Paul Bommer & Christopher Smart & His Cat Jeoffry
Whenever I walk along Old St, I always think of the brilliant eighteenth century poet Christopher Smart, who once lived here in the St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics with only his cat Jeoffry for solace, on the spot where the Co-operative and Argos are today. So when artist Paul Bommer asked me to suggest a subject for an illustrated print, I had no hesitation in proposing Christopher Smart’s eulogy to his cat Jeoffry, the best description of the character of a cat that I know. And, to my amazement and delight, Paul has illustrated all eighty-nine lines, each one with an apposite feline image.
In an age when only aristocrats with private incomes were able to be poets, Christopher Smart was a superlative talent who struggled to make his path through the world, and his emotional behaviour became increasingly volatile as result. With small means, he fell into debt whilst a student at Cambridge and even though his literary talent was acknowledged with awards and scholarships, his delight in high jinks and theatrical performances did not find favour with the University. Once he married Anna Maria Canaan, Smart was unable to remain at Cambridge and came to London, seeking to make ends meet in the precarious realm of Grub St. His prolific literary career turned to pamphleteering and satire, publishing hundreds of works in a desperate attempt to keep his wife and two little daughters, Marianne and Elizabeth Ann.
Eventually, he signed a contract to write a weekly magazine, The Universal Visitor, and the strain of producing this caused Smart to have a fit, sometimes ascribed as the origin of his madness. Yet there are divergent opinions as to whether he was mad at all, or whether his consignment was in some way political on the part of John Newbery, the man who was both Smart’s publisher and father-in-law. However, Smart made a religious conversion at this time, and there is an account of him approaching strangers in St James’ Park and inviting them to pray with him.
In Smart’s day, Old St was the edge of the built up city with market gardens and smallholdings beyond. The maps of St Luke’s Hospital show gardens behind and it was possible that like John Clare in the Northamptonshire Lunatic Asylum, Smart was simply left alone to tend the garden and get on with his writing. Consigned at first on 6th May 1757 as a “curable” patient, Smart was designated “incurable” whilst there and subsequently transferred to Mr Potter’s asylum in Bethnal Green as a cheaper option. Meanwhile his wife Anna Maria took their two daughters to Ireland and he never saw them again. In 1763, Smart was released through intervention of friends and lived eight another years, imprisoned for debt in King’s Bench Walk Prison in April 1770, he died there in May 1771.
“For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” was never printed in Smart’s day, it was first published in 1939 after being discovered in manuscript amongst Smart’s papers, and subsequently W.H. Auden gave a copy to Benjamin Britten who wrote a famous setting as part of a choral work entitled “Rejoice in the Lamb” in 1942.
The irony is that the “madness” of Christopher Smart, which was his unravelling as a writer in his own time, signified the creation of him as a poet who spoke beyond his age. Smart is sometimes idenitified as one of the Augustan poets, notable for their formality of style and content, but the idiosyncratic language, fresh observation and fluid form of “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” break through the poetic convention of his period and allow the poem to speak across the centuries.
It is the tender observation present in these lines that touches me most, speaking of the fascination of a cat as a source of joy for one with nothing else in the world. In fact, Smart was often known as Kit or Kitty and I wonder if he saw an image of himself in Jeoffry and it liberated him from the tyranny of his circumstance. Simply by following his nature, Jeoffry becomes holy in Christopher Smart’s eyes, exemplifying the the wonder of all creation.
It was a triumphant observation for a man who was losing his life, yet it is all the more remarkable that it is solely through this playful masterpiece he is remembered today. He did not know that, at the moment of disintegration, his words were gaining immortality thanks to the presence of his cat Jeoffry. And this is why, whenever I walk along Old St with my face turned to the wind, I cannot help thinking of poor Christopher Smart.
Christopher Smart (1722-71)
Paul Bommer at St Luke’s, Old St.
The St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Old St where Christopher Smart lived with his cat Jeoffry on a site now occupied by Argos and The Co-operative.
St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, Old St, in the nineteenth century.
Paul Bommer in the rose garden on the site of the former St Luke’s Hospital garden where Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry once roamed.
Paul Bommer’s print of Christopher Smart’s “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.”
The Gentle Author’s cat Mr Pussy.
Paul Bommer’s delft tile portrait of Mr Pussy.
Copies of Paul Bommer’s limited edition print of Christopher Smart’s “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry” are available from the Spitalfields Life online shop.
Artwork copyright © Paul Bommer
Archive image from Bishopsgate Institute
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