1854 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 41 (June 1854) 659-60.



April 30. At his residence; the Mount, Sheffield, aged 82, James Montgomery, Esq., the Poet.

James Montgomery was born Nov. 4, 1771, at Irvine, in Ayrshire. His father was a Moravian missionary, who, leaving his son at Fulneck in Yorkshire to be educated, went to the West Indies, where he and the poet's mother both died. When only twelve years old, the bent of the boy's mind was shown by the production of various small poems. These indications could not save him at first from the fate assigned to him, and he was sent to earn his bread as assistant in a general shop. He thirsted for other occupations, and one day set off with 3s. 6d. in his pocket to walk to London, to seek fame and fortune. In his first effort he broke down, and for a while gave up his plan to take service in another situation. Only for a time, however, was he content, and a second effort to reach the metropolis was successful, so far as bringing him to the spot he had longed for, but unsuccessful in his main hope — that of finding a publisher for his volume of verses. But the bookseller who refused Montgomery's poems accepted his labour, and he became shopman to Mr. Harrison in Paternoster row. After eight months, however, he returned to Yorkshire, and in 1782 he gained a post in the establishment of Mr. Gales, a bookseller of Sheffield, who had set up a newspaper called The Sheffield Register. On this paper Montgomery worked con amore and when his master had to fly from England to avoid imprisonment for printing libellous articles, the young poet became the editor and publisher of the paper, the name of which he changed to The Sheffield Iris. In the columns of this print he advocated political and religious freedom, and, like his predecessor, he incurred the censure of the Attorney-General, by whom he was prosecuted, fined, and imprisoned; in the first instance, in 1795, for three months, for reprinting a song commemorating "The Fall of the Bastile;" in the second case, for six months in 1796, for an account he gave of a riot in Sheffield.

He contributed to magazines, and, despite adverse criticism in the "Edinburgh Review," established his right to rank as a poet. In 1797 he published Prison Amusements; in 1805, The Ocean; in 1806, The Wanderer in Switzerland; in 1809, The West Indies; and in 1812, The World before the Flood. By these works he obtained the chief reputation he has since enjoyed. In 1819 appeared Greenland, a poem in five cantos; and in 1828, The Pelican Island, and other Poems. In 1851 the whole of his works were issued in one volume, 8vo., and of which two editions are in circulation; and in 1853, Original Hymns, for Public, Private, and Social Devotion.

"His larger poems, though belonging to that dispensation under which sonority of cadence and pomp of words were more cultivated than thought or fancy, may be returned to, even in these days, by all large-minded readers of verse, because of a certain harmony in their numbers, an elevation of tone and sentiment, and a feeling for the picturesque in description. His lyrics and minor verses are of higher merit. Without reaching the freshness and originality of Wordsworth's short poems, they are far in advance on 'The Poplar Field,' and 'The Rose,' and 'The Morning Dream,' and the Olney Hymns of Cowper, which in their day were so much admired and so largely cited. 'Moonlight in York Castle,' 'The Grave,' the verses to 'the Memory of Joseph Browne' the Quaker martyr, and 'The Common Lot' (to name only a few among many), have a feeling and a sincerity, consistent with sweetness of cadence and elevation (if not subtlety) of imagination. They are not canting; they are not cold; they are not weak; they have a faith and a truth in them beyond the conventions of any creed shaped by well-meaning human formality. Montgomery's prose, so far as we know it, was genial, kindly, and direct in the expression of purpose and judgment, but not vigorous." — Atheneum.

The Iris continued under his management, till about 1840; it was then bought by other parties, and is now extinct.

A few years back the Queen conferred upon Mr. Montgomery a pension of 150 a year.

His funeral took place at the Sheffield cemetery, and, in addition to the relations and immediate friends of Mr. Montgomery, consisted of deputations from the corporation of the town and from all the public institutions. Every class appearing desirous to testify its respect and regret, a vast concourse of people accompanied the body to its last resting-place. The church, from its smallness, could not contain the mourners, but the service was read in the cemetery by the Rev. T. Sale, Vicar of Sheffield.

It is expected that a monument will be raised to his memory; Mr. T. Milnes, the sculptor, a year or two back, took a bust of him, which is a fine likeness, and an excellent work of art.