1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Montgomery

Edward Tyrrell Channing, in Review of Montgomery, Greenland; North American Review [Boston] 9 (September 1819) 277-78.



It is true that he is generally languid, and that his graceful lines often flow on as agreeably without a thought as with one, that his occasional extravagance is wholly unprovoked by his feelings, and unsupported but by an elevated language, and that his simplicity, for the most part, is too palpably childish to be mistaken by the blindest admirers of that inimitable and self-prompted beauty. All these things have been laughed at by the critics quite enough: if he had nothing else to be talked about, these certainly were not worth censuring; and if, in the course of four long poems, he has made an unexpected proficiency in his art and written something to be praised, it seems hard that he should send out his volume, year after year, and live in neglect merely because he has gone on doing better and better, in defiance of his judges and their depressing predictions. We believe that this has been precisely the case with him. He has certainly improved. He has outlived most of his follies, and seems determined now to outlive indifference, if possible.

At first he was told by his countrymen, that his poetry was so very pitiable and he so good a man, that it would be cruel to laugh at his literary mistakes. He was accordingly left to perish. But his idle verses passed through edition after edition, and then it was thought necessary to set the public right upon this important matter, or rather to entertain us with a smart critique at the expense of an honest man, and the young tradesmen and milliners who were silly enough to purchase his nonsense. And we cannot forget an expression of surprise that Mr. Montgomery should be tolerated, when such men as Mr. Samuel Rogers, among others, were regaling the public every day with their poetry. But undismayed by this harsh treatment, and hardly deserving better, he had the courage or the humility to try what virtue there was in diligence and a poetical habit, till he has become quite respectable even when he is tame, sometimes startling us by solitary lines of singular energy, or lyrical effects of uniform sweetness, grace, and tenderness, writing as spirited verses, one would think, as Mr. Rogers was in the habit of reading, and much better ones than his early patrons, the uneducated, know how to relish, though rarely quite good enough for more high-fed and dainty readers. So that he is in a fair way now to be thrown out of the market entirely. It is of very little consequence to the world that he cannot write better poetry, and still less to ascertain whether the measure of justice has been scrupulously dealt to him or not. If a man cannot bring forth first-rate poetry, — such as can take care of itself, carrying within itself the principle of life, — it must perish sooner or later; the accidents or fleeting interests that give it notoriety to-day, may be forgotten to-morrow; and it may be prudent for every age to anticipate, in its awards, the sure judgments of coming generations, and leave them as little rubbish as possible to clear from their libraries, and as few opportunities as possible to ridicule the bad taste of their fathers. We may call criticism cruel or partial, but it is not in criticism to kill or make alive; it may hasten or delay a writer's fore-doomed celebrity or extinction, but nothing more. And though it may sometimes condemn a feeble author more severely than is necessary, and show more spleen or wanton sarcasm than jealousy for the honour of letters, yet this offence is very popular one with too large a class of readers; it is a certain way to enliven a journal when it threatens to be over sensible and of course very dull; and as for the wise, the candid, the philosophical, if they happen to know any thing about the matter, they will no doubt lament that there is so little feeling among men, and then the whole affair will be left to take its natural way to forgetfulness, and the author along with it.