1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

W. B. Morgan, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 5 (1836) 94-98.



Nov. 21. At his residence on the banks of the Yarrow, aged 63, Mr. James Hogg, "the Ettrick Shepherd."

He was born in Ettrick Forest by his own account on the anniversary of the natal day of Burns, Jan. 25th, 1772, and was the second son of Robert Hogg and Margaret Laidlow. His father was a Shepherd, as had been his ancestors "time out of mind;" and being possessed by long savings of some little property, he entered, shortly after James's birth, upon a farming speculation, which in a few years reduced himself and family to absolute beggary. James, who was at this time about six years of age, had during his father's brief prosperity attended a neighbouring school; but the misfortunes with which his family were now beset, no more permitted this, and the next year saw him out at service as a cowherd, receiving for six-months' wages, "a ewe lamb and a pair of shoes." He has described himself as being "somewhat eccentric, running about almost naked, and constantly losing his clothes in his rambles among the hills."

During the next winter his parents again managed to send him to a school, where in a Bible class he learned to read correctly, but his efforts to acquire a knowledge of writing were wholly unavailing, "and thus (he says) terminated my education."

As a cowherd, one of the very lowliest employments then in Scotland, he served till the age of fifteen, when he rose to the more honourable grade of a shepherd's boy. At one time during this period he was almost destitute of clothing, his parents out of the wretched pittance of his hard-earned wages being unable to procure him a sufficient quantity to make him even tolerably warm.

Three years after this (in 1790) he entered the service of Mr. Laidlaw, of Black House, with whom he remained until the year 1800. It was at this place he first read the Life and Adventures of Sir William Wallace, and Allan Ramsay's "Gentle Shepherd," but having little knowledge of any language, save his "ain braid" Scotch, it was with the greatest difficulty that he mastered them. His employer subsequently placed before him many valuable books, which deeply interested him; and, as he now could comprehend their meaning, his own genius began to arouse itself to action, and in 1796, he first felt the inspiration of the Muse.

Led by the prevailing taste of his associates, and the attachment which every where showed itself for the local traditions of the Scottish Muse, Mr. Hogg first turned his attention to the composition of songs and ballads, and it was the pride of his heart to hear them chanted by the neighbouring lasses, who rejoiced in the Muse of "Jamie the Poeter." He tells us "I had no more difficulty in composing songs then, than I have at present," that is, in the latter part of his life. "But then the writing of them, — that was a job! I had no method of learning to write than by following the Italian alphabet, and although I always stripped myself of coat and vest, when I began to pen a song, yet my wrist took a cramp, so that I could rarely make above four or six lines at a sitting."

About this time he first heard of Robert Burns, who died in 1796, and with the greatest interest compared that poet's early history with his own. His ambition was immediately roused to follow in the steps of that mighty Bard, and he applied himself constantly and with redoubled energy to the art of ballad-writing, though his first published effort, the celebrated "Donald Macdonald," did not appear till 1801. Several amusing anecdotes relating to this particular ballad have been recorded by the poet, in a volume of his songs recently published. The author's name was at the time of its production little known and less inquired into.

Mr. Hogg's first prose essay, called "Reflections on a view of the Nocturnal Heavens," was, we believe, written in 1801, and was the labour of a week.

In the same year he paid a visit to Edinburgh, where he disposed of his sheep, and published a collected edition of his best poems; but having to trust to his memory for the principal part of them, he made sad work in the selection, taking rather those with which he was most familiar, than those which were really the best.

In 1802, he contributed to Sir Walter Scott's "Border Minstrelsy," for which due acknowledgement was made him. Encouraged by the success of that undertaking he directly set about collecting and remodelling some traditionary ballads, which were published by subscription, in a volume called "The Mountain Bard." From this work, and another on the "Cultivation of Sheep," (both which appeared in 1807), he realised about three hundred pounds, and thus, from abject penury he was at once elevated to moderate independence.

Intoxicated with success, like Burns, he took a farm, which proved beyond his ability to cultivate; and after struggling with fortune for a few years, his means and credit were entirely exhausted. But under these reverses the characteristic, integrity and moral courage of the "Shepherd" bravely supported him. Returning to his native Ettrick, he found those whom he once loved and trusted, treated him with coolness and neglect; his own familiars, those almost of his own household, forsook him; and thus, in truth, the having displayed a poetic talent was visited by his associates as little better than a crime.

In Feb. 1810, "in utter desperation," he has told us, he made a resolution to adventure his remaining stock of poetry at Edinburgh; but here he had much difficulty with the booksellers, who would run no risk in publishing his "sonsie ballads" on their own account. At last, Mr. Constable agreed to print an edition, and share the profits with the author, but the speculation turned out badly. The work was called the "Forest Minstrel," and consisted of the poet's early songs, most of them "very indifferent," as he has himself described them.

He next started (1810-11) a periodical paper, entitled "The Spy," for which his little knowledge of society and very poor education by no means fitted him. The publication lasted about a twelve-mouth, but did not gain him any credit.

About the same time, a debating society was formed at Edinburgh, for which he was chosen secretary with a salary of twenty pounds a year, which he never received. At the public meetings of this society, the "Shepherd" bore a conspicuous part, and to his mingling in these scenes may be attributed much of his subsequent improvement. He now likewise regularly attended the Theatre, where he was placed on the free list by the manager, Mr. Siddons.

In 1813 Mr. Hogg again made a trial of his poetic powers, and in a few months planned and executed "The Queen's Wake," a poem which will immortalize his name. By this work he obtained upwards of two hundred pounds; the greater part of which, however, was a short time after lost by the failure of his publisher, Mr. Goldie, who at the time of the catastrophe, had already a third edition in hand. It was on this occasion he first became acquainted with the late Mr. Blackwood, who was one of Mr. Goldie's assignees, and by his assistance a considerable part of Mr. Hogg's money was in the end preserved. Shortly after appeared a fourth and even fifth edition of the "Queen's Wake."

The "Shepherd" (as he loved to call himself) had now by his own exertions raised himself to a very high standing as a poet, and consequently his society was sought by the curious and the great. But he was still miserably poor, alternately experiencing in the metropolis the gales of success and disappointment, when his noble and chief patron, the late Duke of Bucceleugh, kindly allowed him to occupy his farm "The Altrive Lake," near the poet's native spot, rent free, and very lately, we believe, the present Duke had granted him a 99 years' lease on the same easy terms, so that it will be a provision and inheritance to his family for some time to come.

Mr. Hogg's next poetical production, which appeared in 1816, was "Madoc of the Moor;" this work, though a favourite of the author's, and possessing passages of uncommon beauty, never rose to very great popularity. The "Pilgrims of the Sun," another poem published in London by Mr. Murray, quickly followed, and met with moderate success.

About this time, he made known an intention of editing a volume of poetry which should contain contributions from the most popular of the then living writers; but having applied to many and received performances from few, he was reluctantly compelled to abandon the idea, but shortly after determined on another, which was that of imitating the style of those same celebrated poets, and this was accomplished in the production of the "Poetic Mirror," as happy a work of the kind as well may be. In this he was assisted by Professor Wilson.

The projected publication of Blackwood's Magazine, the first number of which appeared in 1817, gave rise to Mr. Hogg's "Chaldee Manuscript," and in it he has given an amusing account of the intrigues, &c. attending the jealousies of its rival editors, and the fears of contending publishers. The subsequent connexion of the poet with this magazine, assisted in a great measure to establish its fame, and enhance its value.

The "Brownie of Bodsbeck," a prose tale, was his next publication, and appeared in 1818. It has been pronounced an imitation of Scott's "Old Mortality;" but, if we may rely on the "Shepherd's word," it was written "lang afore" the other was heard of.

Mr. Hogg has informed us that his next literary undertaking was the "Jacobite Relics of Scotland," containing the songs, airs, and legends of the house of Stuart, but notwithstanding this imposing title, many of the relics were his own. It was about the same time 1819-20 that his "Winter Evening Tales" made their appearance: they possess considerable merit. In 1820, which was an eventful year to him, he married the youngest daughter of Mr. Phillips, of Longbridge-moor, Annandale.

Having now about a thousand pounds, he was again induced to incur some risks in agricultural pursuits, and again fell into difficulties, his losses in 1822 amounting to upwards of two thousand pounds. This induced him once more to try his fortune as an author, and in a few months was written and published "The Three Perils of Man," a Border Romance, by which he realized about 150, and the next year followed "The Three Perils of Woman," a similar work, which produced a like sum. He had himself no very good opinion of either of these works; the latter he has said possessed "absurdity as well as pathos." "I was then," he continues, "writing as if in desperation, but I now see matters in a different light."

Amid the embarrassments resulting from his accumulated losses, he was relieved by the amount of about two hundred pounds, proceeding from the publication of an edition of his best Poems, in four volumes, by Messrs Constable and Co.

In 1824, Mr. Hogg published anonymously a book of "horrors," called "Confessions of a Sinner," which sold tolerably well, but never produced anything to the author; and in the next year appeared "Queen Hynde," the last long poem that be ever wrote; for much to his own surprise, although to that of no one else, it failed to please the public, and from this time he resolved to write nothing but shorter pieces, which for the last ten years have been the gems of Blackwood's and other magazines, and of some of the annuals.

The "Shepherd's Calendar," a series of tales which had originally appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, was in 1829 presented to the public in a collected form; and in 1831 be published a pretty little volume, containing some of his earlier and best songs, with a kind of running commentary critical and biographical.

In 1832 was produced the first volume of an intended series of traditionary stories, collected among the Altrive peasantry, and entitled "Altrive Tales." The publication was to have extended to about twelve volumes, but on account of the failure of his publishers, Messrs Cochrane and Co. the above named portion has alone appeared. Prefixed to this volume, which principally contains reminiscences of his own life, is a portrait of the Shepherd (aged 60) by Charles Fox, but not a very correct likeness.

Shortly after this "A Queer Book" made its appearance, containing twenty-six miscellaneous poems, some of which had appeared in Blackwood.

It was in the winter 1831-2 Mr. Hogg visited London, was made a lion of in the metropolis, and during his stay mixed in the highest and best society; but, as we have said, his publisher failing, he was driven to the necessity of throwing himself upon his friends for temporary assistance, a subscription was raised, and a hundred pounds quickly transmitted him.

In the course of the year 1834, he astonished the world by the publication of a volume of "Lay Sermons," which contain much sound good sense; and we are informed he was the editor of an edition of Burns's Life and Poems, published by Fullarton of Glasgow, but we hope this was not the fact; for, if the annotations we have read and heard attributed to him, were really his, we have no hesitation in saying he should have blushed to own himself the inventor of them.

1834 likewise appeared his "Domestic Manners of Sir Walter Scott,", for which injudicious production he was at the time well lashed by the Reviewers. Its chief fault was the too great familiarity in which he indulged when speaking of the illustrious subject of his memoir, and which he would have made the world conceive existed between the best "patron" friend he ever had and himself.

In the early part of the present year, during the brief administration of Sir Robert Peel, the Honourable Baronet kindly transmitted to Mr. Hogg the sum of one hundred pounds, intending to confer on him an annual pension to that amount, but this the present Whig Government on succeeding to office refused to ratify.

The "Ettrick Shepherd" was a simple, and yet vigorous minded, and on the whole extraordinary man; but ambitious, vain, and egotistical, as his works most strongly testify: — and a peasant nearly all his life, possessing little knowledge of general or refined society. Hale, hearty, and robust, he bore up against misfortunes with an amazing spirit. His natural character, although exaggerated in the colouring, has been ably drawn in the "Noctes" of "Blackwood." He has often attempted an account of his own life, and told many a good story of himself; but, as he was unfortunately a "leetle" addicted to "leeing," few of his autobiographical memoirs are to be depended upon by future biographers.

It is tradition and his own brain, which poured forth a plenteous originality of strange ideas, that we have to thank for nearly all he ever wrote. The "Queen's Wake" is unquestionably his masterpiece, and to follow up its own simple but most interesting plot, might well be sung in rivalship with the best productions of Britain's Bards, before any Queen in Christendom. It certainly is not equal throughout, nor could such a poem possibly be so, each ballad being distinctly different; the story of Kilmeny is the general favourite, and well it may be. His prose works are full of raciness and humour; but occasionally broad. He had a pretty fair knowledge of music, played on the violin, and composed many sweet airs to his own ballads.

For some weeks previous to his death he had been confined to his bed by a severe attack of bilious fever, which in the end assumed the form of jaundice and deprived him of existence. He has left a widow and a large family, "whom it was the prime business of his declining years to train up in the nurture and admonition of the word of God." His body was interred on the 27th Nov. in the churchyard of Ettrick, closely adjoining to the cottage where he was born.

Mr. Hogg has written many works which we have thought unnecessary to enumerate above, but subjoin the following list.

The Hunting of Badlewe.
Dramatic Tales.
Sacred Melodies.
Border Garland.
The Shepherd's Calendar, 2 vols.
The Royal Jubilee, a masque.

We cannot better close our memoir than with an elegant extempore effusion by Mr. Wordsworth, on hearing of the "Shepherd's" death.

When first, descending from the Moorlands,
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 wandered
Thro' groves that had begun to shed
Their golden leaves upon the pathways,
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:

Nor has the rolling year twice measured,
From sign to sign, his steadfast course,
Since every mortal power of Coleridge
Was frozen at its marvellous source;

The rapt One of the Godlike forehead,
The heaven eyed Creature, sleeps in earth;
And Lamb, the frolic and the gentle,
Has vanished from his lonely hearth.

Like clouds that rake the mountain summits,
Or waves that own no curbing hand,
How fast has Brother followed Brother,
From sunshine to the sunless land!

Yet I, whose lids from infant slumbers
Were earlier raised, remain to hear
A timid voice, that asks in whispers,
"Who next will drop and disappear?"

Our haughty life is crowned with darkness,
Like London with its own black wreath,
On which, with thee, O Crabbe, forth-looking
I gazed from Hampstead's breezy heath;

As if but yesterday departed,
Thou too art gone before; yet why
For ripe fruit seasonably gathered
Should frail survivors heave a sigh?

No more of old romantic sorrows
For slaughtered Youth and love-lorn Maid,
With sharper grief is Yarrow smitten
And Ettrick mourns with her their Shepherd dead!
Rydal Mount, Nov. 30, 1835.