“This is still your best yet, you know” Peter Pears told Benjamin Britten in 1944 about his veritable gem of a work, the festival cantata Rejoice in the Lamb which Britten had been commissioned to write for the 50th anniversary of St Matthew’s Church in Northampton.
Britten was interested in obscure or unusual texts and so when his friend and collaborator W.H. Auden showed him a tantalising poem by the 18th century poet Christopher Smart, first published in 1939 as Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam, he was captivated. Britten went on to produce his perennially popular work Rejoice in the Lamb on this wildly eccentric, religious (and zoological) fantasy.
During his lifetime, Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771) was a well known and established poet, writer and humorist in London. Industrious and married with a family, when he signed a lengthy contract in 1755 to produce the weekly paper The Universal Visitor or Monthly Memorialist, he overreached himself. His friends (including Samuel Johnson) would bail him out to help him meet his deadlines but the pressures eventually became too much for him and he suffered a nervous breakdown. This took the form of religious mania, perhaps obeying too literally St Paul’s command in his first letter to the Thessalonians to “Pray without ceasing”. He was admitted to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in 1756, later transferring to a private madhouse in Bethnal Green. It was during his confinement that he wrote his bewildering and jaw-dropping Jubilate Agno (Rejoice in the Lamb).
Jubilate Agno is a work that defies adequate description. It brims with religious ecstasy, references to Biblical characters, contemporary politics, autobiographical details and a warm affection for nature. It is all very strange. One passage used by Britten concerns Smart’s pet cat, Jeoffry:
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.
It’s obviously a clever cat “For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command”. It is precisely this word play and love of allusion that makes the poem such a delight to read, although Britten wisely avoids setting all 1,200 lines to music. He nevertheless remains faithful to its spirit.
Britten starts Rejoice in the Lamb with a quiet choral invocation on a single note, followed by a lively and rhythmic set of verses which call man and beast to give praise together in a Hallelujah (Smart’s original list contains over 100 itemised animals with biblical counterparts). Three solo movements describe beings whose routines are said to glorify God – the cat Jeoffry, a feisty mouse and flowers. The ensuing lament is autobiographical and hints at Smart’s own shabby treatment by officials for his noisy evangelising in Hyde Park. A bass solo intones the mystery and symbolism of letters before the choir sings about the language of musical instruments (with some delightful rhymes such as “For the Shawm rhimes are lawn fawn moon boon and the like”). The cantata ends with a peaceful reprise of the earlier Hallelujah.
About the strange beauty that is Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, discussions often hinge on whether it was the product of a deranged mind. Samuel Johnson and others did not think Smart deserved his incarceration and his sometimes cruel treatment is alluded to in Jubilate Agno. In any case, strangeness in literature was nothing new; one of Johnson’s favourite works which he would rise early to read was Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy – a popular sprawling behemoth, the literary equivalent of being trapped in a massive library with an erudite, garrulous professor as a guide. Burton’s work was satirised by Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman in 1759 – a companion work to Jubilate Agno, if ever there were one. But to conflate the circumstances of the conception of a work with its nature or essence is a mistake. Britten captures the warmth of Smart’s peculiar vision, it’s not the ravings of a madman, if anything we are taken aback by his humanity.
Christopher Smart was a humorist as well as a poet and this sense of fun finds its way into Jubilate Agno. A sense of humour too must have helped Smart after he left the asylum – deserted by his wife and family, his career crashed and he ended his days in a debtors’ prison. As a young man he had written satirical articles under the nom de plume of “Mrs Mary Midnight”. Anticipating by more than 200 years the notorious “mouse organ” sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mrs Midnight once wrote to the Royal Society in London about some “new and curious improvements upon the Cat-Organ”:
“I must not omit to tell you, gentlemen, that my Cat-Organ resembles a double harpsichord; for as that has two rows of keys, so mine has two layers of cats. – The upper row on which I play piano, or softly, consists of cats, both of a lesser size, and whose tails are squeezed by a much less degree of pressure; that is, by nothing but the bare extremity of the key. – But the lower row, on which I play forte, or loudly, contains an harmonious society of banging grimalkins; and whose tails are severely pricked by brass-pins inserted at the end of the key for that purpose.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Britten did not rise to the challenge of writing music for this curious instrument.
Published 21 December 2015 on primephonic.