1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1876) 1:446-51.



If his own testimony could be accepted as trustworthy, the peasant poet James Hogg, was born in Ettrick Forest, Selkirkshire, January 25, 1772, the same day of the same month that, thirteen years earlier, gave birth to Robert Burns: but so completely did he live out of the world as a young man, that he never even heard of the Ayrshire Bard until the year after he died. The date of his birth, as given by the poet, was probably a slip of the memory, the parish register recording his baptism as having taken place December 9th, 1770. Hogg's ancestors as far back as he could trace them had been shepherds. His father, who followed the same humble calling, had been so successful in it as to save some money, which he invested in a farming speculation soon after James was born. The young poet, the second of four sons, was sent to the parish school, and would probably have received the usual amount of education bestowed upon the children of the Scottish peasantry, had it not been for his father, Robert Hogg's, reverse of fortune,by which he was stripped of all his earnings. This happened when James was six years old, and he was taken from school in consequence, as he tells us, of his parents being "turned out of doors," without "a farthing in the world." At the early age of seven he was hired to herd cows, his wages being a ewe lamb and a pair of shoes every six months.

After a year spent in this kind of servitude he was sent once more to school, where he learned to read the Bible, and write what was called "big text," every letter of which was at least an inch long. A quarter of a year spent at his second school completed his education; for whatever he subsequently acquired he was indebted to his own exertions. He records with pleasure the time when he was promoted from herding cows to the more honourable employment of tending sheep. The shepherd having reached the age of fourteen, he laid out the sum of five shillings in the purchase of an old violin, on which he learned to play many Scotch airs; and often, after all the people on the place had gone to bed, he would be heard in his only dormitory, which was a small stable or shed, addressing the drowsy car of night. He ever afterwards retained his love of music, and ultimately became a good violinist. Who can read his poems and lyrics without feeling that Hogg was a musician? Kilmeny, as illustrative of the melody of language, has never been surpassed, if, indeed, it has been equalled.

In his eighteenth year The Life of Sir William Wallace, modernized by Hamilton, and Ramsay's popular pastoral of the Gentle Shepherd, fell into his hands; and strange to say he was disappointed that they were not written in prose. Partly from having almost forgotten the art of reading, which he had learned imperfectly, and partly from his scanty reading having been hitherto limited to English, the Scottish dialect of the books above mentioned was so new and difficult that he often lost the sense altogether. His love of reading having been noticed by his employers, books were lent him, chiefly of a theological character, and newspapers. He composed verses long before he attempted to put them in writing; and if they were of indifferent merit ("bitterly bad," as he calls them), they were at all events voluminous and varied, as they consisted of epistles, comedies, pastorals, et hoc genus omne. It was an easy matter for the young shepherd, who became known throughout the district as "Jamie the poeter," to compose verser; they sprang up in his mind as rapidly as prose does with ordinary mortals; but to get them on paper was a serious difficulty. His writing at best was but laborious printing letter by letter, while his model was the Italian alphabet, for want of a more concise character; and to add to his difficulties, his chief opportunities for writing were derived from the chance intervals that occurred in the management of his flock.

He draws this fine picture of himself at this period: "With my plaid about me, best mantle of inspiration, a beuk of auld ballants as yellow as the cowslips in my hand or bosom, and maybe, sir, my inkhorn dangling at a button-hole, a bit stump o' pen, nae bigger than an auld wife's pipe, in my mouth, and a piece o' paper, turn out o' the hinder end of a volume, crunkling on my knee," dreaming of those glorious visions which have rendered the name of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, second only to that of Robert Burns. When an opportunity for writing occurred the young poet would strip off coat and vest like one preparing for a desperate deed, and square his elbows for the struggle. In this way his earliest poems were committed to paper. One great advantage of this slow and toilsome process was that it afforded time for reflection and correction; so that his manuscripts, however uncouth, were not defiled with those numerous alterations that disfigure the writing of many men of genius. When a word was once "pit doun" it was irrevocable. The habit thus formed was of great service to our author when he acquired greater facility in penmanship, and to this, perhaps, we may attribute the ready accuracy he afterwards acquired both in prose and verse.

The year after Burns died Hogg heard for the first time Tam o' Shanter, and was so delighted with it that he learned every line by heart, and from that time was possessed with an ambition to rival the Ayrshire ploughman. In any other mortal but James Hogg such a lofty ambition would have been kept a profound secret, but not so with him. He uttered what he felt, so that his best friends and admirers could only view him in the light of a vainglorious and silly shepherd. For this, however, he cared not, while he felt within himself the "stirrings of a gift divine."

The Ettrick Shepherd's appearance at this period of his career is thus described by his friend William Laidlaw, well known as Sir Walter Scott's steward, and the author of the exquisite ballad, Lucy's Flittin': — "Hogg was rather above the middle height, of faultless symmetry of form; he was of almost unequalled agility and swiftness. His face was then round and full, and of a ruddy complexion, with bright blue eyes that beamed with gaiety, glee, and good humour, the effect of the most exuberant animal spirits. His head was covered with a singular profusion of light brown hair, which he was obliged to wear coiled up under his hat. On entering church on a Sunday (where he was all his life a regular attender) he used, on lifting his hat, to raise his right hand to assist a graceful shake of his head in laying back his long hair, which rolled down his back, and fell almost to his loins. And every female eye was upon him, as, with light step, he ascended the stiry to the gallery where he sat."

In the year 1800 the poet leased a small farm, to which he removed with his aged parents, after having lived with Mr. Laidlaw — father of William — for a period of ten years. It was during a visit which he made to Edinburgh this year that he may be said to have first become known beyond his district as a poet, by the publication of his admirable song of Donald M'Donald. Within a few months it was sung in all parts of Scotland, and for many years maintained its popularity. At a period when there was great excitement in the land owing to Napoleon's threatened invasion, it was hailed as an admirable stimulus to patriotism. Donald M'Donald holds the place of honour in a volume of songs issued by the Shepherd in 1831, who says: "I place this song the first, not on account of any intrinsic merit that it possesses, — for there it ranks rather low, — but merely because it was my first song, and exceedingly popular when it first appeared. I wrote it when a barefooted lad herding lambs on the Blackhouse Heights, in utter indignation at the threatened invasion from France. But after it had run through the Three Kingdoms, like fire set to heather, for ten or twelve years, no one ever knew or inquired who was the author. It is set to the old air, Woo'd an' married an' a.'" In the following year, 1801, he made another visit to Edinburgh, with a flock of sheep for sale, and being encumbered with several days of interval, he resolved to devote the time to writing out such of his compositions as he could remember and publishing them in a book or pamphlet. Before his departure he gave the manuscripts to a printer, and shortly after was informed that the edition of a thousand copies was ready for delivery. The little 'brochure,' notwithstanding he had the mortification of discovering that it was one mass of mistakes, "many of the stanzas omitted, others misplaced, and typographical errors abounding on every page," sold very well in his native district, where he had troops of friends and admirers. A copy is preserved in the Advocate's Library of Edinburgh; it consists of sixty-two pages octavo, and is entitled Scottish Pastorals, Poems, Songs, &c., mostly written in the Dialect of the South, by James Hogg, Edinburgh: printed by John Taylor, Grassmarket. 1801. Price one shilling.

It was during this year that Scott and the Ettrick Shepherd met for the first time. Sir Walter was engaged in making collections for the third volume of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and desiring to visit Ettrick and Yarrow, procured a letter of introduction from Dr. Leyden to young Laidlaw. To his visitor Laidlaw commended Hogg as the best qualified of any person in the Forest to assist him in his researches. Scott accompanied his future steward to Ettrickhouse, the farm occupied by him and his parents, and was charmed with his new acquaintance. "He found," says Lockhart, "a brother poet, a true son of nature and genius, hardly conscious of his powers." Scott remained for several days, visiting many places of historic interest in company with Laidlaw and the Shepherd Bard, and gleaning a rich harvest of ballad lore from Hogg's mother and other people of the district. The friendship thus formed continued unbroken until Sir Walter's death.

Our author was soon compelled to give up his farm, which he regretted deeply as affording a comfortable home for his aged and venerable parents, and he then made several unsuccessful visits to the Highlands in search of a situation as superintendent of an extensive sheep farm. Hogg being unemployed and his money exhausted, Sir Walter advised him to publish a volume of poetry. The materials were at hand, his collection was soon ready for the printer, and he was introduced by Scott to Constable, who published the volume under the title of The Mountain Bard. From the proceeds of this production, which contained the fine ballads of Sir David Graeme, Farewell to Ettrick, &c., and the sum of eighty-six pounds paid to him by Constable for the copyright of two treatises on sheep, he became master of three hundred pounds. With this to him enormous sum he was to undertake farming on a large scale. He leased two places in Dumfrieshire, paying much more than their value for them, and rushed into agricultural experiments requiring at least ten times the amount of his capital. Of course his scheme failed, and in less than three years the Shepherd Bard, who had embarked so hopefully in his career of a farmer, found himself penniless and in debt.

After struggling on, impeded at every step by the new character he had acquired of a man who could win, but not keep, he cast about for some new occupation. Some idea of the estimation in which he was held as a man of business at this time by the gentry and farmers, may be obtained from the reply of the editor's grandmother — the poet's "Bonnie Jean" — to an ardent young admirer of Hogg's from Edinburgh, who, during a visit in Roxburghshire, full of enthusiasm for the author of The Mountain Bard, inquired about him, and was answered, "He's just a poor, good-for-nothing body;" and from that of another lady residing in the same neighbourhood, who, in answer to a similar inquiry made by my father, said the Shepherd was "but a puir, drunken, leein body!" But the profannum vulgus are apt to be harsh in their judgments of the "eccentricities of genius."

Failing in his attempts to obtain a captaincy in the militia, and also of a place in the excise, he proceeded to Edinburgh to enter upon the career of a man of letters. His first publication was the Forest Minstrel, a collection of songs, of which two-thirds were his own. Being chiefly the productions of his early days they acquired no popularity and brought him no profit, if we except the kindness of the Countess of Dalkeith, to whom the volume was dedicated, who sent him a present of a hundred guineas. His next literary undertaking was the publication of his own account of a weekly newspaper, called The Spy, devoted to Belles-lettres, morals, and criticism, which departed this life before it had existed twelvemonth. The wonder was, not that it died so soon, but that it lived so long. That a Shepherd without capital, who could only read at eighteen and write at twenty-six, who had read very little contemporary literature, and who, to quote his own words, "knew no more of human life or manners than a child," should have carried on unaided such an enterprise for nearly a year, is certainly remarkable.

At this time, the darkest period of his life, when his literary speculations, form which he had anticipated so much, had all failed, harassed and disappointed, poor and comparatively friendless — that hour when mediocrity sinks and genius overcomes — he suddenly startled not only the expectations of a few steady admirers, but the whole reading public, by the production of The Queen's Wake, one of the finest poetical compositions in the language. Criticism and panegyric are alike unneeded: the world has pronounced upon this poem a judgment of almost unanimous admiration, and it now occupies a permanent place in British poetry. Christopher North, who intended to have written Hogg's life, aid in reviewing The Queen's Wake, "Kilmeny alone places our Shepherd among the Undying Ones."

By its publication, in the spring of 1813, Hogg was recognized as a poet of the highest order. As it rapidly passed through five editions, he derived considerable pecuniary advantage from the sale. In 1815 the Pilgrims of the Sun appeared, but notwithstanding its many powerful descriptions and poetical passages, it failed to receive the same cordial reception extended to the Wake. So much was it admired in the United States and Canada, that ten thousand copies were sold, which, however, was of no benefit pecuniarily to the poet. It was soon followed by Mador of the Moor, a poem in the Spenserian stanza.

It was at this period of his career, and when in the spring-tide of his fame, that the Ettrick Shepherd penned the following magnificent strain, in an unpublished letter addressed to an old friend: "I rode through the whole of Edinburgh yesterday in a barouche by myself, having four horses and two postillions. Never was there a poet went through it before in such a style since the world began!" As a pendant to this may be added Dr. Johnson's exclamation on learning that poor Goldsmith had died two thousand pounds in debt — "Was ever a poet so trusted before!"

Hogg's next literary undertaking was to collect poems from the great living bards of Britain; but as many of them declined to be contributors, he changed his plans, and determined on the bold step of writing imitations of all the poets. The refusal of Sir Walter Scott especially incensed him, and led to the only estrangement that ever occurred between them. The Shepherd, in an angry letter which he wrote on the occasion, changed the prefatory "dear sir," into "damned sir," and closed with "yours in disgust," &c. A quarrel of some week's standing was the consequence between the hot-headed, reckless, but warm-hearted Shepherd, and equally warm-hearted but wiser friend and patron. The work finally appeared under the title of The Poetic Mirror, or Living Bards of Britain. This volume, singularly illustrative of his genius, was a success, the first edition being exhausted in six weeks. Dramatic Tales was his next work, followed by The Brownie of Bodsbeck and other Tales — among the most popular of his works.

In 1820, having received from the Duke of Buccleuch a life lease on the farm of Altrive Lake in Yarrow, at a merely nominal rent, no part of which was ever extracted, and his circumstances being otherwise improved, he married Margaret Phillips. Her portion and his literary earnings made him the possessor of about a thousand pounds, so he decided to leas the large farm of Mount Benger and embark in agriculture, expending his entire capital in stocking it. The adventure was of course a failure, and the poor poet was again penniless. In 1821 he published the second volume of his Jacobite Relics, the first having appeared two years previously. When the coronation of George IV. occurred, Sir Walter Scott obtained a place for himself and Hogg in the Hall and Abbey of Westminster, accompanied by an invitation from Lord Sidmouth to dine with him after the solemnity, when the two poets would meet the Duke of York and other distinguished personages. Here was an opportunity of princely patronage such as few peasant poets have enjoyed; and Scott accordingly announced the affair to Hogg, requesting him to join him in Edinburgh, and set off with him for the great metropolis. But poor Hogg! — he wrote "with the tear in his eye," as he declared, to say that his going was impossible, because the great yearly Border fair held at St. Boswell's in Roxburghshire happened at the same period, and he could not absent himself from the meeting.

In 1822 he published a new edition of his best poems, for which he received two hundred pounds, and in 1826 gave to the world his long narrative poem of Queen Hynde. For many years he was a contributor in prose and verse to Blackwood's Magazine, of which he, with Thomas Pringle and William Blackwood the publisher, were the founders. No one who has read the Noctes Ambrosianae, can fail to remember the Ettrick Shepherd's portrait as drawn by Christopher North. Of James Hogg's other prose works my space forbids me to speak.

After a severe illness of four weeks he died, November 21st, 1835, "departing this life," writes his life-long friend Laidlaw, "as calmly, and, to appearance, with as little pain as if he had fallen asleep in his gray plaid on the side of the moorland rill." He was buried in the churchyard of Ettrick, within a few minutes' walk of the spot where lately stood the cottage of his birth; and after all others had retired, one mourner still remained there uncovered to consecrate with his tears the new-made grave of his friend. That man was John Wilson. He left a family of five children, and after a lapse of twenty years his widow received a pension of 100 from the government, which she enjoyed up to her death, 15th November, 1870, in the eighty-first year of her age. In 1824 Christopher North predicted, in the ever-memorable Noctes, that a monument would be erected to his honour. "My beloved Shepherd, some half-century hence your effigy will be seen on some bonnie gree knowe in the Forest, with its honest freestone face looking across St. Mary's Loch, and up towards the Gray Mare's Tail, while by moonlight all your own fairies will weave a dance around its pedestal." His prediction was verified June 28, 1860, when a handsome freestone statue, executed by Andrew Currie, was erected in the Vale of Yarrow, on the hillside between St. Mary's Loch and the Loch of the Lowes, and immediately opposite to Tibby Shiel's cottage. His works, of which I have not enumerated the full amount, in prose and poetry, have been issued, with a memoir of his life, in two elegant 8vo volumes, by the publishers of this work.

When the songs of Scotland are sung "By cottar's ingle or in farmer's ha'," James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, holds his place there, and holds it well, with Ramsay, and Burns, and Tannahill. In conclusion, I may add, that with two exceptions, never did Scottish poet receive more elegies or poetical tributes to his memory. Among the number were the subjoined extemporaneous lines from the pen of William Wordsworth:—

When first descending from the moorland,
I saw the stream of Yarrow glide
Along a bare and open valley,
The Ettrick Shepherd was my guide.

When last along its banks I wander'd,
Through groves that had begun to shed
Their golden leaves upon the pathway,
My steps the Border Minstrel led.

The mighty minstrel breathes no longer,
'Mid mouldering ruins low he lies,
And death upon the Braes of Yarrow
Has closed the Shepherd poet's eyes....

No more of old romantic sorrows,
For slaughter'd youth or love-lorn maid,
With sharper grief is Yarrow smitten,
And Ettrick mourns with her their Shepherd dead.