1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

Anonymous, "On the Genius of James Hogg" The Minerva [New York] NS 3 (20 August 1825) 315-16.



The annals of literature afford numerous examples of uneducated persons, placed in the humblest grades of life, overcoming, by the force of genius, the accidents of birth and fortune; successfully "building the lofty rhyme," and acquiring the grateful recollections of posterity. The most depressing circumstances of poverty and servitude have not been sufficient to prevent the manifestation of intellectual superiority, and though many a "village Milton" may have gone to his grave unhonoured, there are encouraging instances of mental triumphs, achieved by beings whose original situation in the map of existence seemed to impose an impenetrable bar to the exercise of the loftier endowments of our nature. There is nothing remarkable or praiseworthy in the mere stringing of rhymes; the veriest coxcomb of eighteen can produce a sonnet "made to his mistress's eyebrows," and the most unintellectual lady that ever fondled a lapdog, may glory in unreadable quires of verse; but it is for more sterling productions, for compositions that continually evince a glowing fancy and an amiable heart, that the lovers of poetry are indebted to James Hogg.

Born in a rank of life almost entirely shut out from the life of erudition, and kept by stern necessity under the influence of circumstances peculiarly unfavourable to the expansion of intellect, we find him, after passing the best days of his youth an unmoted shepherd among his native mountains, emerging from the obscurity to which be seemed condemned, and winning his way with the firm step of genius to "the steep where Fame's proud temple shines afar." His creative spirit, while

He walked in glory and in pride,
Following his flock along the mountain's side,

had breathed around him an atmosphere of poetry, investing the rocks and glens and lakes of his romantic country with a sublime interest, and perfect loveliness, delightful to the imaginative eye, and thrilling to the sensitive heart. We may fancy him at the deep of night, standing within a fairy circle in some haunted dell, the clear blue heaven and the bright stars above, the shadowy solitude of nature around, peopling with unearthly guests time echoing caverns of the hill, and vocalizing the dark woods with the songs of spirits. At such a moment, perhaps, did the first rapture of inspiration possess him; and while the brilliant hallucinations of an excited fancy laid all his matter-of-fact feelings to sleep, we may suppose him sweeping the wild harp of Caledonia for the first time, and pouring out the passionate breathing of his soul, unawed by critics or reviews. Nature, beautiful nature, with all her lofty mysteries, her stern grandeur, her delicious softness, and her commanding loveliness, was his muse, — to his eye there was ravishing glory in the moonbeams, to his ear there was heavenly music in the murmur of the waters; a spell of eager joy and intense admiration hung upon his lips and held them mute, while he looked abroad on the unsophisticated charms of his beloved Ettrick, and saw afar off, reposing in the starlight, the white cottage of his parents, which rose amidst the surrounding waste, like a fair female form in a spacious and partially lighted apartment. Then the wondrous tales and strange superstitions, so common in the remoter districts of Scotland; the legends of his infancy, the lullabies of his cradle, the rude rhymes which soothed his childhood, and held him in breathless suspense, as he watched old Marian's wheel, rushed on his mind, and, though dimly remembered through the perspective of years, lost none of their power in their indistinctness. The hardy Cameronian, whose temple was the hill-side, and whose altar was the everlasting granite; the martyr, whose blood called for vengeance from the sword of Claverhouse; the intrepid assertor of religious liberty who perished at Bothwell Brigg, — all passed before him like the impalpable ghosts of Ossian, and the witching hand of fear was upon him while "the stars dim twinkled through their forms." Nor did his watchings on long winter nights fail to possess that second-sight which imagination communicates to her votaries; for him the curtain of the invisible world was withdrawn, the weird sisters in their nocturnal flights, "horsed on the viewless coursers of the air," were present bodily to him, and often did he shudder while the spirit of the storm wailed his sad descant from the leafless boughs of the blasted oak. In the delicious twilight of summer, too, when the sun is hardly absent long enough for the glow of his beams to fade from the verdant breast of nature, he often crept on stealthy feet to the sequestered haunts of the fairies, and beheld them dancing their newest quadrille or waltz on the daisied meads in the yellow moonlight. Thus was he schooled by fancy in her rainbow-coloured mysteries; thus was his heart embued with the love of the green earth and the blue sky; thus did he store his memory with the poetical superstitions and sublime traditional lore of the olden time. Such an education must have many advantages; for correct writers we shall look to Oxford and Cambridge; but the enthusiasts, who trace beauty and sublimity springing up under the finger of the Creator, must have studied in the seminaries of nature. Art may give a polish to the overflowings of poetical enthusiasm, and add grace and elegance to the wildness of imagination, but it cannot atone for the absence of those essentials to genuine poetry, — fancy and feeling.

The Queen's Wake is the most felicitous of Hogg's poems; and allowing for an occasional alloy of feebleness and prosing, it may be justly esteemed one of the sweetest productions in the language. The story of the work is extremely slight, and has few points of interest, yet there is a romantic air of attraction breathed by the youthful Mary of Scotland, which powerfully excites our attention and deeply agitates our feelings. The songs of the different competitors for the royal harp, are extremely unequal in merit; some are little better than nursery tales, while others evince a fertile invention, a correct taste, and a lofty genius. There is much and variously delightful music in the poem, — now the inspired minstrel of the Gael calls forth the wild but sublime echoes of past ages from his mountain lyre, now the Lowland bard breathes a strain as deliciously soft and soothing "as lovers' tongues by night," and now the southern harper exhausts his soul in melody, and touches the chords as if life and fame depended on their tones. One fault, however, the poet has fallen into, which it would be injudicious to pass unnoticed, — he continually rings the changes on a few favourite rhymes; the effect is highly disagreeable, and many a charming thought is marred by this unseemliness in its dress.

On the whole, if Hogg had always written in the powerful strain which distinguishes this poem, or with the ravishing dreamy sweetness which renders Kilmeny so attractive, there are few names among our living bards that could justly have been placed before his: unfortunately for his reputation, he has been too often content with mediocrity. and though fully capable of the noblest flights of imagination, and the highest darings of genius, has stopped short of perfection, and allowed compositions to go forth to the world, utterly unworthy of his great talents. To the Queen's Wake, however, this has hardly any reference; that work is uniformly respectable, often excellent, and sometimes inimitably fine; the most pleasing ideas are expressed in the most fascinating language, and the most interesting events are detailed in the most attractive manner, and if occasionally the bard is too ambitious of ornament, and too liberal in similes, we easily pardon the defect when we remember his merits.