1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:496-97.



JAMES HOGG, generally known by his poetical name of "The Ettrick Shepherd," was perhaps the most creative and imaginative of the uneducated poets. His fancy had a wide range, picturing in its flights scenes of wild aerial magnificence and beauty. His taste was very defective, though he had done much to repair his early want of instruction. His occupation of a shepherd, among solitary hills and glens, must have been favourable to his poetical enthusiasm. He was not, like Burns, thrown into society when young, and forced to combat with misfortune. His destiny was unvaried, until he had arrived at a period when the bent of his genius was fixed for life. Without society during the day, his evening hours were spent in listening to ancient legends and ballads, of which his mother (like Burns's) was a great reciter. This nursery of imagination he has himself beautifully described—

O list the mystic lore sublime
Of fairy tales of ancient time!
I learned them in the lonely glen,
The last abodes of living men,
Where never stranger came our way
By summer night, or winter day;
Where neighbouring hind or cot was none—
Our converse was with heaven alone—
With voices through the cloud that sung,
And brooding storms that round us hung.
O lady, judge, if judge ye may,
How stern and ample was the sway
Of themes like these when darkness fell,
And gray-haired sires the tales would tell!
When doors were barred, and elder dame
Plied at her task beside the flame
That through the smoke and gloom alone
On dim and umbered faces shone—
The bleat of mountain goat on high,
That from the cliff came quavering by;
The echoing rock, the rushing flood,
The cataract's swell, the moaning wood
The undefined and mingled hum—
Voice of the desert never dumb!
All these have left within this heart
A feeling tongue can ne'er impart;
A wildered and unearthly flame,
A something that's without a name.

Hogg was descended from a family of shepherds, and born, as he alleged (though the point was often disputed) on the 25th January (Burns's birthday), in the year 1772. When a mere child he was put out to service, acting first as a cow-herd, until capable of taking care of a flock of sheep. He had in all about half a year's schooling. When eighteen years of age he entered the service of Mr. Laidlaw, Blackhouse. He was then an eager reader of poetry and romances, and he subscribed to a circulating library in Peebles, the miscellaneous contents of which he perused with the utmost avidity. He was a remarkably fine-looking young man, with a profusion of light-brown hair, which he wore coiled up under his hat or blue bonnet, the envy of all the country maidens. An attack of illness, however, brought on by over-exertion on a hot summer day, completely altered his countenance, and changed the very form of his features. His first literary effort was in song-writing, and in 1801 he published a small volume of pieces. He was introduced to Sir Walter Scott by his master's son, Mr. William Laidlaw, and assisted in the collection of old ballads for the Border Minstrelsy. He soon imitated the style of these ancient strains with great felicity, and published another volume of songs and poems under the title of The Mountain Bard. He now embarked in sheep-farming, and took a journey to the island of Harris on a speculation of this kind; but all he had saved as a shepherd, or by his publication, was lost in these attempts. He then repaired to Edinburgh, and endeavoured to subsist by his pen. A collection of songs, The Forest Minstrel, was his first effort; his second was a periodical called The Spy; but it was not till the publication of the Queen's Wake, in 1813, that the shepherd established his reputation as an author. This "legendary poem" consists of a collection of tales and ballads supposed to be sung to Mary Queen of Scots by the native bards of Scotland assembled at a royal wake at Holyrood, in order that the fair queen might prove "The wondrous powers of Scottish song." The design was excellent, and the execution so varied and masterly, that Hogg was at once placed among the first of our living poets. The different productions of the native minstrels are strung together by a thread of narrative so gracefully written in many parts, that the reader is surprised equally at the delicacy and the genius of the author. At the conclusion of the poem, Hogg alludes to his illustrious friend Scott, and adverts with some feeling to an advice which Sir Walter had once given him, to abstain from his worship of poetry.

The land was charmed to list his lays;
It knew the harp of ancient days.
The border chiefs that long had been
In sepulchres unhearsed and green,
Passed from their mouldy vaults away
In armour red and stern array,
And by their moonlight halls were seen
In visor, helm, and habergeon.
Even fairies sought our land again,
So powerful was the magic strain.

Blest be his generous heart for aye!
He told me where the relic lay;
Pointed my way with ready will
Afar on Ettrick's wildest hill;
Watched my first notes with curious eye,
And wondered at my minstrelsy:
He little weened a parent's tongue
Such strains had o'er my cradle sung.

But when to native feelings true,
I struck upon a chord was new;
When by myself I 'gan to play,
He tried to wile my harp away.
Just when her notes began with skill,
To sound beneath the southern hill,
And twine around my bosom's core,
How could we part for evermore!
'Twas kindness all — I cannot blame—
For bootless is the minstrel flame:
But sure a bard might well have known
Another's feelings by his own!

Scott was grieved at this allusion to his friendly counsel, as it was given at a time when no one dreamed of the shepherd possessing the powers that he displayed in the Queen's Wake. Various works now proceeded from his pen — Mador of the Moor, a poem in the Spenserian stanza; The Pilgrims of the Sun, in blank verse; The Hunting of Badlewe, The Poetic Mirror, Queen Hynde, Dramatic Tales, &c. Also several novels, as Winter Evening Tales, The Brownie of Bodsbeck, The Three Perils of Man, The Three Perils of Woman, The Confessions of a Sinner, &c. &c. Hogg's prose is very unequal. He had no skill in arranging incidents or delineating character. He is often coarse and extravagant; yet some of his stories have much of the literal truth and happy minute painting of Defoe. The worldly schemes of the shepherd were seldom successful. Though he had failed as a sheep farmer, he ventured again, and took a large farm, Mount Benger, from the Duke of Buccleuch. Here he also was unsuccessful; and his sole support, for the latter years of his life, was the remuneration afforded by his literary labours. He lived in a cottage which he had built at Altrive, on a piece of moorland (seventy acres) presented to him by the Duchess of Buccleuch. His love of angling and field-sports amounted to a passion, and when he could no longer fish or hunt, he declared his belief that his death was near. In the autumn of 1835 he was attacked with a dropsical complaint; and on the 21st November of that year, after some days of insensibility, he breathed his last as calmly, and with as little pain, as he ever fell asleep in his gray plaid on the hill-side. His death was deeply mourned in the vale of Ettrick, for all rejoiced in his fame; and notwithstanding his personal foibles, the shepherd was generous, kind-hearted, and charitable far beyond his means.

In the activity and versatility of his powers, Hogg resembled Allan Ramsay more than he did Burns. Neither of them had the strength of passion or the grasp of intellect peculiar to Burns; but, on the other hand, their style was more discursive, playful, and fanciful. Burns seldom projects himself, as it were, out of his own feelings and situation, whereas both Ramsay and Hogg are happiest when they soar into the world of fancy or the scenes of antiquity. The Ettrick Shepherd abandoned himself entirely to the genius of old romance and legendary story. He loved, like Spenser, to luxuriate in fairy visions, and to picture scenes of supernatural splendour and beauty, where

The emerald fields are of dazzling glow,
And the flowers of everlasting blow.

His Kilmeny is one of the finest fairy tales that ever was conceived by poet or painter; and passages in the Pilgrims of the Sun have the same abstract remote beauty and lofty imagination. Burns would have scrupled to commit himself to these aerial phantoms. His visions were more material, and linked to the joys and sorrows of actual existence. Akin to this peculiar feature in Hogg's poetry is the spirit of most of his songs — a wild lyrical flow of fancy, that is sometimes inexpressibly sweet and musical. He wanted art to construct a fable, and taste to give due effect to his imagery and conceptions; but there are few poets who impress us so much with the idea of direct inspiration, and that poetry is indeed an art "unteachable and untaught."