1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (26 October 1833) 720-21.



The rustic school of Scottish poetry was established by kings: James the First, with his Christ's Kirk on the Green, and James the Fifth, with the witty rustic grace of his ballads, gave a tone and character to our spontaneous verse which has been well supported by Ramsay, Ferguson, and Tannahill, and extended and exalted by the impassioned energy and vigorous intellect of Burns. James Hogg, or the Ettrick Shepherd, as he loves to call himself, is acknowledged on all hands to be the living and visible head of this national school of song; his genius seems the natural offspring of the pastoral hills and dales of the border; and its speculations, whether in verse or prose, come to us in the way that gold comes from the mine, unwinnowed and unrefined, for he is without higher education than what enables him to write his wayward fancies, and read them when he has done.

He was born on the 25th of January, 1772, thirteen years after the birth of Burns; nor was his appearance on the birth-day of the great poet the only circumstance which marked that something remarkable was given to the world; a midwife was wanted, and a timid rider was sent for her, who was afraid to cross the flooded Ettrick: his hesitation was perceived by an elfin spirit — the kindly Brownie of Bodsbeck, who unhorsed the tardy rustic, carried home the midwife with the rapidity of a rocket, and gave a wild shout when the new-born poet was shown to the anxious parents. A child thus ushered into the world could not well be otherwise than something more than common; but it, perhaps, was not considered by his father and mother in any better light than a visitation of Providence, when they discovered, as he grew up, that his vocation was poetry, and that all those romantic circumstances had but marked that another victim was added to the melancholy catalogue of martyrs in the cause of the Muse. He learned to read with difficulty; acquired a slight knowledge of penmanship in a quarter's schooling; was taught how to watch lambs on the mountains, smear sheep, and play on the fiddle. His parents were poor and humble, and could educate him no farther. As he grew up he began to instruct himself; but, above all, it was his pleasure to make long ballads, and sing them on the hillsides to all who were willing to listen; it was more easy to make rhymes than commit them to paper; he, however, mastered this, and having done, thought of having them printed. This he accomplished during a journey to Edinburgh with a flock of lambs; and, save the song of Donald Macdonald, which had made its appearance, the first work which the Shepherd gave to the world was Willie and Katie, a plain, rough-spun pastoral, with some finer touches in it to mark that better was coming.

Having made the acquaintanceship of Sir Walter Scott, and acquired some confidence in his growing powers from the approbation with which his verses were received in the Scottish periodicals, he wrote a series of ballads, and published them by subscription, under the name of "The Mountain Bard." Several of these compositions were of great merit: Gilmanscleuh has much tenderness and simplicity, and the wild tale of Willie Wilkin aspires to rank with the Glenfinlas of Scott. The description of the spectre horses, is surpassed by nothing in ballad verse. The hero of the story went to a meeting of warlocks, witches, and evil spirits, held in an old churchyard at midnight, his mother, a devout woman, followed, and was astonished at finding her son's horse standing in a rank of gigantic coursers, among which he seemed but as a foal. She stretched her hands out to stroke their mighty sides, and perceived, to her horror, that they were spectral, for every wave that she gave her arms, a gap was left behind. — There were however, some of the ballads not equal to this, and they were moreover deformed with a homeliness of language, which might be tolerated in the minstrels, but not endured in modern song.

Hogg acquired money and made friends by these speculations, and was emboldened to take a farm; but the star of Burns found him out: he did not succeed, and, what was worse, when he sought employment as a shepherd, no one would employ a man who, besides the misfortune of failing as a farmer, was afflicted with the incurable malady of poetry. What could he do? He wrapped his plaid about him, took a staff in one his hand, and marched boldly into Edinburgh, as Burns did before him, resolved to be a poet, and seek his bread by it, since no better might be. He found many obstacles, and though Scott was kind, and Wilson friendly, Constable refused to smile, and the Shepherd bard was compelled to try his fortune by starting a new periodical, which appeared under the name of The Spy. This proved an unfortunate undertaking; the sale was low, and had just reached the remunerating point, when some of the city spirits took fright at sundry rude unpruned expressions of the hills, and, withdrawing their subscriptions, stopped the publication. All this while, Hogg had been secretly at work, and when many were imagining he would be silenced for ever, surprised his friends and charmed the country by publishing The Queen's Wake. Those who the day before had shunned him, now sought his friendship; the titled and the beautiful were not slow in admiring; even some of the joyous citizens of Edinburgh saluted him across the street with homely greetings such as these: "What for have ye been pestering us with daft sangs and dafter essays, and had such a noble poem as this in your head? It has taken a night's sleep from me — it'll do, I'll warrant it — else nought will do."

The poem is unequal, and it could not well be otherwise; it consists of the songs of many minstrels in honour of Queen Mary, united together by a sort of recitative, very rambling, amusing and characteristic. Some of the strains of the contending Bards are of the highest order, both of conception and execution; the Abbot of Eye has great ease, vigour, and harmony, and the story of the Fair Kilmeny, for true simplicity, exquisite loveliness, and graceful and original fancy, cannot be matched in the whole of British song. A new vein of superstitious feeling is opened. So truly poetic and yet so justly natural is the whole narrative, that even the surliest critic — and such was not wanting — could fix on no blemish, and all ordinary readers acknowledged it to be at once elegant, moral and impressive, and in harmony with superstitious belief. There are other songs scarcely inferior to these, and of a totally different sort. I allude particularly to the Witch of Fife, a ballad of singular humour and fancy, but perhaps not quite so original. Such a poem soon wrought its way in public esteem; when it had reached a third edition the Edinburgh reviewers sent forth a critique upon it, acknowledging its general merits, and speaking with kindness of the author. But the patronizing air of the review could not be otherwise than offensive to a man of independent feeling, who was seeking fame and not alms.

Other poems soon made their appearance from the same hand: The Pilgrims of the Sun, a wild tale, and sufficiently poetical; The Poetic Mirror, in which Hogg, under pretence of editing a series of poems by the chief of the living bards, has imitated their styles with considerable ability; Mador of the Moor, in five cantos, containing much of the wild and the wonderful; and finally, Queen Hinde, a poem about a princess of Scotland's elder day, when the Danes filled our friths with navies and our land with fears. The first of his larger poems was published in 1813, the last in 1825, but none of them, though all containing passages of feeling and fancy, and exhibiting a flowing and fluent diction, equalled the Queen's Wake, which had stories for all hearts, and a variety wonderfully attractive. These, however, by no means made up the amount of Hogg's productions; he wrote a succession of prose romances and tales, which entitle him to a separate consideration and place among the novelists of his day; and he sent to the world many short poems and songs; some of the latter of great pastoral beauty, simplicity, and truth. There is a warmth, a sincerity, and a sweetness of fancy in his lyrics, which will long preserve them among the mountains, and now and then procure them applause in the city, when affectation and smartness yield to the emotions of the heart.

Hogg is what he represents himself, a shepherd. He was so when I first met him on Queensbury, with his plaid around him, his dogs beside him, and his heart full of kindness and poetry. He lives on the Yarrow, on a sheep farm bestowed on him by the munificent Duke of Buccleuch; he finds fish in the stream, lambs on the braes, game on the hills, and leads a life of quiet independence, free from the din of aught less musical than the murmur of the brooks. As a poet he stands high; in energy of expression and passionate energy he is much inferior to Burns; but he is second to no one in natural flights of a free and unfettered fancy. The peculiar qualities of his compositions, and being the chief of the Peasant school, whose students are not at all numerous, give him every chance of fame hereafter. He stands by the force of his genius alone, and holds all but the highest place in a literature, which more than approaches that of the polished and learned.