In the language of the heart


Because flowers are great blessings. . .
Because there is a language of flowers.
For the flowers are particularly the poetry of Christ.

excerpt from “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart

CHRISTOPHER SMART’s words “Flowers are great blessings” seem to find an echo in many hearts.

In recent days, since we heard the news of the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II, thousands of bouquets have been laid outside royal residences across the country. It’s proof of the human impulse to bring flowers when someone we love has passed away; because there is indeed “a language of flowers”. Beautiful but fragile, ephemeral, their wordless poetry speaks of the sorrow of separation, of sweet memory, of love and gratitude.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of Smart’s birth in Shipbourne, Kent. I knew nothing about him until many years ago my sister Gabrielle sent me a recording of Benjamin Britten’s cantata Rejoice the Lamb. I loved it: the momentum of the music seemed to fit perfectly with the spirit of the poem. Fascinated by the excerpts from “Jubilant Agnothat Britten had chosen, I looked at the poet and discovered that he was a complex character.

As a young man – a brilliant student of classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge – Smart’s published works included English and Latin poems, essays, articles and short stories. Whether there were even then signs of the “madness” that was soon to cloud his literary reputation is not known, but in time his eccentric behavior caused his work to be widely dismissed as the ramblings of a mad. , and he was forced to spend eight years of his life in mental asylums in London. From then on, he concentrated on religious poetry.

Unfortunately, his recurring bouts of drunkenness and extravagant lifestyle eventually led to the breakdown of his family, and Smart ended up in Marshalsea, London’s notorious debtors’ prison, where he died in 1771, at the age of 49.

An exceptionally devout Christian (it is believed he was considering ordination), Smart had a strong desire to follow St Paul’s advice “Pray without ceasing”.

A contemporary, Samuel Johnson, put it this way: “He [Smart] showed the clouding of his mind by falling on his knees and saying his prayers on the street or in any other unusual place. But Johnson didn’t condemn him for it; after all, he said, “his infirmities were not harmful to society. He insisted that people pray with him; and I would pray as much with Kit Smart as with anyone else.

Other poets of Smart’s day and later admired his work, considering it original and visionary; some, including Robert Browning, even considered his mental state to be the source of his genius and saw him as anticipating William Blake and John Clare.

SMART’s openness to the transcendent is evident in his long poem “Jubilant Agnoat least part of which was written while he was “in danger” at St Luke’s Psychiatric Hospital. He saw God as the great Poet — “the inimitable artist” — who used language to create the universe; and he believed that the role played by the human poet was to affirm the reality of the spirit of God in creation. Thus, for him, poetry was revealing and creative; and “Jubilant Agnois a vibrant example of his desire to develop a poetic language that gives expression to what is silently and eternally present at the heart of things.

The natural world, Smart believed, constantly praises God, but nature needs a poet to express that praise. Thus, in the manner of Benedict (the “Song of the Three Young Men” in the book of Daniel), he invites “every creature, in which there is a breath of life” to give glory to God and to the Lamb, using their different “languages”. Humans, animals and all living beings are called to praise God: “Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.

As God’s scribe, the poet puts into words the divine poem, which is true and eternal, and he makes audible the melody of God, a melody which “is perceptible to man by a remarkable stillness and serenity of the ‘soul “.

In light of the ecological challenges we face today, the prophetic message of “Jubilant Agnohas a decidedly contemporary relevance.

The poet takes it for granted that we relate to God, who is at the heart of things, not only personally, in direct dialogue and prayer, but also through the medium of the natural world. All beings are caught in the web of life; for the root and core of existence is relationship. When we look deeply into created things—when we truly “see” them—we become aware of the radiance of God shining within them.

Smart seems to echo Saint Bonaventure who said, “Open your eyes; awaken the ears of your spirit, open your lips and apply your heart, so that you may see, hear, praise, love and adore, magnify and honor your God in every creature…” (Itinerary, 1,15).

The poet sees flowers, trees, plants, non-human animals, as the cherished work of God; as valuable in themselves, and not simply as accessories to human history. The living Spirit of God dwells in the works of creation, and in and through them God blesses us. Christopher Smart’s psalmic verses remind us that creation is God’s love made manifest: in all its magnificence and mystery, the universe is a gift from “God’s heart”.

Our instinct to lay flowers in remembrance reflects this. As another poet, William Wordsworth, puts it:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to his tenderness, his joys and his fears,
For me the nastiest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that are often too deep for tears.

Sister Teresa White is a member of the Faithful Companions of Jesus.

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