Christopher Smart (1722–1771)
Smart was a scholar, editor, and poet who was well acquainted with Samuel Johnson and other literary figures in London. His friends tried to support him as he moved toward an asylum and debtors prison.
Benjamin Britten | Rejoice in the Lamb (1943)
How sad it was that the arts had become largely divorced from the Church: Sad, because artists think and meditate a lot and are in the broadest sense of the word “religious.”
The Rev. Walter Hussey, St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton
The spirit of the curious, vivid poem has been caught.
The Times of London, reviewing the premiere
Since the mid-18th century, scholars and literary figures have wondered what to make of Christopher Smart. A brilliant, vivid master of language, yes. But his inner vision — what he saw, thought about, and intended in his writing — is more difficult to discern. Robert Browning thought madness was the source of Smart’s greatness.
Smart was well educated, learning Latin and Greek and writing poetry as a young boy. He was admitted to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1739 and had considerable academic success as a writer and translator, winning prizes and scholarships. His translation into Latin of Alexander Pope’s Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day led to other assignments — and to an oil portrait, commissioned by the Fellows of Pembroke College, in which the young Smart holds a letter from Pope.
Moving to London by 1750, “Kit” Smart became widely known for his work, particularly for the writings that appeared in a number of journals. Although he was prolific, he was unable to support himself and his family in his style of living. Debts mounted, as they had since college days. Stresses and disputes with his publisher grew. Samuel Johnson and other literary friends contributed pieces to help him meet contractual obligations. There were fits of madness or religious fervor, including sudden loud prayer in public places. On May 6, 1757, he was committed to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, later moved to Mr. Potter’s asylum — a six-year confinement in all.
It was during his confinement — mostly alone, except for his cat Jeoffrey — that he wrote Jubilate Agno, a work of more than 1,200 lines that some scholars believe was only half of Smart’s original plan. The work was not available until 1939, when Smart’s manuscript was discovered in a private library. It was published as Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam.
Setting excerpts from Jubilate Agno was a fascinating choice for Britten. Smart appears to have intended the “Let” and the “For” lines to be read responsively, almost as a liturgical text. The Biblical references fairly tumble over each other — Nimrod, Ishmail, Balaam, Ithamar, David, Jakim — as they would for a devout, attentive, habitual reader of Scripture. It was a suitable choice to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the consecration of St. Matthew’s Church.
But the piece has darker, more ominous moments. It conjures a terrain where profound religious fervor brushes up against madness and hints at an author trying desperately to discern the real from the imagined, to make sense of traumatic events. “For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchman smites me with his staff” — perhaps a memory of an arrest after a public episode — makes Smart think of Jesus, whose friends and family thought he was “beside himself” and tried to remove him from public. Smart’s watchman, though, “belongeth neither to me nor to my family.” Britten’s music at that point becomes eerie and chilling.
Britten received the commission from Rev. Walter Hussey in March 1943, began composing in May, and completed the work in July. Britten himself conducted the premiere on September 21, 1943, in St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton, using the St. Matthew’s Church choir.
“The writer was Christopher Smart, an eighteenth-century poet, deeply religious but of a strange and unbalanced mind,” Rev. Hussey wrote of the work. “Rejoice in the Lamb was written while Smart was in an asylum, and is chaotic in form but contains many flashes of genius. It is a few of the finest passages that Benjamin Britten has chosen to set to music. The main theme of the poem, and that of the cantata, is the worship of God by all created beings and things, each in its own way.”
Rejoice in the Lamb
Excerpts from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart (1722–1771)
Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.
Let Nimrod, the mighty hunter, bind a Leopard to the altar and consecrate his spear to the Lord.
Let Ishmail dedicate a Tyger, and give praise for the liberty in which the Lord has let him at large.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.
Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might through faith in Christ Jesus.
Let Ithamar minister with a Chamois, and bless the name of Him that cloatheth the naked.
Let Jakim with the Satyr bless God in the dance.
Let David bless with the Bear — The beginning of victory to the Lord — to the Lord the perfection of excellence. Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.
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 bless’d 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.
For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For this is a true case: Cat takes female mouse; male mouse will not depart, but stands threat’ning and daring. If you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as you are.
For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.
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.
For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour, for they said, he is besides himself.
For the officers of the peace are at variance with me, and the watchman smites me with his staff.
For Silly fellow! Silly fellow! is against me, and belongeth neither to me nor to my family.
For I am in twelve Hardships, but he that was born of a virgin shall deliver me out of all.
Bass solo and chorus
For H is a spirit and therefore he is God.
For K is king and therefore he is God.
For L is love and therefore he is God.
For M is musick and therefore he is God.
For the instruments are by their rhimes.
For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth suit mute and the like.
For the Bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat and the like.
For the Clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound soar more and the like.
For the Trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence and so are all the instruments in Heaven.
For God the Father Almighty plays upon the Harp of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases and the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.
Hallelujah from the heart of God, and from the hand of the artist inimitable, and from the echo of the heavenly harp in sweetness magnifical and mighty.