Jeoffry: The Poets Cat by Olive Soden

jeoffry

By Byron Beynon

The subject of this book is Jeoffry, a real cat born in a London whorehouse during an earthquake in March 1750.  He began life “in a cupboard, under the staircase of a grand house in the Covent Garden Piazza.” Jeoffry’s coat was “a fuzz of carrot and ginger, with ripples of fawny stripes that ran down his back”, his colouring inherited from his father “a spruce orange tom”. He was fortunate to come into the world at a time when “to keep and to feed an animal with and for pleasure was an activity becoming more and more common in Georgian England:”

At the age of nine however he found himself confined inside a lunatic asylum along with the poet Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771).  Between 1759 and 1763 he shared Smart’s cell, and in exchange for company and love the poet devoted 74 of the surviving 1,700 lines of his religious poem “Jubilate Agno” (Rejoice in the Lamb) to his cat Jeoffry.  Smart was confined to the asylum for religious mania.  Born in the county of Kent, and a graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, he worked as a hack journalist.  He wrote his masterpiece during his confinement, although it wasn’t published until 1939.  The poem describes his cat, who was his sole companion, and the sequence beginning “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry ….” is the most anthologised poem in English.

The biography is a mixture of fact and imagination, allowing us to follow Jeoffry’s life and experiences in literary and theatrical London. He meets Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge in the Strand, he views the composer George Frederick Handel’s swollen legs, and shares Smart’s cell as the poet writes the poem which will make Jeoffry immortal.

In the twentieth century Benjamin Britten set “Jeoffry” to music, and the poets W.H. Auden and T.S.Eliot were also impressed by this magnifi-cat. The biography comes with the 74 lines of the poem for Jeoffry, and 12 illustrations in colour, including works by William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough.

Soden has written with empathy and invention, a comical, deeply moving, profound biography. With excellent research, he recounts the life of Jeoffry, praising him as “a mixture of gravity and waggery”.

You can find the book here: http://www.oliversoden.co.uk/jeoffry-the-poets-cat.html

Byron Beynon coordinated Wales’ contribution to the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). His poems and essays have featured in several publications including North of Oxford, The Independent, Agenda, Wasafiri, The London Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review and the human rights anthology In Protest (University of London and Keats House Poets).  He is the author of 11 collections of poetry including Cuffs (Rack Press) and The Echoing Coastline (Agenda Editions).

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