1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 128.



JAMES HOGG was born on the 25th of January, 1772, in a cottage on the banks of the Ettrick, in the shire of Selkirk. He was descended from a race of shepherds who had inhabited, for centuries, the sequestered district in which was the Poet's birthplace: humble as was the calling of his father, it was not beyond the reach of misfortune. When James was scarcely more than a child, he was compelled to labour for his own living; and engaged himself to herd cows, with a neighbouring farmer. The good seed had, however, been sown; — sound and upright principles had taken root in his mind, and his fancy had been nursed, unconsciously, by his mother, whose memory was stored with old border ballads. His elder brother states, that James was, what is called in the language of his native valley, a soft, "actionless" boy; and that in early life he gave no token of the genius which afterwards astonished and delighted his countrymen. The scenery amid which he lived and rambled, the utter seclusion in which the shepherds of Ettrick dwelt, and his lonely, yet happy, occupation among his native glens and mountains, gathered the intellectual wealth which the simple shepherd was destined to scatter among mankind: the "actionless" boy soon gave proof that he was also contemplative; he spoke songs long before he could write them. For many years, until indeed he had grown to manhood, his fame was limited to his own neighbourhood; at length, chance conducted him to Edinburgh; a small printed volume was the result; it was soon followed by The Mountain Bard: and the world began to speak of the Shepherd of Ettrick. Still he continued to "tend his flock;" and it was not until after his reputation had very widely spread, that he commenced farming on his own account. In 1821, he took the farm of Mount Benger; it was a disastrous attempt to better his fortunes, and it exhausted the money his literary labours had collected. From the period of his first appearance before the public, he passed scarcely a year without furnishing something for the press. The Mountain Bard was followed by the Queen's Wake; — the Witch of Fife, and Queen Hynde, established his fame as a Poet; and the Border Tales, and other publications gave him a prominent station as a writer of prose. Fortunate in the friendship of such men as Scott and Wilson, happy in his home, and admired by the world, with a disposition naturally cheerful, he had but one drawback from the happiness of life: his pecuniary circumstances were by no means prosperous towards the close of it; and he left a widow and five children in poverty. He died on the 21st of November, 1835.

Hogg visited London in 1833; — although accustomed to the comparatively rude society of mountaineers, he was perfectly easy and self-possessed — because natural — in the polished circles into which he was eagerly welcomed. His glowing and kindly countenance, his cheerful smile, his rousing and hearty laugh, the originality of his remarks, his gentle satire, his continual flow of wit, the rough but becoming manner in which he sang his own ballads, gained for him, personally, the "golden opinions" which had previously been accorded to his genius. He was somewhat above the middle height, — of a muscular frame; he had a sharp, clear, grey eye, an expansive forehead, and sandy hair; and the soundness of his constitution was evident from the fresh and ruddy colour of his cheeks. He was kind and liberal to a degree; and, although he manifested, occasionally, the irritability of his "class," all his friends loved him.

If we are to class James Hogg among uneducated Poets, he must undoubtedly rank at the head of them. But as he had lived thirty years before he made the world acquainted with his powers, we can scarcely consider his productions as the mere offspring of his mind, unformed by knowledge and unaided by experience. He was unquestionably a man of fine original genius; and he confined himself to those topics with which his early habits and associations rendered him familiar. His happiest and most popular poems are those which dwell most on the scenes and legends of the hills and valleys of his native land. There is perhaps a national tone and feeling in his writings, in which we Southrons do not wholly sympathise; but in his own country we must consider him to be rather under than over rated. Born in the very humblest condition of life, reared under circumstances most adverse to the growth and development of mind, he obtained a popularity second only to that of Burns; — he has written his name on enduring tablets in the literary annals of Great Britain, and it will go down to posterity with that of the most eminent of his many eminent countrymen. Such is the triumph which genius, even unaided, can achieve.