1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

A. P., "James Hogg, a Literary and Biographical Sketch" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 2:325-29.



James Hogg has become one of the contributors to Blackwood's Magazine. His best articles are descriptive pieces in prose, and little sketches of pastoral manners. He has depicted, with great fidelity, a storm on the banks of the Tweed, and a fall of snow; he also enacts occasionally, in that comico-serious publication, the character of a rustic buffoon. He permits his caricatured portrait to be printed in it, with sonnets beneath in his praise, such as that entitled, Sonnet on a Spark from the Pipe of the Ettrick Shepherd.

But the reputation of James Hogg is founded upon the poem already mentioned, which Sir Walter Scott might not be ashamed to avow; the Queen's Wake.

The meeting which took place on the eve before the day of the consecration of a church was formerly called a "Wake," in England. This meeting was a festival, and those who attended passed the night in various kinds of games and amusements. In Scotland, which was always a land of song and music, says Mr. Hogg, song and music were the principal diversions of the wake, and often the only one. These songs were generally religious or serious compositions, adapted to the simple melodies of Scotland.

Queen's Wake is the narrative of one of those royal watches

When royal Mary, blithe of mood,
Kept holiday at Holyrood,

and commences with an affecting invocation to the poet's harp. It is a natural reversion to the simple pleasures of the country, and the first mysterious commerce with his muse. His little grain of ambition may be pardoned, as we pardon that of La Fontaine's shepherd, in Le Roi et le Berger; because he never ceases loving at the bottom of his heart,

L'habit d'un gardeur de troupeaux,
Petit chapeau, jupon, panetiere, houlette, etc.

But the shepherd is now about to sing of ambition in others, and of their efforts to deserve the royal favour it is the beautiful Mary Stuart who holds the sceptre, and adjudges the prize to the most skilful. She has just arrived at Leith, and proceeds to Holyrood-house. The hearts of all her subjects fly to meet her, and the general talk is of her beauty, her youth, and her afflictions. She has been an exile; she has lost, in one year, a father, a husband, and a kingdom, and has not yet attained her eighteenth spring. Who would not devote his life for so young, so beautiful, and so amiable a princess?

She advances with a numerous retinue to Holyrood-house: and though affected and delighted with the universal homage she receives, and with the acclamations of the people, an air of abstraction is occasionally remarked in her countenance. This abstraction was occasioned by the accents of her native music, which, mellowed by distance, were conveyed to her delighted ear, and seemed to her preferable to all the scientific melodies of the south. The above sentiment, imparted to Mary Stuart by Mr. Hogg, is one of perfect delicacy. He will soon have to apprise us that Rizzio composes a part of the retinue at Holyrood. The Duke of Argyle, informed of the subject of the queen's emotion, boasts of the Highland music, as far superior to that which she has just heard. As soon as Mary has established her court at Holy-rood, a proclamation announces, that during the following Christmas, the queen invites to a solemn wake, all the minstrels and harpers of the kingdom. This wake is to last three successive nights, and a richly ornamented harp is destined for the victor.

The following passages are exquisite:

Light on her airy steed she sprung,
Around with golden tassels hung;
No chieftain there rode half so free,
Or half so light and gracefully.
How sweet to see her ringlets pale,
Wide waving on the southland gale,
Which through the broom wood blossoms flew
To fan her cheeks of rosy hue!
Whene'er it heaved her bosom's screen,
What beauties in her form were seen!
And when her courser's mane it swung,
A thousand silver bells were rung;
A sight so fair, on Scottish plain,
A Scott shall never see again.

When Mary turned her wandering eyes
On rocks that seemed to prop the skies
On palace, park, and battled pile,
On lake, on river, sea, and isle;
O'er woods and meadows bathed in dew,
To distant mountains wild and blue;
She thought the isle that gave her birth,
The sweetest, wildest land on earth.

Mr. Hogg then depicts the character, and records the song of each of the competitors. Rizzio is among the number; but Gardyne, a son of the native bards, obtains the prize. This plot supplies the Ettrick Shepherd with an opportunity of exhibiting the facility with which he adapts himself to all kinds of styles, — a facility so great, that he has since published, under the title of The Mirror of the Poets, a collection of poems attributed by him to Byron, Scott, Campbell, Southey, Crabbe, Wordsworth, etc., whose peculiar genius he has often imitated so dexterously, as to constitute a complete deception. As to the Queen's Wake, the critics have generally preferred to the successful piece in the competition, that of the thirteenth competitor, entitled, Kilmeny. It is one of those marvellous subjects in which Mr. Hogg excels, and which have earned him the title of Laureat of Fairy Land. Burns, when he treated of some supernatural history, always introduced some comic, and even grotesque, imagery. The fact is, he did not believe; but Hogg writes with the enthusiasm of faith. Nothing can he more simply pleasing than the poem of Kilmeny.

There is something more solemn in the ballad of Mackinnon, an abbot of Iona who is punished for the violation of monastic rules. An apparition of St. Columba orders the prior to go on a pilgrimage, with his young monks, to Staffa, in order to offer certain oblations to the invisible spirit of the Ocean; and the superstitious abbot obeys this order, although in contradiction to the creed both of Columba and himself. He embarks, and, in reply to his invocation, a mermaid denounces, in harmonious song, that the billows demand him as their prey. The prior and his retinue hurry from the spot, overwhelmed with melancholy forebodings. They perceive at the helm of the vessel an old man, whose aspect appears to them supernatural.

They enquire his business and his name whence he comes and where he goes but he preserves a gloomy silence, turns his face towards the sea and weeps. One monk addresses him in friendly terms; another mocks him; but the abbot turns pale, overwhelmed with terror; for he imagines that he has seen the man before. At length the vessel quits the fatal shore. The old man then raising his eyes to heaven, exclaims, "the hour is come." The monks perceive, on the top of Ben More, an apparition with a girdle of azure lightning, and a luminous helmet. It is the herald of the storm; and he exclaims "Prepare the way for the Abbot of Iona." A tempest rises, and the vessel is engulphed in the waves, etc.

This mysterious old man, whom the poet does not name, leaves a striking impression on the imagination. The poem often recalls to mind the energy of Byron, combined with the fantastic mysticism of Coleridge.

The ballad of Mary Scott also deserves quoting. Mary is another Juliet, condemned to death by her father; she has swallowed instead of poison, a narcotic potion, which gives her lover time to come to her deliverance. Her lover, who believes her dead, is in the act of addressing an affecting farewell to her in her coffin, when she revives. The moment of revival is felicitously described by Mr. Hogg. The Ettrick Shepherd is not precisely a bucolic poet; at least, if he were familiar with Virgil, he would be inclined to admire him most in his description of the prodigies announcing the death of Caesar, his account of the metamorphoses of Proteus, and Orpheus's descent into hell. Even in the purely descriptive portion of his poems, the Ettrick Shepherd is frequently induced to modify by foreign allusion, the artlessness of a landscape. He has an obvious tendency towards the orientalism of Thomas Moore; had he studied Thomson and Cowper, he would have imitated the first in his pomp of imagery and diction.

The other productions of Hogg, whether in prose or verse, are decidedly inferior to the Queen's Wake; his poetical fairy tale called the Pilgrims of the Sun, is chiefly remarkable for its fable, which Lord Byron in his Cain, and Shelley in his Queen Mab, have palpably imitated.