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.’


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’

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