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Significant Scots
James Montgomery


James Montgomery MONTGOMERY, JAMES, was the last of the brilliant galaxy of poets (excepting Samuel Rogers) which illuminated the hemisphere of British literature in the early part of the present century. He was born at Irvine, in Ayrshire, November 4, 1771. His father was a Moravian minister stationed at that time in Irvine. The house where the poet was born still exists, and is an object of interest to strangers visiting the town. It was originally a detached building, situated in the centre of an open space, and consisted of a pretty large room, which was used as a chapel by the Moravian congregation, and a separate apartment in which the family lived, and where the poet was born. The house is now surrounded by other buildings, and what was once the chapel is occupied as a weaver’s shop. The poet’s father must have been in straitened circumstances, as he found it necessary to devote part of his time to a manual occupation; and a townsman and friend of the poet’s, who has furnished the writer with several other particulars of his early history, remembers being informed by an old friend, thirty years ago, that he recollected attending the chapel one evening in his youth, when the poet’s father closed the service by addressing the congregation in substance as follows:—"I am a man of simple tastes and habits, but I cannot live upon air; and therefore, individuals present will have an opportunity, when they retire, of leaving behind them what they think proper towards my support." The Moravian cause seems not to have found a genial soil in Irvine, as, on the removal of the poet’s father to Ireland, in 1775, no preacher appears to have succeeded him. The town of Ayr now possesses the only Moravian congregation in Scotland. From the period when his father was ordered by the Moravian body to do duty at their establishment of Gracehill, near Ballymena, in Ireland, and whither he accordingly removed his family, till the year 1841, being a period of sixty-six years, James Montgomery had not once visited Scotland. He was between four and five years of age when he left Irvine, but his recollections of his early years were extremely vivid, and on the occasion of his visIt to his native town, he related some of them with great delight to a meeting of the inhabitants assembled to do him honour. One of these anecdotes was connected with his removal from Ireland to the Moravian school at Fulneck, near Leeds, in Yorkshire. He had received the elements of his education from "Jemmy M’Caffery," the village schoolmaster at Gracehill, and being now between six and seven years of age, it was determined to send him to school in England. Taking a child’s farewell of his mother, he and his father embarked in a vessel bound for Liverpool, and were overtaken by a violent storm. The poet remembered how his childish terror was soothed by the affection of his father, and his confidence restored by his expressions of trust in the providence of God and the love of his Redeemer. The effect produced upon the boy attracted the attention of the master of the vessel, who, himself evincing considerable solicitude in the trying circumstances, observed—"I would give a hundred guineas for the faith of that child." Mr. Montgomery took great pleasure in looking back upon the incidents of the voyage, as having called forth memorable evidence of the simple faith and piety of his father. James was placed in the Moravian institution at Fulneck in October, 1777. Another of his early reminiscences related to this school. It was visited on one occasion by the celebrated Lord Monboddo, whose figure the poet recalled as dressed in a rough closely-buttoned coat, with top boots, and carrying in his hand a large whip, such as huntsmen use. He inquired if there was any Scotch boy in the school; and the teacher having produced young Montgomery, Lord Monboddo looked the future poet sternly in the face, and, after addressing to him some counsels suitable to his years—holding the whip towards him, as the boy thought, in unpleasant proximity—"Mind, Sir," he added, "that I trust you will never do anything to disgrace your country." "This," said the poet, "I never forgot, nor shall I forget it while I live. I have, indeed, endeavoured so to act hitherto, that my country might never have cause to be ashamed of me; nor will I, on my part, ever be ashamed of her." In 1783, John Montgomery and his wife, the father and mother of the poet, proceeded to the West Indies, as missionaries. The only allusion in Montgomery’s poems to the place of his birth occurs in the verses written on revisiting Fulneck school in 1806, and the remembrance of Irvine recalled the image of his sainted parents, both of whom had died in the West Indies:—

"The loud Atlantic ocean,
On Scotland’s rugged breast,
Rocks, with harmonious motion,
His weary waves to rest,
And gleaming round her emerald isles
In all the pomp of sunset smiles.
On that romantic shore
My parents hailed their first-born boy;
A mother’s pangs my mother bore,
My father felt a father’s joy;
My father, mother—parents now no morel
Beneath the Lion Star they sleep,
Beyond the western deep,
And when the sun’s noon-glory crests the waves,
He shines without a shadow on their graves."

The boy remained for ten years at Fulneck, where he was carefully educated, it being the wish of the Brethren to train him for the ministry; but the bent of his mind not being in that direction, the intention was not persisted in. His first poetical impulse was received from reading Blair’s "Grave." At the age of twelve he produced some small poems, and his taste for poetry was cherished by reading extracts from Milton, Thomson, and Young, together with such books as he could procure and enjoy by stealth. He was sent to earn his bread as an assistant in a chandler’s shop, but did not take kindly to the occupation, ran away from his master, and after another year of service with a second, at last set off to London with 3s. 6d. in his pocket, to seek fame and fortune. He offered a manuscript volume of verse to Mr. Harrison, publisher, Paternoster Row, who rejected the poetry, but engaged the poet as a clerk. In this situation he continued for eight months, but feeling the drudgery irksome, he made his way back to Yorkshire. In 1792 he obtained employment in the establishment of Mr. Gales, a bookseller in Sheffield, who had commenced a newspaper named the "Sheffield Register." Montgomery found the labour of a journalist congenial to his tastes; but those were difficult times for men who entertained and propagated liberal opinions, as the young poet soon discovered. Mr. Gales was obliged to flee from England, to avoid prosecution for printing an article which incurred the displeasure of the despotic government of the day. The poet now became the editor and publisher of the paper, changing its name to the "Sheffield Iris." Although more prudent and moderate than his predecessor, he was also more gifted, and therefore more obnoxious to men in power, who set a watch for his halting. The whole nation was convulsed by the example and influence of the French revolution, and political feeling ran high in Sheffield, when Montgomery undertook the labours and responsibility of editorship. Reverting, thirty-one years afterwards, in his valedictory address to his readers, to this era of his life, he said:—"With all the enthusiasm of youth, for I had not then arrived at years of discretion, I entered into the feelings of those who avowed themselves the friends of freedom, justice, and humanity. Though with every pulse of my heart beating in favour of the popular doctrines, my retired and religious education had laid restraints upon my conscience, which (I may fearlessly say so) long kept me back from personally engaging in the civil war of words raging in the neighbourhood, beyond occasional rhyme, paragraph, or essay, in the newspaper, written rather for the purpose of showing my literary than my political qualifications. Ignorant of myself, and inexperienced in the world as a child of seven years old, having actually not lived so long among its everyday inhabitants, even when I became editor of the "Iris," I nevertheless was preserved from joining myself to any of the political societies till they were broken up in 1794, when, I confess, I did associate with the remnant of one of them for a purpose which I shall never be ashamed to avow; to support the families of several of the accused leaders, who were detained prisoners in London, under the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and who were finally discharged without having been brought to trial." The rule of his editorial conduct, he adds, was "a plain determination, come wind or sun, come fire or water, to do what was right." It was in 1794 that the "Iris" was commenced, and it was carried on "through a series of sufferings, desertions, crosses, and calamities without a name," persecuted by the aristocrats and abandoned by the Jacobins; yet the editor outlived the hostility of his enemies, won their confidence and friendship, and for years after 1805, which ended, as he observes, the "romance" of his life, he was supported, by the same arms that had fought against him, in a path of moderate prosperity. The more romantic incidents of the period referred to were his being twice prosecuted and imprisoned for alleged political offences. An example was wanted, as he tells us, to deter others from doing what he had not yet done, but what they were doing with impunity. He had scarcely been installed a month in the editorial chair, when he was one day called into the bookseller’s shop, where business-orders were received, to see an old grotesque-looking ballad-monger, who was offering twelve songs for a penny, and running glibly over a catalogue of their names. Presenting Montgomery with a specimen of the article, he inquired what would be the cost of six quires of the same. The reply was, that the presses were better employed than in printing such commodities, and he was recommended to apply elsewhere. "But you have this standing in your office," was the rejoinder; whereupon, expressing his ignorance of the fact, Montgomery took up the printed leaf, and found that it contained two copies of verses, with each of which he had long been familiar, although he had never before seen them in that particular form. In a wood-cut figure of Liberty and the British Lion, he now recognized the frontispiece of an extinct periodical conducted by his predecessor; and on inquiring in the printing-office, he found that the ballads had been put in type surreptitiously by one of Mr. Gales’ apprentices, for the use of his companions, and that the ballad-vender had lately, for old acquaintance sake, been furnished by the foreman with a quantity for sale. On learning these particulars, Montgomery allowed the poor fellow to obtain what he wanted. Eighteen pence worth of the ballads was accordingly worked off, and paid for. In two months afterwards Montgomery was arrested, on a magistrate’s warrant, for publishing a certain seditious libel respecting the war then waging between his majesty and the French government, entitled, "A Patriotic Song, by a Clergyman of Belfast," which song had, in fact, been composed in 1792, a year before the war with France commenced, and referred solely to the invasion of France by the armies of Austria and Prussia. It was enough that the song had been printed by Montgomery, and vended by a ballad-monger, who went about crying "Straws to sell!" and giving away the ballad into the bargain. A constable purchased a straw, obtained the ballad to boot, and took the ballad-seller into custody. Upon the evidence of the constable and the ballad-monger, Montgomery was found guilty of the publication, by a jury, at Doncaster sessions, January 22, 1795; and the sentence of the court was three months’ imprisonment in the castle of York, and a fine of 20. Forty-four years afterwards, in 1839, Mr. Montgomery received a packet, containing several of the original documents connected with his trial. Amongst these was a letter from the Duke of Portland, then the home-secretary, to a local magistrate, approving of the steps taken against the song-seller and the publisher. The "compliments" of the attorney-general, Sir John Scott, afterwards Lord Eldon, were, according to instructions from Mr. White, solicitor to the treasury, to accompany the brief to three counsel named, and the Sheffield solicitor’s bill of costs was indorsed Rex v. Montgomery. " Thus (says the poet) I learned that I had actually suffered, not to say enjoyed, the honour of a State prosecution." A fragment of the original draft of the brief was also received, stating that "this prosecution is carried on chiefly with a view of putting a stop to the meetings of the associated clubs in Sheffield; and it is hoped that, if we are fortunate enough to succeed in convicting the prisoner, it will go a great way towards curbing the insolence they have uniformly manifested." The second offence for which Mr. Montgomery was tried and imprisoned, was the printing, in his paper, of a paragraph reflecting hardly upon the conduct of a magistrate in quelling a riot at Sheffield in 1795. The trial took place at Doncaster sessions in 1796, a verdict was given against the defendant, and he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in York Castle, to pay a fine of thirty pounds to the king, and to give security to keep the peace for two years. Mr. Montgomery never complained of this trial and sentence; and he records, in the introduction to his "Prison Amusements," that the magistrate whom he had offended, took the opportunity, a few years afterward, of showing him both kindness and confidence in an affair of business, and that his conduct evinced that his mind was as much discharged of hostile feeling towards his editorial opponent, "as, I trust (says the latter), mine was of resentment against him." In the same spirit, the poet in his valedictory address in 1825, said—"I can now add that all the persons who were actively concerned in the prosecutions against me in 1794 and 1795 are dead, and without exception they died in peace with me. I believe I am quite correct in saying, that from each of them distinctly, in the sequel, I received tokens of good-will, and from several of them substantial proofs of kindness."

Having failed to obtain poetical renown by his youthful effusions, Mr. Montgomery informs us that he resolved to secure it by such means as made many of his contemporaries notorious. He wrote doggrel verse after the model of Peter Pindar, and prose in the style of Fielding and Smollett, occasionally imitating the wild flights of the German plays and romances. To the failure of these attempts he refers in this characteristic remark:—"A Providence of disappointment shut every door in my face, by which I attempted to force my way to a dishonourable fame;" and he congratulates himself on having been saved from appearing as the author of works of which he should afterwards have felt ashamed. His first successful poetical effort was "The Wanderer of Switzerland," which appeared in 1806. This poem, descriptive of the sufferings of the Swiss, when the independence of their country was destroyed by France, was severely handled in the "Edinburgh Review," and afterwards defended by Lord Byron. It was followed by "The West Indies," written to accompany a series of pictures published as a memorial of the abolition of the slave-trade. In this genial labour, to which the poet says he gave his whole mind, as affording him an opportunity of exposing the iniquities of slavery and the slave-trade, he was associated with Grahame, the author of "The Sabbath," and Miss Benger, who wrote several works in history and biography. In 1813 appeared "The World before the Flood," suggested to the poet by a passage in the eleventh book of "Paradise Lost," referring to the translation of Enoch. This was followed in 1819 by "Greenland," a poem in five cantos, the plan, which was not fully carried out, being to describe the original condition of the country and its people, and exhibit the changes wrought by the introduction of the gospel by the Moravian missionaries. The last and best of Montgomery’s works, "The Pelican Island," was published in 1827, and confirmed the author’s title to a high place amongst the British poets. It is the most imaginative of all his writings, and abounds in fresh and vigorous description. Each of the principal poems, issued at intervals, was accompanied by minor and miscellaneous compositions, many of them of great merit, and possessing the elements of lasting popularity. "The Prison Amusements" is the name given to a series of small poems on various subjects, written during his incarcerations in York Castle. "The Grave" appeared in the first volume of the poet’s works, and is one of the best known of his minor pieces.

In "Thoughts on Wheels," the poet denounced the national wickedness and folly of the State lotteries, and powerfully contributed to the abolition of this disgraceful method of replenishing the public treasury. In this poem, Montgomery introduces an apostrophe to Britain, breathing a lofty strain of patriotism and piety. When he visited Scotland in 1841, he read these verses at a public breakfast to which he was invited in Glasgow, as expressing his personal feelings towards his native land and its noble institutions. The sufferings of chimney-sweepers’ apprentices engaged his sympathy, and drew from his pen a series of verses, under the title of "The Climbing Boy’s Soliloquies." He paraphrased a number of the Psalms of David in "Songs of Zion," but admitted, when in Scotland, that no version of the Psalms came up to that used in the Presbyterian Churches for scriptural simplicity and truthfulness to the original. "The Common Lot," "The Little Cloud," "Night," "Robert Burns," "The Daisy in India," "Friends," "A Voyage Round the World," and numerous hymns, are amongst the minor compositions which have made his name familiar wherever there is piety to feel their force and taste to appreciate their beauty. His collected poetical works were published by Longman and Co., London, in four 12mo volumes, in 1841, and an edition in one volume appeared in 1851. This was followed in 1853, by "Original Hymns, for Public, Private, and Social Devotion." Montgomery also produced several prose writings, lectured on poetry, and edited "The Christian Poets," published by Collins in Glasgow. The religious character of his larger poems has, no doubt, limited the range of his readers, but both in this country and in America, his works enjoy a high reputation; and in the United States, have run through numerous editions. The purity of his language, the fluency of his numbers, and above all the evangelical spirit of his religious compositions, have exerted a considerable influence upon public taste and feeling. The tendency of all he wrote was to purify and elevate. The catholicity of his religious poems reflects the spirit of their author, who was singularly free from sectarian narrowness. His latter years were devoted to active usefulness and works of beneficence in Sheffield, where he was universally known and beloved. He died at his residence, the Mount, in that town, April 30, 1854, in his eighty-third year, and was honoured with a public funeral. The venerable poet had enjoyed, for some years, a well-deserved literary pension from government, of 150 a-year.

The ostensible object of Mr. Montgomery’s visit to Scotland, in 1841, when he was accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Latrobe, was the promotion of the missions of the United Brethren; but he also avowed a strong desire to see the place of his nativity before he died. His reception by the magistrates and inhabitants of Irvine was most enthusiastic. In Edinburgh and Glasgow, also, he was received with the utmost respect. In Irvine he visited, at her own request, Mrs. Thomson, an aged lady, who had been intimate with his parents, and had often carried him in her arms when a child. His interview with this venerable person, and his visit to the house where he was born, excited profound feeling in the heart of the poet. In the old chapel, where the weavers were at work, he was gratified to find a copy of the verses quoted above, glazed, framed, and hung up in a conspicuous place, where it had often previously been seen by visitors. One of the gentlemen present commenced to read the verses, but his reading not pleasing the poet, he repeated them himself with peculiar grace and tenderness. Whilst these pages are passing through the press (1855), a proposal is being favourably entertained by the townsmen of the poet to purchase the house in which he was born, and preserve it as a monument to his memory.


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