1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Francis William Blagdon, "Biographical Sketches: Mr. James Montgomery" Flowers of Literature for 1806 (1807) 30-32.



James Montgomery was born at Irvine in Ayrshire, on the 4th of November, 1771. His parents were of the Moravian persuasion, and his father a pastor of that sect. From his birth he was intended to follow the same profession as his father, but the causes which militated against this plan will be better related hereafter. When five years old, his parents left with him his native land, and removed to Grace-hill, in Antrim. One year after this he was placed at an academy of the united Moravian Brethren, at Fulneck, near Leeds, and soon after this his parents quitted their son and country for ever; his father, accompanied by his wife, having quitted Europe, to go and preach the gospel to the poor negroes in our settlements in the West Indies, where they both shortly fell a prey to death. At school Mr. Montgomery imbibed a most romantic turn for poetry, which made him extremely indolent and in the pursuit of every other study, and made his friends determine to change the plan which had been chalked out for his future destination in society. Instead, therefore, of bringing him up in the profession of his father, they placed him at a retail shop at Mirfield, near Wakefield. Though here he was treated with much kindness, and could not complain of being too much employed in the drudgery of business, yet the independent spirit born with a man of genius, rendered his occupation irksome to his mind. No longer able to put up with the restraints it subjected him to, with nothing but five shillings, and the hopes incident to a lively imagination, he decamped from his master's house, and set out on his travels, his youthful mind buoyed with the dreams of patronage and literary renown. His strict Moravian education, and consequent ignorance of the ways of the world, subjected him to the scoffs of the illiberal, and to the still more galling pity of the well meaning, but injudicious portion of mankind disappointed in his dreams of grandeur and fame, he was shortly obliged to take up his residence with a Mr. Hunt, at Wath, near Rotherham, who followed the same line of business as his late master at Mirfield. With him, except a few weeks he spent in London, the spot of his boyish ambition, he at several periods, resided two years; and from thence he wrote to the guardians of his youth, to beseech them to forgive the imprudent step he had taken in quitting Mirfield, and to write in his favour to the new master he had chosen. They, in answer, assured him of their entire forgiveness, and wished to procure him a situation more concordant to his inclinations; but finding him averse to this proposal, they complied with his desires of commending him to Mr. Hunt. During the interim of his stay in London, he was received by Mr. Harrison, a bookseller in Paternoster-row as an inmate in his house; he had paved the way to his reception there by having previously sent him a volume of his manuscript poems, which Mr. Harrison advised him, however, not to publish, but at the same time endeavoured to encourage him to cultivate his talents. Our young author, disappointed in his expectations, took the opportunity of a misunderstanding with Mr. Harrison to return to Wath, where he was received by the benevolent Mr. Hunt with truly paternal affection. From thence he went to Sheffield, in 1798, and engaged with Mr. Gales, editor of newspaper rather free in its political strictures; and though he sometimes contributed his mite in this line of composition, yet essays and the muses were chiefly his department. Two years after this, when Gales quitted England, by the assistance of an almost stranger, Mr. Montgomery was enabled to undertake the newspaper himself. Soon after this, he was cast into prison for three months, and fined twenty pounds, for publishing in his paper a song, which was written by a person unknown to him, a clergyman of Belfast, nine months before the war began, and yet by a court of justice was deemed a libel on a war which took place such a length of time after it had been composed. Mr. R. Taylor presided on this trial, and the first verdict was, guilty of publishing. This not satisfying the court, the jury were desired to re-consider the case, and to deduce the malicious intention, not from the circumstances attending the publication, but from the words of the song. They retired for another hour, and brought him in guilty. Our author had scarcely been established peacefully in his former occupation, when another storm burst upon his head. Two men, in a riot at Sheffield, having unfortunately been slain by the military, Montgomery related the affair in his paper with more feeling than prudence. The recital was deemed a libel. The magistrate who prosecuted him was R. Athorpe, Esq. Colonel of the Sheffield Volunteers, a man who is now dead, and who afterwards treated him with the utmost kindness. Notwithstanding the unremitting exertions of the late Mr. Felix Vaughan, a youth of the utmost promise, both as a lawyer and an orator, James Montgomery was sentenced to six months imprisonment, and to a fine of thirty pounds. On the eve of his trial at Doncaster, his late master at Wath, Mr. Hunt, sought him out, not only to offer him sterile consolations, but to serve him substantially by every means in his power. During this state of captivity, he composed his "Prison Amusements," poems which are but little known to the world, excepting in the neighbourhood of Sheffield, the author having suppressed their publication almost in their infancy, from an over diffidence of there merit, but which we hope in a short time to lay before our readers. In 1794, 5, and 6, he wrote a series of essays, entitled the Whisperer, which were originally published in his paper, but which he afterwards sewed together in 1799, and advertised to be sold in Sheffield; but the volume had scarcely made its appearance, when the same modesty, which had before prevented the wide diffusion of his Prison Amusements, now obliged him to recal it. Having detailed the principal occurrences of the chequered life of our author, we shall leave his works to speak for themselves; and unpoetical must be his ear, and void of feeling and taste the heart, of him who still pretend that he is not a bard of uncommon merit, and gifted with an uncommon share of sensibility and warmth of disposition. It is our sincere hope, that brighter days are in store for him, and that the remainder of his life may be passed in peace, and in the prosecution of his favourite pursuits, crowned with the success to which he has proved himself entitled.