1909 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

Florence MacCunn, "James Hogg" in Sir Walter Scott's Friends (1909) 146-61.



In all languages and in many country districts the story is current of the beneficent Brownie who in the night-time haunts farm-kitchens, doing the work of the slumbering inmates on the sole condition that he may come and go unnoticed and receive neither reward nor hire beyond "his cream-bowl duly set." Human gratitude or curiosity breaks the compact, and the garments officiously bestowed drive the proud, kindly visitant from the hearth of his blundering hosts.

Let this tale stand as a parable for the folk-lore marchen, ballads, legends-which for centuries dwelt familiarly by poor men's hearths, but vanished for ever as soon as editors and critics caught the shy, beautiful creature and bound it in a book.

One old woman, even in the moment when Walter Scott was taking down a ballad from her lips, had prescience to see what this would lead to, and courage to declare it roundly, emphasising her words by striking the Shirra's knee with her hard, brown hand: "There was never ane o' my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yersel', and ye hae spoilt them a'thegither. They were made for singing and no' for reading, but ye hae broken the charm, and they'll never be sung mair."

Margaret Hogg (or Laidlaw, for in Scotland the maiden name clings to married women of marked character), in her "but and ben" of Ettrickshall, was but too true a prophet; but the three to whom she spoke had no ears for her foreboding. Willie Laidlaw, son of the farmer of Blackhouse, in a tremor of enthusiasm had brought his new friend, the "Shirra," over into Ettrick to hear Margaret Laidlaw, the best memory in the parish for ballads, sing the one authentic version of Auld Maitlan'; he had sent an old man to bring in from the hill Margaret Hogg's son, the gay bright-eyed young shepherd, "Jamie the poeter," whose songs and ballads were already sung in many a farm-steading along the waterside. Hogg has described the scene, and for once his verse is as direct as his conversation:

When Maitland's song first met thine ear,
How the furled visage up did clear,
Beaming delight — though now a shade
Of doubt would darken into dread.
Till she, the ancient Minstreless,
With fervid voice and kindling eye;

* * * *

Sung forth these words in eldritch shriek,
While tears stood on thy nut-brown cheek
"O, we are nane o' the lads o' France,
Nor ever pretend to be;
We be three lads o' fair Scotland,
Auld Maitland's sons, a' three."
Thy fist made all the table ring—
"By God, sir! but that is the thing!"

Margaret Hogg was equally prepared to give the history of the original authority for the ballad, "Auld Babby Maitland, who was housekeeper to the first Laird o' Tushielaw. She was said to have been ither than a gude ane, and there are mony queer stories about hersel'."

On this occasion the "queer stories" were not forthcoming, but probably there was no scandal, no deed of darkness, no merry jest, no tale of witchery, no ghostly experience of the past hundred years, that was not told in the firelight by Margaret Hogg to her children.

There had been trouble enough in the little household, hard work always, and, when a small farm had been tried, bad seasons, anxiety, bankruptcy, and the return of the father to his old trade of herding other men's flocks. But at the worst of times Margaret Hogg and her youngest son had told tales and sung songs, and, like Peer Gynt and his mother, had escaped from the sorry facts of life — the black damp walls, the empty meal-chest — into a land of fairy wonders and ghostly horrors.

Do you mind how you sat beside me
So often at evening time,
Spread the sheepskin and lullabied me
With many a charm and rhyme?

There were stories in plenty on both sides of the house. Margaret's father, William Laidlaw, had been shepherd in Phaup on the upper Ettrick; her childhood had been passed in the very quick of the stillest, greenest, most magical of Border valleys. Even now at midsummer, when the smooth mounds are golden in the late evening sunshine, and the light is a clear green in the northern sky, and only the singing of the burn breaks the silence, one might indulge a pleasant half-belief in supernatural presences, mischievously hiding, independent of human beings and not wholly friendly: to Margaret Laidlaw the "Guid Folk" were a fact as substantial as kirk and market, and more familiar. Her own father, Will o' Phaup, was the last man in the district who had authentically seen and spoken to the fairies.

He was sitting one evening at the gable-end of his cottage when, just as in the ballad of Lady Anne—

Out of the wood cam' three bonnie boys,
As naked as they were born.

"Gude day to you, Willie Laidlaw."
"Gude day to you, creatures."
"Can ye gie us up-putting for the' nicht?"
"I think three siccan bits o' shreds o' hurchins winna be ill to put up. Where cam' ye frae?"

But when the boys declare their commission to ask for a silver key, some old stirrings of conscience brought Willie to a stand. "A silver key? In God's name where cam' ye frae?" But at the sound of the holy name the creatures vanished, and what the mystery of the silver key might be Margaret Laidlaw could never tell her son.

But she had tales of other visitors to the cottage of Phaup, — of men arriving in the dead of night, awakening the household with the stamping of pack-horses, the rattling of chains, the unpacking of brandy casks; for Will of Phaup — a wild rattling fellow, who could jump farther and run faster than any other man in the district — was hand-in-glove with the smugglers from the distant coast. The cot in the hollow of the hills had become an irregular change-house, where gentlemen might drink French brandy at a shilling the bottle, and perhaps come to blows "before they paid the lawing."

The stories on the other side of the house are of a darker caste. The Hoggs had for generations farmed Fauldshope under the Scotts of Harden. More than one Lucky Hogg had been a notable witch; the most famous had turned Maister Michael Scott into a hare with his own wand, but, herself falling under a spell, had danced to death chanting—

Maister Michael Scott's man
Cam' for bread and gat nane.

The Scottish peasant might fare coarsely and sparely, cold and damp and toil might be his lot, his home might be remote and solitary, but there was no vacuity in his life. It was bounded by mystery, adventure, terror. A man rising at dawn to go to work might see fairies vanishing from the green, a man stumbling home in the dark might hear threatening voices or see unchancy sights.

This background of superstition added a touch of awe to the tales told on winter nights, — tales already sufficiently full of colour, for Hogg tells us that "the poor illiterate people in these glens knew no other entertainment than in repeating and listening to the feats of their ancestors" — ancestors who had ridden after Jamie Telfer's kye and broken Kinmont Willie's prison at Carlisle.

Other elements gave point and pith to conversation in the shepherd's cot. If his religion shaped the life of the Scottish peasant, his manner of life coloured his religion. The shepherd prayed for the things he really valued, "the lang stride, the clear eye." In times of trouble he reasoned as fearlessly as job with the Almighty: "The flocks on a thousand hills are Thine, and their lives and death wad be naething to Thee, Thou wadst neither be the richer nor poorer, but it's a great matter to us." Family prayers afforded the head of the house opportunities, in the form of petitions, of expressing his opinions freely on the characters of his family; he might even pray for resignation on the advent of an unwelcome daughter-in-law. The interest of the Old Testament was inexhaustible to readers who weighed the moral characters of "Sandy Ballat " and "Golly of Gath." Belief in plenary inspiration could not suppress the critical spirit. "If it hadna' been the Lord's will, that verse had been better left out."

Such was the converse round the shepherd's hearth; outside there was the unchanging life of field and fold, the lambing-time when men rise before dawn to go their rounds, the winter storms when flocks are driven with their faces to the wind, the silent despair of rainy seasons when sheep rot on the hills. Scott in the fourth introductory epistle in Marmion has described the heroic side of the shepherd's life; Hogg deals chiefly with the lighter side, — the merry-makings at shearings and ewe-milking, the "daffing," the singing, the stolen courtship in the long midsummer twilights.

Such were the elements that were doing their best to shape James Hogg into a poet. Other schooling he had very little. Poverty set him to earn his own keep when he was only eight years old, herding cows on the unenclosed hillside. At that time a girl slightly older than himself herded her lambs on the same spot, the two shared their "piece," and the motherly elder child made the boy rest with his head on her knee. "One day I heard her say to herself, 'Poor little laddie, he's just tired to death.' And then I wept till I was afraid she would feel the hot tears on her knee." This quick sensibility was to accompany Hogg all his days, — it was the main element in his light-hearted enjoyment of life.

Much has been made, both in glorification of what Hogg achieved and in excuse for what he failed to achieve, of his total lack of education. But if the instinctive love of knowledge had been there, he must have fought his way to it as Leyden did, as Alexander Murray (the Orientalist) did. One wonders if Hogg could have assimilated much education, or would have gained much if he had. Things made a lively impression on him and passed instantly into fluent numbers. Self-criticism was impossible to a man frankly carried away with delight and wonder at his own works. "Aiblins ye mind yon fragment upon the sclate which ye despised t' other morning?" he said once to R. P. Gillies, who had suggested a gentle criticism. "Eh, man, sin syne it's ettlin' to turn out the vera best thing I ever composed, and that's no' saying little, ye ken." Other men's criticism he held in scorn. "Eh, man, neither Willie Erskine nor ony critic beneath the sun shall lead me. If I ha'ena sense eneuch to make and mend my ain wark, no ither hands or heads shall meddle wi' it. I want nae help, thank God, neither from books nor man."

If Hogg could really have put into his poetry all the influences that had surrounded his youth, he might indeed have afforded to dispense with learning. He once characteristically boasted to Scott, "Dear Sir Walter, ye can never suppose that I belang to your school o' chivalry. Ye are King o' that School, but I'm the King o' the Mountain and Fairy School, which is a far higher ane than yours." Had Hogg told the secret of the mountains or caught the full light of fairyland upon his pages, his claim had been allowed. But it is at rarest intervals through his voluminous work that we feel the touch of genius. Once indeed, like his grandfather, he looked into fairyland; the glamour from another country lies on Kilmeny. We pass from a world aglow with autumn woods under a smouldering sunset, a world warm with the smoke of human hearths, into an unearthly twilight luminous and pure as a moon rainbow. And the spell of that strange country has fallen on Kilmeny,—

As still was her look and as still was her e'e
As the stillness that lies on the emerant lee,
Or the mist that sleeps on the waveless sea.

To see that vision even once, was genius.

But Fairyland did not open its gates a second time to James Hogg.

There is real diablerie, a touch that makes the hair rise, in the stable scene in The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, when, in the darkness, the horses become frantic at the invisible approach of the Evil one. But in most of Hogg's tales the horrors march in battalions, each nullifying the effect of the other. Hogg is perhaps most successful in the mingled humour and horror of tales of witchcraft. He himself considered The Witch of Fife "the most happy and splendid piece of humorous poetry that I ever wrote." Sir Walter was so generous about other men's work that he may quite well have assured Hogg that "there never was such a thing written for genuine and ludicrous humour." One of Sir Walter's favourite entertainments was to repeat other men's poems without missing a word. It was only on leisurely occasions — a boating party down the Firth of Forth, a dark hour on Tweedside when the salmon-leistering party waited for a new peat — that he could overtake the endless procession of verses in Hogg's Witch of Fife, and Gudeman of Gilmanscleugh.

Burns had made the path to recognition smooth — too smooth — for Hogg. The educated world had been surprised into seeing life through the eyes of a ploughman; his pity, his satiric indignation, had knocked at its heart, the music of his songs still rang in its ears, the clouded ending of his brief day haunted its conscience with a vague sense of guilt, — it was in only too great a hurry to recognise a genius from the sheepfolds. The men of Hogg's own class, the shepherds and farmers, exulted in the belief that they had among them another Burns. It is precisely this comparison that is fatal to Hogg. He never looked at the world within as Burns did, and so he saw the world without quite superficially. Love-making, as he understood it, was a secret to be shared with "all the jolly shepherds that whistle through the glen," not the passion that seeks expression in a hundred delicate or exultant forms.

Let us be thankful for what we have received. If Hogg had not, like Burns, learned for whole days

—to wander
Adown some trotting burn's meander,
An' no' think lang,

he had a schoolboy's happy memory of the burn,

Where the pools are bright and deep,
Where the grey trout lie asleep.

If he had not Burns' heart for dogs and ewes, and even mice, at least he carried in his heart the song heard on the uplands of the

Bird of the wilderness
Blithesome and cumberless.

If only the skylark note were heard more frequently in his songs!

There must have been in Hogg's talk all the contact with life, the emotion and the wit, which are far to seek in his poetry. Into his oddly assorted equipment for life Nature threw in, as a make-weight, the gift of joyousness, a reckless extravagant joyousness that broke out in all societies, that survived the wreck of all his business undertakings, that neither flattery and success nor failure and mortification could subdue. We have an attractive picture of Hogg in the first flush of success in the recollections of Allan Cunningham. The Shepherd was herding on Queensberry Hill in the summer of 1806, and the young mason, in a white heat of enthusiasm, had walked up from Dumfries on the chance of only seeing the poet. Twenty years later he wrote to Hogg: "Often do I tread back to the foot of old Queensberry and meet you coming down amid the sunny rain.... The little sodded sheiling where we took shelter rises on my sight, your two dogs are at my feet, the 'Lay of the Last Minstrel' [Hogg's presentation copy] is in my hand.... Poetry, nothing but Poetry, is our talk, and we are supremely happy." Allan's recollections are always clear cut, as if done with the strokes of his chisel.

All Hogg's admirers were not clean-handed young masons from Annandale: the Crown Tavern in the Grassmarket and the meetings of the Forum Debating Club were not so good for Poetry as the "sodded sheiling" in the "sunny rain;" not "Poetry, nothing but Poetry," but flattery and conviviality, were the offerings many of his admirers brought to his shrine. In society he took his place easily enough, his exuberant joyousness forbade self-consciousness, and the Edinburgh world was genially tolerant of eccentricity. R. P. Gillies, an observant looker-on at life (but not particularly shrewd), declares that "the appearance of the good, honest Shepherd in our Edinburgh society had a marked influence on the tone of it." He implies that Hogg brought more animal life, more songs and laughter, into supper-parties. On one occasion he found the Shepherd's toddy-brewing a genial solvent when the visitors, Mrs. Grant of Laggan and the contentious Pinkerton, were quarrelling about religion at his table. Sometimes Hogg's animal spirits astonished visitors from the South, as in 1822, when Thomas Moore described the Shepherd at a party "howling out a song," and beating time with a fist on the shoulder of a lady sitting in front of him.

The charm of unself-conscious zest in life, zest in his own powers and in the friendliness of his fellow-men, remained with Hogg through all his days. Even when Carlyle saw him in 1834 in London society, "in the mingled character of zany and raree-show," it was this absence of self-consciousness that made Carlyle, himself fresh from the serious, genuine life of Annandale, recognise "that the charm of this poor man was to be found herein that he is a real product of Nature and able to speak naturally, which not one in a thousand is." "I felt interest," he adds, "for the poor herd body; wondered to see him blown hither from his sheepfolds, and how, quite friendless as he was, he went along cheerful, mirthful, and musical.... Once or twice in singing (for he sang of his own) there was an emphasis in poor Hogg's look, — expressive of feeling — almost of enthusiasm."

The influence of that "vile sixpenny planet" which Scott says somewhere "shone in at the cottage window" when Hogg was born, prevented even The Queen's Wake from being a pecuniary success; farming adventures failed, and publishers looked askance at the lengthy poems that poured from Hogg's pen. Nothing crushed his buoyancy. If all the world were not applauding, he consoled himself with the belief that the whole aristocracy and men of letters "were set against me and determined to keep me down, nay, to crush me to a nonentity!"

Endless and ingenious were his literary enterprises and of incredible audacity. Totally ignorant as he confessed himself to be of real life, he started a little paper called The Spy, after the fashion of the Spectator or Rambler, with an added spice of personality. When Scott pointed out the danger of courting comparison with Addison and Johnson, the Shepherd replied cheerfully: "I'm no' the least feared for that. My papers may not be sae yelegant as theirs, but I expect to make them mair original." When Scott refused to father one of the Shepherd's many autobiographical prefaces (which Hogg himself was to write and Scott to sign substituting "he" for "I"), the refusal rankled and made him naively complain, "I never knew any gentleman so shy and chary of his name and interest as Sir Walter." It is only fair to say that, as far as posterity may judge, Hogg's methods of doing business at St. Boswells Fair were less "original" than his notions of literary honesty.

Through all the ups and downs of fortune, through all his follies, presumptions, mortifications, and triumphs, the centre of gravity in Hogg's life was his relation to Walter Scott. Not indeed Hogg's wayward affection for Scott, which was subject to caprice, resentment, jealousy, and once at least suffered total eclipse, but Scott's steady, responsible, patient kindness for Hogg. Hogg and Hogg's difficulties appealed to every instinct in Scott, — to his constant desire to help less fortunate men of letters, to the local feeling which allowed the claim of every dweller on Ettrick or Yarrow on the Shirra's kindness, to his taste for all conversation which dealt with the traditional and supernatural, and finally to his immense, wholesome sense of humour. He used to say that the Shepherd afforded him more diversion than any play that he ever saw acted. The first letter he received from Hogg was an earnest of a rich and original mine of amusement. When they parted after that first interview at Ettrickshall in 1802, Hogg had undertaken to collect ballads and tunes from his uncle, reputed the best singer in the country. Now the folk in Ettrick divided into those who, like Will o' Phaup, followed the instincts of the old Adam, "shouted on the law, and routed in the ha'," and sang and drank and laughed, and into those who held by the spiritual rule of life taught through his thirty years of ministry by Thomas Boston, who in Ettrick Manse had pondered on the Fourfold State of the Christian soul. Sometimes one of the reckless joyous livers passed into the austerer fold, and among these was Hogg's uncle — not without considerable chagrin to his nephew.

"My uncle hath never had any tune save that which he saith his prayer to, and my mother's is quite gone by reason of age and frailty.... My uncle, said I? He is, Mr. Scott, the most incorrigible man alive.... He came one night professedly to see me and crack with me, as he said. Thinking this a good opportunity, I treated him with the best the house could afford, and gave him a hearty glass and, to humour him, talked a little of religion. Then I set him on, but, good Lord! had you heard him, it was impossible to get him off again.... What a deluge was poured upon me of errors, sins, lusts, covenants broken, burned, and buried, legal teachers, patronage, and what not. In short, my dram was lost to my purpose. The mentioning a song put him into a passion."

Lockhart's account of Hogg's behaviour to Scott is painful reading. One reads it thinking how Scott would have told the same trifling, preposterous, even graceless incidents, with what humorous twinkling under the shaggy brows, what kind, sly smiles lurking round the mouth. Once when Hogg, left to himself, had flung away from Scott (discovering a real originality of insult in the famous letter beginning "Damned Sir"), Scott patiently waited till Hogg was brought low by illness, and then only bestowed help through Mr. Grieve, the hatter, the best of Hogg's intimates. The Shepherd's letter, written when he was broken with sickness and remorse, reads like the writing of an awkward, affectionate, penitent schoolboy. Scott's reply was an invitation to breakfast next day.

One need not go to Lockhart to be convinced of the headlong unwisdom of the one poet and the benevolent good sense of the other. Hogg's own little book about his friend, with all its tactlessness and crudity, gives a lovable portrait of Scott as well as an incomparable one of the Ettrick Shepherd. Hogg was too shrewd and humorous to be altogether the dupe of his own egotism; he knew the value of Sir Walter's advice, though he rarely took it. He was aware of the eye watching over his adventures in society. At a great gathering of the Clans at Bowhill, Hogg relates that at one of the tables where the ladies sat all the company was noble. "But I, having had some chat with the ladies before dinner, and always rather a favoured pet with them, imagined that they could not possibly live without me, and placed myself among them. But I had a friend at the cross table at the head of the room who saw better. Sir Walter arose and requested the Duke as a particular favour and obligation that he would allow Mr. Hogg to come to his table, for, in fact, he could not do without him."

Oftener the Shepherd chafed under the restraining hand. "I must confess that before people of high station he did not much encourage my speeches and stories. He raised his eyebrows up and glowered, and put his upper lip far over the under one, seeming to be always terrified of what was to be coming next, and then he generally cut me short by some droll anecdote to the same purport of what I was saying. In this he did not give me fair play, for in my own broad homely way I am a very good speaker and teller of a story too."

Yet this was the companion Scott desired to take with him to the Coronation of George IV., requesting Lord Sidmouth to secure seats for both poets in Westminster Abbey and at the subsequent banquet. Hogg was in low water at the time, and Scott, who had always an eye to the advantageous for his friends, hoped that Hogg might either secure some patronage by a poetical tribute of loyalty or write a popular (and lucrative) description of the ceremony. Hogg's instinct was in this instance wiser than Scott's, — he made St. Boswells Fair an excuse for staying at home. There was room in Hogg's nature for gratitude, when egotism gave it a chance, though it was not of the essence of his nature as it was of Leyden's; but he was not bred so dull as to fail to recognise the unvarying goodness of Scott. "He was the only one I ever knew whom no man either poor or rich held at ill-will. I was the only exception myself that ever came to my knowledge, and that was only for a short season, and all the while it never lessened his interest in my welfare."

There was another member of Hogg's household whose simple shrewdness and warmth of heart apprehended Scott's character with greater quickness and delicacy. In no type of character has Scott been happier than in the delineation of the Scottish countrywoman. Leaving Jeanie Deans on one side, there is Bessie Maclure, the daughter of the Covenant and the only saint Scott ever cared to paint; Jenny Dennison in her matronly days guiding her Cuddie with a firm hand; Ailie Dinmont — that "delicious portrait" that Lockhart thought was drawn from Willie Laidlaw's mother. Almost every Scottish Waverley novel has one or more of these good-hearted matrons. What Scott liked in a woman, gentle or simple, was nature, sense, kindness, and as much wit as God wills. All these he found in the "wiselike" handsome woman whom Hogg, at the age of fifty, persuaded to marry him. Scott had evidently been doubtful as to the choice the Shepherd might make, though it was probably gratuitous to give him this advice: "If ever you choose a wife, Hogg, for goodness' sake, as you value your own happiness, don't choose a very religious one.... There is nothing I dread so much as a very religious woman. She is not only a dangerous person but a perfect shower-bath on all social conviviality."

He had evidently come across some less sensible enthusiasts strongly influenced by that wave of Evangelicalism which, spreading from England, was reviving in a weaker but no less narrow form the strictness of Scottish Presbyterianism; yet it is with no unsympathetic hand that he has drawn, in Katherine Glover, the Fair Maid of Perth, just such a type of feminine piety, gentle but vigorously intolerant of masculine "cakes and ale."

Mrs. Hogg was too wise to attempt being a "shower-bath on conviviality" at Altrive: the dignified worth of her character and the affection he had for his children were a more effectual restraint on the social instincts of the Shepherd.

Hogg tells two anecdotes of Mrs. Hogg's affection for Sir Walter, pleasant to repeat; and though, "more suo," he forces himself to the front in one of them, we can, like Sir Walter, ignore his claim and give our attention to the sincere and simple woman at his side.

"The last time Margaret saw him was at his own house in Maitland Street.... We were passing Charlotte Square when I said, 'See, yon is Sir Walter's house at yon red lamp.' 'Oh, let me go in and see him once more.' 'No, no, Margaret,' said I, 'you know how little time we have, and it would be too bad to intrude on his hours of quiet and study at this time of day.' 'Oh, but I must go in,' said she, 'and get a shake of his kind honest hand once more.' So I was ... obliged to comply. In we went, and were received with all the affection of old friends, but his whole discourse was addressed to my wife, while I was left to shift for myself among books and newspapers. He talked to her of our family and of our prospects of being able to give them a good education, which he recommended at every risk and at every sacrifice."

Scott was in the very thickest of his fight with time and circumstance when he laid his work aside for half an hour to speak to this simple-minded woman about her children, and to tell her his fears for his own little grandchild.

The other story goes back to the earlier happier days when, as the Shepherd tells us, Scott "found no breakfast so good as the homely meal at Mount Benger."

"As he was going away he snatched up my little daughter Margaret Laidlaw and kissed her, and then laying his hand on her head said: 'God forever bless you, my dear child,' on which my wife burst into tears. On my coming back from seeing him into the carriage ... I said: 'What ailed you, Margaret?' 'Oh,' said she, 'I thought if he had but just done the same to them all, I do not know what in the world I would not have given.'"

Many mothers, gentle and simple, would agree with Margaret Hogg.