« AnteriorContinuar »
over the sun himself, the grave proclaims the superiority and immunity of the soul
“ The Sun is but a spark of fire,
A transient meteor in the sky;
Shalt never die."
Surely no well in the wilderness ever sparkled out to the thirsty traveller a voice more musical, more tender, and more cheering, than this which Montgomery educes from the jaws of the narrow house. Soon afterwards we became acquainted with some of his other small pieces, which then seized and which still occupy the principal place in our regards. Indeed, it is on his little poems that the permanency of his fame is likely to rest, as it is into them that he has chiefly shed the peculiarity and the beauty of his genius. James Montgomery has little inventive or dramatic power; he cannot write an epic; none of his larger poems, while some are bulky, can be called great; but he is the best writer of hymns (understanding a hymn simply to mean a short religious effusion) in the language. He catches the transient emotions of the pious heart, which arise in the calm evening walk, where the saint, like Isaac, goes out into the fields to meditate; or under the still and star-fretted midnight; or on his own delightful bed ;" or in pensive contemplations of the Common Lot;" or under the Swiss heaven, where evening hardly closes the eye of Mont Blanc, and stirs lake Leman's waters with a murmur like a sleeper's prayer; wherever, in short, piety kindles into the poetic feeling, such emotions he catches, refines, and embalms in his snatches of
As Wordsworth has expressed sentiments which the “ solitary lover of nature was unable to utter, save with glistening eye and faltering tongue,” so Montgomery has given poetic form and words to breathings and pantings of the Christian's spirit, which himself never suspected to be poetical at all, till he saw them reflected in verse. He has caught and crystallized the tear dropping from the penitent's eye; he has echoed the burden of the heart, sighing with gratitude to Heaven; he has arrested and fixed in melody the “ upward glancing of an eye, when none but God is near.” In his verse, and in Cowper's, the poetry of ages of
devotion has broken silence, and spoken out. Religion, the most poetical of all things, had, for a long season, been divorced from song, or had mistaken pert jingle, impudent familiarity, and doggerel
, for its genuine voice. It was reserved for the bards of Olney and Sheffield to renew and to strengthen the lawful and holy wedlock.
Montgomery, then, is a religious lyrist, and as such, is distinguished by many peculiar merits. His first quality is a certain quiet simplicity of language, and of purpose. His is not the ostentatious, elaborate, and systematic simplicity of Wordsworth; it is unobtrusive, and essential to the action of his mind. It is a simplicity, which the diligent student of Scripture seldom fails to derive from its pages, particularly from its histories and its psalms. It is the simplicity of a spirit which religion has subdued as well as elevated, and which consciously spreads abroad the wings of its imagination, under the eye of God. As if each poem were a prayer, so is he sedulous that its words be few and well ordered. In short, his is not so much the simplicity of art, nor the simplicity of nature, as it is the simplicity of faith. It is the virgin dress of one of the white-robed priests in the ancient temple. It is a simplicity which, by easy and rapid transition, mounts into bold and manly enthusiasm. One is reminded of the artless sinkings and soarings, lingerings and hurryings of David's matchless minstrelsies. Profound insight is not peculiarly Montgomery's forte. He is rather a seraph than a cherub; rather a burning than a knowing one. He kneels; he looks upward with rapt eye; he covers at times his face with his wing; but he does not ask awful questions, or cast strong though baffled glances into the solid and intolerable glory. You can never apply to him the words of Gray. He never has “passed the bounds of flaming space, where angels tremble as they gaze.” He has never invaded those lofty but dangerous regions of speculative thought, where some have dwelt till they have lost all of piety, save its grandeur and gloom. He does not reason, far less doubt, on the subject of religion at all; it is his only to wonder, to love, to weep, and to adore. Sometimes, but seldom, can he be called a sublime writer. In his “ Wanderer of Switzerland," he blows a bold horn, but the echoes and the ava
lanches of the highest Alps will not answer or fall to his reveillé. In his - Greenland," he expresses but faintly the poetry of Frost; and his line is often cold as a glacier. His - World before the Flood” is a misnomer. It is not the young virgin undrowned world it professes to be. In his “ West Indies,” there is more of the ardent emancipator than of the poet; you catch but dimly, through its correct and measured verse, a glimpse of Ethiopia—a dreadful appellant, standing with one shackled foot on the rock of Gibraltar, and the other on the Cape of Good Hope, and “stretching forth her hands” to an avenging God. And although, in the borrors of the middle passage, there were elements of poetry, yet it was a poetry which our author's genius is too gentle and timid fully to extract. As soon could he have added a story to Ugolino's tower, or another circle to the Inferno, as have painted that pit of heat, hunger, and howling despair, the hold of a slave vessel. Let him have his praise, however, as the constant and eloquent friend of the negro, and as the laureate of his freedom. The high note struck at first by Cowper in his lines, “I would not have a slave,” &c., it was reserved for Montgomery to echo and swell up, in reply to the full diapason of the liberty of Ham's children, proclaimed in all the isles wbich Britain claims as hers. And let us hope that he will be rewarded, before the close of his existence, by hearing, though it were in an ear half-shut in death, a louder, deeper, more victorious shout springing from emancipated America, and of saying, like Simeon of old, “ Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation."
The plan of “ The Pelican Island” was an unfortunate one, precluding as it did almost entirely human interest, and rapid vicissitude of events; and resting its power principally upon the description of foreign objects, and of slow though majestic processes of nature. Once, and once only, in this and perhaps any of his poems, does he rise into the rare region of the sublime. It is in the description of the sky of the south, a subject which indeed is itself inspiration. And yet, in that solemn sky, the great constellations, hung up in the wondering evening air, the Dove, the Raven, the Ship of Heaven, “ sailing from eternity;"' the Wolf,“ with eyes of lightning watching the Centaur's spear; the Altar blazing, “even at the footsteps of Jehovah's throne; the Cross, “meek emblem of Redeeming love," which bends at midnight as when they were taking down the Saviour of the world, and which greeted the eye of Humboldt as he sailed over the still Pacific, had so hung and so burned for ages, and no poet had sung their praises. Patience, ye glorious tremblers. In a page of this " Pelican Island," a page bright as your own beams, and like them immortal, shall your splendors be yet inscribed. This passage, which floats the poem, and will long memorize Montgomery's name, is the more remarkable, as the poet never saw but in imagination that unspeakable southern midnight. And yet we are not sure but, of objects so transcendent, the “vision of our own" is the true vision, and the vision that ought to be perpetuated in song. For our parts, we, longing as we have ever done to see the Cross of the South, would almost fear to have our longings gratified, and to find the reality, splendid as it must be, substituted for that vast image of bright, quivering stars, which has so long loomed before our imaginations, and so often visited our dreams. Indeed, it is a question, in reference to objects which must, even when seen, derive their interest from imagination, whether they be not best seen by its eye alone.
Among Montgomery's smaller poems, the finest is the “Stanzas at Midnight," composed in Switzerland, and which we see inserted in Longfellow's romance of Hyperion, with no notice or apparent knowledge of their authorship. They describe a mood of his own mind while passing a night among the Alps, and contain a faithful transcript of the emotions which, thick and sombre as the shadows of the mountains, crossed his soul in its solitude. There are no words of Foster's which to us possess more meaning than that simple expression in his first essay, “ solemn meditations of the night.” Nothing in spiritual history is more interesting. What vast tracts of thought does the mind sometimes traverse when it cannot sleep! What ideas, that had bashfully presented themselves in the light of day, now stand out in bold relief and authoritative dignity! How vividly appear before us the memories of the past! How do, alas! past struggles and sins return to recollection, rekindling on our cheeks their first fierce blushes unseen in the darkness !
How new a light is cast upon the great subjects of spiritual contemplation! What a 5 browner horror” falls upon the throne of death, and the pale kingdoms of the grave! What projects are then formed, what darings of purpose conceived, and how fully can we then understand the meaning of the poet,
“ In lonely glens, amid the roar of rivers,
And when, through the window, looks in on us one full glance of a clear large star, how startlingly it seems, like a conscious, mild, yet piercing eye; how strongly it points, how soothingly it mingles with our meditations, and, as with a pencil of fire, points them away into still remoter and more mysterious regions of thought! Such a meditation Montgomery has embodied in these beautiful verses : but then HE is up amid the midnight and all its stars; he is out amid the Alps, and is catching on his brow the living breath of that rarest inspiration which moves amid them, then and then alone.
We mentioned Cowper in conjunction with Montgomery in a former sentence. They resemble each other in the pious purpose and general simplicity of their writings, but otherwise are entirely distinct. Cowper's is a didactic, Montgomery's a romantic piety. Cowper's is a gloomy, Montgomery's a cheerful religion. Cowper has in him a fierce and bitter vein of satire, often irritating into invective; we find no traces of any such thing in all Montgomery's writings. Cowper's withering denunciations seem shreds of Elijah's mantle, torn off in the fiery whirlwind. Montgomery is clothed in the softer garments, and breathes the gentler genius of the new economy. And as poets, Montgomery, with more imagination and elegance, is entirely destitute of the rugged strength of sentiment, the exquisite keenness of observation, the rich humor and the awful personal pathos of Cowper.
Montgomery's hymns ( properly so called), we do not much admire. They are adapted, and seem written, for such an assemblage of greasy worshippers, such lank-haired