(And did Benjamin Britten talk like Terry Thomas?)
This week I listened to the episode of In Our Time (BBC Radio 4) about parasitism. As usual, Melvyn Bragg’s guests included his go-to geneticist, Professor Steve Jones. Jones the Genes is always good value. Good value for his erudition, but also for his characteristic aphorisms. This time the Jonesisms included “Words like ‘positive’ and ‘good’ don’t belong in biology” and “We owe our sex lives to our parasites.”
The programme reminded me about Toxoplasma (which I’d first come across in The Selfish Gene). It’s one of the sort of parasite that has a lifecycle that takes it through multiple hosts, in this case, rodents and cats. It needs both stages to complete its lifecycle. To facilitate this, the parasite has evolved to modify the behaviour of rodents. Normally rodents avoid cats (and avoid the smell of cats), but when infected with Toxoplasma, a mouse will become careless or even attracted to cats by their smell, thus increasing the risk of predation. Jones stated that up to a third of the human population is also infected with Toxoplasma, even though that is of no benefit to the lifecycle of the parasite. Apparently it has an impact on (“causes” may be too strong) mental conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.
That got me thinking about Christopher Smart. I hope that when you read the title of this post, you remembered Betteridge’s Law. That’s the one that runs “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” However, the 18th century poet and writer Christopher Smart would have answered “yes”.
I have encountered Smart through singing – attempting to sing – Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb which uses extracts from Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno as its libretto. Smart was an involuntary inmate of an asylum when he wrote it, and when you read it, you can see why. It is, at heart, a religious poem, but it wanders from its path, partly, it seems to me, playfully, and partly rambling bizarrely.
It starts with a general purpose:
Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.
It then goes on to name pairs of biblical men and beasts, generally by association with their biblical tales, so we get (amongst many, and with Smart’s capitalisation)
Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.
(Balaam, you will recall, appears in the book of Numbers having a conversation with his ass.)
Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might through faith in Christ Jesus.
Ascribing faith in Christ Jesus to Daniel seems odd, being 600 years too early. (There is also an oddity with Britten’s score at that point: he sets the word “lion” against a single note, whereas most of us would pronounce it with two syllables. It can, of course, be pronounced as a single syllable, but only if one affects a voice like that of Terry Thomas.)
Later, Smart gets on to words and sounds.
For the relations of words are in pairs first.
For the relations of words are sometimes in oppositions.
For the relations of words are according to their distances from the pair.
For there be twelve cardinal virtues the gifts of the twelve sons of Jacob.
For Reuben is Great. God be gracious to Lord Falmouth.
For Simeon is Valiant. God be gracious to the Duke of Somerset.
And so on, pairing the sons of Jacob with English nobility for no apparent reason. Then he has a paean of praise for his cat Jeoffry. Having thought of the cat, he rambles on to mice:
For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For — this is a true case — Cat takes female mouse from the company of male — male mouse will not depart, but stands threatning and daring.
For this is as much as to challenge, if you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as you are.
For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.
Hang on a minute! I doubt that Burns’ “Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie” is a creature of great personal valour, but Smart emphasises “this is a true case”.
I don’t doubt his observation, but that’s not normal mouse behaviour. That’s a description of a mouse with a Toxoplasma infection. (Which makes me speculate about the ultimate cause of Smart’s incarceration.)