1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

George Gilfillan, in "Allan Cunningham and the Rural Poets" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 348-55.



Had he not been a shepherd he had never been the peculiar poet he was — he would never have passed by acclamation into the post of poet-laureate to the "Fairy Queen," with gallons of dew, collected into the cool basins of the rocks, instead of butts of sack — had he not innumerable times seen their misty scarfs exchanged by the morning hills for the sunny mantles of dawn, and a hundred streams surprised into glory by the fresh upland day — had he not a thousand times watched alone, and with kindling eye, the old struggle of the sun and the mist, ever renewed, never ending, on the hill — had he not slept all night in his plaid amid the coves of Ben-macdhui, and heard in half dream the sough of the "spirit of the storm" — had he not shouted on its top, in the triumphant intuition that he stood on the highest land in Britain — had he not seen six times double at its base, magnifying Loch Avon from two miles to twenty-four in length (an assertion in which he persisted to the last) — had he not revelled with the fairies in the green moonlight, and met with ghosts past reckoning, and seen his own image, mist-magnified and bowing to him from an opposite mountain, and slid down on ice from the top to the bottom of the huge Benmore, and thrust his arm into the solid snow of a storm tumbling down en masse from the blackest of heavens — had he not, in short, been born and bred, nursed and dandled in the arms of sublime superstition, and in the cradle of the forest, he had never been any more than a shrewd gossip, or the vain and vulgar burgess of a country town. But for the accidental circumstances and scenery of his birth, the one wild vein given him would never have bled. Off the green sward or the heather, for in both he was at home, though most on the former — out of the mist and the spray of the linn — he was the very commonest of men. The Grey Mare's Tail was the lock of his strength, the maud his mantle of inspiration. To talk of Sir Walter Scott being strong only on the heather is absurd; he was equally powerful on the turf of Sherwood Forest, amid the lilies of France, and on the sands of Syria. But Hogg could not transplant: the mountain air was the very necessity of his intellectual life, and the mystic ring of superstition the limit of his power. Out of this dread circle he resembled not the magician, but the magician's victim — weak, panting, powerless. No man has written such loads of dull insensate trash. No man was ever so careless of his reputation, or knew less wherein not merely his great strength, but his poetic identity, lay; but no man, at the same time, could so easily and rapidly regain the position where he was all-powerful. He had but to shut his eyes — to touch his organ of wonder — to name the name "diablerie" — to tap on the wall, whence the death-tick was coming thick and strong, for a ghost, and James Hogg was himself again. Call not this, after all, a narrow range — it was unmeasured as superstition — it included in its dark span the domains of Faery Land — the grave—

Hell, Hades, Heaven, the eternal How and Where,
The glory of the dead, and their despair.

He was emphatically a "minion of the moon." Had that shadowy orb not existed, (discovered now to be, for all her shy and timid ways, little else than one great volcano, with enormous perforated craters in her, ready to bombard earth on the first opportunity, and in the meantime laughing in her green sleeves at the silly praises she has been receiving from immemorial scribblers as the "mild moon," the "mild Hecla!" the "pensive moon," the "pensive Vesuvius!" the "sweet moon," "sweet Mount Etna!") neither had the "Queen's Wake." Hogg writes with a moon-beam on the semi-transparent leaves of the forest trees. "Labour dire it is, and weary wo" to climb with his celestial wanderers in their pilgrimage to the sun. His genius is not supernal enough to climb to that old flame — to overleap his dazzling fence of rays — to rest on his round black ball — to look up to the arch of overhanging glory, shutting out from him the universe — to enter his metropolis — to follow his march, "lingering not, hasting not," in the train of some vaster luminary — or to anticipate the results of that swift suction, by which he may yet draw all his subject worlds into his one whirlpool solitude; stripping himself of his own august retinue; rolling himself together, to be in his turn ingulfed in the stream of some distant vortex. Better, though still with a coarse pencil, does he depict that lonely traveller, that Cain-world, which, thrust out of his native sphere, dreaded of men and angels, pursues his hideous way, "showering thin flame" through the solitudes of space. It was a stroke of genius transferring the conception of a wandering Jew to the heavens, though the description of his progress, "clattering down the steeps of night for ever," reminds us, in its grotesque familiarity, of the worst style of Blair and Pollok. It is curious, however, that though so elegant and refined in almost all his pictures of the supernatural on earth, he is so coarse and commonplace in mating with the magnificence of the heavens. Why does a man, who must so often, lying on his back on a midnight hill, have seen the whole ocean of stars, now twinkling and shivering in the frosty air, now seemingly swept and burnished by the wind, now crossed by sudden meteors shooting like sea-mews over the bosom of the deep, always looking as if they wished to sparkle down some deep intelligence to man, whom they love and pity, but are for ever unable — so calm in their high eternity, so fixed yet fluctuating in their aspect, so fantastic and ideal in their forms, asking so little from us, giving so much, seeking only from us a loving look, and giving in return "thoughts that wander through eternity" — why does he who must so often (like an artist on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, looking aloft at the spells which are pictured there,) have studied in such favourable circumstances this gallery of Heaven's own paintings, never describe, in language more choice than that of Sturm or Hervey, his impressions of their grandeur so unspeakable, their silence so profound, their separation from the world below and from each other so entire, their multitude so immense, their lustre so brilliant, their order so regular, their motions so majestic and so calm? The reason perhaps lies in a theory we hold, which is, that mere genius, without what is usually called education, can never enter fully into the severe and spiritual beauty of the heavenly bodies. Either there is an aristocracy about the science of the stars which repels that class of minds of which we are now discoursing, or it may be, that loving earth so well, the countenance of the sky is to them, far, foreign, and insipid. Certain it is, we find little sympathy with the discoveries of modern science in this high field in any of their writings. Their allusions to them are few, and not very happy. To them the low fire on the hearth is more interesting than a sun when he shineth in his strength. Burns himself, sooth to say, has no great liking to the day-star, under whose beams he has so often sweltered: he loves him principally as the evening sun, lighting him home to his cottage, or beckoning him to his assignation what time the "plantain tops are tinged wi' goud by yon burn side." He likes the moon chiefly as it shines through the stacks in the barn-yard, or on the cornrigs, amid which he is courting his Jean — the morning star as it reminds him of the dread day his "Mary from his soul was torn." He watches with more interest the flight of trooping plovers on a gray October morning, than the roll of systems; and the solitary cry of a curlew affects him more than the "thunder-psalm" of a thousand worlds. Bloomfield and Clare fly lower still; and a gorse bush, bending under its buds of gold, is to them a more enchanting sight than the "milky-way." To Hogg, again, the moon is just the fairies' lamp, when she is not the accomplice of the ghost, or shines not with fond consenting ray upon the witches' caldron; — the sun himself a play-thing for the power of sorcery — the stars not nearly such imaginative objects as the "fairy ringlets" he meets upon the hill.

Omitting any special notice of The Mountain Bard, Madoc of the Moor, Queen Hynde, Winter Evening Tales, &c. &c., we have a word, and no more, to say of The Queen's Wake. Its framework, so much admired at the time, and so essential to the immediate popularity of the book, is now little else than a pretty impertinence. The power has shrunk up into one or two of the separate ballads, which, embalmed in their own wild odour, shall find their floating way into all after time. Kilmeny we love, like all the world, for its sweetness and spirituality; a sweetness more unearthly — a spirituality more intense than are to be found any where else in the language of men, save (at a vast distance of superiority) in the songs of Ariel in The Tempest. We love it, too, because we know well, and from infancy have known, the glen up which went alone the maid in the "pride of her purity." It lies along a deep green valley, sunk in between two high chains of hills — those of Abruchill and Dundurn — lifting their "giant snouted" crags on the south, and on the north the hills of Crappich and Cluan, piled up like leaning Titans. This valley has evidently been once a part of Loch Earn. It is level, but sprinkled with little wooded eminences, once, no doubt, islets, and toward its western end rises a remarkable hill, called the hill of St. Fillans, strangely contrasting with the black and heathery mountains which tower above it. It is green, round-headed, grassy, like a young Ochil which had been flung down among the gloomy Grampians. At the foot of the northern bulwark of the valley lies Dunira, alluded to in the poem, ("It was na to meet wi Dunira's men,") a place where the utmost refinement of art, in the form of a white-washed mansion, rich lawns, "shaven by the scythe and smoothed by the roller," fine shrubbery and elegant garden, is brought into contact, contrast, yet harmony, with the utmost wildness and grandeur of nature — a bare, knotted hill before, and behind it a mountain, wooded almost to the summit, like some awful countenance veiled, but speaking in the tongues of a hundred waterfalls, which you hear, but see not dashing, leaping, and murmuring down their downright and headlong course till reaching the plain, and as if in deference to the inmates of the dwelling, they hush their voices, and become "stillest streams watering fairest meadows." To the west of this lovely place lies the blue sheet of Loch Earn, back from which retires Benvoirlich, like a monarch, almost unseen by the lake, which yet owns his sway.

We have seen this scene from the summit of Dunmore and the side of Melville's monument, which stands upon it: seen it at all hours, in all circumstances, and in all seasons — in the clear morning, while the smoke of a thousand cottages was seen rising through the dewy air, and when the mountains seemed not thoroughly awakened from their night's repose — in the garish noon-day, when the feeling of mystery was removed by the open clearness, but that of majesty in form and outline remained — in the afternoon, with its sunbeams streaking huge shadows, and writing characters of fire upon all the hills — in the golden evening, when the sun was going down over Benmore in blood — in the dim evening, to us dearer still, when a faint rich mist was steeping all the landscape in religious hues — in the waste night, while the moon was rising red in the northeast, like a beacon, or a torch uplifted by some giant-hand — under the breezes and bashful green of spring — in the laughing luxuriance of summer — under the yellow shade of autumn — at the close of autumn, when the woods were red and the stubble sovereign of the fields — and again when hill, valley, and wood were spotted with snow, have seen it in a hush so profound that you might have imagined nature listening for some mysterious tidings, and hardly dared to breathe; and in the cloudy and dark day, while the thunder was shaking the column and the lightning painting the landscape. And gazing at it, whether in glimmer or in gloom, have we sometimes fancied that we saw that fearless form "gaeing" up through the plains of Dalwhinnie and the fairy plantations of Dunira,

To pu' the cress-flower from the well,
The scarlet hyp and the hynd berrye,
And the nut that hang frae the hazel tree,
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.

And when gloaming especially had poured her dim divine lustre over the dark hills and white castle of Abruchill, and allowed the last lingering ray of sunshine to rest on the crest of Benvoirlich, and hushed the streams of Glenlednick behind, and drawn a dewy veil over the plain of Dalginross before, and softened the call of the Cauldron in the glen below, and suffused over all the landscape of earth and heaven a sense unutterable of peace, and introduced into the scene, as a last glorious touch, the moon, to enhance the sense of solemnity, and to deepen the feeling of repose, have we, reclining on the hill, and seeing the stars coming out above the silent column, thought of the "eve in a sinless world," when,

In ecstasy of sweet devotion,
Oh then the glen was all in motion;

and owned the power of the "consecration," and felt the might of the "poet's dream."