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MR. ROBERT MONTGOMERY'S POEMS.*
[EDINBURGH REVIEW, APRIL, 1830.]
THE wise men of antiquity loved to convey instruction under the covering of apologue; and, though this practice of theirs is generally thought childish, we shall make no apology for adopting it on the present occasion. A generation which has bought eleven editions of a poem by Mr. Robert Montgomery, may well condescend to listen to a fable of Pilpay.
worth the telling, lies on the surface. The writer evidently means to caution us against the practices of puffers,-a class of people who have more than once talked the public into the most absurd errors, but who surely never played a more curious, or a more difficult trick, than when they passed Mr. Robert Montgomery off upon the world as a great poet.
A pious Brahmin, it is written, made a vow In an age in which there are so few readers that on a certain day he would sacrifice a that a writer cannot subsist on the sum arising sheep, and on the appointed morning he went from the sale of his works, no man who has forth to buy one. There lived in his neighbour-not an independent fortune can devote himself hood three rogues who knew of his vow, and laid a scheme for profiting by it. The first met him and said, "Oh, Brahmin, wilt thou buy a sheep? I have one fit for sacrifice."-"It is for that very purpose," said the holy man, "that I came forth this day." Then the impostor opened a bag, and brought out of it an unclean beast, an ugly dog, lame and blind. Thereon the Brahmin cried out, " Wretch, who touchest things impure, and utterest things untrue, callest thou that cur a sheep?"-" Truly," answered the other, "it is a sheep of the finest fleece, and of the sweetest flesh. Oh, Brahmin, it will be an offering most acceptable to the gods."-"Friend," said the Brahmin, "either thou or I must be blind."
to literary pursuits, unless he is assisted by patronage. In such an age, accordingly, men of letters too often pass their lives in dangling at the heels of the wealthy and powerful; and all the faults which dependence tends to produce, pass into their character. They become the parasites and slaves of the great. It is melancholy to think how many of the highest and most exquisitely formed of human intellects have been condemned to the ignominious labor of disposing the commonplaces of adulation in new forms, and brightening them into new splendour. Horace invoking Augustus in the most enthusiastic language of religious veneration,-Statius flattering a tyrant, and the minion of a tyrant, for a morsel of bread,Ariosto versifying the whole genealogy of a niggardly patron,-Tasso extolling the heroic virtues of the wretched creature who locked him up in a mad-house,-these are but a few of the instances which might easily be given of the degradation to which those must submit, who, not possessing a competent fortune, are resolved to write when there are scarcely any who read.
Just then one of the accomplices came up. Praised be the gods," said this second rogue, that I have been saved the trouble of going to the market for a sheep! This is such a sheep as I wanted. For how much wilt thou sell it?" When the Brahmin heard this, his mind waved to and fro, like one swinging in the air at a holy festival. "Sir," said he to the new comer, "take heed what thou dost; this is no sheep, but an unclean cur."-"Oh, Brah- This evil the progress of the human mind min," said the new comer, "thou art drunk or tends to remove. As a taste for books becomes mad!" more and more common, the patronage of indiAt this time the third confederate drew near.viduals becomes less and less necessary. In "Let us ask this man," said the Brahmin, the earlier part of the last century a marked "what the creature is, and I will stand by what change took place. The tone of literary men, he shall say." To this the others agreed; and both in this country and in France, became the Brahmin called out, “Oh, stranger, what higher and more independent. Pope boasted dost thou call this beast ?"- "Surely, oh, Brah- that he was the "one poet" who had " "pleased min," said the knave, "it is a fine sheep." by manly ways," he derided the soft dedica Then the Brahmin said, "Surely the gods have tions with which Halifax had been fed,taken away my senses," and he asked pardon asserted his own superiority over the pen of him who carried the dog, and bought it for sioned Boileau,-and glorified in being not the a measure of rice and a pot of ghee, and offered follower, but the friend, of nobles and princes. it up to the gods, who, being wroth at this un-The explanation of all this is very simple. clean sacrifice, smote him with a sore disease in all his joints.
Pope was the first Englishman who, by the mere sale of his writings, realized a sum which enabled him to live in comfort and in perfect independence. Johnson extols him for the magnanimity which he showed in inscribing his Iliad, not to a minister or a peer, but to Congreve. In our time, this would scarcely be a subject for praise. Nobody is astonished when Mr. Moore pays a compliment of this
kind to Sir Walter Scott, or Sir Walter Scott | upon with a despicable ingenuity by people to Mr. Moore. The idea of either of those engaged in a pursuit which never was, and gentlemen looking out for some lord who never will be, considered as a mere trade by would be likely to give him a few guineas in any man of honour and virtue. A butcher of return for a fulsome dedication, seems laugh- the higher class disdains to ticket his meat. A ably incongruous. Yet this is exactly what mercer of the higher class would be ashamed Dryden or Otway would have done; and it to hang up papers in his window inviting the would be hard to blame them for it. Otway is passers-by to look at the stock of a bankrupt, said to have been choked with a piece of bread all of the first quality, and going for half the which he devoured in the rage of hunger; and, value. We expect some reserve, some decent whether this story be true or false, he was, be- pride, in our hatter and our bootmaker. But yond all question, miserably poor. Dryden, at no artifice by which notoriety can be obtained near seventy, when at the head of the literary is thought too abject for a man of letters. men of England, without equal or second, received three hundred pounds for his Fables -a collection of ten thousand verses, and such verses as no man then living, except himself, could have produced. Pope, at thirty, had laid up between six and seven thousand pounds, the fruits of his poetry. It was not, we suspect, because he had a higher spirit, or a more scrupulous conscience, than his pre-author's coterie, may have any influence. The decessors, but because he had a larger income, that he kept up the dignity of the literary character so much better than they had done.
It is amusing to think over the history of most of the publications which have had a run during the last few years. The publisher is often the publisher of some periodical work. In this periodical work the first flourish of trumpets is sounded. The peal is then echoed and re-echoed by all the other periodical works over which the publisher or the author, or the
newspapers are for a fortnight filled with puffs of all the various kinds which Sheridan recounted, -direct, oblique, and collusive. Sometimes From the time of Pope to the present day, the praise is laid on thick for simple-minded the readers have been constantly becoming people. “Pathetic," "sublime," "splendid," more and more numerous: and the writers, "graceful, brilliant wit," "exquisite humour," consequently, more and more independent. and other phrases equally flattering, fall in a It is assuredly a great evil, that men fitted by shower as thick and as sweet as the sugar. their talents and acquirements to enlighten plums at a Roman carnival. Sometimes greatand charm the world, should be reduced to er art is used. A sinecure has been offered to the necessity of flattering wicked and foolish the writer if he would suppress his work, or if patrons in return for the very sustenance of he would even soften down a few of his incomlife. But though we heartily rejoice that this parable portraits. A distinguished military and evil is removed, we cannot but see with con-political character has challenged the inimita cern that another evil has succeeded to it. The public is now the patron, and a most liberal patron. All that the rich and powerful bestowed on authors from the time of Mecenas to that of Harley would not, we apprehend, make up a sum equal to that which has been paid by English booksellers to authors during Men of letters have the last thirty years. accordingly ceased to court individuals, and have begun to court the public. They formerly used flattery. They now use puffing.
Whether the old or the new vice be the worse,-whether those who formerly lavished insincere praise on others, or those who now contrive by every art of beggary and bribery to stun the public with praises of themselves, disgrace their vocation the more deeply,-we shall not attempt to decide. But of this we are sure,- -that it is high time to make a stand against the new trickery. The puffing of books is now so shamefully and so successI is the duty of all who fully practised, that are anxious for the purity of the national taste, or for the honour of the literary character, to join in discountenancing it. All the pens that
ble satirist of the vices of the great; and the
were employed in magnifying Bish's lucky office, Romanis's fleecy hosiery, Packwood's razor strops, and Rowland's Kalydor, all the placard-bearers of Dr. Eady,-all the wall-chalkers of Day and Martin-seem to have taken service with the poets and novel-ric is extracted, and the significant heading The fulsome eulogy makes its ap ists of this generation. Devices which in the omitted. lowest trades are considered as disreputable, pearance on the covers of all the Reviews and are adopted without scruple, and improved Magazines, with "Times" or "Globe" affixed,
though the editors of the Times and the Globe | tised judges can; that he is not familliar with have no more to do with it than with Mr. Goss's the finest models; that he has never looked at way of making old rakes young again.
That people who live by personal slander should practise these arts is not surprising. Those who stoop to write calumnious books may well stoop to puff them ;-and that the basest of all trades should be carried on in the basest of all manners, is quite proper, and as it should be. But how any man, who has the least self-respect, the least regard for his own personal dignity, can condescend to persecute the public with this rag-fair importunity, we do not understand. Extreme poverty may, indeed, in some degree, be an excuse for employing these shifts, as it may be an excuse for stealing a leg of mutton. But we really think that a man of spirit and delicacy would quite as soon satisfy his wants in the one way as in the other.
It is no excuse for an author, that the praises of journalists are procured by the money or influence of the publisher, and not by his own. It is his business to take such precautions as may prevent others from doing what must degrade them. It is for his honour as a gentleman, and, if he is really a man of talents, it will eventually be for his honour and interest as a writer, that his works should come before the public, recommended by their own merits alone, and should be discussed with perfect freedom. If his objects be really such as he may own without shame, he will find that they will, in the long run, be better attained by suffering the voice of criticism to be fairly heard. At present, we too often see a writer attempting to obtain literary fame as Shakspeare's usurper obtains sovereignty. The publisher plays Buckingham to the author's Richard. Some few creatures of the conspiracy are dexterously disposed here and there in a crowd. It is the business of these hirelings to throw up their caps, and clap their hands, and utter their vivas. The rabble at first stare and wonder, and at last join in shouting for shouting's sake; and thus a crown is placed on the head which has no right to it, by the huzzas of a few servile dependants.
them with close attention; and that, when the general effect of a piece has pleased him, or displeased him, he has never troubled himself to ascertain why. When, therefore, people whom he thinks more competent to judge than himself, and of whose sincerity he entertains no doubt, assure him that a particular work is exquisitely beautiful, he takes it for granted that they must be in the right. He returns to the examination, resolved to find or imagine beauties; and if he can work himself up into something like admiration, he exults in his own proficiency.
Just such is the manner in which nine readers out of ten judge of a book. They are ashamed to dislike what men, who speak as having authority, declare to be good. At pre sent, however contemptible a poem or a novel may be, there is not the least difficulty in procuring favourable notices of it from all sorts of publications, daily, weekly, and monthly. In the mean time, little or nothing is said on the other side. The author and the publisher are interested in crying up the book. Nobody has any very strong interest in crying it down. Those who are best fitted to guide the public opinion, think it beneath them to expose mere nonsense, and comfort themselves by reflecting that such popularity cannot last. This contemptuous lenity has been carried too far. It is perfectly true, that reputations which have been forced into an unnatural bloom, fade almost as soon as they have expanded; nor have we any apprehensions that puffing will ever raise any scribbler to the rank of a classic. It is, indeed, amusing to turn over some late volumes of periodical works, and to see how many immortal productions have, within a few months, been gathered to the poems of Blackmore and the novels of Mrs. Behn; how many "profound views of human nature," and "exquisite delineations of fashionable manners," and "vernal, and sunny, and refreshing thoughts," and "high imaginings," and "young breathings," and "embodyings," and "pinings," and "minglings with the beauty of the universe," and "harmonies which dissolve the soul in a passionate sense of loveliness and divinity," the
The opinion of the great body of the reading public is very materially influenced even by the unsupported assertions of those who as-world has contrived to forget. The names of sume a right to criticise. Nor is the public the books and the writers are buried in as deep altogether to blame on this account. Most, an oblivion as the name of the builder of Stoneeven of those who have really a great enjoy- hedge. Some of the well-puffed "fashionable ment in reading, are in the same state, with novels" of the last, hold the pastry of the prerespect to a book, in which a man, who has sent year; and others of the class, which are never given particular attention to the art of now extolled in language almost too high-flown painting, is with respect to a picture. Every for the merits of Don Quixote, will, we have no man who has the least sensibility or imagina-doubt, line the trunks of eighteen hundred and tion, derives a certain pleasure from pictures. thirty-one. But though we have no apprehenYet a man of the highest and finest intellect might, unless he had formed his taste by contemplating the best pictures, be easily persuaded by a knot of connoisseurs that the worst daub in Somerset-house was a miracle of art. If he deserves to be laughed at, it is not for his ignorance of pictures, but for his ignorance of men. He knows that there is a delicacy of taste in painting which he does not possess; that he cannot discriminate hands, as prac
sions that puffing will ever confer permanent reputation on the undeserving, we still think its influence most pernicious. Men of reai merit will, if they persevere, at last reach the station to which they are entitled, and intruders will be ejected with contempt and derision. But it is no small evil that the avenues to fame should be blocked up by a swarm of noisy, pushing, elbowing pretenders, who, though they will not ultimately be able to make good
their own entrance, hinder, in the mean time, | those who have a right to enter. All who will not disgrace themselves by joining in the unseemly scuffle, must expect to be at first hustled and shouldered back. Some men of talents, accordingly, turn away in dejection from pursuits in which success appears to bear no proportion to desert. Others employ in selfdefence the means by which competitors, far inferior to themselves, appear for a time to obtain a decided advantage. There are few who have sufficient confidence in their own powers, and sufficient elevation of mind, to wait with secure and contemptuous patience, while dunce after dunce presses before them. Those who will not stoop to the baseness of the modern fashion are too often discouraged. Those who stoop to it are always degraded.
"But who could trace Thine unrestricted course,
The last two lines contain an excellent spe cimen of Mr. Robert Montgomery's Turkey carpet style of writing. The majestic view of earth is the mirror of God's presence; and on this mirror Mr. Robert Montgomery paints God's presence. The use of a mirror, we submit, is not to be painted upon.
A few more lines, as bad as those which we have quoted, bring us to one of the most amusing instances of literary pilfering which we remember. It might be of use to plagiarists to know as a general rule, that what they steal is, to employ a phrase common in advertisements. of no use to any but the right owner. We never fell in, however, with any plunderer who so little understood how to turn his booty to good account as Mr. Montgomery. Lord Byron, in a passage which every body knows by heart, has said, addressing the sea,
We have of late observed with great pleasure some symptoms which lead us to hope, that respectable literary men of all parties are beginning to be impatient of this insufferable nuisance. And we purpose to do what in us lies for the abating of it. We do not think that we can more usefully assist in this good work, than by showing our honest countrymen what that sort of poetry is which puffing can drive through eleven editions; and how easy any bellman might, if a bellman would stoop to the necessary degree of meanness, become Mr. Robert Montgomery very cooly appro "a master-spirit of the age." We have no en-priates the image, and reproduces the stolen mity to Mr. Robert Montgomery. We know goods in the following form: nothing whatever about him, except what we have learned from his books, and from the
portrait prefixed to one of them, in which he appears to be doing his very best to look like a man of genius and sensibility, though with less success than his strenuous exertions deserve. We select him, because his works have received more enthusiastic praise, and have deserved more unmixed contempt, than any which, as far as our knowledge extends, have appeared within the last three or four years. His writing bears the same relation to poetry which a Turkey carpet bears to a picture There are colours in the Turkey carpet, out of which a picture might be made. There are words in Mr. Montgomery's verses, which when disposed in certain orders and combinations, have made, and will again make, good poetry. But, as they now stand, they seem to be put together on principle, in such a manner as to give no image of any thing in the "heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth."
The poem on the Omnipresence of the Deity commences with a description of the creation, in which we can find only one thought which has the least pretension to ingenuity, and that one thought is stolen from Dryden, and marred in the stealing
"Last. softly beautiful as music's close,
The all-pervading influence of the Supreme
"Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow."
"And thou, vast Ocean, on whose awful face
So may such il!-got gains ever prosper!
The effect which the Ocean produces on Atheists is then described in the following lofty lines:
"Oh! never did the dark-soul'd ATHEIST stand,
If Mr. Robert Montgomery's genius were not far too free and aspiring to be shackled by the rules of syntax, we should suppose that it is at the nod of the Atheist that creation shudders, and that it is this same dark-souled Athe ist who hurls billowy crags upon the shore.
A few more lines bring us to another instance of unprofitable theft. Sir Walter Scott has these lines in the Lord of the Isles,
"The dew that on the violet lies,
Mocks the dark lustre of thine eyes."
This is pretty, taken separately, and, as is almost always the case with good things of good writers, much prettier in its place than can even be conceived by those who see it only detached from the context. Now for Mr. Montgomery
"And the bright dew-bead on the bramble lies, Like liquid rapture upon beauty's eyes." The comparison of a violet, bright with the dew, to a woman's eyes, is as perfect as a comparison can be. Sir Walter's lines are part of a song addressed to a woman, and the
stop and meditate on the importance of the interests which are under his care. The grotesque indecency of such an address throws into shade the subordinate absurdities of the passage, the unfurling of whirlwinds, the unrolling of thunder, and the upheaving of worlds.
Then comes a curious specimen of our poet's English
comparison is therefore peculiarly natural and | familiarity so far as to bid the Supreme Being graceful. Dew on a bramble is no more like a woman's eyes than dew anywhere else. There is a very pretty Eastern tale, of which the fate of plagiarists often reminds us. The slave of a magician saw his master wave his wand, and heard him give orders to the spirits who arose at the summons. He accordingly stole the wand, and waved it himself in the air; but he had not observed that his master used the left hand for that purpose. The spirits thus irregularly summoned, tore him to pieces, instead of obeying his orders. There are very few who can safely venture to conjure with the rod of Sir Walter, and we are sure that Mr. Robert Montgomery is not one of them. Mr. Campbell, in one of his most pleasant pieces, has this line
"The sentinel stars set their watch in the sky."
The thought is good-and has a very striking
"Ye quenchless stars! so eloquently bright,
Certainly the ideas of eloquence-of untroubled repose-of placid eyes, on the lambent beauty of which it is sweet to gaze, harmonize admirably with the idea of a sentry!
We would not be understood, however, to say, that Mr. Robert Montgomery cannot make similitudes for himself. A very few lines farther on, we find one which has every mark of originality, and on which, we will be bound, none of the poets whom he has plundered will ever think of making reprisals:
"The soul, aspiring, pants its source to mount, As streams meander level with their fount."
We take this to be, on the whole, the worst similitude in the world. In the first place, no stream meanders, or can possibly meander, level with its fount. In the next place, if
streams did meander level with their founts, no two motions can be less alike than that of meandering level, and that of mounting upwards.
We have then an apostrophe to the Deity, couched in terms which, in any writer who dealt in meanings, we should call profane, but to which, we suppose, Mr. Robert Montgomery attaches no idea whatever.
"Yea! pause and think, within one fleeting hour,
No field-preacher ever carried his irreverent
"Yet not alone created realms engage
Thy faultless wisdom, grand, primeval sage! For all the thronging woes to life allied Thy mercy tempers, and Thy cares provide." We should be glad to know what the word "For" means here. If it is a preposition, it makes nonsense of the words, "Thy mercy tempers." If it is an adverb, it makes nonsense of the words, "Thy cares provide."
These beauties we have taken, alınost at random, from the first part of the poem. The second part is a series of descriptions of various events,--a battle-a murder-an execution--a marriage-a funeral---and so forth. Mr. Robert Montgomery terminates each of these descriptions, by assuring us that the Deity was present at the battle, murder, execution, marriage, or funeral, in question. And this propo sition, which might be safely predicated of every event that ever happened, or ever will happen, forms the only link which connects these descriptions with the subject, or with each other.
How the descriptions are executed, our readers are probably by this time able to conjecall ages and nations; "red-mouthed cannons, The battle is made up of the battles of uproaring to the clouds," and "hands grasping operations of which this part of the poem refirm the glittering shield." The only military minds us are those which reduced the Abbey with his cross---the Austrian and Prussian of Quedtinburgh to submission-the Templar grenadiers in full uniform-and Curtius and Dentatus with their battering-ram. We ought not to pass by unnoticed the slain war-horse, who will no more
"Roll his red eye, and rally for the fight;" or the slain warrior, who, while lying on his bleeding breast," contrives to "stare ghastly and grimly on the skies." As to this last exploit, we can only say, as Dante did on a similar occasion,
"Forse per forza gia di parlasia
Si stravolse cosi alcun del tutto:
Like thick battalions halting for the fight;
What, we should like to know, is the differ ence between the two operations which Mr. Robert Montgomery so accurately distinguishes from each cther,the fierce sweeping of the tempest-spirits through the air, and the rushing