1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

John Gibson Lockhart, in "Burns's Dinner" Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819) 1:137-42.



I myself — will you believe it? — was one of those who insisted upon disturbing the performance of this glorious Cantata with my own dissonant voice. In plain truth, I was so happy, that I could not keep silence, and such was the buoyancy of my enthusiasm, that nothing could please me but singing a Scottish song. I believe, after all, I got through it pretty well; at least, I did well enough to delight my neighbours. My song was that old favourite of your's—

My name it is Donald Macdonald,
I live in the Hielands sae grand.

One of the best songs, I must think, that our times has produced; and, indeed, it was for many years one of the most popular. I had no idea who wrote the words of my song, and had selected it merely for its own merit, and my own convenience; but I had no sooner finished, than Mr. H— stretched his hand to me, across two or three that sat between us, and cried out with an air of infinite delight, "Od', sir — Doctor Morris" — (for he had heard my name,) — "od', sir, — I wrote that sang when I was a herd on Yarrow, — and little did I think ever to live to hear an English gentleman sing it." From this moment there was no bound to the warmth of our affection for each other; in order to convince you of which, in so far as I myself was concerned, I fairly deserted my claret for the sake of joining in the jug-party of the Shepherd. Nor, after all, was this quite so mighty a sacrifice as you may be inclined to imagine. I assure you, there are worse things in life than whisky-toddy; although I cannot go the same length with Mr. H—, who declared over and over that there is nothing so good.

A man may, now and then, adopt a change of liquor with advantage; but, upon the whole, I like better to see people "stick to their vocation." I think nothing can be a more pitiable sight than a French count on his travels, striving to look pleased over a bumper of strong Port; and an Oxford doctor of divinity looks almost as much like a fish out of water, when he is constrained to put up with the best Claret in the world. In like manner, it would have tended very much to disturb my notions of propriety, had I found the Ettrick Shepherd drinking Champagne or Hock. It would have been a sin against keeping with such a face as he has. Although for some time past he has spent a considerable portion of every year in excellent, even in refined society, the external appearance of the man can have undergone but very little change since he was "a herd on Yarrow." His face and hands are still as brown as if he lived entirely "sub dio." His very hair has a coarse stringiness about it, which proves beyond dispute its utter ignorance of all the arts of the friseur; and hangs in playful whips and cords about his ears, in a style of the most perfect innocence imaginable. His mouth, which, when he smiles, nearly cuts the totality of his face in twain, is an object that would make the Chevalier Ruspini die with indignation; for his teeth have been allowed to grow where they listed, and as they listed, presenting more resemblance, in arrangement, (and colour too,) to a body of crouching sharp-shooters, than to any more regular species of array. The effect of a forehead, towering with a true poetic grandeur above such features as these, and of an eye that illuminates their surface with the genuine lightnings of genius,—

—an eye that, under brows
Shaggy and deep, has meanings, which are brought
From years of youth,—

these are things which I cannot so easily transfer to my paper. Upon the whole, his exterior reminded me very much of some of Wordsworth's descriptions of his Pedlar:—

—plain his garb,
Such as might suit a rustic sire, prepared
For Sabbath duties; yet he is a man
Whom no one could have passed without remark.
Active and nervous is his gait. His limbs
And his whole figure breathe intelligence.

Indeed, I can scarcely help suspecting, that that great poet, who has himself thought so much

On Man, on Nature, and on Human Life,
Musing in solitude—

must have thought more than once of the intellectual history of the Ettrick Shepherd, when he drew that noble sketch, which no man can ridicule, unless from a vicious want of faith in the greatness of human nature. Neither is there any thing unlikely in the supposition in another point of view, for W— tells me, the two poets have often met, and always expressed the highest admiration for each other. He says,

From his sixth year, the boy of whom I speak,
In summer tended cattle on the hills.

I believe poor H— tended them in winter also.

—From that bleak tenement,
He many an evening to his distant home
In solitude returning, saw the hills
Grow larger in the darkness, all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travell'd through the wood, with no one near
To whom he might confess the things he saw.
So the foundations of his mind were laid.
In such communion, not from terror free,
While yet a child, and long before his time,
He had perceived the presence and the power
Of greatness; and deep feeling had impressed
Great objects on his mind, with portraiture
And colour so distinct, that on his mind
They lay like substances, and almost seemed
To haunt the bodily sense.

Those who have read the Shepherd's latest writings, as I fear you have not done, would find still stronger confirmation of my idea in what follows:—

—Thus informed,
He had small need of books; for many a tale,
Traditionary round the mountains hung,
And many a legend, peopling the dark woods,
Nourished imagination in her youth.
———*———*———*———
The life and death of Martyrs, who sustained,
With will inflexible, those fearful pangs
Triumphantly displayed in records left,
Of persecution and the Covenant — Times
Whose echo rings through Scotland to this hour.

But I must not think of discussing the Ettrick Shepherd in a single letter.