I was first introduced to Jubilate Agno in college, when my choir sang Benjamin Britten’s cantata “Rejoice in the Lamb,” based on the poem. I’ve been revisiting the very long and weird poem that English poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771) wrote between 1759 and 1763, while he was in an insane asylum. The poet was afflicted with a religious mania that would compel him to fall to his knees and pray in public places. In Jubilate, Smart refers to the incident which may have resulted in his being sent to the asylum:
For I blessed God in St. James’s Park till I routed all the company.
For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchman smites me with his staff.
There is some speculation that Smart’s father-in-law committed him to the asylum, not because he was insane, but because they had been bitterly arguing over huge debts Smart had accrued with his extravagant alcohol-soaked carousing and spendthrift ways. If you read Smart’s poetry, though, it’s hard not to conclude that he was, in fact, mad. You can find the full text of Smart’s poem here.
Jubilate Agno wasn’t published until 1939, and only became more widely known with Britten’s musical adaptation in 1943. American poet Edward Hirsch has written a more recent response to Jubilate Agno with a poem of his own, called Wild Gratitude, which you can read on the poets. org website. What I like about Hirsch’s poem and Smart’s is the appreciation for the wide spectrum of experiences that make up our days. Smart writes about the cosmic:
For THUNDER is the voice of God direct in verse and music.
For LIGHTNING is a glance of the glory of God.
But he also writes about everything from the humble Beetle “whose life is precious in the sight of God, tho his appearance is against him” to “NEW BREAD,” which “is the most wholesome-God be gracious to Baker.” Everything is worthy of praise and blessing from the “Postmaster general and all conveyancers of letters under his care especially Allen and Shelvock” to the “ostriches of Salisbury Plain, the beavers of the Medway and silver fish of the Thames.”
The best known lines of the poem are the ones Smart wrote about his cat Jeoffry, his only companion in what amounted to solitary confinement at the asylum. I’ll quote Britten’s text for “Rejoice in the Lamb,” which abbreviates and slightly reorders Smart’s much longer text:
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 he knows that God is his saviour.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty, from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God.
I was thinking about this poem as I drove to work today and thought about the gamut of experiences that add up to a day. Sometimes it’s witnessing a spectacular sunset while waiting for your kid’s soccer practice to end:
Sometimes the experiences are less obviously remarkable, though perhaps no less worthy of notice and praise. I decided to catalogue and record some of these things just for this one, (extra)/ordinary Thursday.
1. I saw a mother and daughter (from China, I think) waiting on the sidewalk for the girl’s school bus. I realized this morning how much I look forward to seeing these two at the start of my day. Sometimes they face each other, unselfconsciously flapping their arms and doing some kind of calisthenics. Sometimes they are back to back, their arms linked, and the mother is lifting her daughter off the ground and onto her back. The little girl is always laughing with unbridled joy and a huge grin on her face. I wish I could take a picture of them, but I’m sure that would totally creep them out and I might end up in an asylum myself.
2. When I got to work, Henry the vacuum cleaner was hard at work cleaning the carpets:
I know it’s ridiculous, but I have very warm, fuzzy feelings for this vacuum cleaner.
“For I rejoice in Henry that ministers to the carpets with a cheerful countenance.”
3. Then I saw the front page story of the student paper:
It made me giggle to think that the worst injustice the students are protesting so very earnestly, (at least for today), is the banning of Christmas decorations for safety reasons.
4. I drove back home after work past fields with cows and hay bales and a collage of blue mountains in the background and felt richly blessed.
5. After a quick dinner we all piled into the car to head to my 5th grade son’s “Colonial Day” concert at school:
He kept cracking up as he looked out at us. Check out his colonial footwear. I’m pretty sure the real colonists weren’t strumming “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” on ukuleles, but that’s o.k.!
6. And now, as I type late into the night, I am contemplating my two cute but rotten dogs:
“There is nothing sweeter than [their] peace when at rest,” (i.e. not peeing on my couch, eating poop, throwing up, trying to steal chocolate, drinking water from the Christmas tree stand…). Colin says I should have just gotten myself a couple of stuffed animals. I hate to admit it, but I think he may be right.
7. And lastly, look what arrived for me today all the way from Hawaii:
2 thoughts on “Jubilate Agno”
Thank you for this post. My dog was beside me this morning as I woke up, and I thought of this poem as a celebration of life. It was lovely to read your appreciation of both the poem and of life! Best wishes, Michael
Pingback: Inspiring Poems – “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” – Flowering Poverello