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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Chris Smart’s rapturous, lunatic invocations make world a better place

o much of our language, when we wish to talk about things that are huge and overwhelming, is religious in nature. This is not because everything that is awe-inspiring has a religious connection (as an atheist it would be quite sad if I believed this). But historically religions have spent a lot more time talking about this sort of thing, which may be why religious literature is so often so very good at expressing it.

Take joy, for example. The most joyful piece of literature in the world is a long, religious poem whose title translates to The Joy of the Lamb.

In 1757 Christopher Smart was admitted to St Luke's Hospital as a lunatic patient. He was in the main in solitary confinement with only his cat Jeoffry for company. He was released in 1763. During his time at St Luke's he wrote Jubilate Agno, a work in four fragments.

As far as I can tell, Jubilate Agno is basically a list of things that make Christopher Smart glad. What makes it wonderful is that Smart seems to think everything worthy of celebration.

Smart moves from universal, spiritual statements like “For the praise of God can give to a mute fish the notes of a nightingale” to “For I bless God for the Postmaster general and all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen and Shelvock.”

Almost every sentence in the poem begins with the word "Let" or "For", usually printed on opposite pages. The "Let" sections pair various names from the Bible with what amounts to a catalogue of living things – Smart provides lists of mammals, insects, birds, sea-creatures and plants in the form "Let Huldah bless with the Silkworm – the ornaments of the Proud are from the bowells of their betters." or "Let Simon the Tanner rejoice with Alausa – Five days are sufficient for the purpose of husbandry." (Smart is not big on sex).

Occasionally more personal concerns will intervene. When he gets to the sea-creatures we have "Let Crispus rejoice with Leviathan – God be gracious to the soul of HOBBES, who was no atheist, but a servant of Christ, and died in the Lord – I wronged him God forgive me."

This sudden switching between the cosmic and the personal carries over to the "For" sections, which consist of a series of weird and wonderful aphorisms. Smart moves from universal, spiritual statements like "For the praise of God can give to a mute fish the notes of a nightingale" to "For I bless God for the Postmaster general and all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen and Shelvock."

Here are some other things that Smart thinks worthy of praise:

Jeoffry the cat: The lines on Jeoffry are some of the most-extracted (and most adorable) in English. If there was room here I'd include them all. But I'm particularly fond of "For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer."

Beards: Twice we're told that "shaving of the beard was an invention of the people of Sodom to make men look like women." Later Smart explains that Englishmen should wear beards because beards are a step along the way to horns, and horns are good for "subjecting the woman", which is why hats are a heathen abomination. (The poet's presence in an asylum begins to make sense). Incidentally, Smart appears to have been clean-shaven.

Physics: "For MOTION is as the quantity of life direct, and that which hath not motion, is resistance. / For Resistance is not of GOD, but he – hath built his works upon it. / For the Centripetal and Centrifugal forces are GOD SUSTAINING and DIRECTING."

People whose surnames resemble animal names: "For I bless God to Mr Lion Mr Cock Mr Cat Mr Talbot Mr Hart Mrs Fysh Mr Grub, and Miss Lamb / ...For I bless God for the immortal soul of Mr Pigg of DOWNHAM in NORFOLK."

Also worthy of praise are the alphabet, fresh bread, the thirteenth of August, libraries and booksellers, and simple machines.

I could quote Jubilate Agno forever. It is strange and hilarious and somehow conveys a massive, reverent joy that just makes the world a better place.

"For I have seen the White Raven and Thomas Hall of Willingham and am my self a greater curiosity than both."

 
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