By Thomas Jonathan Young
I am a third year English Literature and Creative Writing student at York St John University. I am a student researcher on the Words with Wagtails Project, led by Dr Adam James Smith.
The project began with an exploration of the writing of poet and political prisoner James Montgomery. Montgomery, editor of the Sheffield Iris (1794-1825), was an advocate of the abolition of slavery, universal education, religious tolerance and political representation. He was brought before a jury in Doncaster in 1795 for printing a poem in support of the French.
Despite Montgomery’s lawyer providing sufficient evidence to prove that Montgomery had no knowledge of the poem in question and it had actually been printed ten years earlier (written in response to the French Revolution, rather than the United Kingdom’s conflicts with France that would result in the Napoleonic Wars), Montgomery was sentenced to three months incarceration at York Castle with a fine of £20. During his imprisonment, Montgomery penned a collection of poems titled Prison Amusements, which is the starting point of our project.
The Words with Wagtails project has two primary focuses:
- Creating and promoting a repository of eighteenth-century prison writing via our website: https://yorkwagtailpoets.wordpress.com/
- Collecting critical and creative responses to the primary research into a growing archive of material.
We will be transcribing the Prison Amusements poems from academic archives and uploading them to our website for public access. By providing a digital database of literature written by political prisoners like Montgomery, the project hopes to inspire academics and members of the public to engage in critical and creative discourse.
The project takes its name from the revelation that both James Montgomery and YSJU Visiting Lecturer Jack Mapanje (a Malawian poet who was himself imprisoned for criticising his government) addressed poems to wagtails, by which they were visited in prison.
Consideration of the political landscape and the condition of prison environments in the eighteenth century encourages our local and national communities to consider their relationship with their own government and the way it practices reform. Identifying problematic practices in history allows us to identify them in our own contemporary society and drawing comparisons between political figures like James Montgomery and contemporary prison writers, such as Jack Mapanje, will help us hone our collective capacity to identify and reject social injustice.
Providing the foundation of a specific historic narrative, such as the political literature of a prisoner situated at York Castle, the project invites members of the public to consider the correlations between historical political conflict in their local environment and the political conflict of their contemporary international climate. Potentially intimidating, complex debates, such as the recent movement for Catalonian independence and the anxiety for the stability of the Good Friday Agreement post-Brexit, can be addressed with confidence with a critical understanding of the political prisoner and writer.
By studying the writing of the eighteenth-century political writer, academics and members of the public will together learn to craft new, progressive methods of discourse on our current political affairs. Similar in the way that James Montgomery shaped the way in which public opinion was presented by providing a platform for poetic conversation in his newspaper the Iris, we will be using the project’s social media presence as a space for the development of fresh methods for the public to voice their opinions, critically and creatively.
These early stages of the digital revolution and the birth of the internet are uncannily similar to the exponential growth of print culture in the eighteenth century, and the fundamental purpose of studying historic narratives is to learn from them how to build a better future. By providing and promoting primary historical research digitally, the project aims to evoke creative and critical engagement in a literary display of public opinion. We strive to create new platforms and encourage experimental methods of discourse, resulting in a communal, progressive understanding of our contemporary societies and the global political climate.
On Monday 7th May, the Words with Wagtails project will be launching the Month of Montgomery, a 28-day period of Montgomery material promotion. Everyday a newly transcribed poem or piece of writing from Prison Amusements will be uploaded to our website, which will serve as our public online archive which we encourage academics, creative practitioners, historians and members of the public to respond to in whichever critical and creative methods they see fit. We will collect these responses on our website, promoting them on our Twitter page (@WagtailPoets) and encouraging further creative and critical responses to these public contributions, creating a network of Montgomery-inspired literary discourse. To further celebrate the Month of Montgomery, we will be hosting Montgomery Mondays on our Twitter page, where we will share various facts and Montgomeryisms under the hashtag #MontgomeryMonday every Monday.
We encourage all those who are interested to check out the Words with Wagtails website and to follow our Twitter page, and to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our Twitter page using the #MonthOfMontgomery hashtag with any project related queries or contributions. We look forward to all your engagement and responses to this very special month!