Saturday, August 23, 2008

Prison Amusements

James Montgomery wrote some rather long poems. A few were travelogues, full of description of the landscape of places unfamiliar to most Londoners in the early 1800's. They were among his most popular during his lifetime, for much the same reason that the very long description of a bird's eye view of Paris was exciting to the first readers of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. They gave great opportunity to expand and alter the way one viewed the world. But for just this reason they bore us, to us the West Indies, Pelican Islands, and Greenland do not seem any more exotic than seeing a picture of Paris taken from an airplane does. Pretty maybe, but I'm not eager to read thirty pages (double collumned) of it.

He also wrote a good deal of religious verse some of which was used in teaching children for many years. Some of it is very good, but not so much that we would remember his name almost two hundred years later.

What shines out now is what was largely ignored during his lifetime: his poems drawing attention to the evils of his society, and his poems written from prison.

The former focussed on the evils of slavery, both negro and orphan slavery that flourished in his day. His poems on the evils of the slave trade, largely ignored by the masses, were a goad that helped to motivate the Christian church to support Wilberforce in his very long fight to outlaw the English slave trade in her colonies. Lesser known is that Montgomeries poems also drew a great deal of attention to how very evil was the white slavery practiced on orphans in London. His CLIMBING BOY SOLILOQUIES gave detailed accounts of what it was like to be a chimney sweep, climbing up from the bottom with the fire still going below you. They generally died very young, but if they didn't they were cast out by their owners to starve as soon as they were too big to climb chimneys. His poems began a crusade that ended in the outlawing of the practice and in the establishment of homes for such children.

But it is his PRISON AMUSEMENTS as he called them that I will quote from here. They are Montgomery at his least pretensious, and most endearing.


Welcome, pretty little stranger!
Welcome to my lone retreat!
Here, secure from every danger,
Hop about, and chirp, and eat:
Robin! how I envy thee,
Happy child of Liberty!

Now, though tyrant Winter, howling,
Shakes the world with tempests round,
Heaven above with vapours scowling,
Frost imprisons all the ground;
Robin! what are these to thee?
Thou art blessed with liberty.

Though you fair majestic river
Mourns in solid icy chains,
Though you flocks and cattle shiver
On teh desolated plains;
Robin! thou art gay and free,
Happy in thy liberty.

Hunger never shall distress thee
While my cates one crumb afford;
Cold nor cramps shall ne'er oppress thee;
Come and share my humble board:
Robin! come and live with me,
Live--yet still at liberty.

Soon shall Spring in smiles and blushes
steal upon the blooming year;
Then, amid the enamour'd bushes,
Thy sweet song shall warble clear:
Then shall I, too, join with thee,
Swell the Hymn of LIberty.

Should some rough unfeeling Dobbin,
In this iron-hearted age,
Seize thee on they nest, my Robin!
And confine thee in a cage,
Then, poor prisoner! think of me,
Think--and sigh for liberty.

No comments: