Today is the birthday (1722) of Christopher Smart, also known as “Kit Smart,” “Kitty Smart,” and “Jack Smart,” a major English poet and social commentator (although much of his best work lay buried for a long time). He was a regular contributor to two popular magazines and a friend to influential cultural icons like Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding. Smart, a high church Anglican, was widely known throughout London. He was infamous both as the pseudonymous midwife “Mrs. Mary Midnight” and for widespread accounts of his father-in-law, John Newbery, locking him away in a mental asylum for many years over Smart’s supposed religious mania. Even after Smart’s eventual release, a negative reputation continued to pursue him because he was known for incurring more debt than he could pay off and which ultimately led to his confinement in debtors’ prison until his death.
Smart’s two most widely known works are “A Song to David” and “Jubilate Agno,” both at least partly written during his confinement in an asylum. However, “Jubilate Agno” was not to be published until 1939 and “A Song to David” received mixed reviews until the 19th century. To his contemporaries, Smart was known mainly for his many contributions in the journals The Midwife and The Student, along with his famous Seaton Prize poems and his mock epic “The Hilliad.” Although he is primarily recognized as a religious poet, his poetry includes various other themes, such as his theories on nature and his promotion of English nationalism.
I’m in such a quandary because his poetic tribute to his cat, Jeoffrey, from “Jubilate Agno” must go in here, but it is awfully long. I do want to give his biography a decent airing too, though. I’m going to put the poem after the bio and before the recipe.
Christopher Smart was born in Shipbourne in Kent, England on the Fairlawne estate of William, Viscount Vane, younger son of Lord Barnard of Barnard Castle. Smart’s father was Peter Smart, steward or bailiff of Fairlawne. His mother was Winifred Smart of the Griffiths family of Radnorshire in Wales. During Smart’s younger years, Fairlawne was the residence of Christopher Vane and Elizabeth Holles Vane. In 1726, three years after Christopher Vane died, Peter Smart purchased Hall-Place in East Barming, near Maidstone, which included a mansion house, fields, orchards, gardens, and woodland, a property that was influential throughout Smart’s later life. From the age of four until eleven, he spent much time around the farms, but did not participate, leading to speculations that he suffered from asthma attacks. However, not all scholars agree that he was a sickly child. The only written record of events during his childhood comes from his writing of a short poem, at the age of four, in which he challenges a rival to the affections of a twelve-year-old girl.
While at Hall-Place, Smart was sent to the local Maidstone Grammar School where he was taught by Charles Walwyn, a scholar from Eton College who had received an MA from King’s College, Cambridge in 1696. It was here that Smart received schooling in Latin and Greek. He did not complete his education at Maidstone however, as his father died on 3 February 1733, and his mother took Smart and his siblings to live near relatives in Durham after selling off a large portion of the estate to pay off Peter Smart’s debts.
Smart then attended Durham School, where the Reverend Mr. Richard Dongworth was headmaster; it is not known whether he lived with his uncle, John Smart, or with a school master. He spent vacations at Raby Castle, which was owned by Henry Vane, 1st Earl of Darlington, the grandson of Christopher Vane. Henry Vane and his wife Grace, sister to William and Henrietta Fitzroy the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland, had four children, Henry, Frederick, Anne, and Mary. They were only a few years younger than Smart and became playmates, with Anne and Henry “pairing off” with Christopher and his sister Margaret respectively. Although nothing resulted from the match, Anne has been traditionally described as being his first love. During his time with the Vane family, Smart dedicated many poems to Henrietta, the Duchess of Cleveland. It was his closeness with the Vane family along with his skill for learning that encouraged Henrietta to allow him a pension of 40 pounds yearly, continued by her husband after her death in 1742. This allowed Smart to attend Pembroke College, Cambridge.
Smart was admitted to Pembroke College in 1739 as a sizar under Leonard Addison. As a sizar, he occasionally had to wait on the fellows’ table and perform other menial tasks. In 1740, he was awarded the Dr. Watt’s Foundation scholarship, which granted him six pounds a year until he gained a Bachelor of Arts degree. In addition to this income, he was also granted four pounds a year for scholarship. Although he was successful academically, he began to run up debt in order to pay for his extravagant lifestyle while at the college.
As an undergraduate Smart wrote the three poems “Tripos Verse,” one at the end of each year. These poems were written in Latin and they, along with his other Latin poems including his translation of Alexander Pope’s “Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day,” led to him being awarded the Craven scholarship for classics in 1742, which paid ?25 a year for 14 years. He hoped to win Pope’s favor and translate his “Essay on Man,” but Pope rejected the idea although he allowed Smart to translate An Essay on Criticism (De Arte Critica) instead.
After receiving his degree Smart’s fortunes at Cambridge were mixed. He held several reasonably well paid positions but were not enough to stop him sliding into debt because he lived lavishly. During his final years at Pembroke, Smart was writing prodigiously, including well known pieces such as “The Hop Garden” and “The Judgment of Midas, a Masque” along with a collection of odes, his translations into Latin, and some original Latin poems. However, it took 5 years for them to be published and, hence, Smart was not paid.
Smart slowly abandoned the college for London. During 1749, Smart listed himself on Pembroke’s “Liber Absentiae” (absentee book) and would occasionally return to Pembroke throughout 1749 and 1750. By 1750 he was living near St. James’s Park and was busy familiarizing himself with Grub Street (London’s publishing district). It was this year that Smart developed a business relationship with John Newbery. Newbery was looking for a contributor to his The Midwife and The Student magazines, and it is possible that Smart’s winning of Cambridge’s Seatonian Prize, a poetry prize with an annual salary, in March 1750 that brought his poetic abilities to Newbery’s attention.
Smart continued to incur many debts, and started publishing as much as possible. He was married to Anna Maria Carnan around mid-1752, and in 1754 already had two daughters, Marianne (3 May 1753) and Elizabeth Anne (27 October 1754). As a married man, he could no longer stay enrolled at Pembroke and collect his scholarship money. Newbery allowed Smart, along with his wife and their children, to live at Canonbury House, Islington. Although Newbery had a strong reputation for charity, he also wanted to have complete control over his writers. It is likely that such an attitude combined with financial disagreements that led to a rift forming between the two in 1753.
In March 1756, Newbery published without Smart’s authority Smart’s final Seatonian Prize poem, “On the Goodness of the Supreme Being,” and later that year Newbery published, again without Smart’s authority, his “Hymn to the Supreme Being,” a poem which thanked God for recovery from an illness of some kind, possibly what was later described as a “fit.” This mysterious “fit” did not last, but this period saw the beginning of Smart’s obsession with religion and his praying “without ceasing.”
A “Commission of Lunacy” was taken out against Smart, and he was admitted to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics on 6 May 1757 as a “Curable Patient.” It is possible that Smart was confined by Newbery over old debts and a poor relationship between the two; Newbery had previously mocked Smart and his immorality in his A Collection of Pretty Poems for the Amusement of Children Six Foot High. Regardless of the exact reasons, there is evidence suggesting that Newbery’s admittance of Smart into the mental asylum was not based on an actual clinical diagnosis. However, there is also evidence that an incident of some kind took place in St. James’s Park in which Smart started to pray loudly in public until he had “routed all the company” (Jubilate Agno B89).
It is not known what exactly happened during his confinement, but Smart did work on two of his most famous poems, “Jubilate Agno” and “A Song to David.” He may have been in a private asylum before St Luke’s, and he was later moved from St Luke’s to Mr. Potter’s asylum until his release. At St Luke’s, his listing was changed from being “curable” to “incurable,” and he was moved to Mr. Potter’s asylum for financial reasons. During this time, Anna left and took the children with her to Ireland. His isolation led him into writing religious poetry, although he abandoned the traditional genres of the 18th century that marked his earlier poetry when he wrote Jubilate Agno. Although it is debated as to whether his turning inward to examine himself in his poetry represents an evangelical type of Christianity, his poetry during his isolation does show a desire for spiritual revelation.
Smart was left alone, except for his cat Jeoffrey and the occasional gawker. In London, only a few of his works were still being published. However, not everyone viewed Smart’s “madness” as problematic, and Johnson defended him, sometimes seriously and sometimes comically, many times. A century later, Robert Browning remarked that “A Song to David” was great because Smart was mad, and that the poem allowed him to rank alongside of Milton and Keats.
Little is known as to how and why Smart was eventually released from asylum, but Elizabeth, his daughter, claimed: “He grew better, and some misjudging friends who misconstrued Mr Newbery’s great kindness in placing him under necessary & salutary restriction which might possibly have eventually wrought a cure, invited him to dinner and he returned to his confinement no more.” Although this may be a misstatement of the events, Smart did leave the asylum on 30 January 1763.
A Song to David was printed on 6 April 1763 along with a proposal for a new translation of the Psalms. The poem was received harshly, which were possibly thinly veiled personal attacks over Smart being freed from the asylum just weeks before. However, Kenrick, Smart’s former rival, praised the poem in one of his own printed on 25 May 1763. Also, John Lockman followed in 21 June 1763, with his own poem in praise of Smart’s and Samuel Boyce followed this on 15 July 1763 with another.
After publication of “A Song to David,” he tried to publish a collection of his Psalms translations, and Newbery sought to ruin him by hiring James Merrick to produce his own translations. Newbery then hired Smart’s new publisher, James Fletcher, which in turn forced Smart to find a new publisher, delaying the printing of his Psalms. Finally, on 12 August 1765, he printed A Translation of the Psalms of David, which included Hymns and Spiritual Songs and a second edition of “A Song to David.” This work was criticized by Tobias Smollett who was working with Newbery at the time, and Newbery’s edition by Merrick was constantly compared with Smart’s.
On 20 April 1770, Smart was arrested for debt. On 11 January 1771, he was tried by Lord Mansfield, the gentleman who originally introduced Smart to Alexander Pope, and he was soon recommended to the King’s Bench Prison. Although he was in prison, Charles Burney purchased the “Rules” (allowing him some freedom), and Smart’s final weeks may have been peaceful although dismal. In his final letter, Smart begged for money from Rev. Mr. Jackson, saying: “Being upon recovery from a fit of illness, and having nothing to eat, I beg you to send me two or three shillings which (God willing) I will return, with many thanks, in two or three days.” On 20 May 1771, Smart died from either liver failure or pneumonia shortly after completing his final work, Hymns, for the Amusement of Children.
“Jubilate Agno” (Praise the Lamb) is divided into four fragments labeled “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D.” The whole work consists of over 1,200 lines (and there is evidence that it was intended to be twice that length). All the lines in half the sections begin with the word “Let” and those in the other sections begin with “For.” Those in the series beginning with the word “Let,” are associated with names of human beings, mainly biblical, with various natural objects; and those beginning with the word “For” are a series of aphoristic verses. The section “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey” is part of a “For” segment of Fragment B. I adore these verses, and, yes, I am a cat lover. Dog lovers can skip to the recipe.
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 forepaws 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 forepaws 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 considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
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 a 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 incomplete 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
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 forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense 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! 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 complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit 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 afraid 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 Icneumon 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 stroking 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 quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep
Because Smart was born and raised in Kent I have chosen an old Kentish recipe for a Lenten pie (that is, meatless) usually called Kentish Pudding Pie. Smart was born after Easter (yes, you can figure out the date of Easter for any year), but this pie is wonderful any time of year.
Kentish Pudding Pie
6 oz/175 g wholemeal or plain flour
pinch of salt
5 ozs/150 g unsalted butter
½ pint/300 ml milk
1 oz/25 g ground rice or rice flour
2 oz/50 g sugar
grated rind of 1 lemon
¼ tsp/1.25 ml grated nutmeg
1 oz/25 g currants
Make the pastry by sifting the flour and salt into a bowl and rub in 3 oz/75 g of the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. You can also use a food processor and pulse 8-10 times. Add 3-4 tbsps/45 – 60 ml of cold water to make a dough. Add only enough water slowly so as to barely bind the mix.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface and then use it to line a greased 8in/20 cm fluted flan dish. Bake blind at 400°F/200°C 10 – 15 minutes, or until lightly golden.
While the crust is baking, put the milk and rice in a pan and bring to the boil, stirring continuously, until the mixture thickens. Remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool.
When the mixture is cold, cream the remaining butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then add the lemon rind, salt, nutmeg and the rice mixture. Mix thoroughly together and pour into the flan case. Sprinkle the currants on top. (Some people use more currants and fold some of them into the filling before baking).
Bake at 375°F/190°C 40 – 45 minutes, until the filling is firm to the touch and golden brown.