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Once more with felines

A couple of centuries before Bob the Cat, another puss was making waves in cultural circles

05 November, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

Author Oliver Soden with his Jeoffry

THE late, lamented Bob the Cat – a regular in this paper – may have put Covent Garden and the Angel on the feline map, but there’s a new literary moggie hero on the horizon.

Step forward Jeoffry: The Poet’s Cat, featured in a book of the same name by Oliver Soden, who will hopefully bring cheer to readers in lockdown north London, albeit Jeoffry existed 250 years ago.

Talented and tenacious, Jeoffry is only one of the stars in this entertaining historical novel. The other is the great 18th-century poet, Christopher Smart, who lived at Canonbury House before being incarcerated in St Luke’s Lunatic Asylum in Old Street, where he adopted Jeoffry.

Soden bases his semi-fictitious book on Smart’s famous 1763 poem, in praise of his beloved pet, entitled, For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry, which is a lengthy 74 lines and almost 1,000 words long.

Intriguingly, the poem was written not long after the two of them were incarcerated together in the lunatic asylum.

Smart wrote in the poem how Jeoffry, “counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.”

And he added: “For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.”

I should point out that it wasn’t the cat, but Smart who was suffering from a mental disorder called mania, which appears to be what we would today call bipolar disorder.

The antics of prankster Jeoffry almost certainly helped the poet pull through the illness and some dark times.

Speaking to Review, Soden, a prize-winning writer, whose previous work was a biography of composer Michael Tippett, revealed that he is definitely a cat person. Indeed, he is joined in the photo by his own pet, inevitably called Jeoffry.

“My cat is seven years old and that may give you an idea of how long I’ve been thinking about the book.”

Soden added: “The poem deals with the personality of Jeoffry, who Smart describes aptly as having a mixture of ‘gravity and waggery’. Each line of the poem begins with ‘For’ which makes it quite hypnotic.”

The book begins on a journey around the bordellos of Covent Garden, where Jeoffry is being cared for by a kindly prostitute called Nancy.

“When clients arrived,” Soden writes, “Nancy shoved him ungainly beneath the bed, and somehow he knew he was not to emerge.”

Later Jeoffry meets Smart at the asylum and becomes a much-needed friend. Soden writes that the cat “spoke in no tongue that Smart understood beyond the basic expression of disgruntlement and unhappiness. Jeoffry spoke no English, and Christopher Smart could not purr.”

Soden describes Cambridge-educated Smart as someone who liked to “proclaim his ancestry as aristocratic with frequency that implies it was not quite aristocratic enough”.

Smart spent a year at the asylum before being released. Sardonically, Soden writes: “It is as difficult to say that Smart had recovered his sanity as it is to be certain he had ever lost it.”

The poem, part of Smart’s religious-themed Jubilate Agno, (Rejoice in the Lamb), eventually brought him fame, albeit hundreds of years after his death.

Soden explains that the poem originally disappeared under a mound of papers left by the poet after he died in 1771 and wasn’t discovered again until 1938.

It was finally published in the Criterion, a literary magazine edited by no less a figure than TS Eliot. And so Jeoffry entered English verse, as the war clouds gathered across Europe. Then in 1943 composer and conductor Benjamin Britten’s cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb, set words from Smart’s poem, at the suggestion of poet WH Auden.

Jeoffry was given an aria to himself, for treble solo, much to the concern of the Reverend Walter Hussey, who had commissioned the work and was wary of tweeness.

But Britten was certain: “I am afraid I have gone ahead, and used a bit about the cat Jeffrey [sic], but I don’t see how it could hurt anyone – he is such a nice cat.”

Jeoffry The Poet’s Cat: A Biography. By Oliver Soden, The History Press, £16.99


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