1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Hogg

T., "The Ettrick Shepherd and other Scotch Poets" American Monthly Magazine [Boston] 1 (November 1829) 522-30.



This poet, who is not without honor in his own country, has been for some time known to American readers as author of the "Queen's Wake." More latterly he has been a purveyor for Blackwood's Magazine; and indeed, most of the articles comprised in the Shepherd's Calendar (published at New York, 1829,) appeared separately in that periodical. We propose to say something of these books, and something more of the author. Mr. Hogg is a Scotchman, born among the mountains of the great Ettrick forest. Thence, and because the occupations of his boyhood were rather Georgic than otherwise, as must needs be the case with the child of a Scotch countryman, he is commonly called the Ettrick Shepherd. Probably the name was first assumed by himself as a little more Virgilian and more suitable for a poet's person and use than the other, though that may fill the speaking trumpet of future fame, as well at least as Amos Cottle. Be that as it may, however, he went to service in the line of life indicated by his title, at the age of seven. Since that time, says the English publisher of the Wake, he has received "no education whatever;" meaning, probably, no academical or public education, a very different thing, as we shall endeavor to show, from none at all. He vouches for the fact, from his own personal experience, being apprised, he adds, by multitudes of sceptical letters, of its having been doubted by sundry literati in various parts of the kingdom, who considered the statement inconsistent with the style and success of the poet. This doubt is manifestly much more creditable to the latter than to the other parties concerned. The Shepherd has unquestionably taken a high stand in the light literature of a country that by some queer combination of causes, is growing famous for its light literature; and, whether by hook or crook, has even come in for a large lock of its golden fleece of poesy, among a multitude of rivals as numerous and adventurous as the heroes of Greece; but we should have supposed that similar cases had occurred too frequently and too recently in Scotland to be any longer reasonable subjects of wonder.

The literary history of Mr. Hogg — the Ettrick Shepherd we mean — is little other than a repetition of the history of Scott, and Ramsay, and Burns. Almost all the poets of this northern Arcadia, in fact, have sung, as they sang in the silver ages of the ancient father-lands of poetry. They have come forth, not from "the crowded city's gay saloons," but from the river banks and vallies of the country; from the sunny fields of the lowland, and the green and fairy dells of the mountain; from the hall of the laird, and the shepherd's cottage on the shadowed hill side, and even from the humble hut of the poor farmer, built with his own hands, like that of the father of Burns. Of the latter, especially, as we are all aware, it would have been no fiction to say, that he walked behind his plough, upon the mountain side; — whether in glory, or joy however is a moot point with us, albeit Mr. Wordsworth is explicit upon that matter, in a similar instance, (which is no fiction,) that as early as fifteen, he was obliged to be the chief laborer in his father's miserable farm, and continued to be so for years. If these labors were abandoned in later life, when he came to be himself proprietor of a miserable farm, it was only because another species of professional duty required him to pursue another species of glory in hunting down the defaulters of the Scotch whiskey revenue among the mountains of Nithsdale. And it might have been truly stated of Ramsay, too, though it would peradventure trouble even Mr. Wordsworth to connect either poetry or rhyme with the fact, that, having been born and bred a peasant's son, he made his first appearance in Edinburgh in the capacity of a wig maker's apprentice. But farther inquiry into these and similar cases will show us that their frequency is not the sole reason wily they should cease to be wondered at; that, situated as were the poets we have spoken of, they were not uncultivated men; nor yet elevated by any interposition of loving spunkies, so common with their worthy countrymen; nor furnished with knowledge by any short cuts thereto, which would make their genius, already sufficiently splendid, a touch above the vulgar human. They were peasants indeed; but not in that sense in which the word would be understood almost any where out of their own country; for no peasantry in Europe, we may venture to say, can be compared in equal terms with the peasantry of Scotland. There is not only none more generally furnished with the rudiments of scholastic education, but none that values them more highly, or is better prepared to profit by them, from a native characteristic intelligence, which education gratifies but does not create. The proof of this position may be found partly in their general industry, the scarcity of crime among them, their habit of restless, voluntary peregrination — but more than all in the fact that they have sent forth an over proportionate number of self-made eminent men, into all the speculative as well as active spheres of life: for the scholars of Scotland, and even her writers in all the elegant branches of letters, which, most of all, are supposed to require the cultivation of the taste and intellect, are almost as many and as glorious in modern times as the long train of her ancient monarchs and heroes. The cause may be attributed partly, we suppose, to the physical constitution of the country — so far as the peasantry are concerned — to its soil and climate, its wonderful and various scenery connected in all its minutiae with the wildest romance of history and fiction; but far more to the vigilant care of its religion, and, ultimately, of its government. We need only particularize the provision made by the Scottish Parliament of 1636, for the establishment of a universal system of primary instruction, to pervade the farthest and poorest regions of Scotland, keeping its native intelligence in perpetual warmth and motion like the blood of a human body. The immediate consequence of this enactment was the existence of a school in every parish of the kingdom, a state of things which probably no country in the world but our own can parallel; and the consequence of these schools has been that the poorest peasant can read. The national effects of gaining this point, apparently so simple, and yet so rare in the history even of the civilized and Christian world, is beyond estimate. It is not furnishing a complete education, indeed, but enabling and exciting the peasantry to finish themselves. It is sowing those rudiments in their minds, that, once fixed there, are certain to germ and grow in all the sunshine and storm of life, bringing forth fruit an hundred fold. There are no limits to the production and re-production of knowledge. The least of its scattered seeds becomes a tree, whose flowery and fragrant boughs are soon raining millions of the same seed in the same sod. The poor farmer who has learned to read, for example, has provided a species of property in which his own leisure and his children's through life may be vested. He can be himself their teacher at all seasons and hours; and though there is no book in his humble cottage, but the holiest and best — "The big hall Bible once his father's pride" — and the marvellous history of Sir William Wallace, with a volume of national songs, perhaps, and another of fairy legends; yet these are infinitely better than none. You will find, by the time they have been fingered over by firelight, until no syllable of them is lost, they have enkindled the curiosity of the young; and this must be gratified by fingering over the books of the next neighbor, and finally of the whole parish or hamlet; and they have rekindled the reminiscences of the aged, until all they know of ancient fable and history, and fact stranger than fable, has been told and told again. Thus is no moment lost. Matter of conversation is furnished for the labors of the summer field, and matter of thought and reading and search for the leisure of the winter fireside: and though the amount of knowledge thus gathered from year to year, may neither he great nor specially valuable, in itself considered, it has answered all the simply intellectual and moral purposes of the most perfect education. It has sustained cheerfulness. It has aroused a thirst for knowledge, and engendered the habits necessary to observe, and procure, and retain, and communicate. It has kept all the muscles of the mind in vigorous and healthful motion, matured their strength and completed their developement; and quickened its senses to a state of openness and keenness so vigilant, that, thenceforth, though they cannot be called educated men, they are sure to become so; for wherever or however they may be situated in after life, nothing can meet them, unperceived or unforgotten, in the intercourse of men, or the observation of nature, or the solitude of their own restless reflection.

It is interesting to remark the illustration of this process of things in particular instances; and especially, when to all other circumstances are added the peculiar inquisitiveness and energy of genius. It is curious to observe how the mind of the peasant passes through all the stages of its progress, till it becomes the mind of the poet, or scholar; how it profits by the simplest elements, the mere air and light, and the pure waters of knowledge, which the poorest meet with in their utmost poverty; and not only satisfies its keen hunger and thirst with these scattered and scanty materials, and increases in strength and stature, but grows to a state of intellectual power as perfect as that of the host luxuriously educated, and as wonderful to them, as the physical health of the poor frequently is to those who pine upon delicate and costly dainties. It was so with the poets we have named, Ramsay and Burns. It may be almost said of them, that their poverty was the cause — not of their genius indeed, the divine fountain that leaps up alike in all the spheres of life, and is given like the rain and sunshine of God — but of their acquired greatness of mind, their ambition, and their eminence. For, though these results are dependent upon original constitution, they are dependent also, and chiefly, upon circumstances; and no circumstances can be better calculated to effect them, than a union of such intelligence as prevails among the humblest peasantry of Scotland, with genius and poverty; the union, in other words, of an appetite for knowledge, and the consequences of knowledge, with the faculties proper for indulging it, and the necessity, at the same time, of exerting them to the utmost in the creation of opportunities, means, and almost of the very materials. We have said Ramsay was a peasant's son; and yet, even while he worked with his father in the lead mines of the Earl of Hopetown, a term synonymous, we believe, in the use of moral lexicographers, with hot-bed of Heathenism, he had access during all but six hours of every day to a library of several thousand volumes, procured by the contributions of the workmen; and his first move in after life, on leaving the care of the heads of his master's patrons in Edinburgh, indicates the subsequent culture of the taste thus early acquired. He became proprietor of a bookstore.

As for Burns, the half has not been told of his poverty, or the poverty of his parents. Their case was an extreme one, even among the extreme cases of the poorest small farmers of Scotland. Even the dignified title of "argillaceous fabric," which the recording schoolmaster of the poet applies to the family mansion, does not conceal the fact, that it was a mere straw and clay hovel, moulded together by its owner's hands. And though teeming with a throng of children, his whole personal estate was not materially larger than what is called in the country, an ash-hole. And yet, even here was the growth of a genius, like the growth of the mountain oak from a chance acorn. Burns was not yet seven years of age, when he was sent to a private school, maintained by his father and a few neighbors of the same standing, independently of the parish establishment, and probably additional to it; and even at this time, says the schoolmaster again, "he was grounded in English." By him he was furnished with a thorough knowledge of the language; and was with him subsequently at his own house, "day and night in schools, at all meals, and in all his walks." The poet says of himself in fact, that besides all his mathematics, French, church music, (then second to nothing else,) and other scholastic pursuits, he "became quite a critic in verbs and participles, though it cost his kind instructor a number of thrashings."

These facts are mentioned only to show with how much avidity the humblest of the Scotch poor were then, as they still are, in the habit of educating themselves, just as they support themselves physically, and in vigor and cheerfulness too, on the simplest, slightest materials. And if these were all, they would also show, that Burns was far from being the uncultivated man he has been sometimes represented. But, according to the common operation of scholastic culture — of which it is the great end and aim to enkindle and illuminate the intellect which it beams on like the summer sunshine, rather than communicate anything foreign — to develope, and not create, till its own faculties and feelings are in the full, flowery blow of a spring-tree — so was it with the genius of Burns. Once vivified, it needed no further tillage of man. It was ever green in its blow. Its giant roots struck deep and far into nature as a soil, and its branches grew strong with knowledge as an element. Intellectually, from the time his instruction began, no moment of his life was lost; no exertion was spared; no opportunity passed by. Poor as he was, and bound as he was to the drudgery of his father's farm, he not only created leisure, and used it, at intervals; but mentally he was always at leisure. He was not only educating the mind of the writer, and far more the heart of the poet, with the familiar knowledge of nature and life, but he was always reading and repeating, as he says himself, "even while driving his cart and walking to labor."

These remarks have been suggested by the assertion, that Mr. Hogg has, received "no education whatever;" and are intended to show, that this assertion can only be received under great limitations. We have seen that it does not apply, as it would be understood elsewhere, to the poorest peasant of Scotland; far less to him who has genius to depend in some measure on himself and his own resources, it should be remembered, too, that the Ettrick Shepherd, instead of being bound during all his early life to the galley labor of the starved tenant, or miner, has been born and bred among a class whom he himself has told us, somewhere in his calendar, are the most independent in the kingdom, and, we have good reason to believe, the most leisurely. "Every one is rich," it seems, "who has not lost money by lending it."

The error with regard to Mr. Hogg, of whose early opportunities it is easy to form an opinion from the facts we have stated, as well as from his own confessions on the subject, and his writings, which speak for themselves; the error, we say, has arisen in his case, as in those of a multitude of his fellow poets, from a mere in misunderstanding of words. They have been said to be peasants and shepherds, as they were, with the inference that they were rude and ignorant, as they were not. There has been a passion for making their genius appear more wonderful than it was, by contrasting it with the nominal "prima facie" humbleness of their situation; and for them titles that flatter pleasantly with classical and moral associations — reminiscences of many sweet things that are told over even now — swains and idyls, laconic bards and swineherd minstrels; and so, with about as much latitude as in the case of the romantic lady at a tea party, who mistook the steamboat daubed on her plate for a "lovely cottage," it has been understood that Burns shall he considered a rude boor by courtesy, and Ramsay a miner, Mr. Hogg a shepherd, after the usual meaning of the terms. The practice is the more intelligible, that it does not obtain only in Scotland, nor only among poets. In England, Mr. Scott is a "farmer," by virtue of his residence in the country; as some of his fellows are in town, by virtue of a collection of bugs, or the flower-pots in their study window; and in this most Georgic of all modern nations, it has long been agreed, that every candidate for high political office is — "a farmer." By the same courtesy, it has not only been left for inference from the vague use of language, but actually said, that the poets we have mentioned, and especially Mr. Hogg, have received "no education whatever." The meaning may be, that he has never been graduated at a Scotch university; a matter of some moment, it must be allowed, but not wholly inseparable from the idea of an education. To say nothing of the energy and the ambition which Mr. Hogg has manifested, (qualities always appurtenant to genius, and always subservient to its culture, independently of foreign processes of instruction,) it is enough to refer to his writings alone. These contain no classic allusions, nor is there anything ancient or attic in the style; but there is evidence in every page, that the writer is "thoroughly grounded" In his own tongue, as we hold no man ever was by intuition or instinct, and in the English also. Not that his style is perfect; but he writes good English, and good Scotch, though most at home with the latter, and therefore introducing it on all occasions — with a sort of natural affectation — a gentlemanly and nonchalant aping of rusticity, which, possibly, may have given superficial observers the impression that he was really as clownish as his own caricatures, as rustic in mind as in manner. There is something of this combination of artificial awkwardness with real grace and discipline in the Wake, but a great deal more in the Shepherd's Calendar. But whatever may have been the education of Mr. Hogg, as a writer or scholar, his early opportunities, as a poet, must have been infinitely greater; and, of course, so far as his own profession is concerned, (and all education is relative,) he may be called an educated man.

There is more which goes to vivify the imagination, and to stir up the intellect of the younger classes, among the peasantry of Scotland, than among any other in the world — more poetry, more song, more music, more passion and romance of all kinds. We need not inquire whether these things are a cause or a consequence of the universal intelligence we have spoken of, (though the truth probably lies between the two alternatives.) It is enough for us that they exist, and are most indulged in by those very classes which in other respects have the least culture. A volume of songs or hymns, the works of some popular bard, or a nameless collection of ancient ballads, like the Hunters of Cheviot, or the Battle of Harlaw, so old that their origin, like the source of the Nile, is undiscoverable in the mistiness of far-off ages, is the "vade mecum" of all. The passion for these, and for the music connected with them, equally ancient, had become so strong, even in the sixteenth century, as to justify the remark, by a modern writer, that Knox and his disciples, though they influenced the parliament of Scotland, contended in vain with her rural muse; and what is stranger still, widely and strictly as they introduced Calvinism, they could not banish dancing, which was only one of the habitual and favorite accompaniments of music — a manifestation of the greater passion. Even the strathspey and horn-pipe continued to be as prevalent as ever; and poetry and music, instead of suffering any encroachment on their empire, extended their bounds, like a new Rome, making Calvinism itself one of their subjects. The habits that had solaced their summer labors, and enlivened the pastimes of their merry-meetings in winter, became a part also of their weekly and daily worship; the life of devotion at the kirk, and the very sum and substance of it by the fireside. From the new necessity of using them at the conventicle, arose the necessity of teaching them at school. Psalmody was taught by the parish pedagogue as regularly as grammar; and the universal demand for hymns afforded new encouragement to a thousand ballad-mongers, who had hitherto devoted their talent to the manufacture of matter more secular, and sometimes, not strictly Calvinistic. In a word, the whole peasantry were, one shape or another, the patrons of poetry; and the consequence was, that it became, not only an accompaniment of all professions and orders, but a professions and order by itself. The poet was honored like the ancient "vates," and, like the wandering minstrel of the chivalrous era, he was welcome to all tables and firesides; and sunshine is not surer to open the closed and dewy rose-bud of the morning, than power and patronage to elicit genius. These circumstances in the manner of life prevalent with the modern peasantry of Scotland, may serve to show, that if talent has had intellectual opportunities among them, it has also had intellectual excitements. It has been roused, as well as instructed. There has been a universal and passionate culture of imagination and taste, as well as of general intellect. The former, indeed, almost infallibly results from the latter; for, though poetry has been cherished in the rudest ages by the rudest people, like the flowery herbage that springs up on the very verge of the Alpine snows, it has always profited by culture. But in Scotland the result has been assisted by the scenery of the country, the most animated and various, the most impressive, and the wildest on earth. Hence the superstition of the Scotch: and thus indirectly as well as directly has scenery had its effect — furnishing the materials for poetry to feed on, besides exciting the disposition which makes poetry a pleasure and a habit. Even Scott acknowledges his obligations to is source. The fairy legend and romantic narrative common with the lower classes were the first love of his early mind; and, excepting that his lameness gave him more leisure and subjected him to less labor than Burns, their poetical education does not seem to have been widely different. It is well known that the latter describes himself expressly as largely indebted "to an old woman, who resided in the family, remarkable for her credulity and superstition." He allows that the information derived from her, about devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, dead-lights, dragons, cantraips, spunkies, and other spiritual characters, which are said "to walk the earth," in Scotland, had a better effect than to make him all his lifetime afraid of the dark. "It cultivated the latent seeds of poetry."

And such is the early history of all the poets of Scotland, Mr. Hogg among the number. In addition to those scholastic advantages to be inferred from his situation and the general character of his countrymen, he has been in contact from his boyhood with every circumstance which could go to develope and arouse the genius of the poet. He has been educated, too, in those species of knowledge, without which, in the poet's case, all other may be called useless — the knowledge of human and physical nature. The human heart has been open before him in the walks of humble life; he has listened with the ear of genius to all the breathings of passion which are wrung from its chords by the changes and chances of fortune; — and the familiar faces of his childhood are not more freshly in his memory, than the visible forms of nature, the many-colored scenery of her shifting curtains.