1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Joseph Devey, "Poets of the Affections. Montgomery" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 355-59.



Some men are capable of having their intellect very much extended by education. There is, however, a class upon whom education generally acts like a convex lens, rather contracting than expanding their mental vision. It is not in any complimentary sense I would rank Montgomery in the former class; for he had essentially a puny intellect, capable, however, of great expansion, under a proper system of training, which he never received. Had Burns or Shakespeare gone through a university course, the probability is their mental force would have been very much impaired. The great powers with which nature had endowed them, would have lost much of their freshness by having their vigour expended upon foreign models, upon dry inventories of fact, or the mere mechanism of language. Had Shakespeare frittered away his youth in obtaining a control over Greek iambics, it is not in the least likely "Macbeth" would have been written. Had Burns devoted his early efforts to mastering the Principia, it is as little likely we should have had "Tam O'Shanter." The influence of Byron's collegiate learning may be read in his "Hours of Idleness;" the consequence of his emancipation from it, in his "Manfred" and "Childe Harold." But Montgomery was born with no such creative intellect. He had none of the regalities of the spiritual universe about him. His powers were essentially of the imitative order. He caught up the echoes of Goldsmith and Cowper, and repeated their strains very well. His sympathies were with the good of every clime; his heart was open to the tenderest domestic charities; his feelings swelled with every generous emotion. But his mind, imprisoned in the narrow confines of Moravianism, remained Moravian to the end of the chapter. Of philosophy in any sense, either as derived from hooks or from introspective contemplation, he knew nothing. Doctrinal Christianity, as he found it in the Sunday-school Catechism, he accepted as the explanation of everything. The passionate phases of man's emotional nature were by him regarded as contraband. Lofty poetry on a large scale, under such conditions, was simply impossible. A liberal education for such a mind would have done wonders. But a liberal education the Fates withheld.

It was, therefore, to some extent a mistake when Montgomery wandered into the larger fields of Song. As long as he confined himself to themes in which the elastic sympathies of his heart required no lofty effort of the intellect, the result was a success. His smaller pieces, which merely image pictures of rural love, or which describe his religious feelings, or his passion for the beauties of nature, or his sympathy for natural objects, and for the destinies of common humanity, will bear comparison with the productions of poets of greater intellectual calibre than Montgomery. Indeed, it would not be too much to say, that some half-dozen of them, as his exquisite "Tribute to the Genius of Burns," his "Common Lot," his "Night," "The Field Flower," and "The Grave," are not inferior to anything of the same class in the language. In these occasional pieces, his emotions are warmly enlisted, his aesthetic sense finds ample room for its exercise, without making any great demand upon the intellectual forces in which he was so deficient. He, therefore, hits his mark. But when he attempted bolder flights, and constructed elaborate poems of a dozen cantos, the attempt was above his powers. If he cannot be said to have ignominiously failed, neither can he be said to have fairly succeeded. In incidental scenes, where there is play for outbursts of his sympathetic nature, or for good material description, he is effective; but in sustained power, in recondite or strikingly original views, in the bold manipulation of his subject, in passionate bursts of imagination, in fact, in all those qualities which can alone make a lengthy poem tolerable, Montgomery is simply nowhere. Among the class whose prejudices they flattered, and whose ignorance they suited, his heavy pieces once had a steady sale. But they are fast settling down into the limbo of works which are too indifferent to be read, and yet not bad enough to be entirely forgotten.

In addition to Montgomery's mental incompetency for any protracted effort, he was wretchedly unfortunate in the choice of his subjects. Who, for example, could possibly care for an antediluvian poem, in ten cantos, on "The World Before the Flood," treated scripturally, in which the prophecy of Enoch is versified, and the story of Cain and Abel diffusively set forth? There is much more poetry in the curt announcement of the Bible concerning Enoch, viz., "that his spirit walked with God, that Enoch was not, for God took him," than in all the apocryphal books respecting him, which Montgomery has so sedulously followed. The subject of Greenland is not redeemed from its chilliness by the fires which Montgomery's missionaries light up there. But the sudden atmospheric changes this country has undergone afforded him opportunity to indulge his passion for painting catastrophes, which he has certainly turned to account, and "Greenland" is, undoubtedly, the best of his lengthy pieces. Slavery is a trite theme, and Montgomery, in "The West Indies," did little more than express, in strong pentameters, the popular indignation on the subject. But there is no one who would not rather be the author of Cowper's brief castigation of slavery in "The Task," than the ponderous lines with which Montgomery has only diluted the withering censure of his master. The "Wanderer in Switzerland," doubtless, owed much of its temporary success to the detestation of the French republican armies, whose oppressions it denounced. For there is nothing in the mere tale of misery inflicted which can interest the general reader, and Montgomery's ballad style of treatment does not fit it for a higher sphere than an ordinary child's reading-book. The formation of earth out of coral-reefs, with the evangelical destiny of man coming in as a pendant to his rise out of a series of megatheria, is about as puerile a conception as could possibly have been conceived. Montgomery doubtless thought the way to reconcile science with religion was to set both at war with common sense. The "Pelican Island," which embraces this effort, is likewise faulty in metre. Blank verse is a great test of a poet's powers, and Montgomery's blank verse is as weak as any in the language. It is as unmetrical as Browning's, without one atom of Browning's terseness and versatility.

Montgomery never rouses the passions or feeds the intellect, but he frequently reaches the heart. His forte is simply the development of our emotional sympathies in connection with natural objects. This ground, after Herrick and Wordsworth, he cultivates as well as any writer in our language. But this is for the most part accomplished by the use of stereotyped phraseology, which rather dominates thought than suffers itself to be the vehicle of its manifestation. His verses, therefore, lack freshness. He says in one of his prefaces, that the plot of ground he holds on the British Parnassus is no copyhold, that he borrowed it or leased it from none. But this is a delusion. Every verse he writes is coined in the mint of his predecessors. His images, his metaphors, his style of expression, are all derived from poets of the Goldsmith type. But he occasionally informs them with so much fire; he fuses them so deeply into the glowing furnace of his own sensibility, that they wear all the features of original creation. Like old vases whose figures have been re-cast in deeper moulds, his borrowed conceptions sparkle with the brilliancy of new metal.

Montgomery's powers were contracted. He had neither a brilliant fancy, nor a lofty or passionate imagination. A sombre line of melancholy pervades the most of his productions. He could not have been facetious, had he died for it. But he is always tender, and occasionally pathetic. That quiet brooding over the abyss of the heart, the mirroring of external nature in its depths, for which the Hebrew psalmists were so conspicuous, a religious earnestness of purpose, which imported the poet's heart and brain into everything he wrote, his glowing fervour, the identification of his feelings with all the elevating tendencies of humanity — these are the qualities which have placed some of his occasional pieces on the top shelf of miscellaneous poetry. But while in some of his short pieces he rises above his models, in his lengthy and more pretentious efforts, he falls beneath them. There is a diffusiveness in these compositions which his occasional verses did not admit of; for, where Montgomery had a broad canvas to cover, the defect of early training was conspicuous in redundant expression, in a wearisome exposition of trifling details, in a lack of that vigorous grasp of a subject which could impress upon its complex branches the simple unity of a whole. The fact is, the miscellaneous verse in which Montgomery excelled was the fruit of his own solitary communings with the objects which absorbed his attention; while the staple materials of his larger pieces were all imported, at second-hand, from books. Hence, while his "Greenland" and his "West Indies" may rank, though at a respectable distance, in the same class, as the "Traveller" and the "Deserted Village," his three other long poems would rise no higher than a moderate place in the fourth division of poetry, as very good embodiments of reflex imitation. But a poet must be judged by the general arrangements of his pieces, and not by the superior excellence of some three or four minor poems; and, if tested by this standard, Montgomery will rank above Rogers, but beneath Goldsmith.