James Montgomery

John Holland, "James Montgomery" Poets of Yorkshire; comprising Sketches of the Lives, and Specimens of the Writings of those Children of Song (1845) 140-43.

JAMES MONTGOMERY was born Nov. 4, 1771, at Irvine, in Ayrshire, Scotland. His father and mother were Moravian missionaries, and both died amidst their pious labours, in the West Indies. Our poet, the eldest of three brothers, was educated at the school connected with the establishment of the United Brethren, at Fulneck, near Leeds. After some vicissitudes of youthful fortune, he found himself, in 1792, with Mr. Gales, the proprietor of a Sheffield Newspaper, which in a short time afterwards became his own, and he continued to conduct it, under the title of "The Iris," till the year 1825, when he sold the property, and devoted himself almost entirely, to those engagements in connection with religions and charitable objects, which had for the greater part of his life combined with his personal integrity and poetical reputation, to endear him, not only to his townspeople, but to all who knew his name. This statement might seem remarkable, were the personal history of Montgomery, or the political annals of the period corresponding to his early life, less generally known: for, in January, 1794, amidst the excitement of that agitated period, he was tried on a charge of having printed a ballad, written by a clergyman of Belfast, on the demolition of the Bastile in 1789, which was now interpreted into a seditious libel on the war, was found guilty, and sentenced to three months' imprisonment in the castle of York, and the payment of a fine of 20. In January, 1795, he was tried for a second imputed political offence — the insertion in his newspaper of s paragraph which reflected on the conduct of a Colonel of the Volunteers, in quelling a riot in Sheffield, and was again convicted and sentenced to six months' imprisonment in York Castle, to pay a fine of 30, and keep the peace for two years. It is a remarkable fact, well known in the town of Montgomery's long residence, and mentioned by the poet in the preface to the collected edition of his works in 1840, that all the persons who were actively concerned in the above-mentioned prosecutions, died at peace with, and it might have been added, lived to entertain a kind regard for him. His first collection of published poetry, doubtless, the foundation of his subsequent celebrity, was entitled "Prison Amusements;" it appeared soon after his second release from incarceration. In 1806 appeared "The Wanderer of Switzerland," a poem, which inherent merit of a high order, the passing political occurrences of the moment, and last, but not least, the outrageous and ill-sustained attack of the Edinburgh Review, conspired to render popular: it has passed through more than a dozen editions in England alone. His next work was "The West Indies," a poem in honour of the abolition of the African Slave Trade, by the British legislature, in 1807: this has been the oftenest quoted, if not the most praised of Montgomery's larger works. "The World before the Flood," a beautiful fictitious delineation of antediluvian life, as indicated in the Bible, appeared in 1818; and in the following year, "Greenland," a poem containing an account of the early missions of the Moravians to that inhospitable clime. His last long poem was "The Pelican Island," suggested by a passage in Captain Hinders's voyage to Terra Australis, describing the existence of the ancient haunts of the pelican in the small islands on the coast of New Holland. The work is in blank verse, in nine cantos, and the author imagines himself to have witnessed a series of events from the first emergence of a coral reef, to its occupation successively by the higher races of birds and beasts, and ultimately by man himself. It has been truly said, by Mr. Chambers, that "the poem abounds in minute and delicate descriptions of natural phenomena — has great facility of diction and expression; and altogether possesses more of the power and fertility of the master than any other of the author's works." Besides some smaller independent publications, the whole of our author's larger poems, were accompanied by short pieces on various miscellaneous subjects, which display, for the most part, a tenderness of feeling, and a degree of taste in the execution, rarely equalled by those gifted contemporaries from whose names when spoken of as distinguishing our era, that of Montgomery has too often been inconsiderately omitted. As a writer of Hymns, no living author has so successfully combined piety with poetry for devotional purposes: the appearance of any collection of this kind, either for particular place of worship, or for general use, which should not contain some contribution from the pen of Montgomery would be a curiosity. In 1835 Government granted unsolicited pension of 150 a year to the "Christian Poet" who resides in a house forming part of the handsome and conspicuous buildings called "The Mount," overlooking from the west, the town of Sheffield, and the ample and diversified expanse of country beyond.

Peace to the trumpet! — no more shall my breath
Sound an alarm in the dull ear of death,
Nor startle to life from the truce of the tomb
The relics of heroes, to combat till doom.
Let Marathon sleep to the sound of the sea,
Let Hannibal's spectre haunt Cannae for me;
Let Cressy and Agincourt tremble with corn,
And Waterloo blush with the beauty of morn;
I turn not the furrow for helmets and shields,
Nor sow dragon's teeth in their old fallow fields;
I will not, as bards have been went, since the flood,
With the river of song swell the river of blood,—
The blood of the valiant, that fell in all climes,—
The song of the gifted, that hallow'd all crimes,—
All crimes in the war-fiend incarnate in one;
War, withering the earth — war, eclipsing the sun,
Despoiling, destroying, since discord began,
God's works and God's mercies, — man's labours and man.

Yet war have I loved, and of war have I sung,
With my heart in my hand and my soul on my tongue;
With all the affections that render life dear,
With the throbbings of hope and the flutterings of fear,—
Of hope, that the sword of the brave might prevail,—
Of fear, lest the arm of the righteous should fail.

But what was the war that extorted my praise?
What battles were fought in my chivalrous lays?—
The war against darkness contending with light
The war against violence trampling down right;—
The battles of patriots, with banner unfurl'd,
To guard a child's cradle against an arm'd world;
Of peasants that peopled their ancestors' graves,
Lest their ancestors' homes should be peopled by slaves.
I served, too, in wars and campaigns of the mind;
My pen was the sword, which I drew for mankind;—
In war against tyranny throned in the West,—
Campaigns to enfranchise the negro oppress'd;
In war against war, on whatever pretence,
For glory, dominion, revenge or defence,
While murder and perfidy, rapine and lust,
Laid provinces desolate, cities in dust.

Yes, war against war was ever my pride;
My youth and my manhood in waging it died,
And age, with its weakness, its wounds, and its scars,
Still finds my free spirit unquench'd as the stars,
And he who would bend it to war must first bind
The waves of the ocean, the wings of the wind;
For I call it not war, which war's counsels o'erthrows,
I call it not war which gives nations repose;
'Tis judgment brought down on themselves by the proud,
Like lightning, by fools, from an innocent cloud.

I war against all war; nor, till my pulse cease,
Will I throw down my weapons, because I love peace,
Because I love liberty, execrate strife,
And dread, most of all deaths, that slow death call'd life,
Dragg'd on by a vassal, in purple or chains,
The breath of whose nostrils, the blood in whose veins,
He calls not his own, nor holds from his God,
While it hangs on a king's or a sycophant's nod.

Around the mute trumpet, — no longer to breathe
War-clangours, my latest war-chaplets I wreathe,
Then bang them aloof on the time-stricken oak,
And thus, in its shadow, heaven's blessing invoke
"Lord God! since the African's bondage is o'er,
And war in our borders is heard of no more,
May never, while Britain adores Thee, again
The malice of fiends or the madness of men,
Break the peace of our land, and by villanous wrong
Find a field for a hero, a hero for song.