Yesterday, I posted about an Iranian government entity whose Persian name, Majma'a Tash-khees Maslahat Nezam (مجمع تشخیص مصلحت نظام), literally means something like "The Council for Discerning the System's Interest", but is normally given in English as "The Expediency Discernment Council of the System", or the "Expediency Council" for short. I found this translation to be odd, because expediency often has rather negative connotations in English, especially in a context where it might be implicitly opposed to concepts like principle, justice, duty, or honor. As evidence (or at least illustration) for these connotations, I offered a few quotations chosen more or less at random from a search of Literature Online.
One of these quotations set off a different sort of bizarreness reaction in John V. Burke, who wrote:
I never thought to see Robert Montgomery's name outside The Stuffed Owl, an Anthology of Bad Verse, edited by D. B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee.
Well, bad poetry may be a better source for stereotypical associations than good poetry is — though my first randomly-chosen example came from Hugh MacDiarmid, who was a very good poet indeed.
In any case, this path leads serendipitously through Lewis and Lee's treatment of Montgomery to a memorable 1830 essay by Thomas Babington Macaulay. As Lewis and Lee explain:
ROBERT MONTGOMERY, born Gomery, had assumed the genteel prefix some time before his longish poem The Omnipresence of the Deity, dedicated to Bishop Howley, brought him fame in 1828. The poem was sufficiently divorced from all the lovely Graces, rich in elementary bathos and bombast, and steeped in the suburban religiosity of the period to find instant success with the British public and to run into eight editions in eight months. It was this, together with the frantic newspaper puffing which welcomed Mr. Montgomery's next two offerings–A Universal Prayer: Death; A vision of Heaven; and a Vision of Hell, and Satan, or Intellect without God–which earned the complacent poet (whose editions were soon enriched with a frontispiece-portrait of himself with eyes lifted heavenwards, and resembling Byron as much as possible) the historic castigation by Macaulay in the Edinburgh Review of April 1830; an annihilating so Jove-like that the victim automatically commands the reader's sympathy…
Courtesy of Google Books, we don't need to leave our laptops to read Thomas Babington Macaulay's "Mr.Robert Montgomery", as reprinted in Critical and Historical Essays Contributed to the Edinburgh Review.
The first thing that struck me about this essay is that Macaulay seems to accuse Montgomery of modernism, a century too early:
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.
If Montgomery really arranged words (and the associated concepts) according to the logic of formal patterns that ignore or disrupt normal representational assumptions, this observation would have become a form of praise, a hundred years later. But I doubt that Ezra Pound would have approved, all the same, because what Macaulay mostly means is that Montgomery frames his metaphors carelessly:
"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.
"The soul, aspiring, pants its source to mount,
As streams meander level with their fount."
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 mounting upwards.
The tempest is thus described:
"But lo! around the marsh'lling clouds unite,
Like thick battalions halting for the fight;
The sun sinks back, the tempest spirits sweep
Fierce through the air and flutter on the deep.
Till from their caverns rush the maniac blasts,
Tear the loose sails, and split the creaking masts,
And the lash'd billows, rolling in a train,
Rear their white heads, and race along the main"
What, we should like to know, is the difference between the two operations which Mr. Robert Montgomery so accurately distinguishes from each other, the fierce sweeping of the tempest-spirits through the air, and the rushing of the maniac blasts from their caverns? And why does the former operation end exactly when the latter commences?
Macaulay also discerns some passages that are syntactically confusing:
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.
In other cases, no consistent construal seems possible at all:
"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 provide."
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."
The passage that I quoted yesterday illustrates Montgomery's practice of Personification By Capitalization:
… while Principle expires,
And base Expediency's polluted breath
Falls, like a mildew, over minds and men.
Macaulay has some fun with this:
"Then, blood-stain`d Murder, bare thy hideous arm
And thou, Rebellion, welter in thy storm:
Awake, ye spirits of avenging crime;
Burst from your bonds, and battle with the time!"
Mr. Robert Montgomery is fond of personification, and belongs, we need not say, to that school of poets who hold that nothing more is necessary to a personification in poetry than to begin a word with a capital letter. Murder may, without impropriety, bare her arm, as she did long ago, in Mr. Campbell's Pleasures of Hope. But what possible motive Rebellion can have for weltering in her storm, what avenging crime may be, who its spirits may be, why they should be burst from their bonds, what their bonds may be, why they should battle with the time, what the time may be, and what a battle between the time and the spirits of avenging crime would resemble, we must confess ourselves quite unable to understand.
"And here let Memory turn her tearful glance
On the dark horrors of tumultuous France,
When blood and blasphemy defiled her land,
And fierce Rebellion shook her savage hand."
Whether Rebellion shakes her own hand, shakes the hand of Memory, or shakes the hand of France, or what any one of these three metaphors would mean, we, know no more than we know what is the sense of the following passage
"Let the foul orgies of infuriate crime
Picture the raging havoc of that time,
When leagued Rebellion march'd to kindle man,
Fright in her rear, and Murder in her van.
And thou, sweet flower of Austria, slaughter'd Queen,
Who dropp'd no tear upon the dreadful scene,
When gush'd the life-blood from thine angel form,
And martyr'd beauty perish'd in the storm,
Once worshipp'd paragon of all who saw,
Thy look obedience, and thy smile a law."
What is the distinction between the foul orgies and the raging havoc which the foul orgies are to picture? Why does Fright go behind Rebellion, and Murder before? Why should not Murder fall behind Fright? Or why should not all the three walk abreast?
Before I end up quoting the whole essay, I'll close with Macaulay's dissection of Montgomery's arguments for Intelligent Design:
Mr. Robert Montgomery is very severe on the infidels, and undertakes to prove, that, as he elegantly expresses it,
"One great Enchanter helm'd the harmonious whole."
What an enchanter has to do with helming, or what a helm has to do with harmony, he does not explain. He proceeds with his argument thus:
And dare men dream that dismal Chance has framed
All that the eye perceives, or tongue has named
The spacious world, and all its wonders, born
Designless, self-created, and forlorn;
Like to the flashing bubbles on a stream,
Fire from the cloud, or phantom in a dream?
We should be sorry to stake our faith in a higher Power on Mr. Robert Montgomery's logic. He informs us that lightning is designless and self-created. If he can believe this, we cannot conceive why he may not believe that the whole universe is designless and self-created. A few lines before, he tells us that it is the Deity who bids "thunder rattle from the skiey deep." His theory is therefore this, that God made the thunder, but that the lightning made itself.
So in the end, Montgomery was no modernist — he seems to have been more of a 19th-century poetical version of Glen Beck. Still, I wonder what Macaulay would have made of T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan.