Page images
PDF
EPUB

degree callous by repeated impressions, insensible by the exercise of its sensibility; and attempts to stimulate its exhausted powers are attended with indifference, weariness, and disgust. The impression, also, which the various incidents might have produced, will be in some measure diminished by the Abolition itself. Our sympathy with suffering, as it chiefly arises from a sense of our own liability to it, is greatly weakened by the certainty that it cannot recur; and is counteracted, moreover, by the pleasure of contemplating the extinction of its source. The name of a wolf excites but little terror in the peasantry of a country, from which the race has been long exterminated; and the most distressing situations of a novel are passed over with comparative unconcern, when we are aware it is to end happily. The Slave Trade, therefore,, though a fine subject for poetry, is now a very dangerous one for a poet.—It seemed necessary to mention these circumstances, as augmenting the difficulty of the task, which the contributors to this work have had the courage to undertake.

Mr. Montgomery is a poet in whom we have found much both to admire and to forgive. The extensive and unabated popularity of his poems, (which are rather to be regarded, however, as proofs of ability than as modelsof excellence,) leaves him no room to charge the public in general with, insensibility to his talents or severity to his faults. We cannot ascribe this popularity to any thing less than that power over the mind which genius alone possesses, when we reflect that it has attached itself, in an age when poetical talent is more frequently evolved, more highly cultivated, and more nicely judged, than at any former period, to a writer, who had neither meanness pf condition to extort wonder, nor dignity to enforce respect; who had no literary confederacy to assume his cause, and beguile, surprize, or intimidate the public into a decision in his favour; who was no darling of any sect or of any party, no sycophant to the wealthy or to the great; who wrote no romances, gratified no rage for chivalry or black-letter, fell in with no fashionable innovations, stimulated no sensual appetitet Haltered no error, ministered to no vice- A poet who has depended exclusivel}', for his success, upon the elegant delineation of sublime and beautiful imagery, of tender and heroic feeling, of refined and elevated thought; who has actually triumphed over the hearts, and received the praises of a large proportion of his countrymen; who has survived the foulest abuse and bitterest ridicule of unprincipled criticism,—may very possibly be chargeable with faults, but is certainly not destitute of genius.

There are individuals, however, who protest against the decision of the public. Without assuming the infallibility of a tribunal in whose decree we happen to concur, and whose authority indeed it is as unusual as it is useless to call in question, we may venture to surmise some of the principles which have produced the difference of opinion. Many of these are implied in enumerating those causes of popularity to which Mr. Montgomery has not been indebted: with a variety of readers, no poet, who is not aided by some of these circumstances, has any chance of becoming a favourite till he dies. Some are indignant at having been anticipated, and jealous of a popularity which cannot be attributed to their suffrage. Some are too logical, to perceive any merit in a contemporary, who has ever slipped into a defective allegory or a mixed metaphor. A few are still too classical to be satisfied with out an imitation of ancient models, or an introduction of heathen gods. The taste of some is so perfect, that they can tolerate whole pages of insipidity better than a line of extravagance. There are some, moreover, so entirely 'unused to the melting mood,' that when they meet with a writer who practises a little upon the feelings, they either wonder what in the name of common sense he can mean, or resent his impertinence with indignation. These readers, whether naturally possessing but little sensibility, — whether hardened by unsocial or dissipated habits, an ill-natured and satirical arrogance, a devotion to abstract studies, or an exclusive passion for the useful and the true, — whether ashamed, or incapable, of any suffusion of the eye or the cheek,—would deserve some share of commiseration, but that they are all fortunately exempt from those disturbances which are produced in others by the sublime in nature, in music, or in sentiment-, and from all danger of being classed in bills .of mortality with those who have died either of jov or of grief. A certain number of these classes, have 'yet another hold' upon Mr. Montgomery; there is strong reason to suspect him of believing not only in a God, but in a Saviour.—For our own parts, we are very far from being blind to the numerous blemishes in Mr. Montgomery's works; we perceive numerous blemishes, too, in the works of the best poets our country has produced: and we also perceive in both a vast superiority of beauties,.that amply atone for their faults, and intitie them to admiration ■ and immortality. Not long ago, we think, some person or other predicted that by about this time we should hear no more of Mr. Montgomery. We, on the contrary, will venture to prophesy, that of all his contemporaries, tbough several may surpass, not one will survive him. It may be presumed that at any rate our prophecy is the more'discreet; and will not expose us to the disgrace and mortification, of being ourselves the witnesses of its failure.

We should be sorry, however, for Mr. Montgomery's fame to rest principally upon the Wanderer of Switzerland, or indeed upon any of. the smaller but superior poems he has already published ; as we are satisfied, from these specimens, that his genius, if wisely aimed and diligently exercised, is capable of far nobler and less exceptionable performances. The poem now before us, instead of weakening this opinion, confirms it. We must add, however, that instead of equalling all our expectations, it enlarges them ; that we still think his success inferior to his ability ; and rather look upon him as having bent the bow, than as having hit the mark.

The measure here adopted by Mr. M. is the heroic; in which his versification is as closely condensed, as strongly pointed, and as highly polished, though not always as elegantly and happily fashioned, as in his excellent lyrics. He has studied Variety of cadence with considerable success, but has not always attained it without a sacrifice of ease and harmony. There is too often a greater degree of pomp or of ardour in the verse, than is required by the sentiment. In endeavouring to adapt the sound to the sense, he has now and then introduced harsh breaks and awkward pauses; in some of these attempts, however, he has. been eminently fortunate. We have noticed occasional resemblances, probably accidental, to several poets who have employed this metre with peculiar skill; but they are few and inconsiderable, and it is evident that the author has imitated no particular model, but formed a manner entirely his own, which he might assimilate more to that of Dryden, we think, without any disadvantage.

We are not very much pleased with the scheme of this poem. That 'there are some objections against the title and ~lan, which will occur to almost every reader,' the author is

imself aware He adds, that ' the title seemed the best, and the plan the most eligible, that he could adapt to a subject so various and excursive, yet so familiar and exhausted.' Desultory as the plan is, and materially as it detracts from the general merit and effect of the poem, it is doubtless preferable to a mere history in verse; and any thing like the epic form was quite inapplicable to a subject perfectly well known, possessing no unity, and admitting of no plot. The poem is divided into four parts. Without any vain attempts to create suspense or surprise, the poet announces the subject and catastrophe in the very first line, supposed to be uttered by Britannia;

* Tby chains are broken 5 Africa, be free l*

[ocr errors]

He proceeds, rather abruptly, to a narrative of tlie discovery and depopulation of the West India islands, commencing with a poef cal allusion to the magnetic needle, and the expedition of Columbus. The second canto begins with a descant on the sugar-cane; and the determination of the planters, to supply the place of the exterminated or worn out Charibs by an importation of negroes, introduces a survey of African nature, a view of the negro-race, and an account of the trade in slaves and of the European powers which carried it on. Among these, Britain of course is mentioned, and the Abolition again transiently referred to. This reference, which also recurs in the fourth canto, appears to us injudicious. It was rendered necessary, however, by the author's plan, which seems to have been to give in this second part a general view of the history of the trade, as he had related the previous history in the first part, reserving a more particular account of its horrors for the ihird, and of the causes and consequences of its annihilation for the last. The topics of the third canto are numerous and interesting: it begins. with reflections on the love of country and of home, as the same in all nations and ages, and especially as actuating the negro; and closes with a reference to the awful visitations of Providence on' the guilty islands. The fourth part delineates the early history and benevolent labours of the Moravians, the conversion of the negro, and the efforts of the leading abolitionists, concluding with a prophecy of the eventual prosperity of the West Indies, Africa, and the world at large, and hailing the commencement of the promised Millennium.

From this analysis, it will appear, that the author has endeavoured to substitute variety of subject for unity of plan; and must rely on the splendor of individual parts, in his poem, to excite an interest and impart a pleasure, which its form, considered as a whole, could not be expected to produce. Hence the character of the poem is not so much didactic or narrative, as lyrical. The fine representation of Columbus musing on the sea shore, after he had conceived the idea of a western continent, and watching the successive «ettingof the sun, the evening star, and the moon,—and more especially the imaginary personages, Britannia, and Africa— might not improperly have been the subjects of an ode. A very imperfect'idea may be formed of the spirit with which the soliloquy of Columbus is described, from the concluding lines:

'Now earth and ocean vanish'd, all serene
The starry firmament alone was seen;

Through the slow, silent hours, he watch'd the host

Of midnight suns in western darkness lost, ■

Till Night himself, on shadowy pinions borne,

Fled o'er the mighty waters, and the morn

Danc'd on the mountains :—« Lights of heaven !' he cried,

'Lead on ;—I go to win a glorious bride;—

'Hope swells my sail; in spirit I behold

* That maiden-world, twin sister of the old,

* By nature nurs'd beyond the jealous sea,

* Denied to ages, but betroth'd to me.' p. 4.

His success is thus related.

» The winds were prosperous, and the billows bote
The brave adventurer to the promis'd shore;
Far in the west array'd in purple light,
Dawn'd the new world on his enraptur'd sight:
Not Adam loosen'd from th' encumbering earth,
Waked by the breath of God to instant birth,
With sweeter, wilder wonder gaz'd around,
. , When life within, and light without he found,

The whole creation rushing o'er his soul,
He seem'd to live and breathe throughout the whole.
So felt Columbus when, divinely fair,
At the last look of resolute despair,
Th' Hesperian isles, from distance dimly blue,
With gradual beauty open'd on his view.
In that proud moment, his transported mind
The morning and the evening worlds' combinM,
And made the sea, that sunder'd them before,
A bond of peace, uniting shore to shore.' pp. 4, 5.

A more vivid impression is usually produced by selecting and strongly delineating a particular event in a series, or a particular section of a suene, than by a vague though comprehensive representation of the whole. A striking instance occurs in the following lines, which embrace in fact but a single individual, but a moment of time, and but a point of space, and yet afford a very distinct and impressive idea of the train of cruelties inflicted on the aboriginal inhabitants of the West India islands by their remorseless invaders. We think the whole compass of English poetry scarcely affords a passage, more happily conceived, or more skilfully executed. The artful construction- of the last line would do credit to the ablest versifier in our language.

« The Indian, as he turn'd his head in flight,

Beheld his cottage flaming through the night,

And, midst the shrieks of murder on the wind,

Heard the mute blood-hound's death-step, close behind* p. f»'

« PreviousContinue »