1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

S. C. Hall, "James Montgomery" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 81-93.



Gentle, suave, and tender, in look and manner, with very little outward development of power, but with an aspect that indicated a sensitive and generous soul, was the poet, James Montgomery, when I knew him in 1830. His early associateship with the sect called the "Moravian Brethren" had probably given a tinge of melancholy to his mind, for so he always seemed to me, and so, I believe, he seemed to others.

It matters little whether he was or was not a descendant of that ancient family whose name is renowned in three kingdoms, and who "came in with the Conqueror:" he had a higher boast, that he was "The son of parents passed into the skies." His father was the Rev. John Montgomery, who had been appointed to the pastoral charge of a small congregation of the "United (Moravian) Brethren," at Irvine, a seaport in Ayrshire; and on the 4th of November, 1771, the poet was there born. His father and mother were both Irish, and of Irish descent. He was himself, therefore, more than half Irish, — as he said to his friend, John Holland, having "barely escaped being born in Ireland," — entering the world a few weeks after the arrival of his mother at Irvine, and returning with her to Ireland four years and a half after his birth. He received his earliest lessons at Grace Hill, in the county of Antrim, from a genuine Irish schoolmaster, — "one Neddy McKaffery," — and was educated at the Moravian Settlement, Fulneck, about six miles from Leeds, his parents having been removed to the island of Barbadoes, as "missionaries among the negro slaves." His mother died at Tobago in 1790, and his father at Barbadoes in 1791. The mission was unfortunate. The good man, in his hopelessness, exclaimed, "Oh that I knew one soul in Tobago truly concerned for his salvation, how should I rejoice!" They pursued their vocation, none the less; doing, as far as they could, the work of their Master, amid privations and sufferings, literally unto death. Thus wrote their poet-son:—

Beneath the lion star they sleep,
Beyond the western deep;
And when the sun's noon glory crests the waves,
He shines without a shadow on their graves.

During his long life, James Montgomery paid but one visit to the land in which he was born. It is, therefore, absurd to describe him as a Scotchman; to all intents and purposes he was, as he himself said he had nearly been, an Irishman; for it is certain that the native country of a man is not determined by the accident of birth, otherwise some of the most renowned Englishmen must be treated as Frenchmen or Spaniards. A man loses no civil rights, as a British subject, by being born in a foreign state, nor does he, by such "mischance," acquire any of the privileges to which, as a native of such state, he would be entitled.

In 1830, when Mr. Everett, one of Montgomery's biographers, visited Grace Hill, a nephew and two aunts of the poet were "residents" there. Probably some of the family live there still. Montgomery himself visited Grace Hill in 1842. He had retained a vivid recollection of the place, and the several objects and incidents associated with it.

When Montgomery visited Irvine, where he was formally welcomed by the authorities with the respect due to one whose genius and virtues had done honour to the burgh, the little chapel in which his father had preached was no longer used as a sanctuary. It then contained four or five looms; yet he had a strong memory of the place, and was deeply touched by the visit — "its bridge, its river, its street-aspect, and its rural landscape, with sea-glimpses between." His memory of Grace Hill was necessarily more clear and strong, but he had evidently no special attachment to either. He was in effect, though not in fact, a native of Sheffield.

Fulneck, a few miles from Leeds, was, and is, not only a settlement, but may be called a college, of the Moravians. Montgomery became a scholar there in 1777, the design of his parents being to educate him for the ministry. It must have been a dolorous place, according to the vivid description of William Howitt, though others have spoken of it differently. No doubt in 1777 it was far less dismal than it is in 1870, when huge chimneys stretch up to the sky, clouds are intercepted by smoke, and a perpetual din of the hammer drowns the song of birds — if any remain to sing.

But in its best time little of the more striking aspects of beautiful nature could have been without the walls; while within, the Fathers and "Brethren" sought by precept and example to close the outer world to the eyes and hearts of the neophytes. Such a locality, and such a system, would have dried up the living fountain that issued from the heart even of great Wordsworth. True, something must be conceded to systematic education, but a worse home in which to educate a poet can hardly be conceived. Neither was Montgomery much better off when in after-life his Parnassus was the close street called "Hartshead," or even "The Mount," at Sheffield — the world's factory of steel and iron.

No doubt, in his poetry, his narrow sectarianism was a serious trammel. He could never give full vent to fancy; imagination was not permitted to body forth the forms of things unknown; inventions were stigmatised as falsehoods; and fiction was a convicted crime. The fine frenzy of the poet was, therefore, a sin against the brotherhood; and themes in which happier "makers" revelled were excluded from entries in his book of life. Montgomery was not heard in protest against this untoward fate, although he does complain that he had been often compelled to sacrifice brilliant forms of expression, which, whatever admiration they may have won from many readers, were "incompatible with Christian verity."

Montgomery's promise of the future was not such as to justify the hopes of the Directors at Fulneck: the ministry was not to be his lot. Little did the good Fathers foresee that the rejected was to become a mightier teacher — more powerful to influence the hearts and minds of humankind — than the whole of the students put together whom Fulneck was rearing to become missionaries throughout the world; that the silent, unsocial, and seemingly indolent lad whom, hopeless of better things, they consigned to the counter of a small shopkeeper at Wath, was destined to make their gentle faith reverenced to the uttermost parts of earth, among the millions upon millions who speak the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Neither was shop-thraldom for him; he threw off the shackles they had placed on his soul. Considering himself free (as he was not under indentures) to act for himself; he set forth "to seek his fortune," but almost penniless, and without a guide; nay, not without a guide, for the Master he was to serve as the "Christian poet" of a future was at his side. After a brief sojourn with the shopkeeper at Wath and a bookseller in London, he was conducted to the proverbially unpoetic and intellectually unfruitful town of Sheffield, where the whole of his after-life was passed from the age of twenty-one to that of eighty-three. To the "hard-handed" men in that capital of "toil and traffic" he brought a shining light. Assuredly he was led where he was most needed; and who shall say how far the gentle teachings and glad tidings of the Gospel, preached by him during so many years from the printing-press, and in so many "speeches," influenced a people, many of them then and always conspicuous for passionate, not to say reckless, ardour? and who shall gauge the influence of the Christian poet in counterbalancing the dangerous efforts of a fierce democratic power that soon obtained ascendency in that stirring and energetic town? — the one poet uttering curses loud and deep against a tax-fed aristocracy; the other breathing gently in his prose and verse, and illustrating, by his example, the merciful teachings of the suffering yet ever-considerate Saviour.

Yes, the pulpit of James Montgomery was the wide, wide world, and his congregation the whole of humankind.

Moreover, he was unfitted for the ministry by "constitutional indolence," — he might have said, excessive sensibility. Of himself he writes, so early as 1794, "I was distinguished for nothing but indolence and melancholy." "I who am always asleep when I ought to be working."

But Montgomery had, in reality, "no vocation for the pulpit," and it is not unlikely that the austerity of Fulneck School rendered a prospect of the ministry distasteful to him; at any rate, the rebound of his spirit, when breaking away from his religious teachers, took a different direction. His destiny was to be, not a man of peace, but a man of war — with the pen, that is to say. Very early in life he launched his fragile, if not "frail" bark on the stormy sea of politics. His youth and his earlier manhood were expended in the party-contests of a provincial town, although his large mind and high soul dealt occasionally with the loftier topics that concern humanity. No doubt, in the main and for a time, he "To party gave up what was meant for mankind."

In 1794 Montgomery commenced to publish in Sheffield the Iris newspaper, passing in a few short months from "a seclusion almost equal to that of the cloister," to what was then one of the most responsible and perilous stations in active life — that of "a newspaper publisher, politician, and patriot" — exhibiting, as if in proof of Dr. Johnson's notable averment, "something of that indistinct and headstrong ardour for liberty which a man of genius always catches when he enters the world, and always suffers to cool as he passes forward."

On the 4th of July the first number appeared. He had soon to endure the pains and penalties consequent on his position. In October, 1794, he was prosecuted for printing "a patriotic song by a clergyman of Belfast." The passage that was pronounced "libellous" by the sapient justices who tried the case was this:—

Europe's fate on the contest's decision depends,
Must important its issue will be;
For should France be subdued, Europe's liberty ends;
If she triumphs, the world will be free.

The verses were written by a Mr. Scott, of Dromore, and were sung at a festival in Belfast, to commemorate the destruction of the Bastille; and they had been printed in various newspapers (among others, the Morning Chronicle) a year before Montgomery was prosecuted for reprinting them for a ballad-hawker; for which he received, as a printer, the sum of eighteen-pence. It bore internal evidence that he was not the writer — indeed, that was not charged against him; yet he was convicted and sentenced to three months' imprisonment in York Castle and to pay a fine of 20.

Not long afterwards (in 1796) he was a second time tried, convicted, and imprisoned for libel. It was for printing in his newspaper what he considered a true statement of facts concerning a riot that had taken place at Sheffield, in which several lives were lost. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment, and a fine of 60.

Again, therefore, to quote his own words, "he kept house in York Castle."

In a letter I received from him in 1837 he thus alludes to himself: — "The disappointment of my premature poetical hopes brought a blight with it, which my mind has never recovered. For many years I was as mute as a moulting bird, and when the power of song returned, it was without the energy, self-confidence, and freedom which happier minstrels among my contemporaries have manifested, and have owed much of their success to such inspiration from their own conscious talents."

No doubt much of this state of mind resulted from the severity of criticism dealt out to him; it acted on a naturally sensitive nature and a delicate constitution, and had the effect it was probably designed to produce. Take, for example, the following passages from the Edinburgh Review — January, 1807 — where Montgomery was cried down (!) as "intoxicated with weak tea, and the praises of sentimental ensigns, and other provincial literati;" "a writer of middling verses," whose readers were "half-educated women, sickly tradesmen, and enamoured apprentices;" a "most musical and melancholy gentleman," "very weakly, very finical, and very affected;" the review ending with a prophecy that "in less than three years no one will know the name of the 'Wanderer of Switzerland,' or any of the other poems" of James Montgomery! Such was the judgment of Francis Jeffrey. How righteously true, how glorious in its fulfillment, was the prophecy put forth in 1807 — the fulfillment which Jeffrey, the writer, lived to witness, so long afterwards as 1856!

In 1825 he retired from the Iris. On the 27th of September of that year appeared the last number of that journal with the imprint of James Montgomery. His fellow-townsmen received him at a public dinner, at which Earl Fitzwilliam presided; persons of all political opinions attended to do him honour, acknowledging his services to humanity, the gentleness with which he had done his "spiriting," the blameless tenor of his life, the suavity of his manners, and the firmness of his character — that as a public journalist he had honoured and dignified the Press of his country.

And throughout the kingdom that opinion there was none to gainsay. Thenceforward he entirely abstained from political writing; and his biographer says that, in 1837, "his opinions had become, in the main, very similar to those now indicated by the term Conservative."

On retiring from business Montgomery left the premises in the Hartshead, where he had so long resided, and went to live at The Mount, a pleasant situation about a mile outside the town, and overlooking the valley of the Sheaf.

The house occupied by the poet was one of eight, which together form a handsome and imposing pile of building.

In 1830, Montgomery was in London to deliver lectures on English Literature at the Royal Institution.

It was then he visited us — in Sloane Street. I had seen him once before, during a rapid run through Sheffield, when I had a brief interview with him, seated, ex cathedra, in the office of the Iris, in the dingy locality before mentioned. It was in that year, while he was contenting himself with the production of occasional verses — often commemorating the worth of the departed, soothing sorrow, and arousing hope in survivors — that another Montgomery — ROBERT MONTGOMERY — claimed and obtained the suffrages of the world. The "Omnipresence of the Deity" rapidly passed through seven or eight editions, and Robert gave, in a year, more employment to the printers than James had found for them in half a century of work. Yet surely, while the one was pure gold — thrice tried in the furnace — the other was, by comparison, "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal."

Some notes concerning ROBERT MONTGOMERY may not be unacceptable to my readers.

I remember James Montgomery calling upon me soon after the work of his namesake appeared, and became at once "famous." His mind seemed much unsettled, and he spoke as if under the influence of some affliction, as he asked me for my sympathy, showing me a letter, and telling me it was not the only one of the kind he had received, in which the writer congratulated him on the success of his new poem, "adding that it was undoubtedly his best, and that as he grew in years he grew in vigour and in beauty." The new poem was "The Omnipresence of the Deity!" by his namesake.

No doubt the sudden, extreme, and irrational popularity of Robert gave pain to James, not from envy certainly, but on account of the mistakes arising, not always undesignedly, from the similarity of names. It is not in human nature to bear such mortifications without umbrage. Whether Robert was "particeps criminis" or not, I cannot say, but certainly the advertisements issued by his publisher — Maunder — of "Montgomery's new poem," repeated perpetually without any prefix, if not intended to deceive, did deceive, not the public alone, but the booksellers, and in some instances critics and reviewers. One speaker at a public meeting, James being present, alluded in terms highly complimentary to Robert's poem of "Woman," as "rendering tardy honours to the sex," and in their name tendered thanks to James, whom he took to be its author.

A note to an article in the Quarterly which contained this passage, "We mean the poet Montgomery, and not the Mr. Gomery who assumed the affix of 'Mont,'" &c., naturally excited the ire of Robert, who wrote to James, indignantly denying the assumption of the name, which he affirmed was his natural right. To that letter James wrote a lengthened reply, in which he stated, "The worst that I wish to Mr. Robert Montgomery is, that some rich man would die and leave him a handsome estate, on condition that he should take the name of his benefactor;" but he did not conceal his vexation at the annoyances to which he had been subjected.

I would not, however, seem to cast a slur upon the memory of the lesser, while lauding the greater, Montgomery; the suffrages of thousands have given to him a niche in the Temple of Fame, and if rated above his value as a poet, he was at all events a kindly man, a zealous clergyman, and a fervent Christian, to whose rare powers as a preacher some of our best charities are indebted for much of their means to lessen and relieve human suffering.

I think the exact particulars of his parentage have never been given: it is, however, believed his father's name was Montgomery, but that he had dropped the aristocratic quarter of it, calling himself Gomery, and that Robert, in assuming it, did no more than he was entitled to do.

It was in 1825 or 1826 that Robert Montgomery brought me an introduction; I cannot now say from whom. There came to spend an evening with me a somewhat handsome and rather "foppish" young man, tall, and slight, and gentlemanly, though assuming and exacting in manners. His object was to read to me a poem he had written, which he called "The Age Reviewed." It was full of sparkling "cleverness," but was a satire on the leading reviewers, poets, and authors of the day. The half fledged sparrow was about to peck at the eagle's plumes. Names the most honoured and reverenced in letters — some who were even then almost of the future — were treated with contumely and scorn; heroes in a hundred fights were to go down "before the grey goosequill" of the boy Goliath! His great prototype, Byron, was bitterly lamenting a wicked folly of the kind, but the intellectual giant had strength for the encounter, which this thoughtless youth had not. I listened as he read, and when he had finished I gave him serious and earnest counsel at once to put his poem into the fire beside which we were sitting. My advice was angrily rejected. Robert Montgomery published "The Age Reviewed," and lamented the wanton act of aggression all the days of his life. Many years passed before I again saw him; he had then been ordained, and was a favourite preacher — especially fond of preaching charity sermons. We were brought together in consequence of our mutual interest in the Hospital for the cure of Consumption at Brompton — a charity for which he exerted himself ardently and zealously.

He was certainly the vainest man I have ever known. To him notoriety was fame; a "few" was never a "fit" audience; he would have far preferred a bellow of applause from a crowded gallery to a half-suppressed murmur of admiration from "the first row in the pit."

The portrait I draw of him, however, cannot, and ought not to be, all shade. Beyond his vanity there was no harm in him; nay, his nature was generous and kindly. He was eloquent and impressive in the pulpit, and discharged zealously and faithfully his manifold duties as a clergyman. The Consumption Hospital is by no means the only charity for which he heartily worked. In all the minor relations of life — as husband, father, and friend — he was exemplary.

Of his merits as a poet I do not take upon myself to speak. A writer who lived to see thirty-six editions of one poem, "The Omnipresence of the Deity," and many editions of several other poems, could not be without great merit, though it may be of "a certain kind;" moreover, he was not prostrated, although for a time hurled to the ground by the memorable and terrific assault of Macaulay; and though he died comparatively young, he had a position and achieved a triumph for which thousands labour in vain.

It was, as I have said, in 1830, when he visited London to deliver, at the Royal Institution, a series of lectures on poetry, that we became personally acquainted with James Montgomery. As a lecturer he cannot be described as successful; his matter was of course good, but his manner, as may be supposed, lacked the power, the earnestness, the conviction, in a word, that rarely fail to impress an audience, and which often stand serviceable in the stead of aids more important. Previously I had barely seen Montgomery, yet I had been in frequent correspondence with him, for he had written year after year for the Amulet, which contained some of his best compositions in prose and verse. I was, however, prepared to see a gentleman of calm, sedate, and impressive exterior.

In 1835 James Montgomery received one of the Crown pensions — a grant of 150 a year — the donor being Sir Robert Peel. It was one of the latest acts of the great statesman's Government, for the day after the grant was made he ceased to be minister — for a time.

Montgomery was never married. His love verses have been variously interpreted. In a letter written when he was aged, he somewhat mysteriously alludes to his celibacy: "The secret is within myself, and it is on the way to the grave, from which no secret will be betrayed till the day of judgment."

The last time I saw Montgomery was during his one visit to the Exhibition in 1851; the venerable man was moving slowly about from stall to stall, examining, apparently with a dull and listless look, the beauties of manufactured art by which he was surrounded. His form was shrunk, he stooped somewhat, his once bright eye seemed glazed; he was, indeed, but the shadow of his former self; yet I was told he had brightened up into his old nature when, just before, he had been looking over the books in one hundred and sixty-five languages of parts of the Holy Scripture that England had printed as a benefaction to varied mankind. I had to recall myself to his memory, but when I did so I obtained a cordial greeting, that even to-day I remember, and record with gratitude and pleasure. As I left him I could not help repeating his lines—

There is a calm for those who weep,
A rest for weary pilgrims found.

I have said the personal appearance of Montgomery was not striking. The eye was the redeeming feature in an otherwise plain face. It was (or seemed to be) a clear, bright blue, outlooking and uplooking.

In 1805 the sculptor Chantrey, "a young artist whose modesty and zeal for improvement are equal to his talents," painted a portrait of Montgomery. He was often painted: in 1827 by Jackson, R.A., whose portrait is perhaps the best. That by Illidge is good. Mr. Barber painted a full-length for the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Institution, where it now is, and where I have gladly seen it. But Montgomery said that of all his portraits, there was not one he should like to see engraved. A faithful profile likeness of the "Christian Poet" appears on the bronze medal which is annually presented by the Sheffield School of Art for the most successful drawing, by any pupil, of English wild flowers; it was from a portrait carefully modelled from the life at fourscore. He considered, however, that his face was "rather improved than deteriorated by age." In one of his letters he speaks of himself as "the ugliest man in Sheffield." He was nothing of the kind.

Mrs. Hemans, who received a visit from Montgomery in 1828, speaks of his "mass of tangled, streaming, meteoric-looking hair;" and another writer says that, "when young, he had an abundant crop of carroty locks."

In 1825, when the poet may be said to have been at the best period of his life, and certainly in the zenith of his fame, he was visited by a Mr. Carter, editor of a newspaper in New York; and, as Mr. Holland has reprinted the article that thence arose, we are to assume that he endorses it.

Of Montgomery he says, "In his manners the author manifests that mildness, simplicity, and kindness of heart so conspicuous in his writings. His flow of conversation is copious, easy, and perfectly free from affectation; his language polished, but without an approach to pedantry... In person he is slender and delicate, rather below the common size; his complexion is light, with a Roman nose, high forehead, slightly bald, and a clear eye, not unfrequently downcast."

Mrs. Hofland wrote for the New Monthly during my editorship, in 1835, an article entitled "Sheffield and its Poets," in the course of which she thus describes Montgomery: — "He is the youngest man of his years I ever beheld; and at sixty years old might pass for thirty—such is the slightness of his figure, the elasticity of his step, the smoothness of his fair brow, the mobility and playfulness of his features when in conversation." She adds, "The lighting up of his eye when he is warmed by his subject is absolutely electrical."

In 1841, when he visited Scotland, he was thus described, in his sixty-fifth year: "His appearance speaks of antiquity, but not of decay; his locks have assumed a snowy whiteness, and the lofty and full-arched coronal region exhibits what a brother poet has well termed the 'clear, bald polish of the honoured head;' the features are high, the complexion fresh, though not ruddy; the forehead rather compact than large, with amply-developed organs of ideality and veneration." Another authority says that the organ of "firmness" was deficient.

Searle, in his Life of Elliott, describes Montgomery as "polished in his manners, exquisitely neat in his personal appearance, while his bland conversation rarely rose above a calm level. And Southey, in "The Doctor," thus refers to him — sending to the Christian poet the greeting of "one who admires thee as a poet, honours and respects thee as a man, and reaches out in spirit, at this moment, a long arm to shake hands with thee in cordial good-will." The two poets never met, the want of opportunity being often regretted by both. It is impossible to think of two men who would have enjoyed each other's company more heartily, frankly, and completely — frank, trustful, and conscientious as they both were.

Excellent William Howitt, who knew him and loved him well, likens him to the poet Cowper — "the same benevolence of heart, the same modesty of deportment, the same purity of life, the same attachment to literary pursuits, the same fondness for solitude and retirement from the public haunts of men; and, to complete the picture, the same ardent feeling in the cause of religion, and the same disposition to gloom and melancholy." And thus his brother poet pictures the man: — "His person, which is rather below the middle stature, is neatly formed; his features have the general expression of simplicity and benevolence, rendered more interesting by a hue of melancholy that pervades them: when animated by conversation, his eye is enormously brilliant, and his whole countenance is full of intelligence."

Montgomery had many acquaintances, and a few devoted friends. Foremost among them was John Holland, whom he more than once calls a "good man and true." He was the poet's loved and loving friend from a very early period, and to him (in conjunction with Mr. Everett) was assigned the duty of compiling the life of the poet. The task was discharged with sound judgment and nice discrimination, although with deep affection and abundant zeal.

In 1854 the time of James Montgomery had come; warnings that the hour of his removal was near at hand had been mercifully sent to him some time previously; "the labour of composition made him ill;" yet his faculties were all sound, and though feeble, he was not bedridden. On the last evening of life he was out, and returned home "apparently as usual," but surprised his aged companion by handing her the Bible, and saying, "Sarah, you must read." She did so; he knelt down and prayed, retired to his room, and in the morning it was found that his spirit had gone home; the tabernacle of his body was without inhabitant; the soul was with the Master whose faithful servant he had been, and whose work he had so long and so well done. He entered into the joy of his Lord on the 30th April, 1854, in the eighty-third year of his age.

Those who knew him loved him, and by all he was respected and esteemed. By the tenor of his life, as well as ever by his writings, he advanced the cause of religion; in example, as well as in precept, he was a true Christian gentleman.

A fitting monument was proposed for him at Sheffield, and John Bell made a worthy design. The estimated cost, however, was beyond the reach even of zealous friends, and after some time fruitlessly spent, the same artist made a new design, comprising a life-size statue of the poet in bronze, upon a granite pedestal, containing a prolix inscription. This monument, placed over Montgomery's grave in the Sheffield Cemetery, was inaugurated by a public demonstration, rarely equalled for the number and respectability of those who took part in it, except at the funeral of the great and good man whose name and virtues are so deservedly commemorated

Your monument shall be your gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er read,
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.