Thirty years before his death he observed that what might become of his name and writings in the next age was not for him to anticipate, and that he had honestly endeavoured to serve his own generation and, on the whole, had been careful to leave nothing behind him to make the world worse for his having existed in it. Montgomery not only showed by word and deed how life ought to be lived, but also transmitted a notable example of self-help and perseverance.
W. Odom, Two Sheffield Poets: James Montgomery and Ebenezer Elliot, (1929) p. 62.
For those who know where to look, the streets of Sheffield are paved with the story of James Montgomery (1771–1854). He is the namesake of the Montgomery Theatre, of Montgomery Road and of the one-time Montgomery Tavern. He is memorialised as a prolific champion of causes. He was a vocal campaigner against slavery and religious intolerance and an avid supporter of universal access to education and political representation for all. When he died the people of Sheffield raised funds for a life-size statue cast in bronze. Local government organised a city-wide funeral in his honour. Half a century earlier the same local government had branded him a dangerous radical and he was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition and treason.
In 1795 Montgomery was hauled in front of a jury in Doncaster for printing and distributing a poem in support of the French, Britain’s enemies at the time. Montgomery’s lawyer proved that not only did Montgomery have no knowledge of the poem in question, but that it had actually been written ten years previously. The poem had been addressed not to the current war with France but the events of the French Revolution. It was a compelling defence, documented and corroborated by numerous sources. Remarkably, Montgomery was still found guilty and sent to a prison in York.
Within 18 months of his release he would find himself back in prison, this time for reporting that British soldiers had charged down a group of unarmed protesters in Sheffield. On the eve of this second trial Montgomery wrote to his close friend, local author John Aston, lamenting that it didn’t matter how strong a defence he presented, ‘the prosecution is levelled against the Iris; they are determined to crush it’ [‘Letter to Joseph Aston’, Sheffield Archives: SLPS/37 (1) 4 (B)].
The Register and the Iris
The Iris mentioned above is the Sheffield Iris: the newspaper that Montgomery edited from 1794–1825 and the sequel to the city’s most controversial paper, the Sheffield Register. It is amongst the pages of this paper, edited by Joseph Gales (1760–1741), that the story of this anthology takes place.
Montgomery at this point was not yet the man who would one day be memorialised in bronze beside Sheffield Cathedral. Nor was he the newspaper editor who would soon find himself stood before a Jury in Doncaster. The Montgomery of this project is the teenager who Joseph Gales took a punt on, hiring him as a jobbing-apprentice with no previous journalistic experience before quickly promoting him to editorial assistant.
At the time, young Montgomery was a teenage runaway. He had been born in Ayrshire, South-West Scotland, but upon discovering that his parents planned to become Unitarian missionaries and move abroad he fled to England. He was aiming for London where he aspired to make his name as a poet. Instead, he wound up in Rotherham. It was there that he applied to an advert in the local paper to work for Gales at the Sheffield Register.
The Sheffield Register had been founded by Gales with the explicit intention of not only keeping Sheffield citizens up to date with the latest news but also of championing the causes of freedom, liberty and reform. This second ambition would later be named as the paper’s overarching raison d’etre in the Register’s last ever issue, which saw Gales commenting that:
It will always be my pride that I have printed an impartial and truly independent newspaper, and that I have done my endeavours, humble and limited as they have been, to rescue my Countrymen from the darkness of ignorance and to awaken them to a sense of their privileges as human beings, and, as such, of their importance in the grand scale of creation.
In a sequence of events foreshadowing the charges later levelled against Montgomery, the Register came to an abrupt close in June 1794. For his work on this paper and his role in founding Sheffield’s controversial ‘Society for Constitutional Information’, Gales was forced to flee British shores as a felon charged with ‘conspiracy against the government.’ As an aspiring journalist, a close friend of Gales and a supporter of the Register’s politics, Montgomery worked fast and hard to rally funds and support for a new paper, the Sheffield Iris. This new paper positioned itself as an explicit continuation of the Register’s ethos and vision.
The poems in the first installment of this anthology were all printed during the final year of the Sheffield Register (1793–94). This year saw the paper at its most radical, articulating its outrage at the government’s mismanagement of the nation. Doing so in stirring prose and verse, it began to draw fire from the city’s conservative and reactionary quarters. The Sheffield Courant (a rival paper) claimed that Gales was overstepping the mark, deliberately fueling dissent and dissatisfaction when he should have been providing a neutral commentary on local events. The Curate of Dronfield named Gales as a dangerous and irresponsible radical in a sermon which went onto be widely reported in the city’s press. As Gales’ ‘Society for Constitutional Information’ grew in both numbers and influence so too did the suspicions with which it was regarded by local authorities. The poems printed this year show Gales’ project at its most distilled, fearlessly shrugging off the ambiguity and allegory of the Register’s earlier protest poems to reveal a series of carefully targeted and high-powered attacks.
Each issue of the Register was divided into five columns across four pages. Peppered with adverts throughout, the Register opened with a page of national (and often international) news, followed by a page of aggregated London news. Page three was dedicated to local news and page four was for letters, essays and addresses. It was on the fourth page of these papers that Gales introduced a feature that would be continued in Montgomery’s Iris; a feature referred to affectionately in reader’s letters as ‘Poetry Corner.’
Known in the Register as the ‘Repository of Genius’ and the Iris as the ‘Bower of Muses’, this space saw the weekly publication of both locally produced poetry and works collected from elsewhere. The poems, which often write back to one another, demonstrate on the part of Gales and Montgomery a deliberate attempt to document and promote a network of poets across Yorkshire. Additionally, as this collection emphasises, ‘Poetry Corner’ also represented a deliberate attempt to build a coherent and effective platform for local protest at a time of profound anxiety and scepticism about top-down decisions made by a monarchy and government situated 170 miles south of Sheffield.
‘Poetry Corner’ showcased poetry both produced in Sheffield and from elsewhere. Some poems were lifted from other provincial newspapers printed in Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and Wakefield. Others were taken from the London press or even, in some instances, papers in America. In 1794, conventions of documenting where poems had come from or who had written them were inconsistent. Sometimes poems were introduced with an attribution, naming the paper in which they had first appeared. On other occasions the poems were simply presented in isolation. If poems had been sent in by the paper’s readers they usually ended with a parenthetical note stating where the poem had been composed and on what day. It was very rare for these poems to appear with the author’s name attached. Some were simply printed anonymously, likely due to their provocative content. Many were published under pseudonyms, most of which were only ever used once. Today’s newspaper is built on the assumption of its redundancy tomorrow. As a result, the very medium in which these protest poems first appeared preserves their intended anonymity well into posterity. We may never know who or where some of the poems came from because we were never supposed to know.
The poetry in this anthology was written at the start of what is called the Romantic Period. It is a common but contested literary term. There are no exact dates, but as a rule-of-thumb it can be helpful to think of the Romantic Period as being roughly 1790–1840. Possible starting points include Robert Burns’s 1786 volume of Poems, the storming of the Parisian Bastille in 1789, or even William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s volume of poems called Lyrical Ballads (1798). Possible end dates might be the passing of the First Reform Act in 1832, the succession of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837 or even the death of William Wordsworth in 1850. The poems in this volume challenge our assumptions about what constitutes the period because they do not fit easily into conventional academic assumptions about Romantic verse.
On the one hand, many of the poems clearly look backwards through literary history to a tradition of satire we associate with the early 1700s. Then, writers such as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay satirised contemporary literary standards and combined that with deeply barbed observations about the government of the day and the corruption they perceived in society. Poems such as Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712–17), plays such as John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and novels such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) lie behind the satirical and often angry form, tone and content of poems in this volume. Such satirical material circulated throughout the century and there is no doubt that it came to form a canon of influential reading that influenced the readers of the Register.
If the poetry in the Register looks backwards in terms of its satirical and formal influences, it also reflects new forms of expression that we associate more with the ‘Romantic’ literature of the 1790s. We find a firm expression of a singular sentimental voice in ‘Lines’ or ‘The Mad Man’s Petition’ that would not look out of place in a collection such as Lyrical Ballads. ‘No Libel to Think’ borrows from the rhetoric of both the French and American revolutions, invoking ideas of freedom, liberty and equality that would be recognised by authors such as Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley or the young Wordsworth and Coleridge. ‘The Slave Trade’ voices emancipatory concerns that were to echo through British literature until the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Particularly in terms of voice and theme, then, these poems anticipate the next fifty years of Romantic poetry.
Thus the poems in this volume look both backwards and forwards in their concerns. In their demotic origin and popular dissemination they reflect, more accurately than perhaps current literary criticism allows, the emergence of the self-reflective and politically-engaged literary sensibility that we call ‘Romantic Literature’. One final and important way in which we can read these poems is as a series of fragments (the literary fragment is a key Romantic idea—Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (1816) is perhaps the most famous example). Each poem as it appears weekly in ‘Poetry Corner’ contributes to the whole: what Gales and Montgomery called the ‘Repository of Genius’ or the ‘Bower of Muses’. No poem is itself a complete statement of the newspaper’s vision or ethos; no single poem expresses what the readership thinks or feels. Rather, each is a fragment of a wider whole: the literary sensibility of Sheffield.
As the Register explicitly acknowledges time and again, Gales was editing the paper in the shadow of the still recent French Revolution (1787) and amidst the social, political and cultural aftermath of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791). Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the poems of the Register and the Iris are best unified by just such a central preoccupation: what are the fundamental rights and entitlements of all men? It is in forcefully answering this question that the most common themes of the collection come into focus. These poems assert time and again that all men should be free. Most of these poems can be seen to trace the various connotations and manifestations of that freedom. They discuss such issues as: parity in political representation, universal access to education, racial and religious equality, the abolition of slavery and the need for worker’s rights.
Freedom from captivity
The most obvious short-hand for the infringement of civil liberties manifests itself in the paper’s regular allusions (and direct references to) slavery. The paper witnesses the abolition of slavery in France in 1794 whilst vocally campaigning for abolition across the British Empire, a goal that would not be achieved until 1833. For the Register, slavery is the ultimate violation of man’s rights and though it does endorse the freeing of actual slaves the topic is most often raised as a hyperbolic analogy for the mistreatment of British citizens under the government of William Pitt. Similarly, these poems often focus on instances of individuals being held captive against their will as an overt symbol of inhumane treatment, again prompting readers to reflect on any similarities between the treatment of these individuals and their own treatment as British subjects.
Freedom of speech
By far the most common preoccupation of these poems is the extent to which freedom extends to a subject’s utterances and written expressions. A great deal of ink is spilt highlighting instances in which legitimate commentary on the policies and principles of crown and court are categorised as libel and met with punitive action. In response to these accusations of libel and sedition, these poems regularly assert that a truly democratic state relies on its citizens having the right to question and criticise its management. Indeed, the freedom of the press is regularly identified as the last precaution against tyranny.
Freedom from political oppression
A key anxiety of the paper which becomes more apparent as it marches towards its final number is that the interests and welfare of Sheffield (and the North of England more generally) are not adequately represented in Westminster. Pre-empting the Chartist movements of the mid-nineteenth century, the paper regularly published poems campaigning for political reforms that favour the rights and representation of a greater number of citizens across Britain. These sentiments overlap with those of Joseph Gales’ Sheffield-based ‘Society for Constitutional Information.’
Freedom from economic constraints
It is a common occurrence for Register poems to apostrophise money, contemplating its power to both create and corrupt. The paper champions political representation for all British citizens, regardless of social standing and monetary income. The poems within the paper regularly suggest that those who have money and power are unlikely to share it for fear that it might compromise their hereditary positioning at the top of society. In his final editorial for the Register Gales acknowledged that he considered himself a poor man, along with most of his peers in Sheffield’s ‘Society for Constitutional Information’ and the vast majority of his readers. He there also acknowledged that one of his most passionate ambitions was to demonstrate that all men, regardless of wealth, were entitled to respect and representation from their government.
With well over fifty poems printed in ‘Poetry Corner’ during the Register’s final year in print we have had to be very careful when choosing those that appear in this collection. We have chosen poems that are indicative of the style, tone and interests of the full corpus of Register poems. These papers represent an embarrassment of riches for not only literary scholars but also social and cultural historians and those interested in print culture and the evolution of the press. There are some remarkable poems that we have had to omit. Largely due to their appearance in a local and ephemeral publication, many of the poems are deeply committed to addressing specific issues emerging from day-to-day life in late eighteenth-century Sheffield. Whilst fascinating, the issues in such verse are deeply obscure when read today. However, even those poems locked into the granular detail of their own times are in tune with the broader themes of both the clear editorial strategy behind ‘Poetry Corner’ and the Register as a whole. It is these grander themes that the poems in this collection represent.
When a text is serialised, with a new instalment added at regular intervals for an indefinite period of time, interesting and peculiar things start to happen. If you have ever collected a magazine or followed a long running television program you will be familiar with these phenomena. You see the text in question strive to find its own identity, becoming more distinctive and coherent over time. You see the editorial team getting better at what they do, becoming more efficient and developing tropes, traits and short-hands unique to their publication. You see the form develop and evolve, and often you may even begin to see the publication retrospectively fashioning its own history into something more consistent. These processes are magnified in the Register’s ‘Poetry Corner’. Reading them in order reveals the emergence of fixations amongst the paper’s contributors: themes and topics that resurface time and again. Certain characters reappear, each time more clearly defined. Otherwise ordinary words and phrases become burdened with extra meaning. Some poems pick fights with past poems, whilst others pick up and carry torches.
For this reason, the poems in this collection have been arranged in the order that they were originally published. We recommend first reading them in this order. For example, passing references to the character of ‘John Bull’ become increasingly nuanced, culminating in ‘The Bull’: at once a detailed study of a British folk character and a rousing indictment of monarchy and government. Elsewhere, a throwaway reference to soldiers as ‘swine’ in the poem ‘Patriotism’ prompts two very different responses: ‘Lines’ offers a harrowing account of the human loss incurred by war whilst ‘Observations of a Swine’ critiques the earlier poem’s troubling representation of working men.
These poems experiment with form. A recurring trait is that they adopt perspectives oppositional to their own, articulating them with such exaggerated enthusiasm and flagrant disregard for logic that they are rendered absurd. An obvious example of this would be the first poem, ‘A Loyal Song.’ By the time ‘A Statesman’s Soliloquy’ is printed this satirical tendency has been fully integrated in the poem’s form. Written as a dramatic monologue, the ‘Soliloquy’ not only allows the poet to parody political rhetoric, but the frame narrative also allows him a second voice with which he can criticise and condemn this language.
Adam Smith and Hamish Mathison