1. The Omnipresence of the Deity: a Poem By Robert Montgomery. Eleventh Edition.
2. Satan: a Poem By Robert Montgomery. Second Edition. London: 1830.
The wise men of antiquity loved to convey instruction under the covering of
apologue; and though this practice 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.
A pious Brahmin, it is written, made a vow that on a certain day he would
sacrifice a sheep, and on the appointed morning he went forth to buy one. There
lived in his neighborhood 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."
Just then one of the accomplices came up. "Praised be the gods," said the 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 Brahmin," said the new corner, "thou art
drunk or mad!"
At this time the third confederate drew near. "Let us ask this man," said the
Brahmin, "what the creature is, and I will stand by what he shall say." To this
the others agreed; and the Brahmin called out, "Oh stranger, what dost thou call
this beast?" "Surely, oh Brahmin," said the knave, "it is a fine sheep." Then
the Brahmin said, "Surely the gods have taken away my senses"; and he asked
pardon of him who carried the dog, and bought it for a measure of rice and a pot
of ghee, and offered it up to the gods, who, being wroth at this unclean
sacrifice, smote him with a sore disease in all his joints.
Thus, or nearly thus, if we remember rightly, runs the story of the Sanscrit
Aesop. The moral, like the moral of every fable that is 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.
In an age in which there are so few readers that a writer cannot subsist on the
sum arising from the sale of his works, no man who has not an independent
fortune can devote himself 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 splendor. 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 madhouse: 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.
This evil the progress of the human mind tends to remove. As a taste for books
becomes more and more common, the patronage of individuals becomes less and less
necessary. In the middle of the last century a marked change took place. The
tone of literary men, both in this country and in France, became higher and more
independent. Pope boasted that he was the "one poet" who had "pleased by manly
ways"; he derided the soft dedications with which Halifax had been fed, asserted
his own superiority over the pensioned Boileau, and gloried in being not the
follower, but the friend, of nobles and princes. The explanation of all this is
very simple. 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 to Mr.
Moore. The idea of either of those gentlemen looking out for some lord who would
be likely to give him a few guineas in return for a fulsome dedication seems
laughably incongruous. Yet this is exactly what Dryden or Otway would have done;
and it would be hard to blame them for it. Otway is said to have been choked
with a piece of bread which he devoured in the rage of hunger; and, whether this
story be true or false, he was beyond all question miserably poor. Dryden, at
near seventy, when at the head of the literary men of England, without equal or
second, received three hundred pounds for his Fables, a collection of ten
thousand verses, and of 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 predecessors, but because
he had a larger income, that he kept up the dignity of the literary character so
much better than they had done.
From the time of Pope to the present day the readers have been constantly
becoming more and more numerous, and the writers, consequently, more and more
independent. It is assuredly a great evil that men, fitted by their talents and
acquirements to enlighten and charm the world, should be reduced to the
necessity of flattering wicked and foolish patrons in return for the sustenance
of life. But, though we heartily rejoice that this evil is removed, we cannot
but see with concern 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 Maecenas 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 the last fifty years. Men of letters have 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 successfully carried on that it is
the duty of all who are anxious for the purity of the national taste, or for the
honor of the literary character, to join in discountenancing the practice. All
the pens that ever 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 novelists of this generation. Devices
which in the lowest trades are considered as disreputable are adopted without
scruple, and improved upon with a despicable ingenuity, by people engaged in a
pursuit which never was and never will be considered as a mere trade by any man
of honor and virtue. A butcher of the higher class disdains to ticket his meat.
A mercer of the higher class would be ashamed to hang up papers in his window
inviting the passers-by to look at the stock of a bankrupt, all of the first
quality, and going for half the value. We expect some reserve, some decent
pride, in our hatter and our bootmaker. But no artifice by which notoriety can
be obtained is thought too abject for a man of letters.
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 author's coterie, may have any
influence. The newspapers are for a fortnight filled with puffs of all the
various kinds which Sheridan enumerated, direct, oblique, and collusive.
Sometimes the praise is laid on thick for simple-minded people. "Pathetic,"
"sublime," "splendid," "graceful," "brilliant wit," "exquisite humor," and other
phrases equally flattering, fall in a shower as thick and as sweet as the
sugarplums at a Roman carnival. Sometimes greater art is used. A sinecure has
been offered to the writer if he would suppress his work, or if he would even
soften down a few of his incomparable portraits. A distinguished military and
political character has challenged the inimitable satirist of the vices of the
great; and the puffer is glad to learn that the parties have been bound over to
keep the peace. Sometimes it is thought expedient that the puffer should put on
a grave face, and utter his panegyric in the form of admonition. "Such attacks
on private character cannot be too much condemned. Even the exuberant wit of our
author, and the irresistible power of his withering sarcasm, are no excuses for
that utter disregard which he manifests for the feelings of others. We cannot
but wonder that a writer of such transcendent talents, a writer who is evidently
no stranger to the kindly charities and sensibilities of our nature, should show
so little tenderness to the foibles of noble and distinguished individuals, with
whom it is clear, from every page of his work, that he must have been constantly
mingling in society." These are but tame and feeble imitations of the paragraphs
with which the daily papers are filled whenever an attorney's clerk or an
apothecary's assistant undertakes to tell the public in bad English and worse
French, how people tie their neckcloths and eat their dinners in Grosvenor
Square. The editors of the higher and more respectable newspapers usually prefix
the words "Advertisement," or "From a Correspondent," to such paragraphs. But
this makes little difference. The panegyric is extracted, and the significant
heading omitted. The fulsome eulogy makes its appearance on the covers of all
the Reviews and Magazines, with Times or Globe affixed, though the editors of
the Times and the Globe have no more to do with it than with Mr. Goss's way of
making old rakes young again.
That people who live by personal slander should practice 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 Ragfair 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 his publishers, and not by his own. It is his business
to take such precautions as may prevent others from doing what must degrade him.
It is for his honor as a gentleman, and, if he is really a man of talents, it
will eventually be for his honor 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 the
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 a head
which has no right to it, by the huzzas of a few servile dependants.
The opinion of the great body of the reading public is very materially
influenced even by the unsupported assertions of those who assume a right to
criticize. Nor is the public altogether to blame on this account. Most even of
those who have really a great enjoyment in reading are in the same state, with
respect to a book, in which a man who has never given particular attention to
the art of painting is with respect to a picture. Every man who has the least
sensibility or imagination derives a certain pleasure from pictures. Yet 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 distinguish hands, as practiced judges distinguish them,
that he is not familiar with the finest models, that he has never looked at 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
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 present, however contemptible a poem or a novel may be, there is not
the least difficulty in procuring favorable notices of it from all sorts of
publications, daily, weekly, and monthly. In the meantime, 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 world
has contrived to forget. The names of the books and of the writers are buried in
as deep an oblivion as the name of the builder of Stonehenge. Some of the
well-puffed fashionable novels of eighteen hundred and twenty-nine hold the
pastry of eighteen hundred and thirty; and others, which are now extolled in
language almost too high-flown for the merits of Don Quixote, will, we have no
doubt, line the trunks of eighteen hundred and thirty-one. But, though we have
no apprehensions that puffing will ever confer permanent reputation on the
undeserving, we still think its influence most pernicious. Men of real 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 self-defense 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 do stoop to
it are always degraded.
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 easily any bellman might, if a bellman
would stoop to the necessary degree of meanness, become a "master-spirit of the
age." 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 colors in the Turkey carpet out of which a picture might be
made. There are words In Mr. Montgomery's writing 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
"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 fill'd 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.
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
everybody knows by heart, has said, addressing the sea,
"Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow."
Mr. Robert Montgomery very coolly appropriates the image and reproduces the
stolen goods in the following form:
"And thou vast Ocean, on whose awful face Time's iron feet can print no
So may such ill-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, And watch the breakers boiling on
the strand, And, while Creation stagger'd at his nod, Mock the dread presence of
the mighty God! We hear Him in the wind-heaved ocean's roar, Hurling her billowy
crags upon the shore We hear Him in the riot of the blast, And shake, while rush
the raving whirlwinds past!"
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 staggers. But Mr. Robert Montgomery's readers must take
such grammar as they can get, and be thankful.
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 always the case with the 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
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 at daybreak, when the violets are bathed in dew; and the comparison
is therefore peculiarly natural and 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. The slave 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 the thief to pieces instead of obeying his
orders. There are very few who can safely venture to conjure with the rod of Sir
Walter; and Mr. Robert Montgomery is not one of them.
Mr. Campbell, in one of his most pleasing pieces, has this line,
"The sentinel stars set their watch in the sky."
The thought is good, and has a very striking propriety where Mr. Campbell has
placed it, in the mouth of a soldier telling his dream. But, though Shakespeare
assures us that "every true man's apparel fits your thief," it is by no means
the case, as we have already seen, that every true poet's similitude fits your
plagiarist. Let us see how Mr. Robert Montgomery uses the image.
"Ye quenchless stars! so eloquently bright, Untroubled sentries of the shadowy
night, While half the world is lapp'd in downy dreams, And round the lattice
creep your midnight beams, How sweet to gaze upon your placid eyes, In lambent
beauty looking from the skies."
Certainly the ideas of eloquence, of untroubled repose, of placid eyes, of the
lambent beauty on 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 further 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
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
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 I 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
vapor, and commands each sea, Beams in each ray, bids whirlwinds be unfurl'd,
Unrols 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 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:
"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
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."
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II, Thomas Babbington Macaulay,