All posts by James Earley

James Montgomery: 90 miles outside the Lake School.

Literary history has condemned Montgomery to obscurity, whilst there are writers as the end of the eighteenth-century who far surpass Montgomery’s genius,  the degree to which Montgomery has been forgotten is a discredit to his work. In this blog post 18th Century MA student, James Earley, comments on Montgomery’s relationships with other late eighteenth-century poets.

William Wordsworth published The Lyrical Ballads (1798) as a collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. James Montgomery published The Wanderer of Switzerland (1806) under a decade later. Two-hundred years later, one is forgotten and one is considered a masterpiece of the English canon. Yet, a review of The Wanderer was published in Of English Bards (1816):

The bard of Sheffield is a man of considerable genius and his ‘Wanderer of Switzerland’ is worth a thousand ‘Lyrical Ballads’, and at least fifty ‘Degraded Epics’.

Lord Byron
Lord Byron

The man who wrote this review was George Gordon Byron, writing after publishing the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and The Giaour, in the same year that he fled Britain. Although Byron’s comment was largely due to the Liberal Wanderer being panned in the conservative Edinburgh Review, The Wanderer was commissioned for thirteen editions by 1850 and was very successfully received by Britain’s literary community. It is incredible, in modernity, that such an unknown poem was so favourably compared to The Lyrical Ballads.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also editing his own newspaper, The Watchman, in the late eighteenth-century. He refused to sell his newspaper in Sheffield and commented the reason was:

‘I should injure the sale of the Iris, the editor of which, (A very admirable and ingenious young man by the name of James Montgomery), is now in prison for libel on a bloody-minded Magistrate there… I declined publicly advertising or Disposing of The Watchman in that town.’

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

During Montgomery’s imprisonment in 1796, Coleridge published three poems in The Iris, one, ‘The Present State of Society’, was an advance section of Coleridge’s critically acclaimed Religious Musings (1796). Coleridge was not the only Lake poet who admired Montgomery, Robert Southey was one of his closest friends. In a letter sent to Montgomery in 1812, he concludes:

When will you come to me? From Leeds there is a coach to Kendal, & from Kendal there is one here. By this letter you have more knowledge of my inner man, than half the world would obtain in their whole lives.

Robert Southey.
Robert Southey

Montgomery’s relationship with Southey was close, and Southey spent a great deal of time trying to convince Montgomery to visit him, singing a letter in 1818 with ‘Come and see me Montgomery, -that we make talk together of this world, & of the next’.

The Prime Minister, Robert Peel, recommended Montgomery for a government pension of £150 in 1835. As other articles on this site have mentioned, he was granted a public funeral and a life sized bronze state was commissioned, and erected, outside Sheffield Cathedral. A concluding example of his poetic reputation was that, after the death of his friend Southey, Montgomery was widely expected to be appointed poet Laureate.

Whilst Montgomery’s poetry was more morally brilliant than poetically brilliant, he commanded the respect of not only Sheffield’s citizens but also many of his literary contemporaries.  The degree of his interactions with the Lake school, in particular, supports the notion that Montgomery is an overlooked figure. His work was valued by many including: Coleridge, Byron, Seward, Cowper, Smith, Peel, and, most of all, by Southey. In future discussions of the Lake School it would contexually be completely appropriate to discuss Sheffield’s own forgotten bard, James Montgomery, whose Wanderer was worth ‘a thousand Lyrical Ballads’.

A future blog post will reveal the poetic similarities between Montgomery and the Lake school.

Bibliography:

Gardner, Victoria E. M. The Business of the News in England, 1760-1820, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Southey, Robert, ‘Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 2 April 1818’ in The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part Five: 1816-1818, Romantic Circles, [accessed 18 August 2017] <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/southey_letters/Part_Five/HTML/letterEEd.26.3108.html>

Tolley, G., ‘Montgomery, James (1771–1854)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19070, accessed 18 Aug 2017]

All images taken from Creative Commons.

Dungeon Poetry: James Montgomery’s 1796 Arrest.

Despite his revered position in Sheffield’s community, James Montgomery was no stranger to persecution. In this blog post Eighteenth-Century MA student, James Earley, looks at the poems written by James Montgomery whilst imprisoned in the Castle of York. 

 

The James Montgomery monument, currently situated beside Sheffield Cathedral.
The James Montgomery monument, currently situated beside Sheffield Cathedral.

Montgomery, and the rest of the radical political societies in Sheffield came under fire in 1795 & 1796 in a series of high profile prosecutions. Specifically, the charges against Montgomery were in 1795 comprehensively false and only instigated to increase the pressure upon Sheffield’s radical community*. In 1796, the charges brought against Montgomery were on the basis that Montgomery had published a report on the violent crushing of a riot, a report which was accepted as factually correct. Nevertheless, on two occasions, Montgomery was found guilty and imprisoned within the Castle of York for crimes against the crown. His longest stay at York was in January 1796, where he spent six months imprisoned for sedition.

Yet, whilst imprisoned Montgomery continued to publish poetry in his newspaper The Sheffield Iris. Between January and July 1796 the newspaper published ten Montgomery poems which are explicitly stated to be penned within the Castle of York. The implication of continuing to publish poetry whilst imprisoned is so interesting in Montgomery’s case because his crime was the publication of seditious poetry. The action of Montgomery’s supposed criminality continues whilst he is in York. Furthermore, he actually releases poems into his newspaper at an increased pace, publishing ten in six months – he had only published ten poems in The Iris prior to that (two of which were printed during his first imprisonment).

The novelty of this concept is that there is an adverse relationship between Montgomery’s political freedom, and his literary notoriety. To put it bluntly, the government’s attempt to silence Montgomery failed, and instead he made a hell of a lot of noise from behind bars. What interests me is the fact that Montgomery can actually publish so freely from behind bars. Truly, it seems awfully unusual that Montgomery can get away with being so vocal whilst he literally has his freedom taken from him by the British government.

This will surely be looked at in a later blog, but for now let’s move to a poem that was published during Montgomery’s 1796 stay at York. To view the poem please click the PDF link below.

The Captive Nightingale

While a ‘nightingale’ may seem like a tired vehicle for the message that Montgomery is relaying, the etymology of the way that nightingales, and talking birds, have been constructed throughout literature actually creates a nuanced sphere of inference around Montgomery’s bird.

There is firstly the Greek myth of Philomela, who was raped and mutilated by the King of Thrace, and then turned into a nightingale after taking revenge. By referring to ‘Philomela’, there is an immediate association of the nightingale and victimhood. Explicitly, this is a subjugation which is based upon an institutional power dynamic: Philomela is subjugated by a king, and the nightingale by human authority.

Secondly, the construction of a mournful victim allows us to return to late eighteenth century sedition trials. Montgomery and his contemporaries were preceded by the well-known trial of Thelwall, Tooke and Hardy in 1794. Thomas Hardy, a friend of Montgomery, lost both his wife and new-born whilst imprisoned. Hardy’s grief is captured in Montgomery’s poem ‘Verses on Hardy’.

Verses Dedicated to Hardy’ The Iris, Issue 23, 05/12/1794 Lines 1-8.

‘Is this thy grave?’ th’ afflicted patriot said,
And fresh from every pore his sorrows bled:
‘Is it thy grave!’ but grief dissolving speed,
Dumb silence spoke what language could not reach:
Foil in his eyes, whence drops of anguish stole,
Beam’d all the husband’s, all the father’s soul
— Why was thy wife from thine embraces torn?
Why, but to perish, was thine infant born? –

There is, at the very least, a parallel between the nightingale’s ‘stolen’ family and the death of Hardy’s family. The nightingale is aligned with a well-known sympathetic figure.

This minuscule line of inquiry into the poem begins to show that imprisonment failed to blunt Montgomery’s protests. His overarching thesis about a mankind’s inalienable right to liberty, which Adam Smith has spoken on previously, is clearly and unapologetically present in ‘The Captive Nightingale’*. Montgomery finishes on his own affirmation that, like his prisoner nightingale, he works for ‘freedom, or thy tomb.’

Bibliography.

Tolley, ‘Montgomery, James (1771–1854)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19070, accessed 29 June 2017]

Adam Smith – ‘Sheffield 1794: Print, Protest, and Poetry’