Was Christopher Smart the First Hippie?

By Robert Pinsky on 4.06.09

It has been said that the eighteenth-century saw the beginning of just about everything—as I remember, pianos, coffee-shops, and the United States. Certainly a lot of things still embedded in the modern world began in this period.

The poems of Christopher Smart, both formally and in feeling, seem to confirm that idea: his writing is capacious, ardent, and reckless in ways we recognize. Like William Blake, Smart has been described as the first hippie. But the term does not apply if “hippie” entails detachment or irony.…

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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 wor-
     ships in his way
For is this 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 con-
     sider himself
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws 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 fore-paws
     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
     neighbor.
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 adver-
     sary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin
     & 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.

The religious feeling of Jubilate Agno—a poem discovered or rediscovered in the twentieth-century—is not jocular or arch. Though there is laughter in the poem, it is celebratory rather than mocking.

In perhaps the most famous statement about Smart, who was hospitalized for madness, and who used to pray in the street and urge others to join him, Samuel Johnson said (in Boswell’s Life): “I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.”

topics: Essential Pleasures