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Paul Bommer & Christopher Smart & His Cat Jeoffry

August 26, 2012
by the gentle author

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 to the madhouse 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.

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
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.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For First he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For Secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For Thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For Fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For Fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For 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.
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.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
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.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually – Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly,
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

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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Paul Bommer’s Delft Tiles

Paul Bommer’s Cockney Alphabet

4 Responses leave one →
  1. August 26, 2012

    the poem is wonderful and the mr. pussy tile is immortal, as you know. congratulations on three great years.

  2. August 26, 2012

    I have always loved this, verse written by someone who not only loves cats but also knows them, but knew nothing about the poet. Thank you so much for filling in gaps for me.

  3. August 26, 2012

    Doing the Britten setting of Rejoice in the Lamb was always a wonderful sing – my favourite line ” For the mouse is a creature of great personal valour…”

  4. Pat Stoll permalink
    August 27, 2012

    love this

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