Friday, June 5, 2009

Jubilate Agno

This morning I was led a merry chase through the house, upstairs and down, peering under beds and strewing storage containers everywhere, until at last I cornered our black cat, Chester, under the stairs. I made the mistake of putting our orange cat, Samson, into his carrier first, and Chester got wind of what was happening. It was time for their annual trip to the vet for checkup and vaccinations. They only got one shot this morning, but they howled and drooled and generally expressed their displeasure at being handled.

Now they are both back safe in their own house, washing and looking at me reproachfully. I am covered in cat hair and saliva and worn out from my morning's exertions. The extended washing sessions are making me think of Christopher Smart's poem about his cat, Jubilate Agno:

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 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 consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws 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 forepaws 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 considered 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 adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and 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.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel
from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry!
poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the
bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

I've always loved the line about counteracting the powers of darkness. Neil Gaiman made that line literal in his story, included in M is for Magic, entitled "The Price." In it, a brave black cat protects his house and family from Satan every night while the family sleeps. The narrator, head of the family, says "We wondered who he was fighting. Snowflake, our beautiful white near-feral queen? Raccoons? A rat-tailed, fanged possum?" At one point he gets so beat up that the head of the family takes him down to the basement to rest, take antibiotic, and recover. And
"the four days that the Black Cat lived in the basement were a bad four days in my house: the baby slipped in the bath and banged her head and might have drowned; I learned that a project I had set my heart on...was no longer going to daughter left for summer camp and immediately began to send hom a plethora of hear-tearing letters and cards...imploring us to bring her home; my son had some kind of fight with his best friend, to the point that they were no longer on speaking terms; and, returning home one night, my wife hit a deer."

When he puts the cat back outside, bad things stop happening and the cat gets all beat up again. The narrator decides to try and see what kind of animal is coming to the house each night and beating up the cat. He hides and finally sees
"It was the moment it was dark, bull-like, Minotaurish, the next it was slim and female, and the next it was a cat itself, a scarred, huge gray-green wildcat, its face contorted with hate."
The black cat fights him off, and the story ends with the narrator saying
"the thing that comes to my house does not come every night. But it comes most nights: we know it by the wounds on the cat....he has lost the use of his front left paw, and his right eye has closed for good."

My cats like to pose heroically, especially if they've just brought a nearly-dead mouse or shrew into the kitchen through the cat door. The two that went to the vet this morning are now on quest for food. It will take them another hour or so to stop creeping around the corners, afraid of attracting my notice again.

My vet wants me to bring in the older cats every six months, now that they're "senior" cats. I am reluctant to subject all of us to that stress again before another year is up. Perhaps I'm too laid-back about cat ownership. Do you ever have the sense that you're too relaxed about something, and maybe you should be paying closer attention?


Harriet M. Welsch said...

One of the best things about that poem is Benjamin Britten's setting of it in Rejoice in the Lamb. I frequently have snatches of it running through my head. The rhythms of the poem are infectious. I'm sure I'm always paying too little attention to something, or at least too much attention to all the wrong things. But you do what you can.

Anonymous said...

I do like that poem.

I admit that I do not take the cats in as often as I should, but it's the same thing -- it's such a trauma to take them in (to them and to me). So they don't get their shots as often as they should. And they are getting older, sadly.

PAJ said...

Parenthood. Pet ownership. House ownership. Work duties.
I'm easily distracted from almost anything and often feel inattentive to almost everything. I'm only partly joking when I tell people I have only one child because if I had more, I'd probably lose one of them.

Anonymous said...

A Cat Door or Cat Flap gives you and your cat the freedom they deserve.

Karen said...

I don't know Harriet, but her comment his exactly on what I wanted to say. I never saw that poem before, EXCEPT the bits that are contained in Britten's work. Oh my, that was a fun piece to sing.

Jeanne said...

Karen, Britten has popularized Smart, which is kind of a good trick if you think about it.

Anonymous cat flap salesman, I'm leaving your spam comment on here because I would like to point out, once again, that one of the ADVANTAGES of having a cat door "or cat flap" is that your small carnivores can easily bring DEAD ANIMALS into your house. On occasion, we've also had a cat bring in a live chipmunk. Just thinking of it is making me sing the "Everybody Wants One" song from the hamburger joint in John Cusak's 1985 movie "Better Off Dead."