Kit, Tom and Jerry: The Poet Who Foretold Cartoons
Plot summary for an episode of Tom and Jerry? A promo for Mighty Mouse? Actually, these lines come from a visionary poem that Christopher “Kit” Smart wrote in England between 1758-1763, Jubilate Agno. A translator and London wit as well as a poet, Smart became possessed with a religious fervor that landed him in St. Luke’s Hospital and Mr. Potter’s Madhouse. Later on, his profligate ways landed him in debtor’s prison. Kit Smart penned Jubilate Agno during his long confinement in the mental asylums. But there is nothing confining about his unprecented poem. It broke free from all kinds of constraints: no consistent voice, no rhyme scheme, no set rhythm. It summons prophets, creatures, musical instruments, and alphabet letters with unpredictable incantations. It is Biblical and bestial, reverent and riotous. A cat displays divine dexterity, and a mouse becomes heroic and hospitable.
I couldn’t help but think of cartoons when I reencountered the parts of Jubilate Agno that feature the nimble cat, Jeoffry, and the unnamed valorous mouse. (You can read Smart’s widely-anthologized cat section here, and watch a clip from Tom and Jerry here.) Fittingly, Smart’s outlier poem wasn’t published until 1939–one year before Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon Tom and Jerry debuted, and three years before the birth of Terrytoon’s Mighty Mouse. Jubilate Agno was not otherworldly. It was ahead of its time.
In 1943 British composer Benjamin Britten set parts of Smart’s poem in his innovative piece Rejoice in the Lamb, written after he lived briefly in the United States. (I’m rehearsing the choral parts for an upcoming performance.) Its nimblest, most frenetic section is the Alto solo about Kit Smart’s mouse:
Like the corresponding section of Jubilate Agno, the music here is cartoonishly clever. It captures the spirit of Smart’s cat-and-mouse game with our expectations.–MB