James Montgomery (1771–1854) Frisks Along a River Bank Following His Release from Jail

[ABOVE—James Montgomery, from Theron Brown and Hezekiah Butterworth’s Story of the Hymns and Tunes (New York: George H. Doran, 1906).]

James Montgomery was no criminal, but spent time in prison all the same. He had become editor of a newspaper, the Iris Sheffield, and the jittery British government twice imprisoned him for printing details which it claimed were subversive. The record seems to show that Montgomery had not intended subversion in those particular articles, but that he was sympathetic towrd the French Revolution. Furthermore, he may have authored anonymous satires in support of Parliamentary reform. This kind of agitation was not well-received by the government.

Montgomery also wrote hymns and poems. Asked which of his poetical works would be remembered, he reckoned that none would, unless it were a few of his hymns or religious pieces. However, in his own day, a narrative poem was highly praised, Wordworth writing to him that “From the time I first read your ‘Wanderer in Switzerland,’ I have felt a lively interest in your destiny as a poet.” Today, serious students of English literature know his name, but otherwise he is a footnote, and it is as he said: his hymns find scattered inclusion in hymnals, and little more. The verse which has fared best is one of his carols. You may have sung or heard it: “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” On the whole, Montgomery‘s work was too malencholy and lacking in genius to last.

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Some of the poems which appeared in his first volume of poetry, The Prison Amusements, were written during his incarceration. These are not particularly quotable. Of greater interest are his comments on his first stint in prison, which we reproduce below.

During his first imprisonment, which lasted only three months, he longed greatly for the freedom to walk abroad. His description of his first walk after being unloosed is delightful. And while it has no spiritual power, it has freshness, and any young prisoner might react the same upon release.

Excerpt from The Poetical Works of James Montgomery, 1841

The room which I occupied overlooked the castle walls and gave me ample views of the adjacent country, then passing from the forlornness of winter to the first blooms of a promising spring. From my window I was daily in the habit of marking these, and dwelt with peculiar delight on the well-known walk by the river Ouse, where stood a long range of well-grown trees, beyond which, on the left, lay pasture fields that led towards a wooden windmill, the motion and configuration of whose arns, as the body was turned about, east, west, north and south, to meet the wind from every point, proved the source of very humble, but very dear pleasure to one with whom it was ever as a living thing—the companion of his eye and the inspirer of his thoughts, having more than once suggested grave meditations on the vanity of the world, and the flight of time.

During such reveries, I often purposed that my first ramble, on recovery of my freedom, should be down by that river, under those trees, across the fields beyond, and away to the windmill. And so it came to pass. One fine morning, in the middle of April, I was liberated. Immediately afterwards I sallied forth, and took my walk in that direction—from whence, with feelings which none but an emancipated captive can fully understand, I looked back upon the castle walls, and to the window of that very chamber from which I had been accustomed to look forward, both with the eye and with hope, upon the ground which I was now treading, with a spring in my step as though the very soil were elastic under my feet. While I was thus traversing the fields, not with any apprehension of falling over the verge of the narrow footpath, but from mere wantonness of instinct, in the joy of liberty long wished for, and, though late, come at last, I willfully diverged from the track, crossing it now to the right, then to the left, like a butterfly fluttering here and there, making a long course and little way, just to prove my legs, that they were no longer under restraint, but might tread where and how they pleased; and that I myself was in reality abroad again in the world—not gazing at a section of landscape over stone walls that might not be scaled; nor when, in the castle yard, the ponderous gates, or the small wicket, happened to be opened to let in or let out visitors or captives, looking up the street from a particular point which might not be passed. Now to some wise people this may appear very childish, even in such a stripling as I was then: but the feeling was pure and natural, and the expression innocent and graceful as every unsophisticated emotion and spontaneous manifestation must be.