MEMOIRS OF JAMES MONTGOMERY. * A MAN of original mind, especially
if his bias is towards intel- lectual pursuits, is to a great degree independent of time. He may be better fitted for one age than another, but he will acquire some distinction in any age. Smaller men are more indebted to the accident of birth. A facile mediocrity, which in its first ap- pearance may be a "gift," but which can be extensively produced by social circumstances and the fashion of imitation, owes its dis- tinction in a good measure to circumstances. What countless " artists" were produced in the decline of ancient art after the great masters had left exemplars of various styles, and carried mechanical execution to the highest pitch ! What numbers of poets have we now, who if they had been lucky enough to live a generation or two earlier would have shone for awhile and twinkled faintly even after death! The works they produce are not bad, but their qualities are not first-rate or rare, and rarity is an essential to permanent distinction.
James Montgomery belonged to this class. His leading charac- teristics were fluency, and, compared with the great masters of the lyre, feebleness. A truthful thought, a felicitous ex- pression, might occasionally be found in his poetry, but the great bulk of it was common in idea and rather easy than flowing in versification. His larger subjects were mostly on matters of which he had no knowledge,—as Switzerland, the West Indies, the World before the Flood ; and though examples show that this want of actual knowledge is not an insuperable bar to a poet, it requires a greater genius than James Montgomery's truthfully to represent the unseen. His smaller pieces were of the kind called occasional; and, though sometimes happily chosen, were seldom equal to their theme. We think there is little in James Montgomery that im- presses itself on the mind,—passages which the memory cannot forget, but which become a part of the intellectual being.
The reputation of James Montgomery was to a great extent an accident of good fortune. He appeared at a time when Hayley was considered a great poet, and the world was tolerant of Rosa- Matildaism, and even endured Fitzgerald. An unaffected fresh- ness of mind and feeling, the simple or common character of his thoughts, and the easy amplitude of his verse, were not only pleasing to a large multitude, but more pleasing probably than deeper thoughts or stronger diction. Then, Montgomery spon- taneously, though not intentionally, addressed a class, prone to ex- aggerate the merit of their friends. He was (when converted) Evangelical ; he was philanthropical, an opponent of Slavery, and an apostle of Peace. He had suffered for the Liberal cause ; and though his two imprisonments were neither very long nor very severe, still he had been persecuted in bad times. With posterity these things are of small account, but they tell with a man's own generation, especially with that portion of it which forms a party clique.
Yet the author of "The World before the Flood" is entitled to a separate biography : for, independently of his contemporary standing as a poet, his early career was checkered if not eventful ; he lived through troublesome and stirring times, to which his at- tention as the editor of a newspaper was of necessity drawn, and of which in a small way he might have said " quorum pars fni," though against the grain. The volumes before us present the world with a good deal too much of the subject, and not in the best way. The tone of the work is of too provincial a cast. Both Sheffield and the hero are made too much of, and yet a good deal escapes the biographers. The volumes are too much sprinkled with extracts from the poetical remains of Montgomery. His correspondence is too fully drawn upon from commonplace letters ; and though some specimens from his newspaper the /rig were proper, there are too many. Neither is their want of biographical interest atoned for by the presence of literary interest; for the writer's prose was more diffuse and feeble than his poetry. A * Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery; including Selections from his Correspondence, Remains in Prose and Verse, and Conversations on 'vinous subjects. By John Holland and James Everett. Volumes I. and II. Pub- lished by Longman and Co. journal such as the Iris a pears to have been mould have sunk at once had it started now. It is curious that the poetical imagery is one source of weakness, on subjecti that would seem adapted to poetry ; but the imagery is out of place. James Montgomery was born at Irvine in Scotland, in 1771. His parents were Moravians ; and at six years of age the future poet was placed in the Moravian establishment at Fulneck near Leeds. The intention was to make him a preacher; but the poetical temperament was strong in him. He read what poetry he could get at, which was not much save Moravian hymns ; but he imitated all he met with. Indeed his childhood was as industrious as Pope's in verse-making, though he had not Pope's advantages either in models, study, or means of observation. It is probable that the delicate, melancholy, musing, and impulsive boy, was not much admired in a sect which requires an obedience as strict, and as complete a renunciation of what is called the world, as Romanism. At sixteen he was " turned out of the school "—it was alleged, for "indolence," but rather, it should seem, from a dislike taken to him by one of the masters, a German. " Turned out" was Montgomery's phrase—" rustication" would perhaps be the more proper term ; for he was placed with a Moravian who kept a general shop at Mirfield —at least "for the present," as if there was a chance of his return to the fold. His master was a kind-hearted man, not overburdened with business ; and Montgomery employed himself in writing verses and practising the hautboy. At the end of eighteen months he ran away, and got a situation at a Yorkshire village called Wath, with a Mr. Hunt, who kept a " store " or shop where almost everything could be bought. The recommendation of his former master was, however, asked and procured ; that good man acting under the advice of the Moravian board at Fulneck. Montgomery remained at Wath about a twelvemonth, and made the acquaint- ance of a bookseller and stationer, who dealt with Harrison a pub- lisher in Paternoster Row. By this village Maecenas a volume of Montgomery's poetry was transmitted to Harrison, and the bard followed with a recommendation. Harrison, who was himself an author, contributing both prose and verse to the Magazines he published, at once gave Montgomery a situation in the shop, ad- vised him to cultivate his talents, and praised his poetry, but de- clined to publish it. In compliance with his master's advice, Montgomery wrote in several periodicals • his first appear- ance in print being in 1791, when a medley called "The Chimera" was printed in Dr. Anderson's Bee. He also made several attempts to publish something as a book ; but with the usual ill success of poor, unbefriended, and raw authors.
"From the hint given by Marshall, [a bookseller to whom Montgomery had offered what he intended for a child's tale,) that he was more fit to write for men than children,' Montgomery set to work, and wrote a nevelt in imitation of the style of Fielding. He at once placed this in the hands of Lane the publisher ; who observed, that he was just going down to his coun- try-house, and would take the MS. with him, and read it. On his return to town, Montgomery waited upon him, and was astonished ('petreiged'—to use his own expression) to hear Lane say, 'You swear so shockingly, that I dare not publish the work as it is.' This,' said he to us, 'was like a dag- ger to my heart, for I never swore an oath in my life ; nor did I, till that moment, ever perceive, as I ought to have done, the impropriety of making fictitious characters swear in print, as they do in Fielding and Smollett, who had been my models in that novel: but swearing was more the character of that age than the present' Lane, however, told him, that if he would re-
write the work, he would give him twenty pounds for it. • * * "Though he here met with another, and—he may well have deemed it at the time—a serious disappointment, yet there was sufficient in Lane's propo- sal to keep hope alive, and encourage an ardent mind like Montgomery's in the work of composition. Accordingly, he soon produced an `Eastern tale ' and carried it one evening to a publisher in town ; to whose private room he was introduced through the shop, presenting his MS. to the awful personage with equal trepidation and formality. The cautious bibliopolist read the title, counted first the pages, then the lines in each, and, after a brief calculation, turned to the author, who was not a little surprised at this mode of estimat- ing the merit of a work of imagination, by pinching it between the thumb and fingers !—very civilly placed the copy in his hand, saying, Sir, your manuscript is too small—it won't do for me ; take it to —, he publishes these kind of things.' The young author withdrew from the presence of the literary Rhadamanthus with so much embarrassment and precipitation, that iu repassing through the shop, he bolted his head right against a patent lamp, smashed the glass, and spilt the oil."
Tired of London, and disgusted with the lack of patronage for literature, on which theme he wrote some verses, Montgomery re- turned in 1790 to his old quarters at Wath, and remained there till 1792. He then got a situation with Mr. Gales, a printer, book- seller, and auctioneer, in Sheffield ; a man of some local prominence as the proprietor of the Sheffield Register, and, in the language of the day, a virulent Democrat. Besides his ostensible duties of clerk and book-keeper, Montgomery assisted in the compilation of the paper, and contributed original pieces both in prose and verse ; some of the latter in the style of Peter Pinder. In 1794, when the country was engaged in the war with France, the King issued a proclamation for the 24th of February to be observed as a general fast "The Friends of Peace and Reform' at Sheffield chose to honour the day after their own fashion, by holding a large public meeting ; at which, after a prayer, delivered by Billy Broomhead,' and a 'serious lecture,' composed, but not read, by Neddy Oakes,' a hymn, written for the occasion by Mont- gomery, ` was sung in full chorus' by the assembly, consisting of several thousand persons. After this, a chairman was appointed, and a series of eleven resolutions of a strong character were unanimously passed.' A de- scription of The Fast Day, as observed at Sheffield,' was published in a pamphlet, and a copy sent to the `London Corresponding Society' : this was seized, with the other papers of the Society, on the arrest of Hardy, their Secretary; and thus, as Montgomery once said, one of the first hymns of mine ever sung found its way into Billy Pitt's green bag,'—he might have added, 'and was afterwards recited by Mr. Gibbs in the Sessions-house of the Old Bailey.' The evidence relative to this meeting forms a large item in the report of proceedings on Hardy's trial." A few months after this triumphant day, Mr. Gales found it pru- dent to remove out of jurisdiction. Political arrests were multi- plying around him, and his own conduet was by no means free from suspicion or something more. On one occasion, when it was alleged that a Church and King mob were about to attack his premises, a large mob holding opposite opinions assembled to guard them, and serenaded their proprietor with a parody on the national anthem, beginning, " God save great Thomas Paine." What was of more legal import, there appears little doubt but that Gales was implicated in a secret manufacture of pikes. He even- tually escaped to America, with such wreok of his property as Montgomery could save; but the Register ceased immediately on its proprietor's evasion. The paper called the Iris was started by Montgomery, with the assistanse of a capitalist; and on a dissolu- tion of partnership, the whole property finally came into his hands. From this period, till the poet's retirement and death, his life had less diversity than during his early youth. With occasional relaxation, he attended to his business as a printer and to the ma- nagement of his newspaper ; composing poetry in his intervals of leisure. He also wrote a good deal at one time for the Eclectic Review, and carried on an extensive correspondenee. His letters as they stand in the volumes are generally wearisome from their extreme diffuseness. For example—he was asked by Mrs. Gre- gory to state for the information of a common friend the two sub- jects that Chantrey had planned for two great works ; Montgomery occupies nearly eight closely-printed pages in reply, when the an- swer with all eta accessories might have been given in a page. Some of the letters from his friends are not without interest as in- dicative of the times, or for their intrinsic qualities. This from Robert Southey (in 1811) is a condensed and rapid picture of the mental condition of that distinguished writer, which we do not re- member to have read in his Life.
" I have passed through many changes of belief, as is likely to be the case with every man of ardent mind who is not early gifted with humility. Gib- bon shook my belief in Christianity when I was a schoolboy of seventeen. When I went to college it was in the height of the French &volution, and I drank deeply of that cup. I had a friend there whose name you have seen in my poems—Edmund Seward, an admirable man in all things, whose only fault was that he was too humble; for humble even to a fault he was. In his company, my religious interests were strengthened. But to those who have any religious feeling, you need not be told how chilling and withering the lip-service of a University must be. Sick of the College chapel and church, we tried the meeting-house; and there we were disgusted too. Seward left College meaning to take orders : I, who had the same destina- tion, became a Deist after he left us, and turned my thoughts to the profes- sion of physic. Godwin's book fell into my hands : many of his doctrines appeared as monstrous to me then as they do now ; but I became enamoured of a philosophical millennium. Coleridge came from Cambridge to visit a friend at Oxford on his way to a journey in Wales. That friend was my bosom companion : Coleridge was brought to my rooms ; and that meeting fixed the future fortunes of us both.
" Coleridge had at that time thought little of politics ; in morals he was as loose as men at a University usually are ; but he was a Unitarian. My morals were of the sternest stoicism : that same feeling which made me a poet kept me pure—before I had used Werther and Rousseau for Epietetus. Our meeting was mutually agreeable : I reformed his life, and he disposed me towards Christianity, by showing me that none of the arguments that had led me to renounce it were applicable against the Socinian scheme. He remained three or four weeks at Oxford; and we planned an Utopia of our own, to be founded in the wilds of America upon the basis of common pro- perty, each labouring for all—a Pantisocracy—a republic of reason and virtue.
" For this dream I gave up every other prospect. How painfully, and slowly I was awakened from it, this is not the time to say ; for my purpose is but to show you where I have been upon my pilgrim's progress, and how far I have advanced upon the way. I became a Socinian from the reason- ableness of the scheme, and still more so because I was shocked by the con- sequences of irreligion, such as they were seen in my daily intercourse with sceptics, unbelievers, and Atheists. I reasoned on it till I learnt and felt how vain it is to build up a religion wholly upon historical proofs. I learnt that religion could never be a living and quickening principle if we only as- sented to it as a mere act of the understanding. Something more was ne- cessary ; an operation of grace, a manifestation of the Spirit, an inward re- velation, a recognition of revealed truth. This drew me towards Quaker- ism, yet with too clear a perception of the errors and follies of the Quakers to be wholly in union with them. In what has all this ended ? you will ask. That I am still what in old times was called a seeker—a sheep without a fold, but not without a shepherd ; clinging to all that Christ has clearly taught, but shrinking from all attempts at defending, by articles of faith, those points which the Gospels have left indefinite. I am of no visible church, but assuredly I feel myself in the communion of saints."
The• two volumes before us dose with the year 1812, having got through about half of the poet's life. The remainder was less varied in occurrence., but was probably fuller of writing, from the growth of his reputation extending his connexions and correspond- ence, while he probably became more active in religious societies. If the work be centinued on its present plan, it will be far too 'ranch encumbered for general readers, and become rather a quarry of materials for a life than a life itself.