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104: A SONG FROM THE MADHOUSE

February 14, 2015

#104:  A SONG FROM THE MADHOUSE.  In the eighteenth century in England,  literary economics moved further away from aristocratic patronage and towards the out-and-out capitalism of the publishing industry as it still holds sway today.  Paternoster Square, near St. Paul’s in London (a still-existing area) took its name from the presses that turned out Bibles and prayer-books but then, in increasing number, almanacs and books of instruction, poetry and the new flood of prose fiction. Jobbing and hackwork were the order of the day, and from this comes our distinctive image of the writer of the period:  harried and ill-paid, rushing from garret to press, churning out page after page of prose or heroic couplets to fill the maw of the growing periodical industry. Poets as recent as Edward Thomas worked in this manner and on this model, sweating out books, most of them to be forgotten.  Grub Street—as the writing life was headquartered and named—was a lousy living, and a quick route to exhaustion and poverty.

      Christopher Smart in many ways fits this picture and fits into this world:  he was friends with Johnson and Fielding, and his father-in-law was the publisher John Newbery, for whom the annual award for children’s literature is named.  After Cambridge Smart headed for London, did hackwork, wrote poems and lived above his means, but another problem began to surface as well.  One of the other Biblical echoes in London place names, also surviving, was Bethlem (or Bethlehem) Hospital, then in Moorfields—or, as madness and madhouses came to be known, Bedlam.  Smart began praying in public, and there is something agonizingly ironic about a man getting binned for praying on some day other than Sunday and in some place other than a church.  It was this situation that prompted his friend Johnson to one of his most scathing and sensible remarks:  “He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.  Another charge was that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”  (Johnson, of course, was no stranger to madness.)  It might not have been madness at all that put Smart in Bedlam, but money arguments with his father-in-law, who hounded him after his release and probably pushed Smart into debtor’s prison, where he died in 1771.  But while in the asylum Smart composed one of the genuine and remarkable oddities of English poetry:  the long work we know as Jubilate Agno, or Rejoice in the Lamb.

          It’s like no other religious poetry in English, not even Blake’s.  The manuscript, lost for years, was discovered and published in 1939 by W. F. Stead.  A later scholar at Harvard, W. H. Bond (the manuscript is now in Houghton Library), realized that sections of the poem fit together as call and response, and that Jubilate Agno was an attempt to recapture the cadenced strength of Hebrew poetry in antiphonal form.  But the logic of the poem, by line and image, is as madly private, as purely and suggestively poetic, as it is open to the natural world.  Animals of every stripe and feature creep into it; musical instruments of every form and timbre; the races of the world march by; individual letters, Biblical characters, Smart’s friends and relations, “Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life” are all wedded to the breath of cadence rather than the mechanical tick of metre.  Jubliate Agno is not, I believe, a forgotten masterpiece; it collapses into a garrulous incomprehensibility, and only pieces of it were written or survive.  But reading it we wonder (as we do when we read Blake) what might have happened to Christianity in England if this inspiration had opened onto a larger public.  Instead, the only piece of the poem widely anthologized are the lines to Smart’s only companion in the asylum, his cat Jeoffry—making Jeoffry, along with the medieval Irish cat Pangur Ban, the most beautifully realized feline presence in the poetry of the British Isles.  This strange, lost poem—Orpheus, Jesus and Bedlam in unequal amounts—is an echo of the loneliness of the madhouse, an embrace of the natural world, and an incantation like no other.  “For there is a note added to the scale, which the Lord hath made fuller, stronger and more glorious.”  “Let Sarah rejoice with the Redwing, whose harvest is in the frost and snow.”

       Published editions of Jubliate Agno are not easy to come by: neither Karina Williamson’s 1991 Selected Poems for Penguin nor W. H. Bond’s edition for Harvard can be had for less than hefty prices.  An online text is at www.pseudopodium.org/repress/jubilate.   Performer and writer Frank Key has read the entire work aloud and it’s on his site, hootingyard.org.

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