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James Montgomery (1771-1854)

This article was written by Richard Garnett and was published in 1894

James Montgomery, poet, was born at Irvine in Ayrshire, 4 November 1771. His family, originally Scottish, had for several generations been settled in Ulster, where his great-grandfather is said to have possessed and dissipated a landed estate. His father, John Montgomery, had at all events been born in the condition of a labourer at Ballykennedy, co. Antrim, in 1733. Having embraced the tenets of the Moravians, who had founded a settlement in the neighbourhood, to which they had given the name of Grace Hill, the elder Montgomery became a minister; married a member of the Moravian community in 1768, and at the time of his son's birth had just arrived at Irvine to take charge of the Moravian congregation, at that time the only one in Scotland. He returned to Ireland in 1775, and in 1777 James was sent to school at the Moravian establishment at Fulneck, near Leeds. His parents proceeded in 1783 as missionaries to Barbados, and there his father died of yellow fever in 1791. His mother, Mary Montgomery, had died at Tobago in the previous year.

Meanwhile James had met with some adventures. Neglecting the studies considered essential at Fulneck, he employed himself in the composition of two epic poems, one on Alfred, the other entitled ‘The World,’ in the manner of Milton. The principal incident in the latter was the Archangel Michael taking Satan by surprise and lopping off one of his wings. The Moravians for a time clipped Montgomery's own wings by placing him with a baker; but the employment proved intolerable, and in 1787 Montgomery ran away with three and sixpence in his pocket and a bundle of verses, which proved more valuable than might have been expected, for a poem, written out fairly and presented to Earl Fitzwilliam, brought him a guinea. He was, nevertheless, soon obliged to apply for a character to his old instructors and to his master, who treated him with much kindness, and he obtained a situation in a general store in the little town of Wath. After a year he quitted this and made his way with his manuscripts to London, but, finding no encouragement from the publishers, returned to Wath, and remained there till April 1792, when, by answering an advertisement in the ‘Sheffield Register,’ he obtained a situation as clerk and bookkeeper in the office of that newspaper.

This change brought Montgomery into intellectual society; his literary talent began to be appreciated; he gradually became an extensive contributor to the paper; and an unexpected circumstance opened up the path to independence. This was the prosecution and flight of Mr. Gales, the proprietor and editor of the ‘Register,’ and an ardent reformer, on account of a letter found on the person of Thomas Hardy on his apprehension, and attributed to Gales, who was in fact cognisant of its having been sent, though he was not the actual writer. Gales escaped to America; money to carry on the paper was found by a wealthy townsman named Naylor, and Montgomery became the working editor of the journal, which endeavoured to disarm the hostility of the government by changing its title to the ‘Sheffield Iris,’ and adopting a more moderate line in politics.

In 1795 Naylor retired from the paper on account of his marriage, and it became the property of Montgomery, who also entered into business as a general printer. Within a few years he was enabled to pay off the purchase-money of the journal, and to obtain a highly respectable competence. Before this was achieved, however, he had to bear the brunt of two prosecutions for libel, each of which resulted in his conviction and imprisonment for a term in York Castle, though neither could affix the least stigma to his character. The first prosecution (January 1795) was on account of a ballad in commemoration of the Fall of the Bastille, a few copies of which had been sold to a travelling hawker; it had been printed by Montgomery's predecessor, and had in fact no reference to the events of the day. It was subsequently shown by official correspondence that the prosecution was instituted as a means of intimidating the Sheffield political clubs.

The second prosecution (January 1796) Montgomery undoubtedly brought upon himself by statements respecting the behaviour of a magistrate, Colonel Athorpe, in dispersing a riotous assemblage, which could not be fully justified, although the explanations he was ready to have offered would probably have been accepted but for the embittered state of political feeling at the time. After his release in July he published the ‘Prison Amusements’ which had enlivened his confinement, and in 1798 a volume of essays entitled ‘The Whisperer,’ under the pseudonym of ‘Gabriel Silvertongue.’ He subsequently destroyed every copy he could lay his hands on; while a novel, in four volumes, completed during his second imprisonment, was destroyed in manuscript.

For some time the ‘Iris’ was the only newspaper in Sheffield; but beyond the ability to produce fairly creditable articles from week to week, Montgomery was entirely devoid of the journalistic faculties which would have enabled him to take advantage of his position. Other newspapers arose to fill the place which his might have occupied, and in 1825 the journal passed into other hands. During the greater part of this period he had given more attention to poetry than to journalism. ‘The Ocean’ (1805) attracted little attention, but ‘The Wanderer of Switzerland’ (1806), founded upon the French conquest of Switzerland, took the public ear at once, probably on account of the subject, and from the merit of some of the miscellaneous pieces accompanying it, especially the really fine and still popular lyric, ‘The Grave.’ The principal poem is as a whole very feeble, though a happy thought or vigorous expression may be found here and there. The volume nevertheless speedily went through three editions, and its sale was not materially checked by a caustic review from the pen of Jeffrey (Edinb. Rev. January 1807), which indeed gained Montgomery many friends.

He himself became a reviewer, taking an important part in the newly established ‘Eclectic Review,’ in which he afterwards declared that he had noticed every contemporary of note except Byron. His criticism evinces little insight; he is a tolerably safe guide where no guidance is needed, but is slow, though by no means through unwillingness to appreciate the merits of contemporaries. A more thoroughly impartial critic never wrote. The success of ‘The Wanderer’ brought him in 1807 a commission from the printer Bowyer to write a poem on the abolition of the slave trade, to be published along with other poems on the subject in a handsome illustrated volume. The subject was well adapted to Montgomery's powers, appealing at once to the philanthropic enthusiasm in which his strength lay, and to his own touching associations with the West Indies. His poem entitled ‘The West Indies’ accordingly appeared in Bowyer's illustrated publication in 1809. It is a great improvement on ‘The Wanderer,’ and, although rather rhetoric than poetry, is in general well conceived and well expressed, and skilful as well as sincere in its appeals to public sentiment. On its first appearance in Bowyer's volume it proved a failure, but when published separately it obtained great popularity. ‘The World before the Flood’ (1812), also in heroic verse, is a more ambitious attempt, and displays more poetic fire and spirit than any of Montgomery's previous performances; nor is it so deficient in human interest as might have been expected in an epic on the wars of the giants and the patriarchs. The descriptive passages frequently possess great merit, which is even exceeded in Montgomery's next considerable effort, ‘Greenland’ (1819), a poem founded on the Moravian missions to Greenland. Montgomery's last important poem, ‘The Pelican Island’ (1826), also contains very fine descriptive passages, but with more preaching has less human interest than ‘Greenland,’ and is marred by being written in blank verse, of which the author was by no means a master. A considerable part of his reputation with the public at large rests upon his numerous hymns, which were collected in 1853. The finest were those written in his earlier years, including ‘Go to dark Gethsemane,’ ‘Songs of praise the Angels sang,’ and ‘For ever with the Lord.’ Over a hundred of his other hymns are still in use.

After retiring from the ‘Iris,’ Montgomery continued to reside at Sheffield, where he had come to be accounted a local hero, and grew more and more in the respect of his fellow-townsmen by his exemplary life and activity in furthering every good work, whether philanthropic or religious. In 1830 and 1831 he delivered lectures on poetry at the Royal Institution, which were published in 1833. They are, perhaps, of all his writings those which it is easiest to praise unreservedly, the opinions being almost invariably just, and conveyed with a force and sometimes even a poetry of diction which nothing in his previous criticisms had seemed to promise. In 1831 he also compiled from the original documents the journals of D. Tyerman and G. Bennet, who had been deputed by the London Missionary Society to visit their stations in the South Sea Islands, China, and India. In 1835 he received a pension of £150 on the recommendation of Sir Robert Peel, and about the same time contributed fairly adequate accounts of Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso to Lardner's ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia.’ The remainder of his life was devoted to religious and philanthropic undertakings. He died rather suddenly on 30 April 1854. He was honoured by a public funeral, and a monument designed by John Bell was erected over his grave in the Sheffield cemetery. He was unmarried.

Montgomery was emphatically a good man; greatness, whether intellectual or poetical, cannot be claimed for him. He had sound plain sense; his conversation, judging from the copious specimens recorded by his biographers, was instructive and entertaining, but neither brilliant nor profound; his letters, though expressive of his admirable character, are in general grievously verbose. As a poet he is only eminent in descriptive passages, for which he is usually indebted to books rather than his own observation of nature. There are some indications of creative power in ‘The World before the Flood,’ and the character of Javan is well drawn; but, as Mrs. Hofland remarked, he drew from himself. The minor pieces which have obtained a wide circulation usually deserve it, but they are buried in his works among masses of commonplace which should never have been printed. He is largely indebted for his fame to the approbation of religious circles, better judges of his sentiments than of his poetry: this has, on the other hand, occasioned unreasonable prejudice against him in other quarters. On the whole he may be characterised as something less than a genius and something more than a mediocrity.

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