1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Anonymous, "James Montgomery" La Belle Assemblee NS 27 (March 1823) 101-03.



Poetry is the garden ground of literature, in which the exotics of imagination are cultivated in all their vast variety of form and fragrance; and that individual, the obtundity of whose senses leaves him without rapture or relish for its beauties, is certainly an object of compassion. Indeed it is difficult to conceive how a cultivated mind, and a heart awake to the endearing charities of life, can be insensible to the charms of poetry. It is the language in which all the affections speak with sweetness — in which fancy loves to expatiate — which adds beauty to the beautiful, and sublimity to the sublime.

Whenever the depreciators of the value of poetry, are reduced to the necessity of a fair argument, they always make exceptions in favor of Shakespeare and Milton, and at length fly to the strong hold of indignant invective against rhyme; but it is a false notion that rhyme is so great a trammel, it may sometimes compel a circuity of expression, but it repays in euphony what it denies in brevity, and we have as fine instances of condensed ideas in poetry as in prose; we need revert to lord Byron alone to support the assertion. Language in the hands of poetical genius, is to use a homely simile, like clay in the hands of the potter, he can give it what form he pleases. It is very rare that a good poet does not write good prose, in fact the earliest efforts of genius generally are in poetry, the exceptions are so few that it might be laid down as a rule; when advancing years have somewhat sobered down the feelings they have perhaps forsaken it altogether, but never without retaining a love for the art they have resigned and a conscious feeling of the benefit they have derived from it.

The declaimers against poetry revert to Shakespeare and Milton to save themselves from the outcry such apostacy would create, for it is hardly to be credited, that the mind which is acutely sensible of their beauties, can be dead to the beauties of those who have succeeded them. There is something so unfair in this election of a few, from the republic of letters — it betrays so ignoble a spirit only "to heap the shrine" already consecrated by the devotion of ages, and pretend to despise or disregard the efforts of later or contemporary talent. Who are these despisers of the language of inspiration? They are your cold calculating matter-of-fact men who never deviate from truth — but in the way of business, or at the suggestion of interest, and frown with mock morality on the fictions of the imaginative; — they bear a kind of flannel-petticoat love, in all the domestics of life, — just enough to make them feel comfortable without creating any great excitement, or inducing any great exertion, and who beyond the pale of home, carry neither warmth, feeling, or liberality. A man of highly cultivated imagination may be vicious and wicked, as unfortunately there are but too many instances to prove, but he is never so radically bad as a had man with no imagination at all; in the first there is chance of an appeal to his feelings, and where they can be awakened, there is yet a spark of redeeming goodness, and at the impulse of the moment he may do a noble and a generous thing; but when turpitude inhabits a lightless soul, the views of which have never extended beyond hopes and aims at once sordid and selfish, the case is altogether hopeless.

The most primitive people have had their bards, and in the absence of every other trace of refinement, the wild and extemporaneous poetry of these rude minstrels have often exhibited a vigor and vividness of imagination, which speaks how much the art is inherent in our nature; and the effects which it produced on their auditory, how powerful its influence on the general feelings of mankind whether wild or cultivated. That being then must have merged his real, in the artificial habits of his second nature, who is insensible to the charms of poetry. It is a passion indigenous to human nature, and goes hand in hand with music; when speaking of them thus, it is by no means meant in their present state of elaborate refinement, where the one often requires the ear of a professed connoisseur and the other the routine of education; we mean, simple melody, and simple verse. The savage in the woods — the Arab in the desert, has his songs of love and war; in humble life whether in the cottage or the kitchen, they have their favorite ballads; in all the stages of existence, from infancy to manhood, we look back on, and remember with pleasure, the nursery rhymes, and songs of boyhood we once loved to listen to. Where wan is, there will poetry be also, at first wild and irregular like himself, but catching every refinement in proportion as he advances in the scale of civilization. "As bees mixed nectar draw from various flowers." So does the poet from the varieties of life extract something to charm the fancy, and delight the heart, with this difference, that it is not from the flowers only, but from the very weeds, rocks, deserts, wilds, and precipices, all that is rude, terrific, and repulsive, as well as all that is gentle and attractive, that, he continues to awe and to entrance us. His primary object is to please, — the demonstrations of science and the dogmas of philosophy, are out of his sphere, he cannot "dig from the mine," but he irradiates that which the patient labor of more sober-minded skill extracts from it. He comes forth to beautify and embellish, and we feel that unfinished, which he has not consecrated. And he has yet a nobler praise, the cause of virtue and morality, and all the kind affections are the appropriate subjects of his muse, and in his language insinuate themselves into hearts too inert to seek, or too volatile to attend their precepts in a graver form. In sacred themes how "Truths divine commended from his tongue!" and may he not revert to Scripture as containing the sublime epitome of his art? Let the subject of the present article attest for the whole race, how eminently poetry is fitted to discuss the sacred subjects of Scripture history. Mr. Montgomery has written much and what is saying infinitely more, written well. "The World before the Flood," "The West Indian," "The Wanderer of Switzerland," and "Greenland," are all poems of merit and most of them of magnitude. The following from the last-mentioned poem is a striking passage, and displays the descriptive powers of its author.

There lies a vessel in this realm of frost
Not wreck'd, nor stranded, but for ever lost;
Its keel embodied in the solid mass;
Its glistening sails appear expanded glass;
The transverse ropes with pearls enormous strung;
The yards with icicles grotesquely hung.
Wrapt in the top-most shrowd there rests a boy,
His old-seafaring father's only joy....

Now cast on shore tho' like a hulk he lie (lies)
His son at sea is ever in his eye,
And his prophetic eye from age to age
Esteems the waves his offspring's heritage;
He ne'er shall know, in his Norwegian cot
How brief that son's career, how strange his lot?
Writhed round the mast and sepulchred in air
Him shall no worm devour, no vulture tear;
Congeal'd to adamant his frame shall last
Thro' empires change, till time and tide be past.

The little poem on the royal infant of the lamented princess Charlotte, contains one verse peculiarly sweet,

The Mother knew her offspring dead
Oh! was it grief, or was it love
That broke her heart? — The spirit fled
To seek her nameless child above.

The "Incognita" is another happy effort

And who was she in virgin prime
And May of womanhood,
Whose roses here, unpluck'd by time,
In shadowy tints have stood;
While many a winter's withering blast
Hath o'er the dark cold chamber past,
In which her once resplendent form
Slumber'd to dust beneath the storm....

The dead are like the stars by day;
Withdrawn from mortal eye,
But not extinct, they hold their way
In glory thro' the sky.
Spirits from bondage thus set free
Vanish amidst immensity
Where human thought, like human sight,
Fails to pursue their trackless flight....

Of her of whom these pictured lines
A faint resemblance form,
Fair as the second rainbow shines
Aloof amid the storm;
Of her this "shadow of a shade"
Like its original must fade....

And then perchance this dreaming strain
Of all that e'er I sung,
A lorn memorial may remain
When silent lies my tongue,
When shot the meteor of my fame,
Lost the vain echo of my name,
This leaf, this fallen leaf, may be
The only trace of her and me.

"The West Indies" owed its appearance to feelings which do as much honor to the author's heart, as the genius he displays in it does to his head. The philanthropy which his general writings declare towards the whole human race, kindled with empassioned fervor in the cause of the injured African. The poem hears all the appearance of being written from the impulse of the moment, the absence of all plan may therefore be forgiven. "The World before the Flood" is decidedly our favorite. It is a most beautiful production, the idea that God

Created woman with a smile of grace,
And left the smile that form'd her on her face

is a very sweet one. The description of Zellah is most felicitous:

Thus on the slumbering maid while Javan gaz'd,
With quicker swell her bidden bosom raised
The shadowy tresses, that profusely shed
Their golden wreaths from tier reclining head,
A deeper crimson mantled o'er her cheek,
Her closed lip quivered as in act to speak;
At length amidst imperfect murmurs fell,
The name of "Javan" and a low "farewell!"
Tranquil again her cheek resumed its hue,
And soft as infancy her breath she drew.

"The Wanderer of Switzerland" has been much praised; in our opinion more than it deserves; it is boldly but carelessly written, and contains a great deal of indifferent poetry. His last work is not exactly that which we expected, or which Montgomery might have produced, when we consider it as a whole; in part it is truly beautiful. Our limits permit us no further extracts, but it is an omission which will readily be forgiven, since there is no lover of poetry, but is already intimately acquainted with the merits of our author. To him that praise is due, which is little emulated at the present day — his verse is pure, — his warmest effusions do not stain the cheek of youthful beauty with a blush, while they may often bid that mantle which springs from a heart warmed and awakened by the spirit of devotion. The parent or preceptor may give the works of Montgomery to his young charge, secure that he will find nothing to pollute, but every thing to elevate and chasten his mind.