Christopher Smart (1722-1771) has been described as the world’s first hippie. He was also, perhaps not unrelatedly, decried for what was deemed an excess of religious fervor and committed to a madhouse. There he produced a vast, slant, ardent, encyclopedic catalog of praise for all, all, all creation: Jubilate Agno, a radical spiritual manifesto in 1,200 lines, sparkling with literary moxie. Was he cracked?
Smart (aka “Kit Smart,” “Kitty Smart,” and “Jack Smart”) was well enough born for his time: amply educated, adequately funded, if thriftless (his father died a debtor and so would he), married (never mind he could not keep her), and notorious. Five-time winner of the Seatonian Prize–awarded to a Cambridge graduate for the best poem on “the perfections or attributes of the Supreme Being”–he might have enjoyed a respectable academic career. Ambition, plus an improvident taste for city life, led him to London instead. There, in addition to poetry, he churned out satire and comic fables, children’s hymns and scholarly translations, epigraphs and commercial ballads and parody and self-promotional “puff pieces” like mad; pursued literary feuds with gusto; and was given to political mischief, rather too much drink, and an exorbitant tailoring tab. As Mrs. Mary Midnight (his pseudonym while producing The Midwife, a popular university magazine almost entirely self-written), Smart, in drag, occasionally mastered (or mistressed) ceremonies for An Old Woman’s Oratory; or Henley in Petticoats. This public entertainment, part vaudevillian revue part circus, included such acts as musical “ROARATORIO,” peg-legged dancers, mock and bawdy recitations, spoon tricks, and “animal comedy” featuring Italian dogs and monkeys—along with Mrs. Midnight’s own inflammatory declamations. Worked up in great part by Smart, the show afforded him and his family an income—and the public (in his words), “a Fund of serious Mirth”—but was regarded by more than a few as beyond the pale and folded after several seasons.
A few years later—following what may have been a breakdown, but likely a transfiguring religious experience—Smart enjoyed new infamy for his habit of conspicuous and vehement public prayer. His friend Samuel Johnson observed of him then:
Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world. My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.
Indeed, it was the “understanding” of his father-in-law and regular sponsor, John Newbery, to whom money was said to be owed, that Smart’s so-called religious mania warranted incarceration. (“I did not think he ought to be shut up,” Johnson objected. “His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”) Thus was he confined, from 1757 to 1763, first to London’s St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, followed by a private madhouse. Excepting his cat, Jeoffrey, Smart spent the time for the most part alone, producing reams of poetry. Jubilate Agno was composed during this period. At four “fragments,” amounting to 34 manuscript pages and more than 1,700 verses (70 lines just for his cat!), the poem was unfinished, and unpublished until 1939 (under the title Rejoice In The Lamb: A Song From Bedlam, it was regarded strictly as the outpouring of a deranged mind). It is arguably the liveliest evidence for Smart’s literary prestige today.
Rigged in juxtaposing sections of call and response (invocatory on one side, discursive and often personal on the other), Smart’s Jubilate reckons the inexhaustible relations of being in terms of ingenious specificity. The language is muscled with joy, vivacious and visionary, condensed and irregular and rapt—a stylistic melange wacky with puns and private coinages, with everyday colloquialisms and obscure archaeisms, with grave moral conviction, witty and intimate asides, and awe. It swarms with life, plain and not-so: local politics and obscure biblical figures and bugs, family squabbles and Pygmies and numerology and tools, folk remedies and arcane elemental formulations, personal cronies and precious gems, music and measures and weather and letters and metals and colors and countries and gossip and stars—every plant and animal under the sun—and jokes…
Let Hook, house of Hook rejoice with Sarda a Cornelian—blessed be the name of the Lord Jesus by hook.
Let Crook, house of Crook rejoice with Ophites black spotted marble—Blessed be the name of the Lord Jesus by crook. The Lord enable me to shift.
By hook or crook—fin by feather by leaf by petal by claw by color by taste by scale by sound by nation by act by wink by waggle by word—Smart in his tenderness and audacity will have all creation not only undifferentiated in grace and saved by the sheer virtue of its existence, but each single knee (kneed or not, know it or not, and named by him in the matter and manner of its uniqueness) bent in prayer, that is to say in natural praise of the creator. For Smart, simply to be what one is (beetle or Moabite, cat or Postmaster or cork tree or planet ) is itself the glory of God. Cracked as he was, jubilate agno—“the lambs’ wild cries”—streamed from him like light in unstinting and often sublime bolts of vision.
After release from the madhouse—“my Jeopardy,” as he called it—Smart continued to write with vehemence and originality, despite persistent critical and commercial disfavor. His former reputation now in full eclipse, he was at the same time plagued by his old imprudent ways. Increasingly destitute despite the help of friends, he was eventually confined again, this time to debtor’s prison, where he finished his final poem, “Hymns, For The Amusement Of Children.” He died there, at the age of 49, of a liver-related condition.
Samuel Johnson quotes from James Boswell’s The Life Of Samuel Johnson (1791)
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Jubilate Agno – Fragment A, by Christopher Smart
Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.
Let Noah and his company approach the throne of Grace, and do homage to the Ark of their Salvation.
Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.
Let Isaac, the Bridegroom, kneel with his Camels, and bless the hope of his pilgrimage.
Let Jacob, and his speckled Drove adore the good Shepherd of Israel.
Let Esau offer a scape Goat for his seed, and rejoice in the blessing of God his father.
Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar, and consecrate his spear to the Lord.
Let Ishmael dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty, in which the Lord has let him at large.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.
Let Anah, the son of Zibion, lead a Mule to the temple, and bless God, who amerces the consolation of the creature for the service of Man.
Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might through faith in Christ Jesus.
Let Naphthali with an Hind give glory in the goodly words of Thanksgiving.
Let Aaron, the high priest, sanctify a Bull, and let him go free to the Lord and Giver of Life.
Let the Levites of the Lord take the Beavers of the brook alive into the Ark of the Testimony.
Let Eleazar with the Ermine serve the Lord decently and in purity.
Let Ithamar minister with a Chamois, and bless the name of Him, which cloatheth the naked.
Let Gershom with an Pygarg Hart bless the name of Him, who feedeth the hungry.
Let Merari praise the wisdom and power of God with the Coney, who scoopeth the rock, and archeth in the sand.
Let Kohath serve with the Sable, and bless God in the ornaments of the Temple.
Let Jehoida bless God with an Hare, whose mazes are determined for the health of the body and to parry the adversary.
Let Ahitub humble himself with an Ape before Almighty God, who is the maker of variety and pleasantry.
Let Abiathar with a Fox praise the name of the Lord, who ballances craft against strength and skill against number.
Let Moses, the Man of God, bless with a Lizard, in the sweet majesty of good-nature, and the magnanimity of meekness.
Let Joshua praise God with an Unicorn — the swiftness of the Lord, and the strength of the Lord, and the spear of the Lord mighty in battle.
Let Caleb with an Ounce praise the Lord of the Land of beauty and rejoice in the blessing of his good Report.
Let Othniel praise God with the Rhinoceros, who put on his armour for the reward of beauty in the Lord.
Let Tola bless with the Toad, which is the good creature of God, tho’ his virtue is in the secret, and his mention is not made.
Let Barak praise with the Pard — and great is the might of the faithful and great is the Lord in the nail of Jael and in the sword of the Son of Abinoam.
Let Gideon bless with the Panther — the Word of the Lord is invincible by him that lappeth from the brook.
Let Jotham praise with the Urchin, who took up his parable and provided himself for the adversary to kick against the pricks.
Let Boaz, the Builder of Judah, bless with the Rat, which dwelleth in hardship and peril, that they may look to themselves and keep their houses in order.
Let Obed-Edom with a Dormouse praise the Name of the Lord God his Guest for increase of his store and for peace.
Let Abishai bless with the Hyaena — the terror of the Lord, and the fierceness, of his wrath against the foes of the King and of Israel.
Let Ethan praise with the Flea, his coat of mail, his piercer, and his vigour, which wisdom and providence have contrived to attract observation and to escape it.
Let Heman bless with the Spider, his warp and his woof, his subtlety and industry, which are good.
Let Chalcol praise with the Beetle, whose life is precious in the sight of God, tho his appearance is against him.
Let Darda with a Leech bless the Name of the Physician of body and soul.
Let Mahol praise the Maker of Earth and Sea with the Otter, whom God has given to dive and to burrow for his preservation.
Let David bless with the Bear — The beginning of victory to the Lord — to the Lord the perfection of excellence — Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.
Let Solomon praise with the Ant, and give the glory to the Fountain of all Wisdom.
Let Romamti-ezer bless with the Ferret — The Lord is a rewarder of them, that diligently seek him.
Let Samuel, the Minister from a child, without ceasing praise with the Porcupine, which is the creature of defence and stands upon his arms continually.
Let Nathan with the Badger bless God for his retired fame, and privacy inaccessible to slander.
Let Joseph, who from the abundance of his blessing may spare to him, that lacketh, praise with the Crocodile, which is pleasant and pure, when he is interpreted, tho’ his look is of terror and offence.
Let Esdras bless Christ Jesus with the Rose and his people, which is a nation of living sweetness.
Let Mephibosheth with the Cricket praise the God of chearfulness, hospitality, and gratitude.
Let Shallum with the Frog bless God for the meadows of Canaan, the fleece, the milk and the honey.
Let Hilkiah praise with the Weasel, which sneaks for his prey in craft, and dwelleth at ambush.
Let Job bless with the Worm — the life of the Lord is in Humiliation, the Spirit also and the truth.
Let Elihu bless with the Tortoise, which is food for praise and thanksgiving.
Let Hezekiah praise with the Dromedary — the zeal for the glory of God is excellence, and to bear his burden is grace.
Let Zadoc worship with the Mole — before honour is humility, and he that looketh low shall learn.
Let Gad with the Adder bless in the simplicity of the preacher and the wisdom of the creature.
Let Tobias bless Charity with his Dog, who is faithful, vigilant, and a friend in poverty.
Let Anna bless God with the Cat, who is worthy to be presented before the throne of grace, when he has trampled upon the idol in his prank.
Let Benaiah praise with the Asp — to conquer malice is nobler, than to slay the lion.
Let Barzillai bless with the Snail — a friend in need is as the balm of Gilead, or as the slime to the wounded bark.
Let Joab with the Horse worship the Lord God of Hosts.
Let Shemaiah bless God with the Caterpiller — the minister of vengeance is the harbinger of mercy.
Let Ahimelech with the Locust bless God from the tyranny of numbers.
Let Cornelius with the Swine bless God, which purifyeth all things for the poor.
Let Araunah bless with the Squirrel, which is a gift of homage from the poor man to the wealthy and increaseth good will.
Let Bakbakkar bless with the Salamander, which feedeth upon ashes as bread, and whose joy is at the mouth of the furnace.
Let Jabez bless with Tarantula, who maketh his bed in the moss, which he feedeth, that the pilgrim may take heed to his way.
Let Jakim with the Satyr bless God in the dance. —
Let Iddo praise the Lord with the Moth — the writings of man perish as the garment, but the Book of God endureth for ever.
Let Nebuchadnezzar bless with the Grashopper — the pomp and vanities of the world are as the herb of the field, but the glory of the Lord increaseth for ever.
Let Naboth bless with the Canker-worm — envy is cruel and killeth and preyeth upon that which God has given to aspire and bear fruit.
Let Lud bless with the Elk, the strenuous asserter of his liberty, and the maintainer of his ground.
Let Obadiah with the Palmer-worm bless God for the remnant that is left.
Let Agur bless with the Cockatrice — The consolation of the world is deceitful, and temporal honour the crown of him that creepeth.
Let Ithiel bless with the Baboon, whose motions are regular in the wilderness, and who defendeth himself with a staff against the assailant.
Let Ucal bless with the Cameleon, which feedeth on the Flowers and washeth himself in the dew.
Let Lemuel bless with the Wolf, which is a dog without a master, but the Lord hears his cries and feeds him in the desert.
Let Hananiah bless with the Civet, which is pure from benevolence.
Let Azarias bless with the Reindeer, who runneth upon the waters, and wadeth thro the land in snow.
Let Mishael bless with the Stoat — the praise of the Lord gives propriety to all things.
Let Savaran bless with the Elephant, who gave his life for his country that he might put on immortality.
Let Nehemiah, the imitator of God, bless with the Monkey, who is work’d down from Man.
Let Manasses bless with the Wild-Ass — liberty begetteth insolence, but necessity is the mother of prayer.
Let Jebus bless with the Camelopard, which is good to carry and to parry and to kneel.
Let Huz bless with the Polypus — lively subtlety is acceptable to the Lord.
Let Buz bless with the Jackall — but the Lord is the Lion’s provider.
Let Meshullam bless with the Dragon, who maketh his den in desolation and rejoiceth amongst the ruins.
Let Enoch bless with the Rackoon, who walked with God as by the instinct.
Let Hashbadana bless with the Catamountain, who stood by the Pulpit of God against the dissensions of the Heathen.
Let Ebed-Melech bless with the Mantiger, the blood of the Lord is sufficient to do away the offence of Cain, and reinstate the creature which is amerced.
Let A Little Child with a Serpent bless Him, who ordaineth strength in babes to the confusion of the Adversary.
Let Huldah bless with the Silkworm — the ornaments of the Proud are from the bowells of their Betters.
Let Susanna bless with the Butterfly — beauty hath wings, but chastity is the Cherub.
Let Sampson bless with the Bee, to whom the Lord hath given strength to annoy the assailant and wisdom to his strength.
Let Amasiah bless with the Chaffer — the top of the tree is for the brow of the champion, who has given the glory to God.
Let Hashum bless with the Fly, whose health is the honey of the air, but he feeds upon the thing strangled, and perisheth.
Let Malchiah bless with the Gnat — it is good for man and beast to mend their pace.
Let Pedaiah bless with the Humble-Bee, who loves himself in solitude and makes his honey alone.
Let Maaseiah bless with the Drone, who with the appearance of a Bee is neither a soldier nor an artist, neither a swordsman nor smith.
Let Urijah bless with the Scorpion, which is a scourge against the murmurers — the Lord keep it from our coasts.
Let Anaiah bless with the Dragon-fly, who sails over the pond by the wood-side and feedeth on the cressies.
Let Zorobabel bless with the Wasp, who is the Lord’s architect, and buildeth his edifice in armour.
Let Jehu bless with the Hornet, who is the soldier of the Lord to extirpate abomination and to prepare the way of peace.
Let Mattithiah bless with the Bat, who inhabiteth the desolations of pride and flieth amongst the tombs.
Let Elias which is the innocency of the Lord rejoice with the Dove.
Let Asaph rejoice with the Nightingale — The musician of the Lord! and the watchman of the Lord!
Let Shema rejoice with the Glowworm, who is the lamp of the traveller and mead of the musician.
Let Jeduthun rejoice with the Woodlark, who is sweet and various.
Let Chenaniah rejoice with Chloris, in the vivacity of his powers and the beauty of his person.
Let Gideoni rejoice with the Goldfinch, who is shrill and loud, and full withal.
Let Giddalti rejoice with the Mocking-bird, who takes off the notes of the Aviary and reserves his own.
Let Jogli rejoice with the Linnet, who is distinct and of mild delight.
Let Benjamin bless and rejoice with the Redbird, who is soft and soothing.
Let Dan rejoice with the Blackbird, who praises God with all his heart, and biddeth to be of good cheer.