On this day 1722 Christopher Smart was born as a premature baby. He suffered from delicate health all his life. Most famous for his religious poetry, in particular his "A Song to David,” Smart wrote one of the strangest (I think) books in the language, the Jubilate Agno. “Jubilate” is the plural imperative “rejoice,” and “agno” the ablative of “lamb."
He was apparently a bright and likeable little kid. He attended Cambridge at Pembroke Hall in 1745, married Anna Maria Carnen, his publisher’s step-daughter, in 1752, and was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital for the insane May 6 1757. Though the record of his various confinements in hospitals is unclear, this was the first of several. Much of the Jubilate was for some time thought to have been written in Bethlehem Hospital, otherwise known as Bedlam, but it is more likely he wrote most of it in the asylum at Bethnal Green.
Though the Jubilate was completed, or abandoned, in 1764, it was not published until William Force Stead’s edition of 1939, Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam, a title devised by Stead, the book thus suffering in this manner a one hundred seventy-five year lag, which brings new meaning to the literary term belatedness, meant to connote the lag between the writing of a piece and its publication or acceptance by a culture. (This record of 175 years makes the slow starts of Dickinson, Hopkins and O'Brien look like blips. I expect the record would be Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria which disappeared around 800AD and wasn't seen again until discovered by the great bookhunter, Poggio Bracciolini, in the year 1416 in a monastery in France).
What survives of the manuscript now is only a series of fragments. Only two extant editions are in any way dependable. The first is W. H Bond’s Harvard UP edition of 1954, and the second Karina Williamson’s Oxford UP edition of 1980 (which I purchased a few years ago for $75, the cheapest available price; the next cheapest with ABEbooks was $475).
Most of us first read from the Jubilate via its one most frequently excerpted section: the bit about his cat Jeoffry.
A book published by Bishop Robert Lowth in 1753 probably, Bond feels, influenced Smart’s experiment. The book, De sacra poesi Hebraeorum, was a pioneering survey of Hebrew poetry. Hebrew verse was heavily antiphonal in character (meaning lots of call-and-response), designed to be chanted by two groups. So Jubilate Agno seems to have been an attempt to alter English verse according to the antiphonally responsive principles of Hebrew poetry, hence all the Let’s and For’s.
This is what Samuel Johnson said about him:
"My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question." (from The Life of Johnson)
Boswell goes on to quote, "Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a mad-house, he had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr. Burney. -- BURNEY. "How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?" JOHNSON. "It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it." BURNEY. "Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise." JOHNSON. "No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the alehouse; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it."
Looks like Smart (1) had a problem with alcohol, (2) prayed constantly, even in public, and (3) did not clean his underwear. I have had at least two friends like that.
Though am not a theist, I admire Smart's courage and the energy of his heart, and imagine most of us can sympathize with at least some of his difficulties.
Whatever about his condition, he wrote a pretty awesome thing when he wrote the Jubilate. It's come down in fragments. This is what Stead said about it: “To begin with, it is enough to note that he never systematically revised any portion of it for the press. A few revisions and insertions do appear sporadically…but there are many points exhibiting defects which the most careless author should have corrected in reviewing his work. Indeed, on these grounds alone Jubilate Agno had something of the appearance of a discarded experiment.”
Nice that one of the greatest poems written in English was an experiment, by which word I'm not sure really what I mean.
Let the Levites of the Lord take the Beavers of the brook alive into the Ark of the Testimony.