Montgomery, James (2)
Montgomery, James (2)
one of the greatest of English hymnologists, was born at Irvine, in Ayrshire, Scotland, November 4, 1771. His parents were Irish — his father a Moravian preacher. James was designed for the same office, and in his sixth year was placed in the Moravian establishment at Fulneck, near Leeds, England. While here his parents went as missionaries to the West Indies, where they soon died. To their fate he thus beautifully alludes:
"My father-mother-parents, are no more! Beneath the lion-star they sleep, Beyond the Western deep; And when the sun's noon glory crests the waves, He shines without a shadow on their graves."
Left to himself, he refused to study for the ministry, and the Brethren placed him as an apprentice to a grocer in Mirfield. He disliked the drudgery of the shop, wrote verses, and at length ran away, with three shillings and sixpence in his pocket. He was soon compelled by necessity to engage as a shopboy in the village of Wath, in Yorkshire. He remained there but a year, and then, intent upon publishing a volume of verses, went up to London, and introduced himself to one of the Brethren in Paternoster Row, and gained employment as clerk and general assistant; but he could get no one to undertake publishing his poetry. In eight months we find him back again at Wath. In his twenty-first year he went to Sheffield as clerk to the editor of the Sheffield Register; and when, two years afterwards, a political prosecution was instituted against the editor, Montgomery succeeded him in the management of the paper, changing its name to that of The Iris. The tone of his paper was very temperate, but firm. At that time the quailing cause of arbitrary power and divine right was making its last struggles against freedom and commonsense. Notwithstanding the moderation of our poeteditor, it was not long before the hands of the officers of the law were upon him. The publication of a song written by a clergyman to commemorate the destruction of the Bastile, which had been printed in half the newspapers in the kingdom, was made the pretence of fining Montgomery £20 and imprisoning him three months in the Castle of York. On his deliverance from his incarceration he resumed his editorial labors, and avoided every extreme in politics; but in giving a narrative of the circumstances attending the death of two men killed in a riot in the streets of Sheffield by the military, a volunteer officer, who was also a magistrate, feeling his honor wounded by the statement, presented him for libel. The result was another fine of £30, and imprisonment for six months. During his confinement, in 1796, he wrote his poems entitled Prison Amusements. He now became a regular contributor to magazines, and, despite adverse criticism in the Edinburgh Review (January 1807, pages 347-355; comp. however, July 1835, page 473), established his right to rank as a poet. (See the defence by Southey in [Lond.] Qu. Rev. 6:405 sq., and by Wilson in Blackwood's Magazine, September 1831, page 476.) In 1805 he issued The Ocean; in 1806, The Wanderer of Switzerland, and other Poems; and the next year The West Indies — this last meeting in its various editions with a most extraordinary patronage. In 1813 appeared The World before the Flood; in 1819, Greenland; and in 1827 The Pelican Island, the most original and powerful of all Montgomery's works. He now also collected two volumes of his sketches from periodicals, entitled Prose by a Poet. A Poet's Portfolio appeared in 1835. In 1830-31 he delivered a course of lectures on poetry and general literature, which were afterwards published in one volume. His collected works appeared in 1851 (1 volume, 8vo).
But it is with the poet as a writer of hymns and sacred songs that we have most to do, as it is by these that he has most endeared himself to his age, and will be longest and most favorably remembered. In 1822 he published his Songs of Zion, being Imitations of Psalms. This work consisted of sixty-seven pieces, being versions of fifty-nine Psalms, closely as well as beautifully rendered. In 1828 he published his Christian Psalmist, containing 103 original hymns; in 1853, Original Hymns for Public, Private, and Social Devotion. Judged by the use made of these hymns by the Christian world, Montgomery takes his place next to Watts and Wesley, in compare with Doddridge. This place we think he has well earned. What Advent song surpasses for comprehensiveness, appropriateness of expression, force, and elevation of sentiment, this one beginning "Angels from the realms of glory?" What a glorifying of God and his work from eternity to eternity is found in this hymn, " Songs of praise the angels sang!" Will the time ever come on earth when the Church will not respond to "Stand up and bless the Lord, ye people of his choice?" or cease to look forward with anticipations of victory in the "Hark, the song of jubilee?" or forbear to encourage one another with "Daughter of Zion, from the dust?" or fail to use "Oh, where shall rest be found?" What a spirit of Christian love, mingled with hope drawn from the deepest truths of our faith, flows through the invitation, "Come to Calvary's holy mountain;" and a reaching out of the right hand of fellowship in this, "Come in, thou blessed of the Lord!" In a letter written in 1807 Montgomery gives us the history of his hymnological efforts. "When I was a boy," he says, "I wrote a great many hymns; indeed, the first-fruits of my mind were all consecrated to Him who never despises the day of small things, even in the poorest of his creatures. But as I grew up, and my heart degenerated, I directed my talents, such as they were, to other services; and seldom indeed, since my fourteenth year, have they been employed in the delightful duties of the sanctuary. Many conspiring and adverse circumstances that have confounded, afflicted, and discouraged my mind, have also compelled me to forbear from composing hymns of prayer and praise, because I found that I could not enter into the spirit of such divine themes with that humble boldness, that earnest expectation and ardent feeling of love to God and truth which were wont to inspire me when I was an uncorrupted boy, full of tenderness and zeal and simplicity." We have indicated here the main ground of the excellence and usefulness of his hymns. They are the offspring not only of a heart naturally sensitive to religious themes, but of a deep, rich, and varied Christian experience. They were lived before they were sung. From the experiences of the Christian life came their expression in Christian song; hence they are applicable to every believer's feelings, and touch unexpectedly the most secret springs of joy and sorrow, faith, fear, hope, love, despondency, and triumph. This was the reason for their success given by the author himself. When advanced in life and seriously ill, he placed in the hands of his friend, Dr. Holland, "transcripts of his original hymns to be read to him. But as the poet was much affected, the doctor was about to desist, when Montgomery said, 'Read on; I am glad to hear you. The words recall the feelings which first suggested them, and it is good for me to feel affected and humbled by the terms in which I have endeavored to provide for the expression of similar religious experience in others. As all my hymns embody some portion of the joys or sorrows, the hopes and fears of this poor heart, so I cannot doubt but that they will be found an acceptable vehicle of expression of the experience of many of my fellow creatures who may be similarly exercised during the pilgrimage of their Christian life.'
From the fact that he was a layman in active and laborious business, he was less likely than some of his clerical brothers in song to make the hymn simply a doctrine in rhyme. While evangelical in faith, his hymns are always far more than doctrinal statement in verse. The rules which he laid down in the "Introductory Essay" to his Christian Psalmist, which should be adhered to in writing hymns, he has seldom failed to regard. "There should be," he says, "unity, gradation, and mutual dependence in the thoughts, a conscious progress, and at the end a sense of completeness," and he insists that hymns ought to be easy to understand. It may be said of his hymns without exception that there is nothing in them to offend the taste, and much to gratify it. The most precious truths of Scripture and the richest experiences of the Christian find in them simple but poetic expression; and they are made suitable for the use of congregations by a poet who was quite familiar with the requirements of an assembly of worshippers. As expressive of how important Mr. Montgomery deemed his last work, and of his high appreciation of the works of others, may be quoted part of the closing paragraph of his preface. He says: "Having on three former occasions expatiated freely on hymnology and sacred poesy, I will close this egotistical preamble to the most serious work of my long life (now passing fourscore years) with a brief quotation from what may be esteemed a sainted authority on such a subject. Bishop Ken somewhere says, beautifully, humbly, and poetically:
'And should the well-meant song I leave behind With Jesus' lovers some acceptance find, Twill heighten even the joys of heaven to know That in my verse saints sing God's praise below.'"
His last years were passed in ease and comfort, he enjoying, besides the frugal earnings of an industrious life. from 1835 a pension from the government of £150 per annum. He died at his own residence near Sheffield, April 30, 1854. The London Atheneum, shortly after his death, thus spoke of him: "Montgomery held a place in the eyes of the English public — universal as well as sectarian — not far behind Campbell, by the side of Lisle Bowles and Milman, and before such lesser lights as Carrington and Crowe. This generation knows less than its predecessor of the poems of James Montgomery, of Sheffield. Some have adopted Pollok as their religious poet elect; others have taken Keble as their bosom friend. But the author of 'The West Indies,' 'The World before the Flood,' and 'Greenland,' is still not forgotten, in spite of these shiftings of the shrine at which religious fashion chooses to burn its incense; and his vogue may one day return — the sooner because it was merited by the genuine gifts of the poet as well as by the eloquence of the class-preacher." Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, with Extracts from his Correspondence, etc., were published in 1855-6 (7 volumes, 8vo) by two of his friends, John Holland and James Everett. An abridgment of these Memoirs was published by Mrs. Helen C. Knight at Boston in 1857 (12mo, 416 pages). See British and For. Ev. Rev. volume 22; 43, 248; [Lond.] Qu. Rev. volume 11, art. 9; North Amer. Rev. (October 1857) page 563: Livin Age, 4, 370; 47, 282; Howitt. Homes and Haunts of British Poets; Wilson, Essays, Crit. and Imag. (1856) 2:238; and especially the excellent article in Allibone's Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Auth. 2:1345-47.