Genius and Madness in Christopher Smart’s My Cat Jeoffry
A series of verses commencing with the word “for”, Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry” is surprisingly modernistic and intriguing. Written while Smart was confined in a mental asylum for incessant praying, the aphoristic poem praises the cat Jeoffry, a faithful servant to God. Unrestricted by rigid poetic structures, “My Cat Jeoffry” is nevertheless organized and coherent, ablaze with a current of religious fervour. It is impossible to know if the poem was inspired by genius or by madness, but it is infused with sanity and truth. While the poem is about a cat’s devotion to God through its daily actions, Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry” also serves as a lesson to humankind.
Imbued with a sense of humour and light-heartedness, the poem is a song of praise at the transparent level. Listing the cat Jeoffry’s virtues one by one, Smart explains how the feline worships God in his own way. The repetition on the word “for” connotes the ritualized actions of Jeoffry’s everyday life, and it also conveys a sense that Jeoffry’s actions should not be disputed. As there are no rhyming schemes or poetic devices such as enjambments, “My Cat Jeoffry” appears to be a spontaneous account of the cat’s actions.
The divine presence of God is inescapable, for phrases such as “the Living God” (line 2), “counteracts the Devil” (26), and “the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt” (35) are abundant. Moreover, the “sacred” number seven is emphasized; Smart mentions Jeoffry’s first divine action as “wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness” (4) and that “one mouse in seven escapes by [Jeoffry’s] dallying” (22). Harkening back to the Ten Commandments, Smart compiles a list of ten things that Jeoffry performs. Interestingly, that Jeoffry should look upon “his fore-paws to see if they are clean” is ranked as the foremost action of servitude to God. Is Smart perhaps inserting his characteristic wit into “My Cat Jeoffry” and alluding to John Wesley’s (1703-1791) dictum “cleanliness is next to godliness”?
Superior to other animals due to the dexterity of his movements (40, 71), Jeoffry is able to serve God asleep and awake, as emphasized in Smart’s parallel lines “For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest./For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion” (44-45). Jeoffry’s abilities to influence those around him is also brought into light in the parallel lines “For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser./For the former is afraid of detection./For the latter refuses the charge” (57-59).
Jeoffry, even “when his day’s work is done” (23), continues to work in God’s grace by keeping the Devil at bay with his “electrical skin & glaring eyes” (25). This use of diction seems absurd, and one wonders if Smart is not fooling his audience all along. Echoing William Blake’s “The Tiger” and his Four-Fold Vision by the vivid descriptions of his “Angel Tiger” (29),...