Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Montgomery, Robert (1807-1855)

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1332165Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 38 — Montgomery, Robert (1807-1855)1894Thomas Seccombe (1866-1923)

MONTGOMERY, ROBERT (1807–1855), poetaster, born at Bath in 1807, was the natural son of Robert Gomery—'a most gentlemanly and well-informed man,' and for many years clown at the Bath Theatre—by 'a lady who kept a school at Bath, and who subsequently removed from that city and married a respectable schoolmaster.' Gomery afterwards married a Mrs. Power (whom he survived), and died at Walcot Buildings, Bath, on 14 June 1853. His last appearance on the Bath stage, as recorded by Genest (viii. 39, ix. 215), was as Master Heriot in the 'Fortunes of Nigel,' 7 Dec. 1822. The son was fairly well educated, at Dr. Arnot's school in his native town, became well known among his father's friends as a future Byron, and assumed the aristocratic prefix Mont. When about seventeen he founded a weekly paper at Bath called 'The Inspector,' which had a brief existence. His first considerable poem, 'The Stage Coach,' was written in 1827; it was followed in the same year by 'The Age Reviewed,' a satire upon contemporary mankind, in two parts. In 1828, with a dedication to Bishop Howley, appeared 'The Omnipresence of the Deity,' a poem which proved so acceptable to the religious sentiment of the day that it passed through eight editions in as many months. Prefixed to the later editions was a portrait of the youthful author (who is admitted by his detractors to have 'looked like a poet'), with open collar and upward gaze so arranged as to resemble as nearly as possible the well-known features of Byron. In the same year appeared another volume of blank verse, dedicated to Sharon Turner, and entitled 'A Universal Prayer; Death; a Vision of Heaven; and a Vision of Hell.' Inflated eulogies of these productions appeared in the chief London and provincial papers. Edward Clarkson, who reviewed them in the 'Sunday Times' and the 'British Traveller,' compared Montgomery with Milton. Southey, Bowles, Crabbe, and other men of letters hailed him as a rising poet of much promise; Southey afterwards wrote of him to Caroline Bowles (1832) as 'a fine young man who has been wickedly puffed and wickedly abused.'

There followed from his pen in rapid succession 'The Puffiad,' a satire (1830), and 'Satan, or Intellect without God,' a poem (1830). The last work commended itself strongly to the evangelical party (see Evangel. Mag. February 1830), and seemed likely to surpass in popularity all the poet's previous effusions. It ran through more editions, and suddenly elicited more contemporary fame than the publication of any poet since the death of Byron. Severe criticism was, however, by no means withheld. Montgomery was smartly denounced in the first volume of 'Fraser,' and he received a tolerably candid admonition from Wilson in 'Blackwood' (cf. London Monthly Review, cxvii. 30). But a sterner Nemesis was in store for him. In March 1830 Macaulay wrote to Macvey Napier: 'There is a wretched poetaster of the name of Robert Montgomery, who has written some volumes of detestable verses on religious subjects, which by mere puffing in magazines and newspapers have had an immense sale, and some of which are now in their 11th or 12th editions. ... I really think we ought to try what effect satire will have upon this nuisance, and I doubt whether we can ever find a better opportunity' (Napier, Corresp.. 80). The classic castigation which has perpetuated the memory of its victim followed in the 'Edinburgh Review' for April 1830. Though its severity was, doubtless, well intentioned, the article is conspicuous neither for good taste nor fairness. It would now, as Mr. W. E. Norris writes, 'be as disagreeable to witness such an onslaught as to see a man throw a glass of wine in his neighbour's face' (Adrian Vidal, 1890, p. 306). Montgomery made a contemptuous rejoinder. 'The reviewer,' he concludes, 'is, we believe, still alive, and from time to time employs himself in making mouths at distinguished men. Most heartily do we wish him a nobler office than that of being the hired assassin of a bigoted review.' He seems to have for some time meditated a libel action (cf. Trevelyan, Life of Macaulay, 1889, pp. 538, 599). The immediate sale of the poems was by no means arrested. 'The Omnipresence of the Deity' progressed steadily to its twenty-eighth edition in 1858, and 'Satan' traversed eight editions between the appearance of the article and 1842. Selections from his poems, including 'The Omnipresence,' 'Woman,' 'Satan,' and a number of minor pieces, were published in 3 vols. Glasgow, 1839. The work had a large sale, and a chorus of praise went up from the provincial press. Two collective editions in 6 vols. appeared in 1840 and 1841 respectively. A fourth edition, in one large 8vo volume, appeared in 1853, with a doctrinal and analytical index by the Rev. J. Twycross.

Encouraged by the advice and assistance of Bowles and Sharon Turner, Montgomery had meanwhile matriculated from Lincoln College, Oxford, on 18 Feb. 1830, 'aged 22,' graduating B.A. in fourth-class honours in 1833, and M.A. in 1838. In 1831 appeared 'Oxford,' a poem, which seems to have elicited much ridicule at Oxford, but not elsewhere (3rd edit. 1843) ; in 1832 'The Messiah, in six Books' (8th edit. 1842), dedicated to Queen Adelaide, who acknowledged the compliment by presenting the author with a medal, and in 1833 'Woman, the Angel of Life, and other Poems' (5th edit, 1841).

On 3 May 1835 Montgomery was ordained at St. Asaph, and for the next year served a curacy at Whittington, Shropshire, which he left amid universal regret in 1836 for the charge of the episcopal church of St. Jude in Glasgow. He proved a successful preacher, and wrote copiously on theological subjects. In October 1843 he became minister of Percy Chapel, in the parish of St. Pancras in London, and retained this charge until his death at Brighton in December 1855. In 1843 he had married Rachel, youngest daughter of A. Mackenzie of Bursiedon, Hampshire, and left one child.

With an unfortunate facility in florid versification Montgomery combined no genuinely poetic gift. Macaulay, in trying to anticipate the office of time, only succeeded in rescuing him from the oblivion to which he was properly destined. His style of preaching is said to have resembled that of his poetical effusions. His manners, in spite of his vanity, are said to have been engaging ; he was generous, and his congregations were much attached to him. He did a great deal to promote the welfare of the Brompton Consumption Hospital, and devoted much of his later life to similar causes.

Portraits by Hobday, Macnee, and C. Grant were engraved by Thomson, Finden, and T. Romney respectively.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886; Annual Register, 1855, p. 322 ; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vols. i. ii. passim; Fraser's Magazine, i. 95, 721 (two capital articles, humorous, and quite as conclusive as the famous essay of Macaulay), and iv. 672 (with portrait) ; Blackwood, xxiii. 751, xxvi. 242, xxxi. 592 (a burlesque on 'Satan'); London Monthly Review, 1831 to 1833, passim; Athenaeum, 1832 p. 348, 1833 p. 772 ; Westminster Review, xii. 355 ; Southey's Correspondence with Caroline Bowles, ed. Dowden, passim ; Southey's Life and Correspondence, passim ; S. C. Hall's Retrospect of a Long Life, 1883, ii. 191-2; Allibone's Diet, of English Lit. (containing lists of his minor works and references to a number of American Reviews) ; Gent. Mag. 1856, i. 312 (with full bibliography); British Museum Catalogue.]

T. S.