During today’s post-lunch recovery phase at the Wellcome Library, I found a short book by William Henry Butter Stoddart (1868-1950) an eminent practitioner in the field of ‘mental diseases’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His 1908 textbook The Mind and its Disorders was a key text for doctors interested in emerging ideas about psychology and psychiatry. Stoddart was innovative at the time for his interest in Sigmund Freud’s theories. However, the book I have been looking at today is Mental Nursing, which dates from c. 1916. You can read a review of it in the enticingly-named British Journal of Inebriety, Vol 14, No. 3, of January 1916, if you are interested.
Among other aspects of the book which piqued my interest – one of these was Stoddart’s frequent emphases on the humanity of patients in an asylum for the insane, dispelling notions that the ‘disturbed’ were ‘inmates’ rather than patients, and probably dangerous violent or moral criminals to boot – were some sentences from the penultimate paragraph of Chapter IV (‘The Habits and Conduct of the Insane’:
‘Many patients write rubbish, absolute rubbish, from morning till night every day, week in and week out, and they waste an enormous lot of paper. Why should they not? It relieves their minds and paper is cheaper than medicine. Let them have it.’
Who did these words make me think of? Of course, Christopher Smart, the eighteenth-century poet, now remembered principally for Benjamin Britten’s setting of his poetry in Rejoice in the Lamb. In 1757, Smart’s father-in-law John Newbery, a publisher and bookseller, who had published some of Smart’s work would commit Smart to the ‘curable’ wards at St Luke’s Hospital. St Luke’s was a private asylum which admitted its first patients in 1751, around a year after a group of London merchants and doctors decided to found an institution to care for the unstable relations of the London poor, and which could take up some of the patients who couldn’t get into the over-subscribed Bethlem Hospital. The original site of St Luke’s was the Foundry in Windmill Hill, Upper Moorefields, which was within the parish of St Luke’s Church.
Why did Newbery feel that Smart needed treatment at St Luke’s? Smart was a complicated man. He was very intelligent, and very ambitious as a poet, but all his adult life, from the time he arrived at Pembroke College, Cambridge, it was clear he was not a man to ‘fit in’. When he married Newbery’s step-daughter, Anna Maria, in 1752, Smart had been working in what Samuel Johnson would call ‘Grub Street’ for Newbery since 1749. He published serious poetry and essays, but Newbery kept Smart’s nose to a more mundane grindstone. Smart was not a provident man, he enjoyed drinking, and he was renowned for his generosity and benevolence. The marriage was not entirely happy or stable, and Smart and Anna Maria lived in property belonging to Newbery, who was both supporting Smart and working him very hard.
Between 1750 and 1755, Smart won the Seatonian Prize four times (the competition for the Seatonian Prize still exists for members of the Cambridge University Senate or holders of the Cambridge MA), first with his blank-verse essay On the Eternity of the Supreme Being. Such achievements brought prestige for Newbery, and satisfied – to an extent – some of Smart’s own ambitions. For Newbery some of Smart’s work was extremely arduous, and definitely in the Grub-Street category of literary endeavour. One big task for Newbery was Smart’s translation of Horace’s complete works, a translation which became a standard edition for many years. Newbury ‘paid’ Smart £100 for this task, but only £13 was put into the poet’s hands; the rest was kept for the upkeep of Anna Maria. During the 1750s, Smart’s eccentricities became increasingly obvious – he was given to exuberant public prayer and other displays of religious excess. He sometimes collapsed into feverish illnesses, which were exacerbated by his lifelong delicate constitution, and pressure of work. Eventually, Newbery took Smart to St Luke’s, where he remained for a year before being discharged ‘uncured’ and kept on waiting list for re-admission. However, in 1760 Smart had been placed in another private asylum, belonging to Mr Potter in Bethnal Green.
At this time, the wrongful incarceration of ‘madman’ at the behest of their relatives was a hot topic. There was often strong public feeling that private asylums were places where people paid to have their troublesome or embarrassing relations kept out of the way: some patients/inmates were not insane as much as inconvenient. Certainly, whether Christopher Smart was insane or just unusually eccentric is questionable, and members of London’s intellectual and literary circles suspected that Newbery was tired and embarrassed by Smart’s financial improvidence and unusual public fervour. After Samuel Johnson visited Smart in the asylum, James Boswell reports Johnson (who was no stranger to extreme eccentricity and melancholia) commenting, ‘I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society.’
It was not until 1763 that Smart was liberated from the asylum. By this time Anna Maria had moved to Dublin where she worked as a literary agent for Newbery from 1758. She converted to Catholicism, and sent their children to a convent in France. Smart and his wife never saw each other again. In the asylum Smart had been allowed to keep a cat, and he wrote a great deal, his strangest and fragmentary production, was Jubilate agno; alongside this extraordinary piece – which survives in manuscripts on 32 sheets of paper (a quantity which I’m sure Stoddart wouldn’t have thought excessive) in 1,200 lines – he wrote several other spiritual works. However, it is Jubilate agno which is the piece I find most extraordinary. Despite its length, the pace and rhythm are fast, and its imagery is vivid. Reading Jubilate agno gives one a sense of a mind working rapidly and passionately, the lines slammed onto the page as a series of utterances that are vehement but also often tender. As when reading Johnson, I am struck by the enormous breadth and depth of Smart’s knowledge, which in Jubilate agno is not ‘measured’ in tone, but beautifully constructed in a line or sequence of lines. However, if this is the way Smart carried on (for want of a better phrase) in public, it is no wonder that his predilection for fervent and frantic public prayer made him something of a trial for his father-in-law and wife. It is also difficult to reconcile Smart’s concise, lucid prose translations of Horace with the incantatory, visionary flames of Jubilate agno. It is no surprise that a man who carried such vision around in his head felt a need to write it down, as Stoddart would write in 1916, to relieve his mind. Also remarkable is the precision of Smart’s observational powers, and his knack for infusing the ordinary (such as his cat’s methods of washing) with divine significance. The only equivalents in other art forms to the exaltation of Jubilate agno I can think of are William Blake’s paintings, or Olivier Messiaen’s music.
Britten set just a few of Smart’s Jubilate agno lines in the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), which Walter Hussey commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton. How did Smart’s visions affect the minds and souls of a congregation living through World War II? Britten uses just a few of Smart’s lines, but they are lines which speak of valour (that of the tiny mouse), deliverance from evil, and as this extract shows, the beauty of divine creation in nature:
For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers have their angels,
Even the words of God’s creation.
For the flower glorifies God
And the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For the flowers are peculiarly
The poetry of Christ.
Britten famously used a transposition of the Shostakovich ‘motif’ DSCH (D E-flat C B) with the sung text ‘silly fellow, silly fellow is against me’, occurring with ‘And the watchman strikes me with his staff’, linking several different aspects of the idea of creative and personal oppression: as an asylum inmate who was presumably incarcerated against his will, Smart was an oppressed entity. Shostakovich had lived for years under the threat of Stalin’s terror, beginning with Stalin’s excoriation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Pravda in the mid-1930s. All of Shostakovich’s work from that point was a form of protest which was also a game of cat and mouse with the the authorities. His Seventh Symphony (which I’ve written about already) deals with the terror from within the Soviet Union as well as the horror caused by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the ‘900 Day Siege’ of Leningrad. Britten, as J. P. E. Harper-Scott writes, ‘is probably the most celebrated composer of oppressed “others”*, citing especially Peter Grimes (1945) where Harper Scott makes a précis of Philip Brett’s argument about otherness in Grimes: ‘In essence, his argument is that the protagonist offers Britten a focus for an exploration of the oppression, by a prejudiced wider society of people who are “different”‘.* From this idea, it is not difficult to extrapolate Britten’s self-reference in Rejoice in the Lamb to his own difference in a prejudicial wider society. There are as many layered meanings in this cantata as there are petals on Smart’s flowers.
To conclude, I return to Stoddart’s remarks about writing, and consider Smart’s writings, which have lived on in a remarkable way; how much the hundreds of people who have sung or heard the line ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey’ know about the extraordinary life of its author – a life I’ve only superficially explored here? We are lucky that Smart’s work has survived, and while I do not contest that every ‘thoroughgoing lunatic’ (a Stoddart description) was as remarkable a talent as Christopher Smart, I wonder what extraordinary thoughts and visions those wasters of paper may have expressed during their days of confinement?
*See J. P. E. Harper-Scott’s ‘Being-With Grimes: the Problem of Others in Britten’s First Opera’, Art and Ideology in European Opera. A PDF of the chapter is available here.