1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Montgomery, The Wanderer of Switzerland; Edinburgh Review 9 (January 1807) 347-54.



We took compassion upon Mr. Montgomery on his first appearance; conceiving him to be some slender youth of seventeen, intoxicated with weak tea, and the praises of sentimental Ensigns and other provincial literati, and tempted, in that situation, to commit a feeble outrage on the public, of which the recollection would be a sufficient punishment. A third edition however, is too alarming to be passed over in silence; and though we are perfectly persuaded, that in less than three years, nobody will know the name of the Wanderer of Switzerland, or any of the other poems in this collection, still we think ourselves called on to interfere, to prevent, as far as in us lies, the mischief that may arise from the intermediate prevalence of so distressing an epidemic. It is hard to say what numbers of ingenuous youth may be led to expose themselves in public, by the success of this performance, or what addition may be made in a few months to that great sinking fund of bad taste, which is daily wearing down the debt which we have so long owed to the classical writers of antiquity.

After all, we believe it is scarcely possible to sell three editions of a work absolutely without merit; and Mr. Montgomery has the merit of smooth versification, blameless morality, and a sort of sickly affectation of delicacy and fine feelings, which is apt to impose on the amiable part of the young and the illiterate. The these qualities should still excite any portion of admiration: for there is no mistake more gross or more palpable, than that it requires any extraordinary talents to write tolerable verses upon ordinary subjects. On the contrary, we are persuaded that this is an accomplishment which may be acquired, more certainly and more speedily, than most of those to which the studies of youth are directed, and in which mere industry will always be able to secure a certain degree of excellence. There are few young men who have the slightest tincture of literary ambition, who have not, at some time in their lives, indited middling verses; and, accordingly, in the instructed classes of society, there is nothing more nauseated than middling poetry. The truth is, however, that the diligent readers of poetry, in this country, are by no means instructed. They consist chiefly of young, half-educated women, sickly tradesmen, and enamoured apprentices. To such persons the faculty of composing in rhyme always appears little less than miraculous; and if the verses be tolerably melodious, and contain a sufficient allowance of those exaggerated phrases, with which they have become familiar at the playhouse and the circulating library, they have a fair chance of being extolled with unmeasured praises, till supplanted by some newer or more fashionable object of idolatry. These are the true poetical consumers of a community, — the persons who take off editions, — and create a demand for nonsense, which the improved ingenuity of the times can with difficulty supply. It is in the increasing number and luxury of this class of readers, that we must seek for the solution of such a phenomenon, as a third edition of the Wanderer of Switzerland, within six months from the appearance of the first. The perishable nature of the celebrity which is derived from this kind of patronage, may be accounted for as easily, from the character and condition of those who confer it. The girls grow up into women, and occupy themselves in suckling their children, or scolding their servants; the tradesmen take to drinking, or to honest industry; and the lovers, when metamorphosed into husbands, lay aside their poetical favourites, with their thin shoes and perfumed handkerchiefs. All of them grow ashamed of their admiration in a reasonably short time; and no more think of imposing the taste, than the dress of their youth, upon a succeeding generation.

Mr. Montgomery is one of the most musical and melancholy fine gentlemen we have lately descried on the lower slopes of Parnassus. He is very weakly, very finical, and very affected. His affectations, too, are the most usual, and the most offensive of those that are commonly met with in the species to which he belongs: they are affectations of extreme tenderness and delicacy, of great energy and enthusiasm. Whenever he does not whine, he must rant. The scanty stream of his genius is never allowed to steal quietly along its channel; but is either poured out in melodious tears, or thrown up to heaven in all the frothy magnificence of tiny jets and artificial commotions.

The first and the longest poem in the volume is the Wanderer of Switzerland, in which the author informs us it was his design to celebrate an epic subject in a lyric measure and on a dramatic plan. It consists, accordingly, of a series of conversations between an old gentleman, who had escaped from the battle of Underwalden with a part of his family, and a hospitable and poetical shepherd, in whose cottage they had sought shelter. Of the richness of this triple essence of ode, epic, and drama, the reader may judge from the opening stanzas.

Shep. "Wanderer! whither dost thou roam?
Weary Wanderer, old and grey!
Wherefore hast thou left thine home
in the sunset of thy day?"

Wend. "In the sunset of my day,
Stranger! I have lost my home:
Weary, wandering, old and grey,
Therefore, therefore do I roam." p. 11, 12.

He then tells him in the same dancing measure, that he has just escaped from the ruin of Switzerland; and the sentimental swain immediately replies—

Shep. "Welcome, Wanderer as thou art,
All my blessings to partake;
Yet thrice welcome to my heart,
For thine injur'd country's sake.
———*———*———*———
"Spouse! I bring a suffering guest,
With his family of grief;
Bid the weary pilgrims rest,
Yield, O yield them sweet relief!"

Shep.'s Wife. "I will yield them sweet relief:
Weary Pilgrims! welcome here;
Welcome, family of grief!
Welcome to my warmest cheer." p. 14, 15.

This, we own, appears to us like the singing of a bad pantomine; and is more insipid and disgusting than any tragic ballad, either antient or modern, that we recollect to have met with. The party sup very comfortably on bread and cheese, wine, honey, and ripe fruit; and the old Swiss tells the story of the French invasion, and the death of his son-in-law in the battle. The old shepherd, in the very spirit of hospitality and lyric poetry, insists upon drinking to the memory of the departed warriors.

Shep. "Pledge the memory of the Brave,
And the spirits of the dead;
Pledge the venerable Grave,
Valour's consecrated bed." p. 42.

The Swiss repeats the toast with great devotion.

Wand. "Hail! — all hail! the Patriot's grave,
Valour's venerable bed!
Hail! the memory of the Brave,
Hail the spirits of the dead! " p. 43.

On hearing the description of her husband's death, his widow, as was to have been expected, falls into a fit, out of which they have some difficulty in recovering her. If we may judge from the rapidity of the dialogue, and the number of interjections and points of admiration, this should be the most pathetic part of the poem.

Shep. "Man of suffering! such a tale
Would wring tears from marble eyes!"
Wand. "Ha! my daughter's cheek grows pale;
W.'s Wife. "Help, O help! my daughter dies!"

Wand. "Calm thy transports, O my Wife
Peace, for these sweet orphans' sake!"
W.'s Wife. "O my joy! my hope! my life!
O my child! my child! awake!"

Wand. "GOD! O GOD! whose goodness gives;
GOD! whose wisdom takes away;
Spare my child!"
Shep. — "She lives! she lives!
Wand. "Lives? — my daughter! didst thou say?

"GOD ALMIGHTY! on my knees,
In the dust will I adore
Thine unsearchable decrees;
—She was dead! — she lives once more!" p. 47, 48.

The females then go to bed, and the old wanderer sits up over his wine with his host, and informs him that he is going to America, where he expects to be tolerably happy, in spite of a circumstance which, though very energetically expressed, we really conceive would not detract much from the happiness of the most social of mankind.

Though the mould that wraps my clay,
When this storm of life is o'er,
Never, — never, — never lay
On a human breast before. p. 65.

Towards the end of the poem, the poor man, having drank little too freely we suppose, breaks out into a sort of raving about the restoration of Switzerland, in the course of which he draws his sword, and lays about him, and is pacified by his host with no small difficulty.

Shep. "Warrior! Warrior! stay thine arm!
Sheathe, O sheathe thy frantic sword!"
Wand. "Ah! I rave! — I faint! — the charm
Flies — and memory is restored!" p. 72.

Such is the outline of this lyrical epic. Its chief ornaments are ejaculations and points of admiration; and, indeed, we must do Mr. Montgomery the justice to say, that he is on no occasion sparing of his ohs and ahs. In this particular poem, he frequently brings them in with great simplicity and effect in this appropriate manner.

O! how gloriously they fought!
O it was a happy spot!
O 'tis venerable earth, &c. &c.

Medical writers inform us, that spasms and convulsions are usually produced by debility; and we have generally observed, that the more feeble a writer's genius is, the more violent and terrific are the distortions into which lie throws himself. There is a certain cold extravagance, which is symptomatic of extreme dulness; and wild metaphors and startling personifications indicate the natural sterility of the mind which has been forced to bear them. This volume abounds with these sallies of desperate impotence. For instance,

Hark! — a strange found affrights mine ear
My pulse — my brain runs wild, — I rave:
—Ah! who art thou whose voice I bear?
—"I am THE GRAVE!

"The GRAVE, that never spake before,
Hath found at length a tongue to chide:
O listen! — I will speak no more
Be silent, Pride!"

Again—

My spirit descends where the day-spring is born,
Where the billows are rubies on fire,
And the breezes that rock the light cradle of morn
Are sweet as the Phoenix's pyre:
O regions of beauty, of love, and desire!
O gardens of Eden! in vain
Placed far on the fathomless main. p. 162.

Ah! why hath JEHOVAH, in forming the world,
With the waters divided the land,
His ramparts of rocks round the continent
And cradled the deep in his hand,
It man may transgress his eternal command,
And leap o'er the bounds of his birth
To ravage the uttermost earth? p. 164.

Mr. Montgomery's most favoured and natural style, however, is more fantastical. The following is an exquisite piece of verbiage.

Where the roving rill meander'd
Down the green, retiring vale,
Poor, forlorn ALCAEUS wander'd,
Pale with thought, serenely pale:
Hopeless Sorrow o'er his face
Breath'd a melancholy grace,
And fix'd on every feature there
The mournful resignation of despair. p. 81.

After flinging his lyre carelessly "over his arm," as if it had been a Spanish cloke, this interesting person goes out "at midnight's solemn noon," and sings this ditty to the moon and stars, "that shed their mildest influence on his head."

Lyre! O Lyre! my chosen treasure,
Solace of my bleeding heart
Lyre! O Lyre! my only pleasure,
We must ever, ever part
For in vain thy poet sings,
Wooes in vain thine heavenly strings;
The Muse's wretched sons are born
To cold neglect, and penury, and scorn. p. 82.

Even this, however, is more tolerable than the following; which is as tawdry and vile as the tarnished finery of a strolling actress.

O for evening's brownest shade!
Where the breezes play by stealth
In the forest-cinctur'd glade,
Round the hermitage of Health
While the noon-bright mountains blaze
In the sun's tormenting rays.

O'er the sick and sultry plains,
Through the dim delirious air,
Agonizing silence reigns,
And the wanness of despair:
Nature faints with fervent heat,
Ah! her pulse hath ceased to beat!

Now in deep and dreadful gloom,
Clouds on clouds portentous spread,
Black as if the day of doom
Hung o'er Nature's shrinking head:
Lo! the lightning breaks from high,
—GOD is coming! — GOD is nigh! p. 127, 128.

If the reader be not satisfied with this, he may solace himself with "a song, written for a convivial meeting, whose motto was Friendship, Love, and Truth;" or with a Remonstrance to Winter," beginning

Ah! why, unfeeling Winter! why
Still flags thy torpid wing!
Fly, melancholy season fly,
And yield the year to Spring.

Or with another Lilliputian ode, in which he is equally severe on the same quarter of the year.

Winter retire
Thy reign is past;
Hoary fire
Yield the sceptre of thy sway, &c.

Or, finally, with a pathetic effusion, entitled, "the Joy of Grief," in which he may find many stanzas as natural and touching at, this.

Did not grief then grow romantic,
Raving on remember'd bliss?
Did you not, with fervour frantic,
Kiss the lips that felt no kiss? p. 101.

For our own part, however, we have no longer room to commemorate more than one of those exquisite productions; and we give a decided preference to that which we can easily perceive to have been the author's own favourite. The very title, indeed, is characteristic of the tenderness of his nature, and his gentle ambition of singularity. It is called "THE, PILLOW," and celebrates the fate of a poetical friend of the author's, who died in his bed, because the world would not buy so much as a single edition of his verses. There is something very moving in these introductory lines.

My friend was young, the world was new;
The world was false, my friend was true;
Lowly his lot his birth obscure,
His fortune hard, my friend was poor. p. 113.

After mentioning the death of this amiable creature, we are surprised to find how ingeniously and easily our poet can comfort himself.

And yet, O Pillow! yet to me,
My gentle Friend survives in thee;
In thee, the partner of his bed,
In thee, the widow of the dead! p. 114.

We then learn, that his deceased friend "played on the brink of Helicon;" and that "the Muse of Sorrow," whom he elegantly terms a gqpsey, stole him, and taught him to sing; and that he used to muse in pensive mood before falling asleep.

O Pillow! then, when light withdrew,
To thee the fond enthusiast flew;
On thee, in pensive mood reclin'd,
He pour'd his contemplative mind,
Till o'er his eyes, with mild controul,
Sleep like a soft enchantment stole. p. 118, 119.

The crisis of his fate is thus simply narrated.

Louder and bolder bards were crown'd,
Whose dissonance his music drown'd;
The public ear, the public voice,
Despis'd his song, denied his choice,
Denied a name — a life in death,
Denied — a bubble and a breath.

Stript of his fondest, dearest claim,
And disinherited of fame,
To thee, O Pillow! thee alone,
He made his silent anguish known;
His haughty spirit scorn'd the blow
That laid his high ambition low;
But ah! his looks assum'd in vain
A cold ineffable disdain. p. 119, 120.

We cannot laugh at this any longer; and feel ourselves compelled to ask pardon of our readers for having detained them so long with these paltry affectations, The passages we have already exhibited will probably be sufficient to justify our estimate of the volume, and to confirm the theory by which we have attempted to account for its success. After all, however, it is still a little strange, and not a little humiliating, to think that, at a period when we have more eminent poetical writers than have appeared together for upwards of a century, such a performance as this should rise into any degree of public favour. When every day is bringing forth some new work from the pen of Scott, Campbell, Rogers, Baillie, Sotheby, Wordsworth, or Southey, it is natural to feel some disgust at the undistinguishing voracity which can swallow down three editions of songs to convivial societies and verses to a pillow.