1815
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Superstition.

The Pilgrims of the Sun; a Poem. By James Hogg, Author of The Queen's Wake, &c.

James Hogg


26 Spenserians, on things past, or passing: "I wish for these old times, and Stuarts back again." Though composed in Spenserian stanzas, this descriptive ode recalls the Miltonic "enthusiast" poems of the last century. Superstition was published as a pendant to The Pilgrim's of the Sun, one of Hogg's wilder fictions. With an eye towards William Collins's Superstitions Ode, and with nods towards Beattie's Edwin and Macpherson's Ossian, James Hogg proclaims superstition a prop not only to poetry but to religious belief — in contrast, for example, to Thomas Denton's House of Superstition (1762). Hogg's Superstition may also be contrasted with the several piously Presbyterian imitations of Burns's Cotter's Saturday Night. It is also one of the first poems in the Burns sequence to treat traditional cottage or village life as something passing away.

Eclectic Magazine: "An Ode to Superstition closes the volume. It is in the Spenserian stanza, and is interesting not only on account of its intrinsic merit, but as developing some of the peculiar traits and sentiments of the Author's mind" NS 3 (March 1815) 290.

John Wilson: "The still green beauty of the pastoral hills and vales where he passed his youth, inspired him with ever-brooding visions of fairy-land — till, as he lay musing in his lonely sheiling, the world of phantasy seemed, in the clear depths of his imagination, a lovelier reflection of that of nature — like the hills and heavens more softly shining in the water of his native lake. Whenever he treats of fairy-land, his language insensibly becomes, as it were, soft, wild, and aerial — we could almost think that we heard the voice of one of the fairy-folk — still and serene images seem to rise up with the wild music of the versification — and the poet deludes us, for the time, into an unquestioning and satisfied belief in the existence of those 'green realms of bliss' of which he himself seems to be a native minstrel. In this department of pure poetry, the Ettrick Shepherd has, among his own countrymen at least, no competitor. He is the poet laureate of the Court of Faery — and we have only to hope he will at least sing an annual song as the tenure by which he holds his deserved honours" "Burns and the Ettrick Shepherd" Blackwood's Magazine 4 (February 1819) 529.

John Gibson Lockhart: "Puritans confine their imaginations entirely to the Scriptures, and cut themselves off from the early Romish legends of saints — the true mythology of Christianity — the only part of it, at least, which poetry and the other fine arts can, without too great a breach of reverence, mould and adapt to their own purposes. Some of them surely are exquisite in beauty, and afford room for all manner of play of fancy. I speak, you will remember, entirely with an eye to literature. Whatever may be the orthodox opinions on these subjects, why should poetry refuse to invest them with preternatural attributes, or to take advantage of the fine poetical situations which sometimes occur in those old histories?" Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819) 2:357-58.

Florence MacCunn: "If Hogg could really have put into his poetry all the influence that had surrounded his youth, he might indeed have afforded to dispense with learning. He once characteristically boasted to Scott, 'Dear Sir Walter, ye can never suppose that I belang to your school o' chivalry. Ye are King o' that School, but I'm the King o' the Mountain and Fairy School, which is a far higher ane than yours.' Had Hogg told the secret of the mountains or caught the full light of fairyland upon his pages, his claim had been allowed. But it is at rarest intervals through his voluminous work that we feel the touch of genius" Sir Walter Scott's Friends (1909) 151-52.



In Caledonia's glens there once did reign
A Sovereign of supreme unearthly eye;
No human power her potence could restrain,
No human soul her influence deny:
Sole Empress o'er the mountain homes, that lie
Far from the busy world's unceasing stir:
But gone is her mysterious dignity,
And true Devotion wanes away with her;
While in loose garb appears Corruption's harbinger.

Thou sceptic leveller — ill-framed with thee
Is visionary bard a war to wage:
Joy in thy light thou earth-born Saducee,
That earth is all thy hope and heritage:
Already wears thy front the line of age;
Thou see'st a heaven above — a grave before;
Does that lone cell thy wishes all engage?
Say, does thy yearning soul not grasp at more?
Woe to thy grovelling creed — thy cold ungenial lore!

Be mine to sing of visions that have been,
And cherish hope of visions yet to be;
Of mountains clothed in everlasting green,
Of silver torrent and of shadowy tree,
Far in the ocean of eternity.
Be mine the faith that spurns the bourn of time:
The soul whose eye can future glories see;
The converse here with things of purer clime,
And hope above the stars that soars on wing sublime.

But she is gone that thrilled the simple minds
Of those I loved and honoured to the last;
She who gave voices to the wandering winds,
And mounted spirits on the midnight blast:
At her behest the trooping fairies past,
And wayward elves in many a glimmering band;
The mountains teemed with life, and sore aghast
Stood maid and matron 'neath her mystic wand,
When all the spirits rose and walked at her command.

And she could make the brown and careless boy
All breathless stand, unknowing what to fear;
Or panting deep beneath his co'erlet lie,
When midnight whisper stole upon his ear.
And she could mould the vision of the seer
To aught that rankled brest of froward wight;
Or hang the form of cerement or of bier
Within the cottage fire — O woful sight!
That called forth many a prayer and deepened groan by night.

O! I have bowed to her resistless sway,
When the thin evening vapours floated nigh;
When the gray plover's wailings died away,
And the tall mountains melted into sky;
The note of gloaming bee that journeyed bye
Sent thro' my heart a momentary knell;
And sore I feared in bush or brake might lie
Things of unearthly make — for I knew well,
That hour with danger fraught more than when midnight fell.

But O! if ancient cemetry was near,
Or cairn of harper murdered long ago,
Or wandering pedlar for his hoarded gear,
Of such, what glen of Scotland doth not know?
Or grave of suicide (upon the brow
Of the bleak mountain) withered all and gray;
From these I held as from some deadly foe:
There have I quaked by night and mused by day;
But chiefly where I weened the bard or warrior lay.

For many a wild heart-thrilling Scottish bard,
In lowland dale the lyre of heaven that wooed,
Sleeps 'neath some little mound or lonely sward,
Where humble dome of rapt devotion stood,
'Mid heathy wastes by Mary's silent flood,
Or in the moorland glen of dark Buccleuch;
There o'er their graves the heath-fowl's mottled brood
Track with light feathery foot the morning dew;
There plays the gamesome lamb, or bleats the yeaning ewe.

Yet, there still meet the thoughtful shepherd's view
The marble fount-stone, and the rood so grey;
And often there he sees with changeful hue
The snow-white skull washed by the bourn away:
And O! if 'tis his chance at eve to stray,
Lone by the place where his forefathers sleep;
At bittern's whoop or gor-cock's startling bay,
How heaves his simple breast with breathings deep;
He mutters vow to heaven, and speeds along the steep.

For well he knows, along that desert room,
The spirits nightly watch the sacred clay;
That, cradled on the mountain's purple bloom,
By him they lie companions of the day,
His guardian friends, and listening to his lay:
And many a chaunt floats on the vacant air,
That spirit of the bard or warrior may
Hear the forgotten names perchance they bare:
For many a warrior wight, and nameless bard lies there!

Those were the times for holiness of frame;
Those were the days when fancy wandered free:
That kindled in the soul the mystic flame,
And the rapt breathings of high poesy;
Sole empress of the twilight — Woe is me!
That thou and all thy spectres are outworn;
For true devotion wanes away with thee,
All thy delirious dreams are laughed to scorn,
While o'er our hills has dawned a cold saturnine morn.

Long did thy fairies linger in the wild,
When vale and city wholly were resigned,
Where hoary cliffs o'er little holms were piled,
And torrents sung their music to the wind:
The darksome heaven upon the hills reclined,
Save when a transient sun-beam, thro' the rain,
Past like some beauteous phantom of the mind
Leaving the hind in solitude again—
These were their last retreats, and heard their parting strain.

But every vice effeminate has sped,
Fast as the spirits from our hills have gone,
And all these light unbodied forms are fled,
Or good or evil, save the ghost alone.
True, when the kine are lowing in the lone,
An evil eye may heinous mischief brew;
But deep enchantments to the wise are known,
That certainly the blasted herd renew,
And make the eldron crone her cantrips sorely rue.

O! I have seen the door most closely barred;
The green turf fire where stuck was many a pin;
The rhymes of incantation I have heard,
And seen the black dish solemnly laid in
Amid the boiling liquid — Was it sin?
Ah! no — 'twas all in fair defence of right.
With big drops hanging at her brow and chin,
Soon comes the witch in sad and woful plight;
Is cut above the breath, and yelling takes her flight!!

And I have seen, in gaunt and famished guise,
The brindled mouser of the cot appear;
A haggard wildness darted from her eyes;
No marvel was it when the truth you hear!
That she is forced to carry neighbour near,
Swift thro' the night to countries far away;
That still her feet the marks of travel bear;
And her broad back that erst was sleek and grey,
O! hapless beast! — all galled where the curst saddle lay!

If every creed has its attendant ills,
How slight were thine! — a train of airy dreams!
No holy awe the cynic's bosom thrills;
Be mine the faith diverging to extremes!
What, though upon the moon's distempered beams,
Erewhile thy matrons galloped through the heaven,
Floated like feather on the foaming streams,
Or raised the winds by tenfold fury driven,
Till ocean blurred the sky, and hills in twain were riven.

Where fell the scathe? — The beldames were amused,
Whom eld and poverty had sorely crazed;
What, though their feeble senses were abused
By gleesome demon in the church-aisle raised,
With lion tail, and eyes that baleful blazed!
Whose bagpipe's blare made all the roof to quake!
But ages yet unborn will stand amazed
At thy dread power, that could the wretches make
Believe these things all real, and swear them at the stake.

But ah! thou filled'st the guilty heart with dread,
And brought the deeds of darkness to the day!
Who was it made the livid corse to bleed
At murderer's touch, and cause the gelid clay
By fancied movement all the truth betray?
Even from dry bones the drops of blood have sprung!
'Twas thou, Inquisitor! — whose mystic sway
A shade of terror over nature hung;
A feeling more sublime than poet ever sung.

Fearless the shepherd faced the midnight storm
To save his flocks deep swathed amid the snow;
Tho' threatening clouds the face of heaven deform,
The sailor feared not o'er the firth to row;
Dauntless the hind marched forth to meet the foe;
For why, they knew, though earth and hell combined,
In heaven were registered their days below;
That there was one well able and inclined
To save them from the sword, the wave, and stormy wind.

O! blissful thought to poverty and age,
When troubles press and dangers sore belay!
This is their only stay, their anchorage,
"It is the will of Heaven, let us obey!
Ill it befits the creatures of a day,
Beneath a father's chastening to repine."
This high belief in Providence's sway,
In the eye of reason wears into decline;
And soon that heavenly ray must ever cease to shine.

Yet these were days of marvel — when our king,
As chronicles and sapient sages tell,
Stood with his priests and nobles in a ring,
Searching old beldame for the mark of hell,
The test of witchcraft and of devilish spell;
And when I see a hag, the country's bane,
With rancorous heart and tongue of malice fell,
Blight youth and beauty with a burning stain,
I wish for these old times and Stuarts back again.

Haply 'tis weened that Scotland now is free
Of witchcraft, and of spell o'er human life;
Ah me! — ne'er since she rose out of the sea,
Were they so deep, so dangerous, and so rife;
The heart of man unequal to the strife
Sinks down before the lightning of their eyes.
O! it is meet that every maid and wife
Some keen exorcist still should scrutinize,
And bring them to the test, for all their sorceries.

Much have I owed thee — Much may I repine,
Great Queen! to see thy honours thus decay.
Among the mountain maids the power was thine,
On blest Saint Valentine's or Hallow day.
Our's was the omen — their's was to obey:
Firm their belief, or most demurely feigned!
Each maid her cheek on lover's breast would lay,
And, sighing, grant the kiss so long refrained;
'Twas sin to counteract what Providence ordained!

O! I remember, as young fancy grew,
How oft thou spoke'st in voice of distant rill;
What sheeted forms thy plastic finger drew,
Throned on the shadow of the moonlight hill;
Or in the glade so motionless and still
That scarcely in this world I seemed to be;
High on the tempest sing thine anthem shrill;
Across the heaven upon the meteor flee,
Or in the thunder speak with voice of majesty!

All these are gone — The days of vision o'er;
The bard of fancy strikes a tuneless string.
O! if I wist to meet thee here no more,
My muse should wander on unwearied wing,
To find thy dwelling by some lonely spring,
Where Norway opes her forests to the gale;
The dell thy home, the cloud thy covering,
The tuneful sea maid, and the spectre pale,
Tending thy gloomy throne, amid heaven's awful veil.

Or shall I seek thee where the Tana rolls
Her deep blue torrent to the northern main;
Where many a shade of former huntsman prowls,
Where summer roses deck th' untrodden plain,
And beauteous fays and elves, a flickering train,
Dance with the foamy spirits of the sea.
O! let me quake before thee once again,
And take one farewel on my bended knee,
Great ruler of the soul, which none can rule like thee!

[pp. 131-48]