Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Larry Commends me to Kit Smart (and his Cat, Jeoffry)

Well, fancy that.   Larry writes:
I remember that you're fond of Kit Smart, and thought you'd like this from G.Keillor's blog: link.
He's absolutely right.  I was a fan of Christopher (Kit, Kitty) Smart, author of the inimitable Jubilate Agno, including (amid all its religious intensity), the greatest poem about cats ever written. I guess you would say I remain a fan of Smart's work, although I haven't given him a lot of thought for much of these past 54 years.   Still, the memory is vivid: it was the winter of 56-57 and my life was more or less falling apart.  I won't trouble with the details except to say my troubles were pretty much entirely of my own doing--and to rub salt in the wounds, I pretty much recognized that bitter fact.

One thing that kept me going was that in the same winter, I discovered 18th-Century English letters.  Well: "discovered" is too strong a word: I was introduced to the 18th Century by Basil Pillard, teaching English at Antioch College.  Our class met, I think, just once a week.  Between times, we kept journals.  In class and out, we encountered Boswell (the London Journal); Fielding (Joseph Andrews); Richardson (Pamela); and of course, the great man himself--Samuel Johnson, through Boswell's Life.

Everything about this new vista was a revelation for me.  I thought I knew a bit about culture--I certainly had pretensions along that line.  But for me "culture" meant the great moderns (Joyce, Woolf, that sort of thing) or the Victorians, whom in truth I did not really fancy (still don't, really).  Nothing prepared me for the grit, the intensity, the bitter realism and the raw energy of the 18th Century.  I was dazzled and I must say also animated: here was stuff you could actually engage with,  not just in pretense.

I dropped out of college  before the end of that winter so I don't really know what exactly I missed--more Johnson I think, perhaps Tobias Smollett, whom I then thought of as an "English novelist," not foreseeing that he would be recast in our time as a "Scottish novelist."  But Pillard, among his many other gifts, provided the one thing that I suspect a good humanities teacher always hopes for: he jump-started the engine. He gave me a taste for the 18th Century that has never left me. [Via the journal, he gave me something else as well: I can remember perching on the edge of the ratty couch in my ratty student apartment, pounding out journal entries and telling myself—hey, I am th... th... I must be thinking. An almost entirely unfamiliar experience for me at the time, I say with all earnestness].

Smart came to me sideways through Johnson. I did enjoy Smart in his own right: I've never thought of myself as a particularly religious person (nor a cat-lover either, come to that), but then as now I was arrested by the focus and clarity and individuality of Smart's own engagement. Still, as much as by Smart himself, I was taken by Johnson's response to Smart. Johnson is known for truculence and such a reputation is not entirely undeserved. But less obviously, he was a man of abundant compassion, particularly for those who didn't show much knack for helping themselves. “Less obviously,” has at least a double meaning here: one of the most attractive aspects of Johnson's charitable attitude is that he never made a big deal of it. Sometimes the most elevated of stylists, he could easily dismiss his own kindness and tolerance with a one-liner. As ever, Boswell captures the moment:

Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a mad-house, he had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr. Burney. — BURNEY. "How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?" JOHNSON. "It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it." BURNEY. "Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise." JOHNSON. "No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the alehouse; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it."
"I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else”--I'm not at all sure I know why but I still find that one of the most touching insights in the English language. The whole experience can come back to me in a moment. I'd thank Pillard if I could but he died years ago. I am profoundly grateful to Larry, and I respond by commending this selection of smart as offered by PoemHunter.Com. For a largish expert from “I Will Consider My Cat, Jeoffry,” go here.   

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