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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

James Montgomery (1771–1854)

JAMES MONTGOMERY was born at Irvine, in Ayrshire, on the 4th of November, 1771. His father, John Montgomery, went to the West Indies as a Moravian missionary, and died there in 1791. James was educated at the Moravian settlements of Grace Hill, Ireland, and Fulneck, in Yorkshire, and in 1792 entered the office of The Sheffield Register, a newspaper of which two years later he became proprietor, continuing its publication under the title of The Sheffield Iris. In 1795 he was tried on a charge of sedition for selling copies of a ballad on the demolition of the Bastille, printed by his predecessor, and was condemned to pay a fine of twenty pounds, and to suffer imprisonment in York Castle for a term of three months. In the following year he was again prosecuted, this time for his criticisms of the conduct of a magistrate in quelling a Sheffield riot. A fine of thirty pounds and a term of six months imprisonment was the result of his second trial, in addition to which he was bound over to keep the peace for two years. His first volume of verse was “The Wanderer of Switzerland,” and other poems, which appeared in 1806. This was followed in 1809 by “The West Indies,” a poem celebrating the abolition of the African slave trade by the British legislature; in 1812 by “The World before the Flood,” a poem in ten cantos dealing with the age of the patriarchs; in 1819 by “Greenland,” a poem in five cantos, treating of the history of the Moravian Church; and in 1826 by “The Pelican Island,” a poem in nine cantos, and in blank verse, describing the haunts of the pelican on the coast islands of New Holland. Besides these works he published “Prison Amusements,” poems written in prison in 1797; “Thoughts on Wheels,” an attack on State Lotteries, “The Climbing Boy’s Soliloquy,” an attempt to influence public feeling in favour of the chimney sweep; and “Original Hymns for public, private, and social devotion” (1853). In 1825 he retired from the editorship of The Sheffield Iris, and in 1830–1 delivered a series of Lectures before the Royal Institution on poetry and general literature, lectures which he published in 1833. He lived to a good old age in the enjoyment of a literary pension, and died suddenly at his residence, “The Mount,” Sheffield, April 30th, 1854.

James Montgomery was held in great esteem by the best of his contemporaries, and for a long time enjoyed a much higher position, both in their regard and in public opinion, than his poetic work would seem to justify. Leigh Hunt, in his “Feast of the Poets,” introduces Montgomery side by side with Campbell as a poet whom Apollo was glad to welcome, and yet of all those named as honoured of the song God at this “Feast of Reason,” Shelley, Keats, Scott, Rogers, Landor, Byron, Moore, Crabbe, Southey, Campbell, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Montgomery had surely the least right to be present. The secret of this exalted estimate is doubtless to be found in the character of the man, his unswerving integrity, genial benevolence, and enthusiastic zeal for the cause of freedom for which he suffered, and which made the poem that he lived greater than any that he wrote. The Edinburgh Review attacked “The Wanderer of Switzerland” on its publication with characteristic violence, and predicted that “in less than three years no one would know the name of its author.” Of course the Edinburgh was wrong in naming a three years’ limit, for in that period the work passed through a number of editions, and greatly extended its author’s fame; but equally, of course, the Edinburgh was right in denying “The Wanderer” a permanent place in literature. It is a feeble performance, and doubtless owed its popularity to the strong feeling of public sympathy felt for the Swiss patriots then suffering under French conquest. “The West Indies,” “The World before the Flood,” “Greenland,” and the “Pelican Islands,” show a great advance upon “The Wanderer,” and contain many passages of admirable descriptive writing. But even these are often but second-hand work,—the versification of the experiences of others—for his inspiration and information were drawn not from the book of nature direct, but from gazetteers and books of travel. “The World Before the Flood” is perhaps the most original of his longer works. It is not however by these longer poems that the name of James Montgomery will be perpetrated. It is as a religious poet, and as a writer of sacred lyrics which give expression to the aspirations and reflections of devout hearts, that he will be longest remembered; and it is not too much to say that in this department of poetic work his permanence seems fairly secure. Over a hundred of his hymns are said to be still in use. Among the more successful and popular of these are “Songs of praise the Angels sang,” “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” “At home in Heaven,” and “Go to dark Gethsemane.” “James Montgomery is essentially a religious poet,” wrote William Howitt, “and it is what of all things upon earth we can well believe he would most desire to be.” His Christian songs are vigorous in thought and feeling, simple and direct in diction, broad in Christian charity, lofty in spiritual aspiration, and entirely free from cant. As such they form a not unworthy opening section for a volume devoted to the sacred poetry of the century.