1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Anonymous, "On the Genius of Montgomery" The Minerva [New York] NS 3 (7 August 1825) 283-85.



Nothing can be more equal or more unjust, than the common distribution of fame, in the literary world. On a few fortunate and unquestionably highly gifted votaries of the muse, the public have bestowed their applause, with unsparing prodigality; while individuals, whose genius entitles them to, at least, an equal share of approbation, are left, from accident or prejudice, to pine in neglect and obscurity. Lord Byron, whose exalted endowments, had they been judiciously employed, would certainly have placed him above all our living bards, is at present, notwithstanding the gross perversion of his wonderful powers, the Dagon of popular idolatry. The coroneted poet, though he rails at his admirers in "good set terms," and assures them that he despises them with all his heart, — still continues to sail with wind and tide on the mutable stream of public opinion. Montgomery, on the contrary, who, as far as it relates to the ultimate purpose of his productions, has never written "One line, which dying, he would wish to blot," has been suffered to remain comparatively unknown and unapplauded. Every sapient reviewer, who could count twenty, warned by the chastisement of the Northern Quintillian, very soon discovered that, though Childe Harolde was a monstrously repulsive personage, he could spout exceedingly fine verses; and their impiety and presumption were passed over with the gentlest reproof possible. But the Wanderer of Switzerland had well nigh dropt still-born from the press, and, but for some courteous observations in the Quarterly Review, it would in all probability, have reposed unnoticed in the lumber-room of literature at this moment. Something like justice, however, though tardily and unwillingly, has been awarded to this author, and few critics are now to be found, bold enough to deny to Montgomery his dues as a priest of the Nine. Yet there are many who have still to contend with the disadvantages he has surmounted; prejudice and caprice are stilt busy to chill and repress the ardour of youthful aspirants after fame, and while the million readily unite to swell the triumph of a Byron, a Moore, or a Scott, simply because their judgment could be called in question should they remain silent they refuse their plaudits to a Millman or a Croly, or are content to "damn with faint praise," from a foolish fear of selling their "sweet voices" too cheap, or from the dread of hazarding opinion in opposition to the monthly and three-monthly arbiters of taste, whose critical scalpel has been fatal to many a luckless bard,

Whom fate ordained in spite,
And cruel parents learned to read and write.

Some of my earliest perceptions of beauty and harmony in literary compositions were derived from the poems of Montgomery; and the matured judgment of riper years has scarcely lessened the pleasure experienced in my boyhood from those chaste and elegant effusions of a cultivated mind and a benevolent heart. It seems but yesterday, though the changeful year has often "fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf," since I perused, for the first time, that beautiful production, the Wanderer of Switzerland, and felt, as I read, some of the generous enthusiasm of its author. Ah! how my young bosom thrilled with the love of country, with the adoration of virtue and liberty! In those delicious moments, the inspirations of the muse, like the lightnings of heaven, irradiated the darkness of my spirit with a new day-spring, and I wished, yet feared to lay my hand on the harp, awaken its wildest strains, and emulate, though at an humble distance, the passion-kindling minstrel, whose unfettered, yet melodious numbers excited my admiration. Older and more fastidious, many of these primitive feelings still warm my bosom; and though the daring poetical Titans of the age, whose thoughts wander in the starry galaxy, and dip the pencil of imagination in the colours of heaven, deserve much of the applause they have obtained — the mind still reverts with delight to the calm, unassuming, unostentatious, yet deeply affecting and powerful poetry of Montgomery. The glory, the light, the living beauty, which the sun diffuses over the face of nature, is sublimely fascinating, but we soon tire of the garish day and its intense splendours; while we gaze on the serene tranquillity of a prospect illuminated by the quiet moon, with ever springing transport. So it is with our literary taste. Montgomery is peculiarly the poet of feeling and imagination; the energies of his mind are suffered to flow in their natural channels; he obeys his best impulses, his warmest affections, his most ennobling passions, and embodies in his verse the eloquence of a tenderly sensitive heart. Affliction has often broken the chords of his lyre, yet its tones, though plaintive, are not desponding; their melancholy sweetness ter the irritation of the troubled bosom; and though it may not charm the woes of memory to forgetfulness, it gives them a less agonizing character, and imparts a sentiment of confidence in the wisdom and goodness of the great Arbiter of our destinies, which must ever prove an effectual panacea for all the ills of life. Crabbe has excelled all his cotemporaries in the truth and force of his delineations from the world as it is. His anatomy of the human heart is fearfully correct; he has laid open the deepest recesses of our nature, and depicted man, that mystery of the creation, in every alternation of sin and sorrow and suffering. But his views of life and manners seem to have been taken in a November day; there is no sunshine in his pictures; storm and darkness, remorse and guilt are the constituents of his descriptions, and we rise from a perusal of his works to mourn over the fallen state of our frail brother mortals. But Montgomery, though the tempest has descended on his own head, and marred his brightest vision of earthly happiness, appears in his contemplations of man and history, to have looked through a sunbeam; for his darkest sketches have a redeeming light thrown around them, which enables the eye and the heart to regard them without pain. The folly, guilt, and consequent misery of the world, make, of course, a part, of his theme; but, having marked the more gloomy points of the intellectual prospect, he is not satisfied till he has directed the attention to those "green spots" in the arid desert of time, which render existence endurable.

In this age, when so many competitors for renown throng the literary arena, and none but talents of the highest order are likely to excite more than momentary attention, the constantly increasing fame of a Montgomery is a sufficient proof, that his genius has been employed, not for the faint and invidious applauses of a day, but for the admiration of his countrymen, as long as England is a nation. One or two of those master spirits, who have swept the harp-chords with fingers of fire, and are at present, perhaps justly, the idols of that many headed monster, the public, may have evinced greater daring in their poetical flights, and a more profound knowledge of the mysteries of human nature, than the subject of these remarks; some, too, who are infinitely below him in all the loftier requisites of the art may have excelled him in the mere mechanical part of poetry; their rhymes may be smoother, and the harmony of their verses more perfect, so that a critic, who should merely employ his ears and fingers, would shrewdly pronounce them his superiors. But in chaste, yet glowing imagery, purity of thought, and intensity of feeling; in those overwhelming appeals to the affections, those felicitous, though unstudied bursts of pathos, which thaw the ice of indifference at our hearts, and warm them with all the tender enthusiasm of youth, and in a sincere, unaffectedly ardent love of truth, pervading and animating all his productions, few have equalled, and none can exceed Montgomery.