Cat poetry has a long history: Christopher Smart wrote a Romantic religious poem featuring his cat Jeoffry while confined in a mental asylum in the 1760s. [1 of 2]
The Internet belongs to cats. Since the very first cat video was posted on YouTube (in 2005, by the site’s co-founder), cat memes, cat pictures, and online cat celebrities like Grumpy Cat and Maru have dominated the medium. But our obsession with the cat has deep roots, and that extends as far back as Romantic, pre-Romantic, and medieval poetry. Today and tomorrow, I’m going to explore some of the highlights.
Perhaps the most famous cat poem comes from Christopher Smart. Smart was a prominent part of 18th century London’s literary set – he participated in the infamous Paper War of 1752 on the side of Henry Fielding (which I’ll write about another time). In 1757 Smart’s father-in-law had him confined to a London mental asylum called St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. Possibly this was retaliation for Smart’s financial mismanagement, although the exact reason remains unknown. While in St. Luke’s, Smart wrote Jubilate Agno.
The full poem is a fascinating pseudo-Biblical tract. It is replete with Noachian patriarchs, devils, planets, and an elaborate bestiary: bears, camels, leeches, otters, fleas, tarantulas, satyrs, and more. Most people don’t read the full poem, but instead focus on the section about Smart’s cat Jeoffry. This is how that part begins:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.Jubilate Agno
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 is this 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.
Smart describes the cat cleaning itself, hunting mice, and rolling about in the sun. Those activities connect Jeoffry to the divine, and Smart portrays them as a kind of worship. His cat is a devout servant of God, a guardian against evil: “For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary. […] For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.”
(Smart also gets in a typically British pot-shot at the continent: “For the English Cats are the best in Europe.”)
There is something alluring about the cadence, frankness, and devotion in this poem, and today it’s one of the more popular pieces of Romantic poetry. Smart got out of St. Luke’s in 1763, but in 1771 he entered a debtor’s prison and died soon after.
[More cat poetry in Part 2 tomorrow.]
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