Despite the stereotypes, your cat can be your most loyal friend. Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771), a famous British poet, would find this out by the end of his short 49 year life. Toward the end of his career, he wrote a collection of poems that included a truly amazing piece about the bond he had with his cat. His works would influence many later poets such as Robert Blake.

Christopher Smart’s Beginnings

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Christopher Smart
Image credit: Jonathan Gray via Flickr

Christopher Smart was born on April 11, 1722 to a humble family in Shipbourne, England. His father, Peter Smart, had a heart for literature and for his religion. There had been several men in Peter Smart’s bloodline who had had a true zeal for religion. Peter Smart was well known in the community for his puritanical views during a time when such views were highly persecuted by the king of England. In fact, Peter had been jailed for 10 years for an antiprelatical sermon he had published. Peter Smart would pass away by the time Christopher Smart was 11 years old.

Despite the passing of  his father, Smart considered his childhood to be happy according to his writings. He even had a love affair with a girl named Anne Vane when he was 13 years old. At 17, he became a prize pupil at Pembrooke Hall, Cambridge University. He distinguished himself and received the Craven Scholarship. Smart finished his undergraduate studies just one year after receiving the scholarship.

Longing for the City Life

Life didn’t remain cheery for Smart for long. Eventually he discovered London and all of the things that the big city had to offer. He started spending more time living it up in the city than he did on his studies. The collegiate life started making him feel like a caged animal. He wrote On A Caged Eagle Confined in a College-Court discussing his dissatisfaction.

Smart began editing copy for London periodicals such as The Student and The Midwife. He also composed original songs for a local theatre group, Mrs. Midnight’s Oratory, occasionally taking the part of Mrs. Midnight himself. His reckless spending habits and drinking only increased in this time period. In 1747, he was arrested for the debts he owed.

By 1749, Smart was let go from Cambridge and started his life on his own. He continued supporting himself with his writing in various fashions. He translated the works of Horace, a celebrated poet from Ancient Rome in the days of Caesar Augustus. In 1752, Smart married a woman named Anna Maria Carnan in an almost secret ceremony. He and his wife had 2 daughters, Marianne (born 1753) and Elizabeth (born 1794). From his writings, Smart’s marriage was a happy one at first. By all accounts, he was a very friendly person. However, he never did change his spending habits and would invite company over for dinner when there wasn’t even enough food for his own family. Things couldn’t have been easy for his wife and daughters.

Only a Cat Could Understand

Christopher Smart - Inquisitive Manna & Cinco (tagged)

Cinco (far right) & Manna helping with some more modern writing.

During the 1750’s, Smart had begun having breaks from reality. These breaks could have been described as an acute fever with delirium. Sir Russell Brain (1895- 1966), a British neurologist, believed that in modern terms Smart would have been diagnosed as manic depressive (bipolar disorder). During these times Smart would break out into religious mania, constantly needing to pray in public and have others pray with him. In 1756 Smart’s mental health condition deteriorated to the point that he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics.

This is where the cat comes into Smart’s life. St. Luke’s was a relatively humane hospital (most of the day were more like prisons which tortured people back to “sanity”)  and Smart was allowed to roam the grounds and keep a cat as a pet, which he named Jeoffry. Jeoffy kept him company through the 5 years he spent in the hospital. During this time his wife left him and his daughters were sent to a convent in France. Smart wrote the 2 works that he would be most famous for with Jeoffry by his side in the hospital: A Song of David and Jubilate Agno (which contained a piece about the cat). After being released from the hospital, Smart would once again be jailed for debt. He passed away while he was incarcerated.

A Poem of Gratitude for a Cat

This is the piece of Jubilate Agno where Christopher Smart, the renown poet shows his gratitude to the kitty that kept him company when no one else would.

What is one thing that you would thank your pets for?