‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot
These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.
Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.
That description might make it seem like this is a book for kids but it’s definitely not. We see ‘unsavory’ aspects of Georgian London, as Jeoffry spends his kitten-hood in a brothel in Covent Garden, cared for by a prostitute called Nancy, for instance. It’s very much for adult readers, and also unexpectedly deep and at times quite moving. It is at once a snapshot of 18th century London, a semi-biography of the poet Christopher Smart, and so much more.
I really loved reading it: it’s whimsically written throughout, with huge attention to period detail and simply beautiful language. Take this passage when we first meet our subject, Jeoffry:
…Jeoffry was born in his coat, a fuzz of carrot and ginger, with ripples of tawny stripes that ran down his back, from his ears to the tip of his tail, like a mackerel sky at sunset.
Each and every setting is vividly evoked, from the brothel, to the loud and chaotic city streets, to the asylum where Jeoffry eventually joins Smart. Although a lot of this story is, of course, invented (there’s an awful lot that is unknown about the life of Smart, much less his cat!), Soden manages to weave in real historical events seamlessly, such as bouts of disease in the city or raids on the brothels by local law enforcement. Sometimes invented ‘historical documents’ are even included, such as a diary entry from Jeoffry’s first owner, the prostitute Nancy. And I swear to you, I thought that diary entry was real! Soden captures the 18th century voice, language, tone of diary writing so perfectly – I was stunned and really, really impressed.
My only main ‘fault’ in the book is that it peters out a bit towards the end. Mild spoilers ahoy for the rest of this paragraph! The book follows Jeoffry all the way throughout his life and while I’m sure Soden didn’t want to get overly sentimental about it, I thought Jeoffry’s death and the last part of his life felt a bit rushed and under explored, whereas his years as a kitten traipsing around London were so vivid!
It’s such a fun premise – the biography of a cat – and it made me think immediately of Virginia Woolf’s book Flush, which is an imaginative biography of poet Elizabeth Barett Browning’s cocker spaniel. Obviously, Soden’s book was inspired by that one, and his acknowledges this in his notes at the end of the book.
This book probably isn’t for everyone, but, for the right person, it would make an absolutely magnificent read (or a gift). It’s a playful book and, like a cat, it can be both warm and a bit aloof. It’s also quirky, brimming with life and wit and historical details, and it’s obvious that this author LOVES cat. And since I’m someone who similarly has a great appreciation for the 18th century, and poetry, and cats…it was perfect for me. And actually very special for me to read since a couple of years ago an early draft of my poetry pamphlet Anastasia, Look in the Mirror was short-listed for The Christopher Smart Prize, which was a prize named after this poet! So I loved learning more about Smart and his world, through the eyes of none other than his cat.
Recommended Further Reading:
- Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat by Oliver Soden
- This is the poem where Smart writes about Jeoffry. It’s several lines in a larger work called ‘Jubilate Agno’ and the part about Jeoffry starts with the lines: ‘For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry’
- Virginia Woolf’s book Flush
PS Today’s Featured Image is from the 19th century, ‘Cat Concert’ by Emanuel Kratky
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!