“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” by Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” is an excerpted poem from Smart’s much longer (though now sadly existing in only fragments) poem cycle, Jubilate Agno. It is a wonderful poem, at first glance a naive consideration of the poet’s cat, but upon deeper inspection, a joyous reveling in his cat’s creatureliness and a meditation on how a creature lives out its vocation before God. Jeoffry is a cat, made by God to be a cat, and so he lives out his calling by being the best cat he can be, by doing all that cats do, and thus, God tells him he is a “good cat.” There are echoes of Psalm 148 in this poem, and considering that yesterday was Earth Day, it serves as a good occasion to contemplate the various creatures God has given us as neighbors upon this earth, those “other nations,” as Henry Beston called them in The Outermost House, “caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

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 this is 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 his prayer.
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 consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
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 he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
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 defence 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 set 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 Ichneumon-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, tho 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.

Benjamin Britten set Jubliate Agno to music in 1943, and included “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” in the settings, albeit vastly truncated.

Great poetry for Christmas: Robert Southwell, “New Heaven, New War”

Robert Southwell (1561-1595) was a Jesuit priest active in England who was accused of treason, imprisoned, tortured, and executed for his connections to the Church in Rome during the reign of Elizabeth I.

This little babe, so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake.
Though he himself for cold do shake,
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field;
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.

Poem originally found at Plough Quarterly.

Alcuin of York’s (c.735-804) Eclogue to his Cell

Today, my thoughts were turned toward Alcuin’s verse, which I had first read in high school at Latin camp, when two very dear friends and mentors of mine, with whom I have worked for the last several years, left the office for the last time today, having packed up their research library and sent it to California.  AT and EA, this is for you.  I am going to miss you terribly. +N+

O mea cella, mihi habitate dulcis, amata,
Semper in aeternum, o mea cella, vale.
Utique te cingit ramis resonantibus arbos,
Silvula florigeris semper onusta comis.
Prata salutiferis florebunt omnia et herbis,
Quas medici quaerit dextra salutis ope.
Flumina te cingunt florentibus undique ripis,
Retia piscator qua sua tendit ovans.
Pomiferis redolent ramis tua claustra per hortos,
Lilia cum rosulis candida, mixta rubris.
Omne genus volucrum matutinas personat odas,
Atque creatorem laudat in ore Deum.
In te personuit quondam vox alma magistri,
Quae sacro sophiae tradidit ore libros.
In te temporibus certis laus sancta tonantis
Pacificis sonuit vocibus atque animis.
Te, mea cella, modo lacrimosis plango camenis,
Atque gemens casus pectore plango tuos,
Tu subito quoniam fugisti carmina vatum,
Atque ignota manus te modo tota tenet.
Te modo nec Flaccus nec vatis Homerus habebit,
Nec pueri musas per tua tecta canunt.
Vertitur omne decus saecli sic namque repente,
Omnia mutantur ordinibus variis.
Nil manet aeternum, nihil immutabile vere est.
Obscurat sacrum nox tenebrosa diem.
Decutit et flores subito hiems frigida pulcros,
Perturbat placidum et tristior aura mare.
Qua campis cervos agitabat sacra juventus,
Incumbit fessus nunc baculo senior.
Nos miseri, cur te fugitivum, mundus, amamus?
Tu fugis a nobis semper ubique ruens.
Tu fugiens fugias, Christum nos semper amemus,
Semper amor teneat pectora nostra Dei.
Ille pios famulos diro defendat ab hoste,
Ad caelum rapiens pectora nostra, suos;
Pectore quem pariter toto laudemus, amemus;
Nostra est ille pius gloria, vita, salus.1

My cell, my dearly lovely dwelling, farewell for ever, my cell. The trees stand all round you with their murmuring branches, a copse forever laden with flower-bearing leaves. All your fields will bloom with health-bringing herbs, which the hand of the physician plucks to cure the sick. Streams with blossoming banks gird you round, and there the cheerful angler stretches his nets. Thy cloisters smell of apple-trees in the gardens, and white lilies mingle with little red roses. Every kind of bird strikes up his matins song and by his singing praises God who made him. Once the kind voice of the master was heard in you, reading the holy books with devout lips. In you from time to time the holy praise of the Almighty rose from peaceful voices and hearts. My cell, I weep for you now in tearful songs, and I groan as I bewail my misfortune; for you have suddenly fled from the poets’ songs and an unknown hand now possesses you. No longer now will Flaccus or the poet Homer or the youths come and sing under your roof. Thus suddenly does all the beauty of the earth come to an end, and all things are swept away one after another; nothing lasts for ever, nothing indeed is immutable. Dark night overwhelms even a holy day. Cold winter swiftly cuts off the beautiful flowers and a most bitter wind ruffles the calm sea. The devoted youth who once chased Stags across the fields now leans on a stick, a tired old man. Wretched that we are, why do we love you, O world, as you flee from us? You flee from us, falling all the time and on every side. Keep on fleeing if you wish. Let us love Christ always and let the love of God possess our hearts for ever. May he defend His faithful servants from the dread enemy and snatch our souls away to heaven. Let us praise and love him equally with our whole heart; in his mercy he is our glory, our life, and our salvation.2


1Latin text from the Medieval Latin Translation Blog (which also includes an audio recording of Alcuin’s Latin).
2English translation from the UC Davis Alcuin page.