1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

George Gilfillan, in Second Gallery of Literary Portraits (1850) 313-23.



Some seven or eight years ago, the inhabitants of a large city in the north of Scotland were apprised, by handbills, that James Montgomery, Esq., of Sheffield, the poet, was to address a meeting on the subject of Moravian missions.

This announcement, in the language of Dr Caius, "did bring de water into our mouth." The thought of seeing a live poet, of European reputation, arriving at our very door, in a remote corner, was absolutely electrifying. We went early to the chapel where he was announced to speak, and ere the lion of the evening appeared, amused ourselves with watching and analyzing the audience which his celebrity had collected. It was not very numerous, and not very select. Few of the grandees of the city had condescended to honour him by their presence. Stranger still, there was but a sparse supply of clergy, or of the prominent religionists of the town. The church was chiefly filled with females of a certain age, one or two stray "hero worshippers" like ourselves, a few young ladies who had read some of his minor poems, and whose eyes seemed lighted up with a gentle fire of pleasure in the prospect of seeing the author of those "beautiful verses on the Grave, and Prayer," and two or three who had come from ten miles off to see and hear the celebrated poet. When he at length appeared, we continued to marvel at the aspect of the platform. Instead of being supported by the elite of the city, instead of forming a rallying centre of attraction and unity to all who had a sympathy with piety or with genius for leagues round it, a few obscure individuals presented themselves, who seemed rather anxious to catch a little eclat from him, than to delight to do him honour. The evening was rather advanced ere he rose to speak. His appearance so far as we could catch it, was quite in keeping with the spiritual cast of his poetry. He was tall, thin, bald, with face of sharp outline, but mild expression; and we looked with no little reverence on the eye which had shot fire into the Pelican Island, and on the hand (skinny enough we ween), which had written The Grave. He spoke in a low voice, sinking occasionally into an inaudible whisper: but his action was fiery and his pantomime striking, in the course of his speech he alluded, with considerable effect, to the, early heroic struggles of Moravianism, when she was yet alone in the death-grapple with the powers of Heathen darkness, and closed (when did he ever close a speech otherwise?) by quoting a few vigorous verses from himself.

We left the meeting, we remember, with two wondering questions in our ears: first, Is this fame? of what value reputation, which, in a city of seventy thousand inhabitants, is so freezingly acknowledged? Would not any empty, mouthing charlatan, any "twopenny tearmouth," any painted, stupid savage, any clever juggler, any dexterous player upon the fiery harp-strings of the popular passions, have enjoyed a better reception than this true, tender, and holy poet? But secondly, Is not this true, tender, and holy poet partly himself to blame? Has he not put himself in a false position? Has he not too readily lent himself as an instrument of popular excitement? Is this progress of his altogether a proper, a poet's progress? Would Milton, or Cowper, or Wordsworth have submitted to it? And is it in good taste for him to eke out his orations by long extracts from his own poems? Homer, it is true, sang his own verses; but he did it for food. Montgomery recites them, but it is for fame.

We pass now gladly as we did in thought then — from the progress to the poet-pilgrim himself. We have long admired and loved James Montgomery, and we wept under his spell ere we did either the one or the other. We will not soon forget the Sabbath evening — it was in golden summer tide — when we first heard his Grave repeated, and wept as we heard it. It seemed to come, as it professed to come, from the grave itself — a still small voice of comfort and of hope, even from that stern abyss. It was a fine and bold idea to turn the great enemy into a comforter, and elicit such a reply, so tender and submissive, to the challenge, "O Grave, where is thy victory?" Triumphing in prospect over the Sun himself, the grave proclaims the superiority and immunity of the soul—

The Sun in but a spark of fire,
A transient meteor in the sky;
But thou! immortal as his Sire,
Shalt never die.

Surely no well in the wilderness ever sparkled out to the thirsty traveller a voice more musical, more tender, and more cheering, than this which Montgomery educes from the jaws of the narrow house. Soon afterwards we became acquainted with some of his other small pieces, which then seized and which still occupy the principal place in our regards. Indeed, it is on his little poems that the permanency of his fame is likely to rest, as it is into them that he has chiefly shed the peculiarity and the beauty of his genius. James Montgomery has little inventive or dramatic power; he cannot write an epic; none of his larger poems, while some are bulky, can be called great; but he is the best writer of hymns (understanding a hymn simply to mean a short religious effusion) in the language. He catches the transient emotions of the pious heart, which arise in the calm evening walk, where the saint, like Isaac, goes out into the fields to meditate; or under the still and star-fretted midnight; or on his "own delightful bed;" or in pensive contemplations of the "Common Lot;" or under the Swiss heaven, where evening hardly closes the eye of Most Blanc, and stirs lake Leman's waters with a murmur like a sleeper's prayer: wherever, in short, piety kindles into the poetic feeling, such emotions he catches, refines, and embalms in his snatches of lyric song. As Wordsworth has expressed sentiments which the "solitary lover of nature was unable to utter, save with glistening eye and faltering tongue," so Montgomery has given poetic form and words to breathings and pantings of the Christian's spirit, which himself never suspected to be poetical at all, till he saw them reflected in verse. He has caught and crystallised the tear dropping from the penitent's eye; he has echoed the burden of the heart, sighing with gratitude to Heaven; he has arrested and fixed in melody the "upward glancing of an eye, when none but God is near." In his verse, and in Cowper's, the poetry of ages of devotion has broken silence, and spoken out. Religion, the most poetical of all things, had, for a long season, been divorced from song, or had mistaken pert jingle, impudent familiarity, and doggerel, for its genuine voice. It was reserved for the bards of Olney and Sheffield to renew and to strengthen the lawful and holy wedlock.

Montgomery, then, is a religious lyrist, and as such, is distinguished by many peculiar merits. His first quality is a certain quiet simplicity of language, and of purpose. His is not the ostentatious, elaborate, and systematic simplicity of Wordsworth; it is unobtrusive, and essential to the action of his mind. It is a simplicity, which the diligent student of Scripture seldom fails to derive from its pages, particularly from its histories and its psalms. It is the simplicity of a spirit which religion has subdued as well as elevated, and which consciously spreads abroad the wings of its imagination, under the eye of God. As if each poem were a prayer, so is he sedulous that its words be few and well ordered. In short, his is not so much the simplicity of art, nor the simplicity of nature, as it is the simplicity of faith. It is the virgin dress of one of the white-robed priests in the ancient temple. It is a simplicity which, by easy and rapid transition, mounts into bold and manly enthusiasm. One is reminded of the artless sinkings and soarings, lingerings and hurryings, of David's matchless minstrelsies. Profound insight is not peculiarly Montgomery's forte. He is rather a seraph than a cherub; rather a burning than a knowing one. He kneels; he looks upward with rapt eye; he covers at times his face with his wing; but he does not ask awful questions, or cast strong though baffled glances into the solid and intolerable glory. You can never apply to him the words of Gray. He never has "passed the bounds of flaming space, where angels tremble as they gaze." He has never invaded those lofty but dangerous regions of speculative thought, where some have dwelt till they have lost all of piety, save its grandeur and gloom. He does not reason, far less doubt, on the subject of religion at all; it is his only to wonder, to love, to weep, and to adore. Sometimes, but seldom, can he be called a sublime writer. In his Wanderer of Switzerland, he blows a bold horn, but the echoes and the avalanches of the highest Alps will not answer or fall to his reveille. In his Greenland, he expresses but faintly the poetry of Frost; and his line is often cold as a glacier. His World before the Flood is a misnomer. It is not the young virgin undrowned world it professes to be. In his West Indies, there is more of the ardent emancipator than of the poet; you catch but dimly, through its correct and measured verse, a glimpse of Ethiopia — a dreadful appellant, standing with one shackled foot on the rock of Gibraltar, and the other on the Cape of Good Hope, and "stretching forth her hands" to an avenging God. And although, in the horrors of the middle passage, there were elements of poetry, yet it was a poetry which our author's genius is too gentle and timid fully to extract. As soon could he have added a story to Ugolino's tower, or another circle to the Inferno, as have painted that pit of heat, hunger, and howling despair, the hold of a slave vessel. Let him have his praise, however, as the constant and eloquent friend of the negro, and as the laureate of his freedom. The high note struck at first by Cowper in his lines, "I would not have a slave," &c., it was reserved for Montgomery to echo and swell up, in reply to the full diapason of the liberty of Ham's children, proclaimed in all the isles which Britain claims as hers. And let us hope that he will be rewarded, before the close of his existence, by hearing, though it were in an ear half-shut in death, a louder, deeper, more victorious shout springing from emancipated America, and of saying, like Simeon of old, "Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation."

The plan of The Pelican Island was an unfortunate one, precluding as it did almost entirely human interest, and rapid vicissitude of events; and resting its power principally upon the description of foreign objects, and of slow though majestic processes of nature. Once, and once only, in this and perhaps in any of his poems, does he rise into the rare region of the sublime. It is in the description of the sky of the south, a subject which indeed is itself inspiration. And yet, in that solemn sky, the great constellations, hung up in the wondering evening air, the Dove, the Raven, the Ship of Heaven, "sailing from Eternity;" the Wolf, "with eyes of lightning watching the Centaur's spear;" the Altar blazing, "even at the footsteps of Jehovah's throne;" the Cross, "meek emblem of Redeeming love," which bends at midnight as when they were taking down the Saviour of the world, and which greeted the eye of Humboldt as he sailed over the still Pacific, had so hung and so burned for ages, and no poet had sung their praises. Patience, ye glorious tremblers! In a page of this Pelican Island, a page bright as your own beams, and like them immortal, shall your splendours be yet inscribed. This passage, which floats the poem, and will long memorize Montgomery's name, is the more remarkable, as the poet never saw but in imagination that unspeakable southern midnight. And yet we are not sure but, of objects so transcendent, the "vision of our own" is the true vision, and the vision that ought to be perpetuated in song. For our parts, we, longing as we have ever done to see the Cross of the South, would almost fear to have our longings gratified, and to find the reality, splendid as it must be, substituted for that vast image of bright, quivering stars, which has so long loomed before our imaginations, and so often visited our dreams. Indeed, it is a question, in reference to objects which must, even when seen, derive their interest from imagination, whether they be not best seen by its eye alone.

Among Montgomery's smaller poems, the finest is the Stanzas at Midnight, composed in Switzerland, and which we see inserted in Longfellow's romance of Hyperion, with no notice or apparent knowledge of their authorship. They describe a mood of his own mind while passing a night among the Alps, and contain a faithful transcript of the emotions which, thick and sombre as the shadows of the mountains, crossed his soul in its solitude. There are no words of Foster's which to us possess more meaning than that simple expression in his first essay, "solemn meditations of the night." Nothing in spiritual history is more interesting. What vast tracts of thought does the mind sometimes traverse when it cannot sleep! What ideas, that had bashfully presented themselves in the light of day, now stand out in bold relief and authoritative dignity! How vividly appear before us the memories of the past! How do alas! past struggles and sins return to recollection, rekindling on our cheeks their first fierce blushes unseen in the darkness! How new a light is cast upon the great subjects of spiritual contemplation! What a "browner horror" falls upon the throne of death, and the pale kingdoms of the grave! What projects are then formed, what darings of purpose conceived, and how fully can we then understand the meaning of the poet,

In lonely glens, amid the roar of rivers,
When the still nights were moonless, have I known
Joys that no tongue can tell; my pale lip quivers
When thought revisits them!

And when, through the window, looks in on us one full glance of a clear large star, how startlingly it seems, like a conscious, mild, yet piercing eye; how strongly it points, how soothingly it mingles with our meditations, and, as with, a pencil of fire, points them away into still remoter and more mysterious regions of thought! Such a meditation Montgomery has embodied in these beautiful verses: but then HE is up amid the midnight and all its stars; he is out amid the Alps, and is catching on his brow the living breath of that rarest inspiration which moves amid them, then and then alone.

We mentioned Cowper in conjunction with Montgomery in a former sentence. They resemble each other in the pious purpose and general simplicity of their writings, but otherwise are entirely distinct. Cowper's is a didactic, Montgomery's a romantic piety. Cowper's is a gloomy, Montgomery's a cheerful religion. Cowper has in him a fierce and bitter vein of satire, often irritating into invective; we find no traces of any such thing in all Montgomery's writings. Cowper's withering denunciations seem shreds of Elijah's mantle, torn off in the fiery whirlwind. Montgomery is clothed in the softer garments, and breathes the gentler genius of the new economy. And as poets, Montgomery, with more imagination and elegance, is entirely destitute of the rugged strength of sentiment, the exquisite keenness of observation, the rich humour and the awful personal pathos of Cowper.

Montgomery's hymns (properly so called), we do not much admire. They are adapted, and seem written, for such an assemblage of greasy worshippers, such lank-haired young men, such virgins wise and foolish, such children small and great, as meet to lift up their "most sweet voices" within certain well-known sanctuaries. They have in them often a false gallop of religious sentimentalism. Their unction has been kept too long, and has a savour not of the sweetest: they abound less indeed than many of their class, in such endearing epithets as "dear Lord," "dear Christ," "sweet Jesus," &c.; but are not entirely free from these childish decorations. That one song, sung by the solitary Jewish maiden in Ivanhoe (surely the sweetest strain ever uttered since the spoilers of Judah did by Babel's streams require of its captives a song, and were answered in that melting melody which has drawn the tears and praises of all time), is worth all the hymn-books that were ever composed. Montgomery's true hymns are those which bear not the name, but which sing, and for ever will sing, their own quiet tune to simple and pious spirits.

Of Montgomery's prose we might say much that was favourable. It is truly "Prose by a Poet," to borrow the title of one of his works. You see the poet every now and then dropping his mask, and showing himself in his true character. It is enough of itself to confute the vulgar prejudice against the prose of poets. Who indeed but a poet has ever written, or can ever write good prose, prose that will live? What prose, to take but one example, is comparable to the prose of Shakspere, many of whose very best passages — as Hamlet's description of man, Falstaff's death, the speech of Brutus, or that dreadful grace before meat of Timon, which is of misanthropy the quaintest and most appalling quintessence, and seems fit to have preceded a supper in Eblis — are not in verse? Montgomery's prose criticism we value less for its exposition of principles, or for its originality, in which respects it is deficient, than for its generous and eloquent enthusiasm. It is delightful to find in an author, who had so to struggle up his way to distinction, such a fresh and constant sympathy with the success and the merits of others. In this point he reminds us of Shelley, who, hurled down at one time, by universal acclamation, into the lowest abyss of contempt, both as an author and a man, could look up from it, to breathe sincere admiration toward those who had usurped the place in public favour to which he was, and knew he was, entitled. We are not reminded of the Lakers, whose tarn-like narrowness of critical spirit is the worst and weakest feature in their characters. Truly a great mind never looks so contemptible as when, stooping from its pride of place, it exchanges its own high aspirations after fame for poor mouse-like nibblings at the reputation of others.

Many tributes have been paid of late years to the Pilgrim's Progress. The lips of Coleridge have waxed eloquent in its praise; Southey and Macaulay have here embraced each other; Cheever, from America, has uttered a powerful sound in proclamation of its unmatched merits: but we are mistaken if its finest panegyric be not that contained in Montgomery's preface, prefixed to the Glasgow edition. In it all the thankfulness cherished from childhood, in a poet's and a Christian's heart, toward this benign and beautiful book, comes gushing forth; and he closes the tribute with the air of one who has relieved himself from a deep burden of gratitude. Indeed, this is the proper feeling to be entertained toward all works of genius; and an envious or malign criticism upon such is not so much a defect in the intellect as it is a sin of the heart. It is a blow struck in the face of a benefactor. A great author is one who presents us with a priceless treasure; and if we at once reject the boon and spurn the giver, ours is not an error simply, it is a deadly crime.

The mention of Bunyan and Montgomery in conjunction, irresistibly reminds us of a writer who much resembles the one, and into whom the spirit of the other seems absolutely to have tranimigrated: we mean Mary Howitt. She resembles Montgomery principally in the amiable light in which she presents the spirit of Christianity. Here the Moravian and the Friend are finely at one. Their religion is no dire fatalism, like Foster's; it is no gloomy reservoir of all morbid and unhappy feelings, disappointed hopes, baffled purposes, despairing prospects, turning toward heaven, in their extremity, for comfort, as it is with a very numerous class of authors. It is a glad sunbeam from the womb of the morning, kindling all nature and life into smiles. It is a meek, womanlike presence in the chamber of earth, which meanwhile beautifies, and shall yet redeem and restore it — by its very gentleness righting all its wrongs, curing all its evils, and wiping away all its tears. Had but this faith been shown more fully to the sick soul of Cowper! were it but shown more widely to the sick soul of earth,

Soon
Every sprite beneath the moon
Would repent its envy vain,
And the earth grow young again.

And how like is Mary Howitt to Bunyan! Like him, she is the most sublime of the simple, and the most simple of the sublime; the most literal and the most imaginative of writers. Hers and his are but a few quiet words: but they have the effect of "Open Sesame;" they conduct into deep caverns of feeling and of thought, to open which ten thousand mediocrists behind are bawling in vain. In Marien's Pilgrimage (thanks to the kind and gifted young friend who lately introduced us to this beautiful poem), we have a minor Pilgrim's Progress, where Christianity is represented as a child going forth on a mission to earth, mingling with and mitigating all its evils; and in left, at the close, still wandering on in this her high calling. The allegory is not, any more than in Bunyan, strictly preserved; for Marien is at once Christianity personified and a Christian person, who alludes to Scripture events, and talks in Scripture language; but the simplicity, the childlikeness, and the sweetness, are those of the gentle dreamer of Elstowe.

We return to James Montgomery only to bid him farewell. He is one of the few lingering stars in a very rich constellation of poets. Byron, Coleridge, Southey, Crabbe, Campbell, Shelley, Keats, are gone: some burst to shivers by their own impetuous motion; others, in the course of nature, have simply ceased to shine. Three of that cluster yet remain, in Wordsworth, Moore, and Montgomery. Let us, without absurdly and malignantly denying merit to our rising luminaries, with peculiar tenderness cherish these, both for their own sakes, and as still linking us to a period in our literary history so splendid.