1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:415-16.



JAMES MONTGOMERY, a religious poet of deservedly high reputation, was born at Irvine, in Ayrshire, in 1771. His father was a Moravian missionary, who died whilst propagating Christianity in the island of Tobago. The poet was educated at the Moravian school at Fulneck, near Leeds. In 1792 he established himself in Sheffield (where he still resides) as assistant in a newspaper office. In a few years the paper became his own property, and he continued to conduct it up to the year 1825. His course did not always run smooth. In January 1794, amidst the excitement of that agitated period, he was tried on a charge of having printed a ballad, written by a clergyman of Belfast, on the demolition of the Bastile in 1789 which was now interpreted into a seditious libel. The poor poet, notwithstanding the innocence of his intentions, was found guilty, and sentenced to three months' imprisonment in the castle of York, and to pay a fine of £20. To January 1795 he was tried for a second imputed political offence — a paragraph in his paper, the Sheffield Iris, which reflected on the conduct of a magistrate in quelling a riot at Sheffield. He was again convicted and sentenced to six months' imprisonment in York castle, to pay a fine of £30, and to give security to keep the peace for two years. "All the persons," says the amiable poet, writing in 1840, "who were actively concerned in the prosecutions against me in 1794 and 1795, are dead, and, without exception, they died in peace with me. I believe I am quite correct in saying, that from each of them distinctly, in the sequel, I received tokens of good-will, and from several of them substantial proofs of kindness. I mention not this as a plea in extenuation of offences for which I bore thin penalty of the law; I rest my justification, in these cases, now on the same grounds, and no other, on which I rested my justification then. I mention the circumstance to the honour of the deceased, and as an evidence that, amidst all the violence of that distracted time, a better spirit was not extinct, but finally prevailed, and by its healing influence did indeed comfort those who had been conscientious sufferers."

Mr. Montgomery's first volume of poetry (he had previously written occasional pieces in his newspaper) appeared in 1806, and was entitled The Wanderer of Switzerland, and ether Poems. It speedily went through two editions; and his publishers had just issued a third, when the Edinburgh Review of January 1807 "denounced the unfortunate volume in a style of such authoritative reprobation as no mortal verse could he expected to survive." The critique, indeed, was insolent and offensive — written in the worst style of the Review, when all the sins of its youth were full-blown and unchecked. Among other things, the reviewer predicted that in less than three years nobody would know the name of the Wanderer of Switzerland, or of any other of the poems in the collection. Within eighteen mouths from the utterance of this oracle, a fourth impression (1500 copies) of the condemned volume was passing through the press whence the Edinburgh Review itself was issued, and it has now reached thirteen editions. The next work of the poet was The West Indies, a poem in four parts, written in honour of the abolition of the African slave trade by the British legislature in 1807. This was undertaken at the request of Mr. Bowyer, the publisher, to accompany a series of engravings representing the past sufferings and the anticipated blessings of this long-wronged Africans, both in their own land and in the West Indies. The poem is in the heroic couplet, and possesses a vigour and freedom of description, and a power of pathetic painting, much superior to anything in the first volume. Mr. Montgomery afterwards published Prison Amusements, written during his nine months' confinement in York castle in 1794 and 1795. In 1813 he came forward with a more elaborate performance, The World Before the Flood, a poem in the heroic couplet, and extending to ten short cantos. His pictures of thin antediluvian patriarchs in their happy valley, the invasion of Eden by the descendants of Cain, the loves of Javan and Zillah, the translation of Enoch, and the final deliverance of the little band of patriarch families from the hand of the giants, are sweet and touching, and elevated by pure and lofty feeling. Connected with some patriotic individuals in his own neighbourhood "in many a plan for lessening the sum of human misery at home and abroad," our author next published Thoughts on Wheels (1817), directed against state lotteries; and The Climbing Boy's Soliloquies, published about the same time, in a work written by different authors, to aid in effecting the abolition, at length happily accomplished, of the cruel and unnatural practice of employing boys in sweeping chimneys. In 1819 he published Greenland, a poem in five cantos, containing a sketch of the ancient Moravian church, its revival in the eighteenth century, and the origin of the missions by that people to Greenland in 1733. The poem, as published, is only a part of the author's original plan, but the beauty of its polar descriptions and episodes recommended it to public favour. The only other long poem by Mr. Montgomery is The Pelican Island, suggested by a passage in Captain Flinders's voyage to Terra Australis, describing the existence of the ancient haunts of the pelican in the small islands on the coast of New Holland. The work is in blank verse, in nine short cantos, and the narrative is supposed to be delivered by an imaginary being who witnesses the series of events related after thin whole has happened. Thin poem abounds in minute and delicate description of natural phenomena — has great felicity of diction and expression — and altogether possesses more of the power and fertility of the master than any other of the author's works.

Besides the works we have enumerated, Mr. Montgomery has thrown off a number of small effusions, published in different periodicals, and short translations from Dante and Petrarch. On his retirement in 1825 from the "invidious station" of newspaper editor, which he had maintained for more than thirty years, through good report and evil report, his friends and neighbours of Sheffield, of every shade of political and religious distinction, invited him to a public entertainment, at which the present Earl Fitzwilliam presided. There the happy and grateful poet "ran through the story of his life even from his boyish days," when he came amongst them, friendless and a stranger, from his retirement at Fulneck among the Moravian brethren, by whom he was educated in all but knowledge of the world. He spoke with pardonable pride of the success which had crowned his labours as an author. "Not, indeed," he said, "with fame and fortune, as these were lavished on my greater contemporaries, in comparison with whose magnificent possessions on the British Parnassus my small plot of ground is no more than Naboth's vineyard to Ahab's kingdom; but it is my own; it is no copyhold; I borrowed it, I leased it from none. Every foot of it I enclosed from the common myself; and I can say that not an inch which I had once gained have I ever lost. * * I wrote neither to suit the manners, the taste, nor the temper of the age; but I appealed to universal principles, to unperishable affections, to primary elements of our common nature, found wherever man is found in civilised society, wherever his mind has been raised above barbarian ignorance, or his passions purified from brutal selfishness." In 1830 and 1831 Mr. Montgomery was selected to deliver a course of lectures at the Royal Institution on Poetry and General Literature, which he prepared for the press, and published in 1833. A pension of £200 per annum has since been conferred on Mr. Montgomery. A collected edition of his works, with autobiographical and illustrative matter, was issued in 1841 in four volumes. A tone of generous and enlightened morality pervades all the writings of this poet. He was the enemy of the slave trade and of every form of oppression, and the warm friend of every scheme of philanthropy and improvement. The pious and devotional feelings displayed in his early effusions have grown with his growth, and form the staple of his poetry. In description, however, he is not less happy; and in his Greenland and Pelican Island there are passages of great beauty, evincing a refined taste and judgment in the selection of his materials. His late works have more vigour and variety than those by which he first became distinguished. Indeed, his fame was long confined to what is termed the religious world, till he showed, by his cultivation of different styles of poetry, that his depth and sincerity of feeling, the simplicity of his taste, and the picturesque beauty of his language, were not restricted to purely spiritual themes. His smaller poems enjoy a popularity almost equal to those of Moore, which, though differing widely in subject they resemble in their musical flow, and their compendious happy expression and imagery.