1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

John Wilson, in "Montgomery's Pelican Island" Blackwood's Magazine 22 (October 1827) 497-502.



Mr. Montgomery is a religious poet. His popularity, which is great, has, by some scribes of the above stamp and school, been attributed chiefly to the power of sectarianism. He is, we believe, a sectary; and if all sects were animated by the spirit that breathes throughout his poetry, we should have no fears for the safety and stability of the Established Church. For in that self-same spirit was she built, and by that self-same spirit were her foundations dug in a rock. Many are the lights — solemn and awful all — in which the eyes of us mortal creatures may see the Christian dispensation. Friends, looking down from the top of a high mountain, on a city-sprinkled plain, have each his own vision of imagination — each his own sinking or swelling of heart. They urge no inquisition into the peculiar affections of each other's secret souls — all assured from what each knows of his brother, that every eye there sees God — that every tongue that has the gift of lofty utterance, will sing his praises aloud — that the lips that remain silent, are mute in adoration — and that all the distinctions of habits, customs, professions, modes of life, even natural constitution and form of character, are, if not lost, blended together in mild amalgamation under the common atmosphere of emotion, even as the towers, domes, and temples, are all softly or brightly interfused with the huts, cots, and homesteads — the whole scene below harmoniously beautiful, because all inhabited by beings created by the same God — in his own image — and destined for the same immortality.

It is base, therefore, and false, to attribute, in an invidious sense, any of Mr. Montgomery's fame to any such cause. No doubt many persons read his poetry on account of its religion, who, but for that, would not have read it; and, no doubt, too, many of these neither feel nor understand it. But so, too, do many persons read Wordsworth's poetry on account of its religion — the religion of the woods — who, but for that, would not have read it; and so too, many of these neither feel nor understand it. So is it with the common manners painting poetry of Crabbe — the dark passion painting poetry of Byron — the high romance painting poetry of Scott — and so on with Moore, Coleridge, Southey, &c. &c. &c. But it is to the mens divinior, however displayed, that they all owe their fame. Had Mr. Montgomery not been a true poet, all the Religious Magazines in the world would not have saved his name from forgetfulness and oblivion. He might have flaunted his day like the melancholy Poppy — melancholy in all its ill-scented gaudiness — but as it is, he is like the Rose of Sharon, whose balm and beauty shall not wither, planted on the banks of "that river whose streams make glad the city of the Lord."

Indeed, we see no reason why poetry; conceived in the spirit of a most exclusive sectarianism, might not be of a very high order, and powerfully impressive on minds whose religions tenets were most irreconcilable and hostile to those of the sect. Feelings by being unduly concentrated, are not thereby necessarily enfeebled — on the contrary, often strengthened; and there is a grand austerity, which the imagination more than admires — which the conscience scarcely condemns. The feeling the conviction from which that austerity grows, is in itself right; for it is a feeling, — a conviction of the perfect righteousness of God — the utter worthlessness of self — left man — the awful sanctity of duty, — and the dreadfulness of the judgment-doom, from which no soul is safe, till the seals have been broken, and the Archangel has blown his trumpet. A religion planted in such convictions as these, may become dark and disordered in its future growth within the spirit; and the tree, though of good seed, and in a strong soil, may come to be loaden with bitter fruit, and the very droppings of its leaves may be pernicious to all who rest within its shade. Still such shelter is better in the blast, than the trunk of a dead faith; and such food, unwholesome though it be, is not so miserable as famine to a hungry soul.

Grant, then, that there may be in Mr. Montgomery's poetry certain sentiments, which, in want of a better word, we call Sectarian. They are not necessarily false, although not perfectly reconcilable to our own creed, which, we shall suppose, is true. On the contrary, we may be made much the better and the wiser men, by meditating upon them; for while they may, perhaps, (and we are merely making a supposition,) be too strongly felt by him — they may be too feebly felt by us — they may, perhaps, be rather blots on the beauty of his poetry than of his faith — and if, in some degree, offensive in the composition of a poem, far less so, or not at all, in that of a life.

It is somewhat too late in the day to publish a formal disquisition on the peculiar powers of this poet; yet there is no impropriety in our throwing out a few sentences of cordial panegyric on his very delightful genius, for it has so happened, that no perfectly fitting opportunity has, for a good many years, been afforded us, of criticising any of his productions. We have always spoken kindly of Mr. Montgomery, yet we do take some little shame to ourselves for not having more frequently mentioned his name, along with those of Wordsworth, Byron, Scott, Southey, Moore, Coleridge, and "the rest." We rejoice to see all his poetry collected, and we have placed the volumes alongside of those of whom we love to say

Blessings be with them, and eternal praise,
The poets who on earth have made us heirs
Of truth and pure delight, by heavenly lays.

His Wanderer of Switzerland was waylaid, and, as some thought, murdered on his first making his appearance in Scotland. But a mountaineer stands much mauling; and he is alive, though with a few scars on his forehead, and merry to this day. That, however, is certainly the least successful of all Mr. Montgomery's more ambitious poems. The plan of it is without originality, or felicity of any kind, and the versification, though easy and flowing, is very monotonous — very much in the style of the see-saw school. We cannot sincerely say that it contains any very fine passages; and had Mr. Montgomery written nothing else, his name would have had but a faint sound to our ears. Most of it is simple and natural enough; many of the descriptions of scenery are warm and glowing; and the whole is agreeably animated with the spirit of freedom. But that is not enough for a poem that has any pretensions to a long life. It never thrills the blood — we mean it never thrilled our blood — and although we are proud that Mr. Montgomery is a Scotsman, we should not have found that out from his talk about torrents, waterfalls, woods, and mountains, in that poem. It is still read, however, and will continue to be — but chiefly for that reflected light that has fallen on it from his genius since risen to the meridian — yet, we trust, far from its setting — bright and beautiful in its decline.

The "West Indies" displays far greater power, and contains many vigorous, some magnificent passages. But we cannot think the subject a good one. It was written in honour of the abolition of the Slave Trade by the British Legislature, and ought, therefore, to have been a high, holy, exulting, and triumphant Hymn. But it is a laboured composition, in four parts, and extremely historical. The heart of Montgomery — the man — never gets cold throughout the whole composition; but the imagination of Montgomery — the poet — frequently does; he often speaks from book rather than bosom, and shews, that he not only feels his subject, but has studied it — that he has read all the pamphlets on both sides of the question, and that there was not a single syllable deserving any answer but abuse in all those of the anti-abolitionists. His indignation is not always dignified — his Muse sometimes is a scold — and he trusts too much, in exciting pity and terror, to the clank of chains. Still it is by far the best poem we ever saw on the subject — there are strokes of power and touches of pathos in every other page — the episodical passages are very beautiful, — and the common-places about the future civilization of Africa, along all her coasts, and through the heart of her central deserts, are expressed in vivid and majestic imagery, so that the poem has a "diapason" close, and the reader, as he lays it down, devoutly wishes that fetters may never more enchain the

Kings of the desert — men whose stately tread
Brings from the dust the sound of liberty.

The West-Indies might be written about, now, in a very different strain, by such a man, and such a poet, as Mr. Montgomery. Nobody defends slavery — nobody but abhors it; but it exists — and must exist — not for ever — but for ages. Let good laws take place of bad — let Justice be there, and her sister Mercy will not be far. This has not been yet done — but it is doing — and let the holy work be watched over by all the eyes of the free, for that may be done, although the Atlantic roars between. But a truce to all indiscriminate abuse of West India proprietors. Let us not fear to look in a Dictionary at the word — Planter. Let us seek to spread the light of Christianity in those unhappy islands, in the spirit of Christianity. Let us know, that even a state of slavery has its own peculiar virtues. All slaves are not flogged from morning to night — their backs are not all kept raw, from debarkation to death. All slaves are not in perpetual conspiracy against their masters and mistresses, in whose blood they burn to dip their sable hands, avenging the martyrdom of him of the Blood Royal of Congo, who was kept three days dying in a cage, beneath the tearing hunger of birds of prey, and the insatiable thirst of a cloud of insects — till he added a codicil to his last oral will and testament, bequeathing to every negro a portion of his revenge — and then poured out his soul in an agony of curses against his murderers, in his own fierce country's tongue, beneath the flappings of the vulture's wings.

Such horrors are now no more — though horrors enow there must ever be, as long as that hideous chasm yawns that divides the Freeman and the Slave. But the philanthropists of this country have already "supped full of horrors" — more especially the Ladies. Let them turn their eyes towards whatever there may be of peace, and contentment, and resignation, and humility, and death-strong love toward their white masters and mistresses, and all their pale picconinies, in the black bosoms of grizzly-pated nourices, who have been slaves for a century and a half — for negresses live, in spite of all their torments, to incredibly extreme old age. Let them not shut their eyes against such pleasant and soothing sights as these, although they should force them to modify their horror, and to wonder — if he were to hear of such unnatural nourices among negresses — what Mr. Wilberforce would say. The less happiness — the less kindness — the less love — and the less liberty ("Alas!" said Madam Roland, at the foot of the scaffold — "Alas! liberty, what crimes have been perpetrated in thy name!") there are in any land, the more ought to be made of them — the more tenderly they ought to be spoken and written of, that they may strengthen and extend — that they who, in such circumstances, enjoy them, may value them the more, and that they, who in such circumstances bestow them, may not be defrauded of their just praise, nor branded with undeserved contumely, contempt, scorn, and hate, by those who, living themselves among "England's majestic race of men," do nevertheless — such things have been — discharge their servants at every term, without characters — would if they could, without wages — and, if they durst, not without blows — who have frowned their wives into melancholy, and their children into sullen mutes — who, rather than a pheasant should be poached from a preserve, would see the finest lads of the village mangled in man-traps, or shot through the heart by spring-guns — who sell their ancient hereditary honours, to enable, perhaps, one of the very worst and, wickedest West Indian planters that ever propagated mulattoes to vote, not only against the liberties of England, but the cause of liberty all over the world.

"Greenland" is in all things — conception — design — plan — execution — infinitely superior to the "West Indies," and of itself proves Mr. Montgomery's title to the honours of the lyre. The subject is admirably well suited to his genius — and the poem is pervaded by a noble enthusiasm. The descriptions of scenery are truly beautiful — the holy zeal of the Moravian Missionaries finds in him a poet fervently pious as themselves, and his soul burns within him as he muses and meditates on their unwearied and triumphant virtue. We are with them on the voyage — poetically, yet not too poetically described — live with the brethren — and love and venerate and bless them — more and more — as they pursue their saving conquests under the sign of the Cross. There is no violent vituperation here — no angry remonstrances — no fierce, yet feeble fighting — in the poet's heart, as in his poem of the "West Indies," against a system of evil which Time himself; perhaps, must overthrow. The Moravian missionaries have gone to some of nature's dreariest and most solitary shores, to lift up those whom nature's own severity seemed to have there condemned to a lasting lot of darkness and distress. They are left free to carry on their work, except by the ice, and the frost, and the snow. The terrors of an unknown region to their imaginations, are as nothing, — and they are calm and unruffled in the howl of all the storms. Cold and bard must that heart be that is not sublimely moved by the devotion of those true and faithful servants of the Lord; yet even if there be a Christian with such a heart, his fancy will be affected by the wildness — the loneliness — the dreariness — the remoteness of the regions in which the Poet's genius confines him by a spell, — and the Deist himself, who loves his kind, will be almost kindled into a Christian. The Fifth Canto, describing the depopulation of the Norwegian Colonies, on the Eastern Coast of Greenland, and the abandonment of intercourse with it from Europe, in consequence of the Arctic ices, about the beginning of the fifteenth century — is throughout — we do not hesitate to say it — sublime.

The "World, before the Flood," teems with the finest poetry; but although we have much to say about it, both of praise and censure, we must refrain; for, if not, what is to become of the "Pelican Island?"

Nevertheless — a few words — and but a few — we must say about Mr. Montgomery's numerous smaller poems.

They are all stamped with the character of the man. Most of them are breathings of his own devout spirit, either delighted or awed by a sense of the Divine goodness and mercy towards itself; or tremblingly alive, not in mere sensibility to human virtues and joys, crimes and sorrows, for that often belongs to the diseased and depraved, but in solemn, moral, and religious thought, to all of good or evil befalling his brethren of mankind. "A sparrow cannot fall to the ground" — a flower of the field cannot wither immediately before his eyes — without awakening in his heart such thoughts as we may believe God intended should be awakened even by such sights as these; for the fall of a sparrow is a scriptural illustration of his providence, and his hand framed the lily, whose array is more royal than was that of Solomon in all his glory. Herein he resembles Wordsworth — less profound certainly — less lofty — for in its holiest hours the divine spirit of Wordsworth walks by itself — unapproachable — on the earth it beautifies. Mr. Montgomery's poetical piety seems more prevalent over his whole character, to belong more permanently to the man. Perhaps, although we shall not say so, it may be more simple, natural, and true. More accordant, it certainly is, with the sympathies of ordinary minds. The piety of his poetry is far more Christian than that of Wordsworth's. It is in all his feelings, all his thoughts, all his imagery; and at the close of most of his beautiful compositions, which are so often avowals, confessions, prayers, thanksgivings, we feel, not the moral, but the religion of his song. He "improves" all the "occasions" of this life, because he has an "eye that broods on its own heart;" and that heart is impressed by all lights and shadows, like a river or lake, whose waters are pure, pure in their sources, and in their course. He is, manifestly, a man of the kindliest home-affections; and these, though it is to be hoped, the commonest of all, preserved to him in unabated glow and freshness, by innocence and piety, often give vent to themselves, in little hymns, and ode-like strains, of which the rich and even novel imagery shews how close is the connexion between a pure heart and fine fancy, and that the flowers of poetry may be brought from afar, nor yet be felt to be exotics — to intertwine with the very simplest domestic feelings and thoughts — so simple, so perfectly human, that there is a touch of surprise on seeing them capable of such adornment, and more than a touch of pleasure on feeling how much that adornment becomes them — brightening without changing, and adding admiration to delight — wonder to love.

Mr. Montgomery, too, is almost as much of an egotist as Wordsworth; and thence, frequently, his power. The poet who keeps all the appearances of external nature, and even all the passions of humanity, at arm's length, that he may gaze on, inspect, study, and draw their portraits, either in the garb they ordinarily wear, or in a fancy-dress, is likely to produce a strong likeness indeed; yet shall his pictures he wanting in ease and freedom — they shall be cold and stiff — and both passion and imagination shall desiderate something characteristic, in nature, of the mountain or the man. But the poet who hugs to his bosom everything he loves or admires — themselves or the thoughts that are their shadows — who is himself still the centre of the enchanted circle — who, in the delusion of a strong creative genius, absolutely believes that were he to die, all that he now sees and hears delighted, would die with him — who not only sees "Poetic visions swarm on every bough," but the history of all his own most secret emotions written on the very rocks — who gathers up the many beautiful things that in the prodigality of nature he scattered over the earth, neglected or unheeded, and the more dearly, the more passionately loves them, because they are now appropriated to the uses of his own imagination, who will by her alchemy so further brighten them, that the thousands of eyes that formerly passed them by unseen or scorned, will be dazzled by their rare and transcendent beauty — he is the "prevailing poet!" Mr. Montgomery neither seeks nor shuns those dark thoughts that will come and go, night and day, unbidden — forbidden — across the minds of all men — fortified although the main entrances may be — but when they do invade his secret, solitary hours, he turns even such visitants to a happy account, — and questions them, ghost-like as they are, concerning both the future and the past. Melancholy as often his views are, we should not suppose him a man of other than a cheerful mind; for whenever the theme allows or demands it, Mr. Montgomery is not averse to a sober glee, a composed gaiety that, although we cannot say ever it so far speaks out as to deserve to be called absolutely brilliant, yet lends a charm to his lighter-toned compositions, which it is peculiarly pleasant now and then to feel in the writings of a man whose genius is naturally, and from the course of life, not gloomy, indeed, but pensive, and less disposed to indulge itself in smiles than in tears.

At last we come to the "Pelican Island," the best of all Mr. Montgomery's poems — in idea the most original — in execution the most powerful — although in both very imperfect. It seems to have evolved itself, like a beautiful tree from a germ, out of a single passage in Captain Flinders's Voyage to Terra Australia, in which he describes one of the numerous gulfs which indent the coast of New Holland, and are thickly spotted with small islands, one of which is the undisturbed abode of Pelicans. In Captain Basil Hall's Voyage to the Island of Loo Choo, in the Chinese Seas, Mr. Montgomery met with another passage, descriptive of the formation of coral reefs, which impressed his imagination; and from a few words about Pelicans and coral reefs , has his genius constructed a fine poem.

He supposes himself to be a Spirit fastened by some unimaginable chain to one spot or region of the globe, apparently at the time of its infancy or creation. Here he remains and witnesses the slow and silent progress of things; the gradual multiplication, first of inanimate, then of living phenomena, delighted with continually increasing beauty and wonder, but unsatisfied, and with an innate human sympathy, (for with purely spiritual condition of existence e seems to be conceived with a human nature,) desiring that there should be given to his contemplation beings in whom his ingenerate and unsuppressible yearnings of love may be appeased. There is something very beautiful, if not wholly original, in Mr. Montgomery's delineation of the successive degrees in which this desire is gratified always more and more, yet always imperfectly, by the various kinds which are brought in succession upon this theatre to which he is confined, progressively peopling the world: — till the utmost approximation of the inferior races to that hitherto unknown like kind, in which alone this uneasy and craving appetite can find rest, seems to be attained in the humanly-affectioned, and, we suppose we must say, with the requisite qualifications, humanly-mannered Pelicans. We must have a quotation or two, however, before we come to the noble Pelicans — and they will speak for themselves.