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covenant. In the preface he announces, "I have adhered to the metrical economy of Milton, as preferable to that of numbers of more modern extraction." But "metrical economy" and "numbers" must have been elastic terms to Phillips, covering style and diction no less than prosody, as will appear from these lines, by no means the most inflated in the poem:
In robes of living light,
The fragrant sweets of calamus, and stacte ...
Mount Sinai was not the last religious poem to employ the excessive and objectionable Miltonisms that distinguish eighteenthcentury blank verse. These are almost as marked in some of the numerous effusions of Robert Montgomery, the natural son of a professional clown and a schoolmistress, who shot like a comet across the heaven of popular favor. When but twenty-one Montgomery published a piece in heroic couplets, The Omnipresence of the Deity (1828), which ran through "eight editions in as many months" and by 1855 reached the twenty-eighth separate reprinting. Thereafter work followed work in rapid succession, until in the collected editions of 1840 and 1841 his complete poems filled six volumes. Many of these pieces are short and not a few of them are rimed; but several are long works in blank verse, Satan, or Intellect without God (1830, tenth edition 1842), The Messiah (1832, eighth edition 1842), Luther (1842, sixth edition 1852). Very likely the reader has never heard of any of these productions and would be unable to obtain them in either bookstores or libraries; yet their author receives more space in Allibone's Dictionary of Authors than is allotted to Coleridge, and his Satan, we are told, "ran through more editions, and suddenly elicited more contemporary fame than the publication of any poet since the death of Byron." 2
In Macaulay's remorseless exposure of the emptiness of Montgomery's poems, their vogue is attributed to "the modern practice
1 Pages 131-2. A year after the appearance of Phillips's narrative another unrimed poem with a similar title, Mount Sion, was published by John Newby Mosby (Fall of Algiers, Doncaster, 1831, pp. 359-418). This production, which fills sixty pages with a vision of the day of judgment, is a dull enough copy of the style and particularly the diction of Paradise Lost, though less absurdly Miltonic than its predecessor.
2 Dict. Nat. Biog.
3 Edin. Rev., li. 193–210.
of puffing," but it was probably due quite as much to the fluency of their grandiloquent expression of sentimental religious platitudes. For, with the exception of The Messiah, which recounts the life of Christ, nearly all of Montgomery's effusions are really sermons, with considerably more of nature but no less of rambling verbosity than such productions often manifest. Much of Macaulay's characterization of Satan is applicable to the other poems, - "a long soliloquy ... concerning geography, politics, newspapers, fashionable society, theatrical amusements, Sir Walter Scott's novels, Lord Byron's poetry, and Mr. Martin's pictures," which "always returns" to the "preaching tone." 1
Some of Montgomery's blank verse is colorless and conversational; but as a rule, since he was quite without originality, he naturally copied the unrimed religious poetry of the preceding hundred and fifty years, stiffening his style freely with inversions, adjectives used for adverbs, and other Miltonisms, though, unlike most imitators of Paradise Lost, borrowing no words or phrases from it. Lines like these are typical:
Inaudibly, along a darken'd stage
Of wonders, moves the lone Almighty now,
So unblushing an imitation might have been expected a hundred years earlier, but to find such lines not only written but widely admired in Tennyson's day is surprising. Still more curious is it that a popular religious poet should copy and even try to look like that antichrist of his time, Lord Byron! Doubtless it was the desire to be grand and impressive that led him to choose such models; but, whatever the cause, there can be little question of the influence of Manfred on the opening lines of Satan, which represent Montgomery at his best:
Awake, ye thunders! - and with gloomy roar
Was tempted and withstood me. Lo! the powers
1 Ib. 209-10. The work receives its title from Satan, who utters the soliloquy; but, as Macaulay suggests (ib. 210), if “about a hundred lines in different parts of this large volume" were omitted or altered, it might be republished "under the name of Gabriel." 2 Luther, section on "Moral Results," Poetical Works (1854), 217-18.
Of Nature, by my dread command sublimed,
In bondage, from my viewless throne I gaze,
Montgomery's blaze of popularity was the most brilliant, if not the last,' flare from the feeble torch held up for the guidance of benighted mankind in unrimed religious verse. The extinction of the beacon, or of what essayed to be one, attracted no attention, and even had it been observed would have called forth only rejoicings from most readers. For, we are assured, "the extreme difficulty of exhibiting religious subjects in a poetical dress" had "long been seen and confessed." The critics certainly confessed their feelings frankly enough. "We do not object to the piety, but poetry of the author," they said of one "sacred poem "; and against another they turned Pope's lines,
To laugh, were want of goodness and of grace;
But to be grave, exceeds all power of face.
And they were right. The religious poetry written in blank verse during the eighteenth and the first part of the nineteenth centuries consisted almost entirely of the tedious moralizings of uninspired clergymen who had either no message to deliver or no ability to deliver it in verse.
It is easy to throw the blame on the low state of religion or of poetry in the eighteenth century, and unquestionably both were responsible. Yet it was during this century that the great Wesleyan revival shook England, and surely Cowper, Smart, Pollok, and Grahame were genuinely religious men. During what period, indeed, except Milton's own, has religion been "married to immortal verse," and particularly to verse of considerable length? The truth is that the religious muse, though often invoked, has seldom responded, and
1 So late as 1866 E. H. Bickersteth, Bishop of Exeter, frankly used both the substance and the style of Paradise Lost in the twelve books of his Yesterday, To-day, and For Ever.
2 In the United States, where literary and other styles began and ended later, poems of this kind appeared occasionally throughout the nineteenth century. A few that I have chanced upon (all published in New York) are Abaddon, the Spirit of Destruction, by Sumner L. Fairfield, 1830; Anastasis, and The Temptation of the Wilderness, by Thomas Curtis, 1850; Christ in Hades, by W. W. Lord, 1851; Satan Chain'd, by Nathaniel Dunn, 1875.
3 Mo. Rev., enl. ed., xxi. 226 (1796).
4 Crit. Rev., lxvii. 352 (1789).
Mo. Rev., xliv. 90 (1771); Epistle to Arbuthnot, 35-6.
then usually for "short swallow flights of song." In the eighteenth century she was not so often summoned for long unrimed works as would be expected from the vogue of Milton, Mrs. Rowe, and Young, and from the large number of versifying clergymen. Even counting the Night Thoughts, The Task, and the religious epics, I find only forty or fifty pieces of the kind issued in the first two hundred years after the publication of Paradise Lost.
The failure of the greater part of these can be attributed only in part to the use of blank verse, for their authors' rimed pieces are no better.' In many cases, to be sure, rime may have been discarded in order to save trouble, a boomerang policy, since blank verse, though one of the easiest mediums to use, is perhaps the hardest to use effectively; and during the eighteenth century, when so few of its difficulties had been mastered, the freedom it offered was, like that of the irregular Pindaric, fatal to mediocrity. There was in the meter of Paradise Lost the additional disadvantage that, when mediocre bards adopted it, they also adopted many if not most of the peculiarities of style and diction that went with it, and these involved Miltonisms made their work seem forced and artificial, rather than the simple, direct expression of deep conviction.
1 A notable exception is Smart's Song to David, which is a religious lyric.