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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859)

On Robert Montgomery’s Poems

From “Mr. Robert Montgomery”

WE have no enmity to Mr. Robert Montgomery. We know 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 a Turkey carpet out of which a picture might be made. There are words in Mr. Montgomery’s writings 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 anything “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,
  • Angelic woman into being rose.”
  • The all-pervading influence of the Supreme Being is then described in a few tolerable lines borrowed from Pope, and a great many intolerable lines of Mr. Robert Montgomery’s own. The following may stand as a specimen:

  • “But who could trace Thine unrestricted course,
  • Though fancy followed with immortal force?
  • There’s not a blossom fondled by the breeze,
  • There’s not a fruit that beautifies the trees,
  • There’s not a particle in sea or air,
  • But nature owns Thy plastic influence there!
  • With fearful gaze, still be it mine to see
  • How all is filled and vivified by Thee;
  • Upon Thy mirror, earth’s majestic view,
  • To paint Thy presence, and to feel it too.”
  • The last two lines contain an excellent specimen 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….

    We would not be understood to say that Mr. Robert Montgomery cannot make similitudes for himself. 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 like each other than that of meandering level and that of mounting upward.

    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:

  • “Yes! pause and think, within one fleeting hour,
  • How vast a universe obeys Thy power;
  • Unseen, but felt, Thine interfused control
  • Works in each atom, and pervades the whole;
  • Expands the blossom, and erects the tree,
  • Conducts each vapour, and commands each sea,
  • Beams in each ray, bids whirlwinds be unfurl’d,
  • Unrolls the thunder, and upheaves a world!”
  • No field-preacher surely ever carried his irreverent familiarity so far as to bid the Supreme Being stop and think on the importance of the interests which are under His care. The grotesque indecency of such an address throws into the shade the subordinate absurdities of the passage, the unfurling of whirlwinds, the unrolling of thunder, and the upheaving of worlds….

    Our poet then proceeds to demonstrate the immortality of the soul:

  • “And shall the soul, the fount of reason, die,
  • When dust and darkness round its temple lie?
  • Did God breathe in it no ethereal fire,
  • Dimless and quenchless, though the breath expire?”
  • The soul is a fountain, and therefore it is not to die, though dust and darkness lie round its temple, because an ethereal fire has been breathed into it, which cannot be quenched though its breath expire. Is it the fountain or the temple that breathes, and has fire breathed into it? Mr. Montgomery apostrophises the “Immortal beacons—spirits of the just,” and describes their employments in another world, which are to be, it seems, bathing in light, hearing fiery streams flow, and riding on living cars of lightning. The death-bed of the sceptic is described with what we suppose is meant for energy. We then have the death-bed of a Christian made as ridiculous as false imagery and false English can make it. But this is not enough. The Day of Judgment is to be described, and a roaring cataract of nonsense is poured forth on this tremendous subject. Earth, we are told, is dashed into eternity. Furnace-blasts wheel round the horizon, and burst into bright wizard phantoms. Racing hurricanes unroll, and whirl quivering fire-clouds. The white waves gallop. Shadowy worlds career around. The red and raging eye of imagination is then forbidden to pry farther. But farther Mr. Robert Montgomery persists in prying. The stars bound through the airy roar. The unbosomed deep yawns on the ruin. The billows of eternity then begin to advance. The world glares in fiery slumber. A car comes forward driven by living thunder:

  • “Creation shudders with sublime dismay,
  • And in a blazing tempest whirls away.”
  • And this is fine poetry! This is what ranks its writer with the master-spirits of the age! This is what has been described, over and over again, in terms which would require some qualification if used respecting “Paradise Lost”!…

    “Satan” is a long soliloquy, which the devil pronounces in five or six thousand lines of bad blank verse, concerning geography, politics, newspapers, fashionable society, theatrical amusements, Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Lord Byron’s poetry, and Mr. Martin’s pictures. The new designs for Milton have, as was natural, particularly attracted the attention of a personage who occupies so conspicuous a place in them. Mr. Martin must be pleased to learn that, whatever may be thought of those performances on earth, they give full satisfaction in Pandemonium, and he is there thought to have hit off the likenesses of the various thrones and dominations very happily.

    The motto to the poem of “Satan” is taken from the Book of Job: “Whence comest thou? From going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it.” And certainly Mr. Robert Montgomery has not failed to make his hero go to and fro, and walk up and down. With the exception, however, of this propensity to locomotion, Satan has not one satanic quality. Mad Tom had told us that “the prince of darkness is a gentleman,” but we had yet to learn that he is a respectable and pious gentleman, whose principal fault is that he is something of a twaddle and far too liberal of his good advice. That happy change in his character which Origen anticipated, and of which Tillotson did not despair, seems to be rapidly taking place. Bad habits are not eradicated in a moment. It is not strange, therefore, that so old an offender should now and then relapse for a short time into wrong dispositions. But to give him his due, as the proverb recommends, we must say that he always returns, after two or three lines of impiety, to his preaching style. We would seriously advise Mr. Montgomery to omit or alter about a hundred lines in different parts of this large volume, and to republish it under the name of “Gabriel.”