The Pleasures of Imprisonment: an Epistle to a Friend.

Prison Amusements, and other Trifles: principally written during Nine Months of Confinement in the Castle of York. By Paul Positive.

James Montgomery

Early, anonymous verse by James Montgomery, the editor of the Sheffield Iris who was imprisoned for seditious libel in 1795. His Horatian epistle contributes to the "pleasures of" series of descriptive poems, recently rejuvenated by Samuel The Rogers's Pleasures of Memory (1792). Montgomery relates the progress of a day in prison in octosyllabic couplets, a meter suggesting a connection with Milton's L'Allegro. The Pleasures of Imprisonment most properly belongs in the tradition of Philips's The Splendid Shilling, with its helpless waifs oppressed by duns and bailiffs. The Miltonic burlesque in this poem has dwindled to a couple of "I ween" phrases. The plain manner of the poem, like the ingenuous simplicity of the poet (Montgomery was raised by Moravians) invite comparisons to William Cowper's The Task (1785).

Analytical Review: "The walls of a prison have more than once given birth to the most delicate and beautiful effusions of poetry, and happy is it when such as are doomed to tenant them, can thus alleviate their sorrows and forget their situation! The present miscellaneous volume bespeaks the author to be a young man of taste and feeling" 25 (March 1797) 411.

William Smyth: "These Trifles, as the author modestly calls them, have considerable merit; for the poetry is natural, elegant, and in some instances affecting.... In his preface, the author informs us that he is very young; we may therefore form just hopes of improvement, as his taste is simple and unaffected, and very unlike some 'fine' writers of poetry in the present age. He promises a more voluminous work, should this small volume meet with public approbation. We advise him to endeavour to attain an early habit of fastidious correction, that his natural powers may sustain no drawback of applause on account of violations of artificial rules" Monthly Review NS 23 (June 1797) 212-13.

Port Folio [Philadelphia]: "This bird of Paradise does not seem to warble his native wood-notes wild with so much melody as he does when he signs from that cage which, in plainer phraseology, is denominated a jail. However, we heartily congratulate him on his liberty, although, we must confess, it has been done at the expense of his poetry. While he sings from his cage, his fancy, in the contemplation of green fields, and pleasant meadows, acquires a sprightliness, which evaporates, when he has no other prison-yard than the earth which we inhabit" Review of World before the Flood, S3 3 (February 1814) 136.

Robert Chambers: "In 1791, he obtained a situation as clerk in a newspaper office in Sheffield; and his master failing, Montgomery, with the aid of friends, established the Sheffield Iris, a weekly journal, which he conducted with marked ability, and in a liberal, conciliatory spirit, up to the year 1825. His course did not always run smooth. 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 Bastille in 1789; which was then interpreted into a seditious libel. The poor poet, notwithstanding the innocence of his intentions, was found guilty, and sentenced to three months' imprisonment in the castle of York, and to pay a fine of 20. In January 1795 he was tried for a second imputed political offence — a paragraph in his paper which reflected on the conduct of a magistrate in quelling a riot at Sheffield. He was again convicted, and sentenced to six months' imprisonment in York Castle, to pay a fine of 30, and to give security to keep the peace for two years" Cyclopedia of English Literature (1840-44; 1879) 5:307.

After arising (late) the author repairs to the prison yard where he breakfasts "on the pure, fresh air" p. 44. The balance of the morning is devoted to study. Some books are better than others; the characters of some seem to chime with the experience of prison: "Where periods without period crawl, | Like caterpillars on a wall, | That fall to climb, and climb to fall; | While still their efforts only tend | To keep them from their journey's end!" p. 48. After reading, he turns to composition, which, along with sleep, proves his best escape: "Borne on an honest gander's quill, | I fly triumphant where I will; | Beneath my feet York Castle falls, | With all its bolts, and bars, and walls; | I burst the bounds of day and night" p. 50. By the aid of Fancy, the prison and its inhabitants are transmuted to fairy romance.

The second part relates the events of the afternoon, beginning with the one meal of the day: "Here each may, as his means afford, | Dine like a pauper or a lord; | And he who can't the cost defray, | Is welcome, sir, to fast and pray!" p. 89. The author returns to the prison yard to survey the familiar landscape. His solitude is relieved by his dog Billy. Billy is tormented by another inhabitant of York Castle, Ralph the raven. Another inmate is a semi-domesticated buck: "Oft as his plaintive looks I see, | A brother's bowels yearn in me; | I share his griefs with feelings fond, | As strings in unison respond" p. 68. The buck ignores his erstwhile spouse, a lovely doe born within the walls of the prison. The day concludes like every other: "Soon comes a turnkey with 'Good night, sir!' | And bolts the door with all his might, sir! | Then leisurely to bed I creep, | And sometimes wake — and sometimes sleep" p. 71.

You ask, my friend, and well you may,
You ask me, how I spend the day;
I'll tell you, in unstudied rhyme,
How wisely I befool my time:
Expect not wit, nor fancy then,
In this effusion of my pen;
These idle lines — they might be worse—
Are simple prose, in simple verse.

Each morning, then, at five o'clock,
The adamantine doors unlock;
Bolts, bars, and portals crash and thunder;
The gates of iron burst asunder;
Hinges that creak, and keys that jingle,
With clattering chains, in concert mingle:
So sweet the din, your dainty ear,
For joy, would break its drum to hear;
While my dull organs, at the sound,
Rest in tranquility profound!
Fantastic dreams amuse my brain,
And waft my spirit home again:
Though captive all day long, 'tis true,
At night I am as free as you;
Not ramparts high, nor dungeons deep,
Can hold me — when I'm fast asleep!

But every thing is good in season,
I dream at large — and wake in prison!
Yet think not, sir, I lie too late,
I rise as early even as eight:
Ten hours of drowsiness are plenty,
For any man, in four and twenty.
You smile — and yet 'tis nobly done,
I'm but five hours behind the sun!
For thus, by Phaeton's folly taught,
I keep my distance as I ought,
Lest I, like him, should chance to break,
By rising with the sun — my neck!

When dressed, I to the yard repair,
And breakfast on the pure, fresh air;
But though this choice Castalian cheer
Keeps both the head and stomach clear,
For weighty reasons I make free
To mend the meal with toast and tea.
Now air and fame, as poets sing,
Are both the same, the self same thing;
Yet bards are not cameleons quite,
And heavenly food is very light:
Who ever fattened on a name?
Or made a pigeon-pie of fame?
Even bishops will not be confined
To dine on air and sup on wind.

Breakfast dispatched, I sometimes read,
To clear the cob-webs from my head:
For books, my friend, are charming brooms
To sweep the dust of upper rooms!
As in an ample Cheshire cheese,
Fat, lazy maggots dwell at ease,
Or mites, in millions, swarm and thrive,
Till every atom is alive;
So in the chamber of a brain,
O'er which the moon extends her reign,
Strange creeping things, called thoughts, are bred,
Among the lumber of the head,
That throng around the pineal gland,
Rank as the frogs in Egypt's land!
A brain, with such wild tenants fraught,
Would soon be bit to death with thought,
If reading, writing, eating, drinking,
Did not sometimes relieve the thinking!

But books, besides, are cures, I ween,
Both for the cholic and the spleen.
When genius, wisdom, wit abound,
And honest sense shakes hands with sound;
When art and nature both combine,
And live, and breathe, in every line;
The reader glows along the page,
With all the author's native rage!
But books there are of nothing full,
Except the wit of being dull;
With most unmeaning meaning fraught,
Ten thousand words and ne'er a thought!
Where periods without period crawl,
Like caterpillars on a wall,
That fall to climb, and climb to fall;
While still their efforts only tend
To keep them from their journey's end!
The readers yawn with pure vexation,
And nod — but not with approbation!
As in a wilderness of snow,
An ass may ramble to and fro;
From drift to drift pursue his way,
Yet wander more and more astray;
Blind with the dazzling waste of white,
He cannot see his road for light:
But plunges, sinks, and brays amain,
While cold benumbs each drowsy vein;
Till night and sleep at length o'ertake him,
And then — not all the world can wake him!
Thus in a fog of dullness lost,
Job's patience must give up the ghost:
Not Argus' eyes awake could keep;
Even death might read himself to sleep!

At half past ten, or there about,
My eyes are all upon the scout,
To see the lounging post-boy come,
With letters or with news from home.
Believe me, sir, upon my word,
Although the doctrine seem absurd,
The paper messengers of friends
For absence almost make amends:
But if you think I jest or lie,
Come to York Castle, sir, and try!

When high the tide of fancy flows,
The muses take me by the nose:
With brains on fire, I boldly then
Bestride my Pegasean pen;
Borne on an honest gander's quill,
I fly triumphant where I will;
Beneath my feet York Castle falls,
With all its bolts, and bars, and walls;
I burst the bounds of day and night—
The world's too little for my flight;
I dance with stars, with planets run,
Explore the moon, salute the sun:
Then leaving nature's narrow bound,
(Bards scorn to tread on solid ground)
I wing my way, with toil and pain,
Where endless night and nothing reign:
There, in a sea, without a coast,
My senses and myself are lost!

Sometimes to fairy land I rove:
Those iron rails become a grove;
These stately buildings fall away
To moss-grown cottages of clay;
Debtors are changed to jolly swains,
Who pipe and whistle on the plains;
Yon felons grim, with fetters bound,
Are satyrs wild, with garlands crowned:
Their clanking chains are wreaths of flowers;
Their horrid cells ambrosial bowers;
The oaths, expiring on their tongues,
Are metamorphosed into songs;
While wretched female prisoners, lo!
Are Dian's nymphs of virgin snow!
Those hideous walls with verdure shoot;
These pillars bend with blushing fruit;
That dunghill swells into a mountain,
And, lo! the pump becomes a fountain!
The noisome smoke of yonder mills,
The circling air with fragrance fills;
Yon horse-pond spreads into a lake,
And swans of ducks and geese I make!
Sparrows are changed to turtle doves,
That bill and coo their pretty loves;
Wagtails, turned thrushes, charm the vales,
And tomtits sing like nightingales!
No more the wind through keyholes whistles,
But sighs on beds of pinks and thistles;
The rattling rain, that beats without,
And gargles down the leaden spout,
In light, delicious dew distills,
And melts away in amber rills!
Elysium rises on the green,
And health and beauty crown the scene:
While, prince of these romantic plains,
Our ever-honoured keeper reigns;
Whose generous soul, with equal ease,
Knows how to rule, and how to please!

Then by th' enchantress Fancy led,
On violet banks I lay my head;
Legions of radiant forms arise,
In fair array, before mine eyes;
Poetic visions gild my brain,
Then melt in liquid air again!
As in a magic lantern clear,
Fantastic images appear,
That beaming from th' enamelled glass,
In beautiful succession pass;
Yet steal the luster of their light
From the deep shadow of the night:
Thus in the darkness of my head,
Ten thousand shining things are bred,
That borrow splendour from the gloom,
As glow-worms twinkle in a tomb!

But lest these glories should confound me,
Kind Dulness draws her curtain round me;
The visions vanish in a trice,
And I awake as cold as ice:
Nothing remains of all the vapour,
Save — what I send you — ink and paper!

Thus flow my mourning hours along,
Smooth as the numbers of my song:
Yet let me ramble as I will,
I feel I am a prisoner still.
Thus Robin, with the blushing breast,
Is ravished from his little nest
By barbarous boys, who bind his leg,
To make him flutter round a peg:
See the glad captive spreads his wings,
Mounts, in a moment, mounts and sings,
When suddenly the cruel chain
Twitches him back to prison again!
—The clock strikes one — I can't delay,
For dinner comes but once a day!
At present, worthy friend, farewell;
But by to-morrow's post I'll tell,
How, during these half dozen moons,
I cheat the lazy afternoons!

The man who first invented dinner
Was certainly the chief of sinners;
For those who once the habit gain,
May long to leave them off in vain:
Nor even in gaol can folk forget,
To eat, to drink, and run in debt!
Thousands, by dinners, are undone,
But woe to those who can get none!
Though many a one has died with dining,
Yet many more have perished pining:
While too much dinner is a curse,
No dinner is as bad, or worse;
But who would give a pin to chuse,
To die of famine or roast goose?
In this sweet place, where freedom reigns,
Secured by bolts and snug in chains;
Where innocence and guilt together
Roost like two turtles of a feather;
Where debtors safe at anchor lie,
From saucy duns and bailiffs fly;
Where highwaymen and robbers stout,
Would, rather than break in, break out;
Where all's so guarded and recluse,
That none his liberty can lose!—
Here each may, as his means afford,
Dine like a pauper or a lord;
And he who can't the cost defray,
Is welcome, sir, to fast and pray!
There is a sympathy between
The stomach and the purse, I ween;
For here, in every change of weather,
They fill and empty both together:
Yet with the heart at variance quite,
When those are heavy this is light;
But when the former lose their weight,
Then doth the heart preponderate!

Now let us ramble o'er the green,
To see and hear, be heard and seen;
To breathe the air, enjoy the light,
And hail yon sun, who shines as bright
Upon the dungeon and the gallows,
As on York Minster or Kew Palace!
And here let us the scene review:
That's the old castle, this the new;
Yonder the felons walk, and there
The lady-prisoners take the air;
Behind are solitary cells,
Where hermits live like snails in shells;
There stands the chapel for good people,
And yon balcony is the steeple;
How gayly spins the weather-cock!
How proudly shines the crazy clock!
A clock, whose wheels eccentric run,
More like my head than like the sun!
And yet it shews us, right or wrong,
The days are only twelve hours long;
Though captives often reckon here,
Each day a month, each month a year!
There honest William stands in state,
Like grim St. Peter at heaven's gate;
But not so scrupulous is he,
Entrance to all the world is free;
Yet what, methinks, is rather hard,
Egress is frequently debarred;
Of all the joys in prison that reign,
There's none like — getting out again!
Across the green, behold the court,
Where jargon reigns and wigs resort;
Where bloody tongues fight bloodless battles,
For life and death, for straws and rattles;
Where juries yawn their patience out,
And judges dream in spite of gout.
There, on the outside of the door,
(As sang a wicked wag of yore)
Stands Mother Justice, tall and thin,
Who never yet hath ventured in!
The cause, my friend, may soon be shewn,
The lady was a stepping stone,
Till — though the metamorphose odd is—
A chisel made the block a goddess!
—"Odd!" did I say? — I'm wrong this time;
But I was hampered for a rhyme:
Justice at — I could tell you where—
Is just the same as justice here!

But, lo! my frisking dog attends,
The kindest of four-footed friends;
Brim full of giddiness and mirth,
He is the prettiest fool on earth!
I call this fond companion Billy,
But wiser people call him Silly;
Because, in spite of rhyme and reason,
He chuses to reside in prison;
And, though his home is in the city,
He boards with me for bones — or pity!
The rogue's about a squirrel's size,
With short snub nose and big black eyes;
A cloud of brown adorns his tail,
That curs and serves him for a sail;
The same deep auburn dyes his ears,
That never were abridged by shears;
While white, around, as Lapland snows,
His hair, in soft profusion, flows;
Waves on his breast and plumes his feet,
With glossy fringe, like feathers fleet.
Billy's a mendicant by trade,
And begs — or steals — his daily bread;
A thousand antic tricks he plays,
And looks, at once, a thousand ways;
His wit, if he has any, lies
Somewhere between his tail and eyes;
Sooner the light those eyes will fail,
Than Billy cease to wag that tail.
Though never taught to read or write,
I've heard him bark, and felt him bite:
For teeth and tongue he freely lends,
To plague his foes or please his friends.

And yet the fellow ne'er is safe
From the tremendous beak of Ralph;
A raven grim, in black and blue,
As arch a knave as e'er you knew;
Who hops about with broken pinions,
And thinks these walls his own dominions!
This wag a mortal foe to Bill is,
They fight like Hector and Achilles,
Bold Billy runs with all his might,
And conquers, Parthian-like, in flight;
While Ralph his own importance feels,
And wages endless war with heels:
Horses and dogs, and geese and deer,
He slily pinches in the rear;
They start, surprised with sudden pain,
While honest Ralph sheers off again!

Next an unhappy buck appears,
With rueful look and flagging ears;
A feeble, lean, consumptive elf,
The very picture of myself!
My ghost-like form and new-moon phiz,
Are just the counter parts of his:
Blasted like me by fortune's frown,
Like me TWICE hunted, TWICE run down1
Like me pursued, almost to death,
He's come to gaol to save his breath!
Still, on his painful limbs, are seen
The scars where worrying dogs have been;
Still, in his woe-imprinted face,
I weep a broken heart to trace.
Daily the mournful wretch I feed,
With crumbs of comfort and of bread;
But man, false man! so well he knows,
He deems the species all his foes:
In vain I smile to soothe his fear,
He will not, dare not, come too near;
He lingers — looks — and fain he would—
Then strains his neck to reach the food.
Oft as his plaintive looks I see,
A brother's bowels yearn in me;
I share his griefs with feelings fond,
As strings in unison respond.
What rocks and tempests yet await
Both him and me, we leave to fate;
We know, by past experience taught,
That innocence availeth nought:
I know, and 'tis my proudest boast,
That conscience is itself an host;
While this inspires my swelling breast,
Let all forsake me — I'm at rest!
Ten thousand deaths, in every nerve,
I'd rather SUFFER than DESERVE!

But yonder comes the victim's wife,
A dappled doe, all fire and life;
She trips along with gallant pace,
Her limbs alert, her motion grace;
Soft as the moon-light fairies bound,
Her footsteps scarcely kiss the ground;
Gently she lifts her fair brown head,
And licks my hand, and begs for bread:
I pat her forehead, stroke her neck,
She starts and gives a modest squeak;
Then, while her eye with brilliance burns,
The fawning animal returns;
Pricks her bob-tail, and waves her ears,
And happier than a queen appears!
—Sweet nymph! from fierce ambition free,
And all the WOES OF LIBERTY;
Born in a gaol, a prisoner bred,
No dreams of hunting rack thine head;
Ah! mayst thou never pass these bounds,
To see the world — and feel the hounds!—
Still all her beauty, all her art,
Have failed to win her husband's heart;
Her lambent eyes, and lovely chest;
Her swan-white neck, and ermine breast;
Her taper legs, and spotty side,
So softly, delicately pied,
In vain their fond allurements spread,
Her spouse — has antlers on his head!
Yet why should those be deemed unpleasant,
They're Nature's and not Nanny's present!

But, lo! the evening shadows fall
Broader and browner from the wall;
A warning voice, like curfew bell,
Commands each captive to his cell;
My faithful dog and I retire,
To play and chatter by the fire:
Soon comes a turnkey with "Good night, sir!"
And bolts the door with all his might, sir!
Then leisurely to bed I creep,
And sometimes wake — and sometimes sleep.

These are the joys that reign in prison,
And if I'm happy, 'tis with reason:
Yet still this prospect, o'er the rest,
Makes every blessing doubly blest;
That soon these pleasures will be vanished,
And I, from all these comforts, banished!

[pp. 42-72]