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Thankfulness: Christopher Smart
- Prepare an OHT using the Hogarth engraving of Bedlam. This image is, in fact, the final part of his sequence The Rake's Progress. The central figure is Tom Rakewell, whose profligate behaviour has led him to this terrible fate. The mad mathematician scratching on the wall is trying to solve the longitude problem - this quest was the subject of Dava Sobel's best seller Longitude, recently made into a TV film which some of the pupils may have seen.
- Find a copy of Christopher Smart's poem called Jubilate Agno ('Rejoice in the Lamb'), or the part of it about his cat Jeoffry which is often printed individually. There are many editions, including Penguin.
Show the picture of Bedlam by Hogarth.
The picture was engraved in 1735 by William Hogarth. Ask if anyone knows what it shows.
It's Bedlam. Bedlam - the Bethlehem Hospital - was a hospital for people who were mentally ill. Nearly 300 years ago, just about the only treatment for people who were mentally disturbed was to lock and chain them up, generally in a dark room. If they still didn't 'behave', they were often denied food and beaten. In Bedlam, at the weekend, the doors were opened and people were allowed to look at all the mad people - if they could afford the entrance fee. It was a very popular tourist attraction! Many of the poor patients became quite famous, although they probably weren't aware of it. Every person in this picture has been driven insane for a different reason but you've got to look closely to work out what has caused their mania. Any ideas?
- The man on the extreme right, who has a dog barking at him, has been driven mad by love: he has carved the name of his girlfriend on the bannister beside him;
- The man in the room at the centre is wearing a crown made out of twisted paper: he thinks he is the king;
- The man in the shadows, writing symbols on the wall, has been driven mad by mathematics: the calculations were too hard and his brain collapsed...
But this picture doesn't make fun of these people. It's a grim picture - a terrible vision of the cruelty humans can inflict on each other.
About 20 years after this picture was made, one of the greatest poets of the 18th century, a man called Christopher Smart, was locked up in a mad house. It wasn't as bad as this - he wasn't put on display - but he bitterly resented his imprisonment, which lasted just over six years. What had Christopher Smart done to be labelled a 'lunatic'? Nothing very much. His only 'symptom' was that he prayed. He didn't do it in a loud and crazy way but, if he felt like it, he would kneel down in the street, or wherever he found himself, and pray. Was that enough to make him insane? What do you think?
What did Christopher Smart pray about? Mostly he praised God. Giving thanks was the main subject of his poetry. While he was imprisoned in the madhouse he was allowed to keep a cat. The cat was called Jeoffry. He wrote a long prose-poem called Jubilate Agno and the bit of it that is often reprinted is about this cat. It begins:
"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..."
... and so on. His cat is pictured as a creature filled with praise for the life God has given him. And, unlike humans, this cat isn't inhibited about giving thanks. It is a bit of a bizarre poem, and very long, but Smart wrote a few lines every day. Perhaps it was how he kept his identity. Even though he was locked up for giving thanks to God, he wasn't going to stop! Even in the madhouse, he believed that the fundamental drive of all things is to be thankful.
Let's be quiet for a moment and take time to consider some of the gifts which we have - and which we perhaps too often take for granted.
Think of some of the people in our life who are important to us - who have given us so much - and without whom our lives would be impoverished.
Think of some of the places in the world which are special to us - perhaps somewhere familiar and ordinary like our own homes or the homes of our grandparents. Perhaps somewhere exotic - a place where we have been on holiday, or where we dream to go.
Think of some of the things we have - not just the consumer goods but also some of the ordinary things that are part of the furniture of our lives and which make us what we are.
For all of these, give thanks.
- 'Rejoice in the Lamb' Benjamin Britten's setting of Smart's poem, Choral Works, The Choir of St John's College Cambridge, Naxos 8.554791. This work is in sections and the one on 'Jeoffrey' could be used, or some other part. As the music may be difficult for some pupils, listen to it first for suitability.
- The 'Hallelujah Chorus' from The Messiah by Handel, itself composed in the 18th century, and still famous as one of the greatest choruses of praise. Messiah Choruses, Bratislava City Choir, Naxos 8.550317.
- Christopher Smart's cat poem could be used as a basis for the pupils' own creative writing on thankfulness.
- If time allows, or in an RE lesson, students could explore the idea of thankfulness. One of the big questions that religions have always tried to answer is why God bothered to create human beings in the first place. According to Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, what really matters is not that humans obey God - or even love God - but that they are thankful to God for all the rich things that have been given to them: "Obedience without gratitude would be nothing. Love without gratitude would be nothing... Only as he thanks God does man fulfil his true being." What do the students think this means? Do they agree? Why or why not?