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’.
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.’
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.
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.
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.