1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

John Dix, in "The Two Montgomeries and Ebenezer Elliott" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 215-21.



The first time I ever saw James Montgomery was on the occasion of his presiding at a public Anniversary meeting of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. As he proceeded down the aisle of the Chapel, towards the platform, I had no difficulty whatever in distinguishing the "Christian Poet," as he is termed, from the crowd of gentlemen by whom he was surrounded, owing to the resemblance he bore to the many portraits of him which I have seen. Amidst much cheering, he took his place in the seat of honour, and I had then a good opportunity of observing him.

And I looked at him with no little interest, for his sweet and touching poetry had been familiar to me from childhood. He appeared of the middle height, or a trifle under it, and his dress was plain black: indeed, he would have been taken by most persons for a clergyman. Over a high and well-formed forehead, were combed some thin locks of hair, the colour of which must have, at one time, approached to a sandy hue, but which now was of a yellowish grey colour; the upper portion of the forehead was nearly bald; his eyes were deep set, of a light colour, and not particularly expressive or lustrous; the nose was long, and slightly aquiline, and his mouth small, and by no means well formed. A large white cravat enveloped his neck, and almost buried his chin in its ample folds. The prevailing expression of his features was of a very pensive character — almost, indeed, of sadness; and in this respect he presented a very marked contrast to the pert and perking appearance of his namesake, Robert.

Mr. Montgomery opened the meeting with a few rather common-place observations. His voice was thin, weak, and very tremulous, and his action by no means graceful. It might be that I had wound up my expectations to too high a pitch, or that the subject on which he spoke was not calculated to display his peculiar powers — but the truth is, I was much disappointed. The speech was anything but what I should have expected from the author of the "Pelican Island."

I afterwards heard Mr. Montgomery deliver a course of lectures on English Poetry. When they were announced, a great sensation was created, for it was naturally supposed that from a poet we should have a brilliant exposition of his theme. They were delivered in the theatre of the B— Institution, and were well attended; but their success was by no means commensurate with the literary repute of the lecturer. Mr. Montgomery is not adapted by nature for a public orator. There was a tremulous monotony in his tones, which induced a listlessness on the part of his auditory: and although now and then the true poet burst forth in a blaze of exceeding beauty, the flashes were meteoric and transient. On the whole, these lectures were a failure; but their want of success might, perhaps, be more justly attributable to the style of their delivery, than to any glaring defects in the subject matter itself.

A friend of mine, in describing an evening which some years ago he spent with James Montgomery says, — "In the course of the evening the conversation turned on Robert Montgomery's poetry, which was then making a great noise; James, for some time, took no part in what was going on, but remained an attentive listener. At last it seemed as if flesh and blood could bear it no longer, for he commented on the meanness of 'Satan Bob,' in assuming his name, for the purpose of cheating the public into the purchase of his wares. 'It has been a serious business to me,' said the true Montgomery, 'for I am constantly receiving letters, evidently intended for another person, in which I am either mercilessly abused, for what I never wrote, or bespattered with compliments of the most nauseating character. Many, to this day, do not distinguish between me and Robert Montgomery, and so I am, in a great measure, robbed of what little hard-earned fame I possess.'" The poet evidently was much mortified by Robert's bearing his name, and did not endeavour to disguise his chagrin. His intimate friends say that this is the only subject which ruffles the habitual serenity of his mind; and well it may, for it must be no trifling annoyance to see that fame, which was acquired by years of toil and patient endurance, perilled in the minds of many by the productions of the author of "Oxford," and "Woman."

Every lover of James Montgomery's poetry will be gratified by my inserting in this volume, a copy of verses by him, but very little known. They were produced under the following circumstances. Such a poem, written "to order" on no very arousing theme, proves genius as much as his "Wanderer of Switzerland," or the "World before the Flood."

Four years since a ladies' bazaar was got up in Cardiff Castle, for the purpose of procuring funds to aid in the erection of a Church, on the site of one which had been washed away, two hundred years before, by a flood of the River Severn, and consequently of a great influx of waters into the Estuary of the Bristol Channel. It was considered that if some poems on the subject could be procured from popular writers, and published in an embellished form, they would materially aid the objects in view. Mr. James Montgomery, and also Mr. Wordsworth, were applied to, and both of them kindly complied with the request made, by sending, the former a poem, and the latter a sonnet. Two other poems were published, by friends to the cause. The four were brought out in very splendid style, and fully answered the objects for which they were written. I now subjoin the contributions of Montgomery and Wordsworth; the latter, principally for the purpose of showing how differently two great poets would treat a common subject. Both productions have long since been out of print, and are not included in any collected volume. They will therefore have almost all the charm of perfect novelty.

SONNET.
When Severn's sweeping flood had overthrown
St. Mary's Church, the preacher then would cry
"Thus, Christian people, God his might hath shown
That ye to Him your love may testify;
Haste, and rebuild the Pile" — But not a stone
Resumed its place. Age after age went by
And Heaven still lacked its due, though piety
In secret did, we trust, her loss bemoan.
But now her Spirit hath put forth its claim
In power, and Poesy would lend her voice
Let the new Church he worthy of its aim,
That in its beauty Cardiff may rejoice!
Oh! in the Past if cause there was for shame,
Let not our Times halt in their better choice.
WM. WORDSWORTH.
Rydal Mount, 23rd Jan. 1842.

The following is Mr. Montgomery's poem, which he entitles

CARDIFF CHURCH LOST AND RESTORED.
Here stood a Church, — a house of God,
An earthly temple, built with stones;
Its courts our father's footsteps trod,
Its graves received our father's bones:
The hymn of praise, the voice of prayer,
The gospel trumpet sounded there;
And ransomed spirits, in Heaven's bliss,
May round the throne remember this.

But earthly temples must decay—
By slow or swift destruction fall;
And time or tide will wear away
The stateliest tower, the strongest wall
Here both conspired; in one dark hour,
To sap the wall — bring down the tower;
To storm the sanctuary, and sweep
Its very ruins to the deep!

The river rushed upon the sea—
The sea the river's rage repelled,
All the wild winds, at once set free,
War with the warring waters held:
On fire with foam the surges seem,
While vehemently beat the stream,
And rocked the fabric to and fro,
As if an Earthquake heaved below.

Till, as in dead of night, the flash
Of lightning issues from a cloud,
Chased by the thunder, crash on crash,
Down to the gulph the Temple bowed;
Bowed, for a moment, on the spot,
Another moment, it was not!
O'er the LOST CHURCH the billows boomed,
And with its wreck its tombs entombed

"Thus far, nor farther shall ye go,"
The river heard that voice and fled;
Spanning the firmament, GOD'S bow,
The sign of wrath retiring, spread;
Promise of future glory gave,
And resurrection from the grave,
When circling seasons had fulfilled
The term his sovereign counsel willed.

The fulness of that time behold!
Nine generations, in their haste,
Have passed where stood that Church of old,
Yet still the hallowed ground lies waste;
Ye, who where they once breathed now breathe,
To your posterity bequeath
Of your existence here well spent,
A House of Prayer, as monument.

From granite rocks the pile renew—
From Cambrian mines the ore be wrought,
From ancient woods the timber hew,
To body forth creative thought;
And bid the second temple rise
A land and sea-mark to all eyes,
Which shall outshine the first as far
As harvest-moon the morning star.

"There is a house not built with hands,
Eternal in the Heavens," for them
Who journey singly or in bands,
To seek the New Jerusalem;
With these may all who worship here,
Age after age, in turn appear,
Where that which men call death on earth,
Spirits shall deem their better birth.
JAMES MONTGOMERY.
The Mount, near Sheffield, Feb. 23rd, 1842.