THYSELF TO REST" 279
In addition, Smart continues to loop back on previous imagery, as in the use again of the root brisk, a technique that helps provide unity for his poem. The cat is also "of the Lord's poor," and "the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat." Readers find the use of alliteration pleasing and can enjoy the celebration of Jeoffry for being a cat's cat.
The cataloguing of Jeoffry's positive aspects continues, as the speaker cites the purity of the cat's tongue by noting, "so that it has in purity what it wants in music." Sharp suggests a whimsical thought that leads the reader to associate Jeoffry's cleaning of his fur to music. Jeoffry also is praised for his docility, which allows him to "learn certain things." Smart may be contrasting the cat to humans, who, despite their superior mental capacity, allow their emotions to interfere with intellectual development. The speaker notes that the cat "can catch the cork and toss it again. / For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser." The hypocrite "is afraid of detection," while the miser "refuses the charge." Smart engages in more wordplay as he again adopts a noun, camel, as a verb in a description of Jeof-fry: "For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business." The poet accentuates the image of Jeoffry's arched back not only through figurative language in comparing the arch to a camel's hump, but also through alliteration in the repeated use of the hard sound b. He suggests that Jeoffry has developed a technique by which to bear life's burdens.
In the final lines of the poem Smart again turns the reader's attention to the divine, noting that when he strokes his cat, he learns about electricity: "For I perceived God's light about him both wax and firs. / For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which god sends from heaven." The reader can mentally visualize sparks flying from Jeoffry's fur as the speaker runs his hand along the cat's back. The "spiritual substance" God designs "to sustain the bodies both of man and beast." Clearly the cat provides support through his substance to the poet who strokes and admires him.
Jeoffry's body is perfect for his needs, as "God has blessed him in the variety of his movements." Although "he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer," so excellent that "his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede." In those lines Smart suggests that Jeoffry has learned a secret of life, to utilize perfectly his natural abilities, rather than wasting energy pursuing goals he can never fulfill, a lesson that humans have yet to learn. He also makes clear that God provides the source of Jeoffry's physical superiority to man.
The final three lines provide a magnificent conclusion, in both sense and form. Smart ends with quiet thunder, pouring into those lines all of the lessons he has learned from his cat. While Jeoffry can leap through the air and wreak havoc upon smaller creatures according to his natural instincts, he has also learned to tread, swim, and creep when needed, life skills gained only through restraint. Smart considers his cat a life artist, as he recalls the former imagery of music. Because music remains an art closely associated with the science of mathematics, the poet's obsession with numbers may again be seen in his use of the term measures. The term works on multiple levels, as it also relates in poetry to divisions into distinct rhythmic units and may be applied to any equivalents that can be meted out, including time and energy:
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.
The 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten adopted a short excerpt from the poem for use in his festival cantata "Rejoice in the Lamb."
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