Sincerity by itself and audacity by itself are not necessarily impressive qualities in art. It's possible to recognize that a work is heartfelt without admiring it, and it's possible to recognize the bold churning of imagination without feeling much emotion because of it.
Together, though, sincerity and audacity can be immensely powerful, as in the best-known passage of Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno," the lines in which Smart (1722-71) considers his cat, Jeoffry. "Jubilate Agno" was written while Smart was confined in what the 18th century called a "madhouse," and the poem exists in separate fragments. It tends to be the Jeoffry passage of Smart's longer litany (worth reading in full) that finds its way into anthologies—and understandably. The brio and oddball, manic seriousness of the Jeoffry aria are unforgettable. Take this line, for example:
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
These comic sounds could have been achieved by a journeyman writer of light verse. But as Smart says about the cat, the poet, too, "is a mixture of gravity and waggery." His line goes beyond light verse, blending its comedy with precision and moral conviction: The cat "spraggles," or sprawls, at the "waggle" of his human owner's finger. The word "command," with its overtones of both religion and animal training, suggests what may be the central point here: Smart conveys that the sacred must be attained not by means of decorous or ecclesiastical portals but by embracing—even revering—what may look profane or trivial. Violating decorum, or otherwise demonstrating a fervor that surpasses customary forms of devotion, can embody conviction. Smart combines the forms of litany with indecorous content, confidently associating biblical language and allusions with the personal hygiene of his cat.He advocates a spiritual respect for everything he sees, not just for what looks or sounds sanctified. That is how I understand a line from an earlier fragment of "Jubilate Agno":
Let the Levites of the Lord take the Beavers of the brook alive into the Ark of the Testimony.
Either Jeoffry and the beavers of the brook embody holiness, Smart implies, or nothing does: The merely habitual, formal garments and architecture and language of religious ceremony will not suffice. You need live beavers.
This defiant, resolutely far-out poetic and moral principle in a way makes Christopher Smart the first Beat or hippie poet—decades before William Blake. Like Blake, Smart inverts or breaks expectations in a spirit of ardent truth-seeking. There's an immediate attraction in the recklessness, charm, and penetration of Smart's work and, on rereading it—I find—a sense of revelation.
From "Jubilate Agno"
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
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
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit
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 from Egypt.
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! 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.
Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the Poems "Fray" this week. Post your questions and comments on this excerpt from "Jubilate Agno," and he'll respond and participate. (In the interest of keeping the discussion as rich as possible, please read existing commentsbefore posting your own.) You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.