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Thankfulness: Christopher Smart

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)

Aims

To look at how mental illness used to be treated and being more thankful.

Preparation and materials

  • Find an image of Hogarth’s engraving ‘In the madhouse’ and have the means to display it during the assembly. This is the final plate in his sequence A Rake's Progress, showing the Bethlehem hospital, known as Bedlam. 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 – a quest that was the subject of Dava Sobel's bestseller Longitude (Harper Perennial, 2005), which was made into a TV film, so some of the students may have seen it.
  • Find a copy of Christopher Smart's poem ‘Jubilate Agno’ ('Rejoice in the Lamb') or just the part of it about his cat Jeoffry, which is often printed as an excerpt in its own right.
  • Have available either of the following and the means to play it at the end of the assembly. '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 'Jeoffry' could be used or some other part. As the music may be difficult for some pupils, listen to it beforehand to assess its suitability for your students. The other option would be the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel’sMessiah, Messiah Choruses, Bratislava City Choir, Naxos 8.550317. This piece was composed in the eighteenth century and is still famous as one of the greatest choruses of praise.

Assembly

Show the picture ‘In the madhouse’ by Hogarth.

This picture was engraved in 1735 by William Hogarth. Does anyone know what it shows?

It's Bedlam. Bedlam – as the Bethlehem Hospital was known – 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 weekends, the doors were opened and people were allowed to come and 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 by different things, 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. You can see that he has carved the name of his girlfriend on the bannister beside him.

The man in the centre of the room is wearing a crown made out of twisted paper. He thinks he is 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 couldn’t cope.

Unlike the visitors, the artist doesn't make fun of the patients. Rather, it records a grim picture of the time – it conveys 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 eighteenth century, a man called Christopher Smart, was locked up in a madhouse. 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. 

Time for reflection

Let's be quiet for a moment and take time to consider some of the gifts we have – gifts we perhaps too often take for granted.

Think of some of the people in your life who are important to you – who have given you so much and without whom your life would be impoverished.

Think of some of the places in the world that are special to you – perhaps somewhere familiar and ordinary, such as your home or the homes of your grandparents. Perhaps somewhere exotic – a place where you have been on holiday or dream about going.

Think of some of the things you have – not just the consumer goods but also some of the ordinary things that are part of the furniture of our lives and make us what we are.

For all of these, give thanks.

Music

'Rejoice in the Lamb', Benjamin Britten's setting of Smart's poem, or the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel’sMessiah

Ideas to develop through the week

  1. Christopher Smart's cat poem could be used as the basis for the students’ own creative writing on thankfulness.

  2. If time allows in the assembly or in an RE lesson, the 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 twentieth century, what really matters is not that humans obey God – or even love God – but they are thankful to God for all the rich things 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?
Publication date: April 2014   (Vol.16 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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