1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 101-11.



— 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.

Such is the portrait drawn by William Wordsworth of his pedlar, the hero of The Excursion; and, with very small wresting, the outlines may be made to apply to James Hogg, the scarcely less wonderful Ettrick Shepherd.

There are some miscellaneous writers, as John Bunyan, Isaac Walton, Sir Philip Sidney, Benjamin Franklin, Rousseau, and Benvenuto Cellini — and some poets, as Tasso, Petrarcha, and Alfieri, as Burns, Byron, and Hogg, whose lives are interwoven with or constitute a running commentary on their works; so much so, that it is impossible to come to a perfect understanding of the one without reference to the other. This is a critical privilege, however, which ought to be ever sparingly used and delicately resorted to — indeed never, save when countenanced by the plea of necessity. But with Hogg as his own repeated autobiographer, and who seems to have courted rather than repelled the license, there can be no trespass.

The intellectual history of James Hogg is certainly one of the most curious that our age has presented; and when we consider what an unlettered peasant was able to achieve by the more enthusiasm of his genius, we are entitled to marvel certainly — not that his writings should be full of blemishes, but that his mind overbid power to burst through the Cimmerian gloom in which his earlier years seemed so hopelessly enveloped.

The school education of the author of The Queen's Wake may be discussed in a few words, and in none more characteristic than those of the Shepherd himself. Be it remembered that he was then six years old. The school-house, he says, "being almost at our door, I had attended it for a short time, and had the honour of standing at the head of a juvenile class, who read the Shorter Catechism and Proverbs of Solomon.... Next year my parents took me home during the winter quarter service (as a cow-herd,) and put me to school with a lad named Kerr, who was teaching the children of a neighbouring farmer. Here I advanced so far as to get into the class who read the Bible. I had likewise, some time before my quarter was out, tried writing, and had horribly defiled several sheets of paper with copy lines, every letter of which was nearly an inch in length. Thus terminated my education. After this I was never another day at any school whatever. In all, I had spent about half-a-year at it. It is true, my former master denied me, and, when I was about twenty years of age, said, if he was called to make oath, he would swear I never was at his school. However, I know I was at it for two or three months; and I do not choose to be deprived of the honour of having attended the school of my native parish, nor yet that old John Beattie should lose the honour of such a scholar." This really reminds one of the story of the foundling hero of one of Goldsmith's inimitable Essays, who was disclaimed by parish after parish, until the poor fellow began to fear that they were to come to a determination that he had been born in no parish at all — in fact, that he was a Utopian impostor.

After a boyhood of poverty, half starvation, and labour, the shepherd-poet in embryo found himself at length aged fourteen, and the possessor of five shillings — with which he bought a fiddle (!!!) over the catgut of which he kept sawing Scottish tunes, for two or three hours every night, after retiring to his roost in the lofts of the cow-house, where the discord could molest nobody save himself — an antitype of Orpheus — and the rats. Hogg relates of himself, that the perusal of Burnet's Theory of Comets produced a wonderful effect on his boyish imagination; set him pondering all the day on the grand Millennium and the reign of saints, and dreaming all the night of "a new heavens and a new earth," "the stars in horror, and the world in flames." Before this, he had read The Life of Wallace, and Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd, spelling the longer words as he went along, and wishing both productions in prose, as the rhymes made him often lose the sense. It was not until his eighteenth year that he tried to write verse; and he acknowledges that his first attempts were "bitter bad." His genius, however, was prolific; and these, consisting of epistles, eclogues, comedies, and pastorals, so rapidly accumulated on his hands, that on one of his visits to the Edinburgh sheep-market he rashly adventured a small volume, which of course soon died off into silent hopeless oblivion. Some years after this hapless adventure of the Poems, the Shepherd's talents having attracted the attention of Mr. Scott, that great poet encouraged him to the publication of his Mountain Bard. As might have been expected from an imaginative mind yet mystified by the twilight of his situation, many of its pieces were also very paltry — although several bore indications of that grandeur of fancy which afterwards formed Hogg's chief distinction; nor do we think that he ever produced many finer things than his Sir David Graeme, and the fragment of Lord Derwent.

An Essay on Sheep, which gained a premium from the Highland Society, having put some money into his pocket, he contrived to lose it in some ruinous agricultural speculations; and, after several years of floundering, he resolved on the desperate enterprise of settling in Edinburgh — and as what? A literary adventurer. A collection of songs, under the title of "The Forest Minstrel," a volume of miscellaneous merit, created some little talk, but brought no golden harvest. His enthusiasm, however, continued unabated and he possessed in a large degree that dogged confidence in his own abilities which could alone have carried him through his difficulties. Cast upon the ocean of literature — like Wordsworth's Highland boy in his tub — without rudder or compass, he felt that something behoved to be done — and that immediately. So he determined on a weekly periodical, hight The Spy, which was to be devoted to the enlightenment of the public in the niceties of morals, and the elegancies of polite literature. A Hotentot coming out in full fig as dancing-master could not have been a greater anomaly. Indeed, the Shepherd's qualifications for this self-imposed task may be guessed at from what he himself tells us — "At this time I had never once been in any polished society — had read next to none — was now in my thirty-eighth year — and knew no more of human manners than a child." The Spy, as might have been predicted of him, was therefore a sad nondescript — as suspicious — looking a tatterdemalion as was ever rigged out from the Cowgate — not without occasional bursts, however, of natural cleverness and talent. Many of his Sybilline Leaves were racy and interesting but, taken all in all, the stew thus cooked, and offered for Saturday consumption to the polite of the Modern Athens, was of such a miscellaneous and Irish character that few normal human stomachs could digest it. So the Spy was shortly given over as hopeless by his friends, and, evanishing from behind the foot-lamps of the literary stage, was heard of no more.

Harassed, dismayed, disappointed, and poor, Hogg now determined to brace himself up for a last great effort, and redeem that good opinion which a few sanguine friends yet strongly entertained of hum. Nor did he disappoint them, for he produced The Queen's Wake, — a poem of distinguished excellence; and which, bating a few verbal laxities, would do honour to any name in our literature however high. Full of poetry and power, and of varied excellence, it is, at the same time, wonderfully free from those blemishes of coarseness, and of indifferent taste, which had unfortunately — but not miraculously — disfigured Hogg's former writings. By a great, a noble, and determined effort, he seemed to have got rid of all his trammels, and his muse soared away from the earthly "Slough of Despond," into the blue heaven of invention, to look down on "The Abbot Mackinnon" in his enchanted ship, and on "Bonny Kilmeny" wandering amid the fadeless flowers of Fairyland. The Pilgrims of the Sun, and Mador of the Moor followed. Both are very unequal, although not without passages in his best manner and the same may be said of his Dramatic Tales, — of his most ambitious effort, Queen Hynde, — and of his various volumes of Songs. Not a few, however, of these last are admirable, and entitle him to a place among the bards of Scotland equal to Ramsay, and second only to Burns. Some of his Jacobite melodies, as Cam ye by Athole, The Lament of Flora Macdonald, and Donald Magilavray, have attained a popularity which they will keep — because they deserve it; while there is about his Bonny Lass of Deloraine, his Bonny Mary, I lookit east, I lookit west, I hae Naebody now, and When the Kye come hame, — a pathos, and a pastoral delicacy and wildness, which would alone have stamped the Shepherd a poet of rare and peculiar powers.

The finest vein of Hogg's poetry was exclusively that which ran among things surpassing nature's law. He was then like a being inspired whenever his feet touched mother earth, he became a more ordinary mortal. Amid the skyey regions of imagination he rejoiced in the power and splendour of his genius — an eagle of Parnassus; but when thridding through the affections and feelings of humanity, he was apt to sink down to the level of the commonplace verse-monger — or, at most, was a Triton among the minnows. To be appreciated as he deserves, the Shepherd must be studied in Kilmeny, in Glen Aven, in The Witch of Fife, in Old David, in The Abbot Mackinnon, in the aerial voyagings of Mary Lee, in Sir David Graeme, and in his various legendary stores and stories.

Kilmeny has been the theme of universal admiration, and deservedly so, for it is what Wharton would have denominated "pure poetry." It is, for the most part, the glorious emanation of a sublime fancy — the spontaneous sprouting forth of amaranthine flowers of sentiment — the bubbling out and welling over of inspiration's fountain. There is no perceptible art, no attempt at effect, no labour. The magician waves his wand, and we find ourselves walking in an enchanted circle — "In a cloudless eve, in a sinless world." There is a vague wildness and an unearthly hue in its landscapes — a supernatural tint in its imagery — the tones of something not appertaining to this world in its irregular Aeolian music. Nor, as a piece of imaginative writing, is the Abbot Mackinnon much inferior. The Mermaid's Song is strangely grand; and its sketches of sea-scenery are full of a rude, remote, bleak magnificence.

The following verses from the strange, wild, picturesque ballad, The Witch of Fife, strongly indicate Hogg's peculiar strain of thought and imagery. I have somewhat modernised the spelling of a few antique words

The second night, when the new moon set,
O'er the roaring sea we flew;
The cockle shell our trusty bark,
Our sails the green-sea rue.

And the bauld winds blew, and the fire-flaughts flew,
And the sea ran to the sky;
And the thunder it growled, and the sea-dogs howled,
As we gaed scouring bye.

And aye we mounted the sea-green hills,
While we brush'd through the clouds of the heaven,
Than soused down right, like the star-shot light,
From the lift's blue casement driven.

But our tackle stood, and our bark was good,
And so pang was our pearly prow,
When we could not spiel the brow of the waves,
We needilit them through below.

As fast as the hail, as fast as the gale,
As fast as the midnight leme,
We here through the breast of the bursting swell,
Or fluffit in the floating faem.

And when to the Norroway shore we wan,
We mounted our steeds of the wind;
And we splashed the flood, and we darned the wood,
And we left the shower behind.

Fleet is the roe on the green Lomond,
And swift is the cowering grewe,
The rein-deer dun can eithly run,
When the hounds and the horns pursue.

But neither the roe, nor the rein-deer dun,
The hind, nor the cowering grewe,
Could fly over mountain, moor, and dale,
As our braw steeds they flew.

The dales were deep, and the Doffrines steep,
And we rose to the skies e'e-bree;
White, white was our road, that was never trode,
O'er the snows of eternity!

And when we came to the Lapland lone,
The fairies were all in array;
For all the genii of the North
Were keeping their holiday.

The warlock men and the weird women,
And the fays of the weed and the steep,
And the phantom-hunters all were there,
And the mermaids of the deep.

And they washed us all with the witch-water,
Distilled from the moorland dew,
While our beauty bloomed like the Lapland rose
That wild in the forest grew.

Nothing in the picturesque of superstition has ever surpassed this, save perhaps the following, which is, however, in quite another vein:—

Bonny Kilmeny gaed up the glen,
But it was not to meet Duneira's men,
Nor the rosy monk of the isle to see,
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
It was only to hear the yorline sing,
And pull the cross-flower round the spring;
The scarlet-hyp, and the hind-berrye,
And the nut that hangs from the hazel tree;
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
But lang may her mother look owre the wa',
And lang may she seek in the greenwood show:
Lang the laird of Duneira blame,
And lang, lang greet or Kilmeny come hame!

When many a day had come and fled,
When grief grew calm, and hope was dead,
When mass for Kilmeny's soul had been sung,
When the bedesman had prayed, and the death-bell fling,
Late, late in a gloaming, when all was still,
When the fringe was red on the western hill,
The wood was sere, the moon on the wane,
The reek of the cot hung over the plain,
Like a little wee cloud in the world its lane;
When the ingle lowed with an eerie leme,
Late, late in the gloaming Kilmeny came hame!

She had been carried away, in her sinless beauty, to Fairyland, where

The sky was a dome of crystal bright,
The fountain of vision, and fountain of light
The emerald fields were of dazzling glow,
And the flowers of everlasting blow.

And after remaining seven years — the term of probation there — had been permitted once more to revisit earth. Such was her reception by the inferior creation, that—

—Wherever her peaceful form appeared,
The wild beasts of the hill were a cheered;
The wolf played blithely round the field,
The lordly bison lowed and kneeled;
The dun-deer wooed, with manner bland,
And cowered beneath her lily hand;
And when at even the woodlands rung,
When hymns of ether worlds she sung,
In ecstasy of sweet devotion,
Oh, then the glen was all in motion.

The wild beasts of the forest came,
Broke from their bughts and folds the time,
And gazed around, charmed and amazed;
Even the dull cattle croon'd and gazed,
And murmured and looked with anxious pain,
For something the mystery to explain.
The buzzard, came, with the throstle-cock;
The corbie left he, houff in the rock;
The blackbird along with the eagle flew;
The hind came tripping o'er the dew;
The wolf and the kid their play began,
And the tod, and the lamb, and the leveret ran;
The hawk and the heron above them hung,
And the merle and the mavis forsook their young;
And all in a peaceful ring were hurled:
It was like an eve in a sinless world!

When a month and a day had come end gone,
Kilmeny sought the green-wood wone;
There laid her down on the leaves so green,
And Kilmeny on earth was never more seen.
But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they knew not whether she was living or dead.
It was net her home, and she could not remain;
She left this world of sorrow and pain,
And returned to the land of thought again.

One word of remark on poetry such as this were superfluous it appeals at once, and that triumphantly, to the heart and the imagination, and carries the calculating critic fairly off his feet, by a coup-de-main. But, of course, it was only in his transient fits of inspiration that the Shepherd thus wrote.

The poetry of James Hogg is not that of philosophic sentiment, like Wordsworth's; nor of reflection, like that of Bowles; nor of minute painting, like that of Crabbe; nor of picturesque action, like that of Scott. We should assign him a place between the Claud-like delicate fairy dreaminess of Wilson, and the Salvator Rosa demonology of Coleridge; although without the classic taste of the one or the gorgeous magnificence of the other. He never reveals to us the human affections and passions in the whirlwind of their operations; nor does he exhibit any intimate knowledge of the constituted forms of society. His portraitures of men and manners are, in general, sad affairs. Like Coleridge and Shelley, almost the whole of his power lay in his wonderful imagination. He delights its the vague and abstracted; in the picturesque and ideal; in the wild, lonely, savage features of nature; in the benighted traveller on the purple moors; in the Covenanter on the sea-beat cliff; the shepherd on the grassy mountain; the plaided clansman beside the sepulchral cairn in the glen; the enthusiast waiting the appearance of the sheeted spectre by the moonlight stream. His muse was a sojourner by the foaming cataract and the roaring ocean, by the scathed forest and the barren wilderness. She is conversant only with our terrors and superstitions — our "fierce wars and faithful loves" — With the romance of human action, the poetry of life.