Archive for June 29th, 2011

June 29, 2011

Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

If our Left of Cool column is meant to celebrate anything it is the glorious and the weird. I read sections of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno last year and fell deeply in love with it for just these traits. Rereading the whole thing a couple of weeks ago I found more and more things to make me happy; were I to start quoting every bit that made me want to share it, this post would get completely out of hand. The whole thing is here, though, and I can’t resist quoting the bit with the horns and beards:


For I prophecy that we shall have our horns again.
For in the day of David Men as yet had a glorious horn upon his forehead.
For this horn was a bright substance in colour and consistence as the nail of the hand.
For it was broad, thick and strong so as to serve for defence as well as ornament.
For it brightened to the Glory of God, which came upon the human face at morning prayer.
For it was largest and brightest in the best men.
For it was taken away all at once from all of them.
For this was done in the divine contempt of a general pusillanimity.
For this happened in a season after their return from the Babylonish captivity.
For their spirits were broke and their manhood impair’d by foreign vices for exaction.
For I prophecy that the English will recover their horns the first.
For I prophecy that all the nations in the world will do the like in turn.
For I prophecy that all Englishmen will wear their beards again.
For a beard is a good step to a horn.
For when men get their horns again, they will delight to go uncovered.
For it is not good to wear any thing upon the head.
For a man should put no obstacle between his head and the blessing of Almighty God.
For a hat was an abomination of the heathen. Lord have mercy upon the Quakers.
For the ceiling of the house is an obstacle and therefore we pray on the house-top.
For the head will be liable to less disorders on the recovery of its horn.
For the horn on the forehead is a tower upon an arch.
For it is a strong munition against the adversary, who is sickness and death.
For it is instrumental in subjecting the woman.
For the insolence of the woman has increased ever since Man has been crest-fallen.
For they have turned the horn into scoff and derision without ceasing.
For we are amerced of God, who has his horn.

TSG column here, and the unedited version below.
**********************************************

So 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.

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.” (He’s 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. 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.”