On Odes, OCDs, and a Cat Named Jeoffry
It is an unfortunate reality of collective memory that Christopher Smart is remembered less for his poetry than for his cat, the admirable Jeoffry, and his habit (Smart’s, not Jeoffry’s) of throwing himself down to pray whenever and wherever he felt called to do so, including, according to Old Sam Johnson, the sewage and offal-strewn streets of London.
Depending on whence one believes such calls emanate, Smart suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, a religious mania, or a singularly communicative, if problematic, relationship with his deity. In his own day, his behavior (or perhaps merely his smell) was troubling enough to people's sensibilities that he was consigned for much of his life to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, and later to the more prosaically named Mr. Potter's Madhouse in Bethnal Green.
I was thinking about Smart because of Thanksgiving’s approach. His Jubilate Agno of which only fragments survive, seems to me to be one of the most nakedly sincere expressions of gratitude in the English language. In the widely anthologized excerpt "For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry," Smart attributes to Jeoffry (and by extension, all cats) an inborn and instinctively-expressed spirituality. In Smart’s universe, Jeoffry--just by going about his cat business (preening, bathing, mousing, etc)--is paying perfect obeisance to his creator. The cat’s unselfconscious gratitude for the blessings of life seems to color--or perhaps is colored by--Smart's own (if one accepts the notion that to discern and to voice a thing is to own it).
And, as usual, I am overthinking here. There is something so sincere about Smart's devotion to his cat and to his deity that his poetry deserves to be left unmolested. To try to systematize it, to attempt to pry it open to see its workings, or to tweeze out its interspecies biases just feels mean-spirited and utterly beside the point. Smart wrote with a peculiar joy and regardless of what you believe was its ultimate source, there is no doubting its power.
The Ode as a poetic form is not defined as a mode for giving thanks, but an ode is a concentrated meditation--an expression of a mind's need for transcendance and as such is a close kin (in my mind at least) to prayer. An ode is a celebration of a (typically) physical object--an ancient urn, a pair of warm,hand-made socks, a cat--whose very physicality is transformed into something close to holy by the immaterial and spiritual properties of words. The very nature of the ode lies in gratitude for life and the ability to feel and to perceive beyond the sensory.
The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry & The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry /
The odes of Hafiz of Shiraz
The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace /
Odes to Opposites & Odes to Common Things / Pablo Neruda
The Odes of John Keats & John Keats: the Poems /
Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will Consider My Cat Jeoffry] / Benjamin Britten
The Odes of Pindar /
A collection of odes both modern and ancient on the Poetry Foundation's Poem Finder /
Thanks for reading and As always, don't forget to write.
Photo Credit: Cat Jump 1 by Robbie Sproule