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Program notes on jubilate deo
Program Notes on Britten’s “Jubilate Deo”
If you visit Baltimore, you should take time out from the crabcakes to visit some of the
city’s religious sites, including the highest of all Anglo-Catholic parishes, Grace & St.
Peter’s, the Roman Catholic Basilica, oldest in the United States, and the Museum of
Visionary Art. Christopher Smart, author of Jubilate Agno, from which Benjamin Britten
took the text of his “Rejoice in the Lamb,” would have been at home—if not necessarily
welcome—at all three, but the museum is where he would find the work of kindred
The museum is full of paintings, tapestries, and other works of art that show great
skill, amazing detail, and a real feeling of the divine. Most of them have biblical themes,
and sometimes it takes a good long time to recognize every image the artists have
included in their work and even longer to understand the overall pattern. Next to each
work hangs a biography of the artist. Most note which mental hospital the artist worked
in, and many report that “once the artist began Thorazine treatment, he lost all interest in
art.” The visitor is left wondering whether to be glad a mind is free from torment or sad
that a voice that spoke of transcendence has been stilled.
Christopher Smart lived before the age of Thorazine, so his creative work was
impeded only by his worldly cares. He was confined to the asylum where he composed
his greatest works, Jubilate Agno
and A Song to David,
because he had taken to praying
loudly in public, even in the Royal Parks designed more for flirtation than adoration. “I
blessed God in St. James’s Park,” he wrote, “till I routed all the company.” He was
visited in the asylum by the great literary figures of the day, including Dr. Johnson, who
said, “I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society.
He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone
else. Another charge was that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”
The project Smart set himself while confined was nothing less than a reformed
Anglican liturgy. It was to be antiphonal, with one group reading lines beginning with
“Let” and another group answering with lines beginning with “For.” Smart, however,
wrote down the “For” and “Let” lines separately, so the correspondence between them
was not discovered until 1950, several years after Britten set some of them to the music
we hear today. (And since the project was never completed, some “For” sections,
including the famous “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” have no corresponding “Let”
lines.) The whole is modeled on the Psalms of David, which Smart himself freshly
translated into English during the 1760’s. Smart imitates not just the fundamental poetic
form of Hebrew verse, parallelism, but also some of its other features. Several of the
Psalms are acrostics, each verse beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew
alphabet. Smart, in the same way, plays with letters and rhymes and sounds, all for the
Smart was one of those lucky people whose mental illness leads them more often
to euphoria than to despair. In trying to understand his work, the first step is not to try to
make sense of it rationally—though critics have worked mightily to follow the routes his
mind took to produce his more perplexing images. Rather, one should see Smart’s main
point, which is that God is great and loving and that every part of the world, if paid
proper attention, reveals His loving kindness. It is as if Smart asks, “Do you want
evidence that God loves you? Here it is: cats play, flowers bloom, words rhyme, and
people make up names like Balaam, Ithamar, and Jakim. What more proof do you
need?” We may not like being pulled on the sleeve by a gentleman in a dirty cravat and
asked to kneel and celebrate God’s glory in the street—especially if he starts going on
about mice. But it will not hurt our own mental equilibrium if we listen to his message:
God’s love for us is shown by every portion of creation.
Brian Abel Ragen, Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, can
be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He retains copyright to this essay.
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