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James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 10  (26 February 1828)
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 10. LONDON, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 1828. Price 7d.


[The ‘Sketches of Contemporary Authors,’ which have appeared in these pages, having attracted much attention, we have received for publication, from a Correspondent, the following Character of the Ettrick Shepherd. Not being from the same pen as the Sketches alluded to, it will not of course be included in that ‘series,’ but be regarded as a distinct and separate article.—No. VII. of the regular Series will contain a Sketch of the character and labours of Mr. Brougham, and will be given in The Athenæum of Friday next.]


To the readers of periodicals, few names are more familiar than that of the Ettrick Shepherd, and of none have they formed a more erroneous idea. He is an exception to the old adage of a prophet in his own country; for the strong hold of his popularity is at home, and he is honoured and read from Orkney to Tweeddale. His writings have introduced him to his own countrymen, and his office of primo buffo to ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ has made him extensively known south of the border; and yet he has acquired rather celebrity than fame. The impression of his character, derived from the latter source, is substantially erroneous. Hogg is by no means the roystering, bullying, declamatory Cimon he has been represented by his adopted friends; his good humour is not noisy, his manner is not overbearing, and though his colloquial powers are of a superior class, his share of a dialogue is never either the loudest nor the least amusing. The writers of Blackwood, whilst they have sought to serve themselves by insidiously dimming the fair fame of their friend, have enabled Hogg to manifest that good-natured generosity which gives the leading tinge to his character; for there is no man in England possessed of the same talents, who could be found so devoted to his party as to sacrifice, not only his abilities, but his reputation and feelings, to their advancement. He was on one occasion taken to task by a friend, as to his motives for thus calmly submitting to be gratuitously libelled by his associates, when he replied, ‘that he did not regard any thing they might choose to say of him, provided they only allowed him to he a man of genius!’ but since he has been one of the oldest and most assiduous supporters of the Edinburgh Aretino, it is, to say the least of it, highly ungenerous to make the weak side of a friend and benefactor subservient at once to his own disgrace, and the pecuniary advantage of his companions.

Two-thirds of Hogg's composition are generosity, talent, and a ravenous mania for fame; the tertium quid is composed of ordinary materials. One main cause of his popularity arises from the circumstance of his having selected his subjects from a source the most congenial to the nationality of his readers, the legends of their own mountains, and the tales of their own ancestors, in which the valleys of Scotland chiefly abound. His style contains more ease than elegance, but frequently possesses the grandeur of the sublime without its obscurity. No man of his country can be a fit parallel for him except Burns, and yet no two are more essentially different. Each, it is true, sprang from the same class of society; the name of each has been honoured alike by their countrymen, and each is equally indebted to nature for the tide of inspiration, and to himself for intellectual culture. But Burns's education commenced at an early period; Hogg was twenty years of age before he could write his own name, or read with fluency or satisfaction. Burns soon attained to the height of his fame and the acmá of his acquirements; Hogg was thirty-eight before he received either patronage or applause. The talents of Burns were purely lyrical; Hogg's ballads are by no means his chefs d'oeuvre. The former wrote for the class from whence he sprang; the latter aimed at the drawing-room and the library.

Nothing however pleases the Ettrick Shepherd more than to be coupled in eulogy with his poetical compatriot, nor is he in any degree envious of his fame, nor of that of his national contemporaries, Tannahill, Struthers, and Allan Cunningham. To Burns may be justly attributed the honour of having excited an universal taste for poetry amongst the lower classes of his countrymen; his readers were invariably his admirers, and his unprecedented success produced a host of imitators. This is a merit Hogg, even had he preceded him, could never have attained; his productions are not written for the populace; very few of the humbler race of Scotsmen have ever read Hogg, though they have all heard of him, whilst thousands can repeat the songs of Burns who could not tell the name of their author.

The circumstances of the early life of each have given a decided tone to their subsequent compositions; Burns wrote for the barn and the rural ball-room. Hogg rhapsodized for solitude by the lonely mountain and the haunted glen. The one owes his lightness and piquancy to the attrition of society; the other his pathos and sublimity to the seclusion and grandeur of his native valleys. Burns's inspirers were, generally, the burst of revelry over the festive bowl, and the strains of music in the evening dance. The buds of ‘the Shepherd's’ genius opened in the sun-rise on the mountain's brow, quivered in the blast that rushed, like the spirit of the storm, through the lowering glen, trembled beneath the thunder which awoke the solitude of the hill, and glittered in the lightning's blaze that sheeted through ravines which the rays of the mid-day sun had never pierced, and whose rugged cliffs were only shone upon by the flash caught from the careering tempest. He had his visions of fairy land, whilst reclining with his flocks amidst beds of wild flowers and of heath, gazing upon cloudless skies and sunny hills and silvery lakes; his ear lulled by the rippling stream, or the humming bee, or the carolling blackbird, and his mind soothed by gentleness, by softness, and repose. No poet since Shakspeare has equalled Hogg's descriptions of ‘elves, and fays, and fairy land.’ It is in fact his forte, and when he descends from his strain of sublimity by Iona and Ben Ledi, to sport by the hill in the calm moonshine, he touches the string with the delicacy of Thalia. It is like Alcides twining the silver threads of Omphale.

One powerful cause of the vividness of Hogg's recitals is, that he had listened to those legends which he has afterwards enshrined in verse, surrounded by the very scenes where they occurred; they almost all lie in his native valleys. Amidst those wild and secluded retreats, he spent the first thirty years of his life. He was indebted to nature for talents, but from man he had as yet acquired no means of developing them. His only school education consisted of three months’ tuition when a child, the benefits of which he had forgotten almost before he had ceased to be a boy, whilst as he approached to manhood, his unfledged genius was daily fed by musing and by tradition, and his glowing imagination was bursting with conceptions, to which his untutored mind was unequal to give utterance.

The shepherds of the Southern Highlands of Scotland, from whom Hogg is sprung, and amongst whom he has passed his life, form a class unique in Scotland, and unparalleled in the range of European society. They are thinly scattered over the country, and pass their days in solitude and seclusion: their cottages are often miles asunder; and during the inclemency of winter, they may be debarred for months from social intercourse, by the wreathing snow that chokes up their pathways, while even in summer their time is spent in lonely watchings on the hills, and their in meetings are few, save when on the morning of the Sabbath they assemble at the church in the valley. Their sense of religion is fervent and unfeigned; the faith their fathers bled for has been cherished in its purity, and its rites have acquired no gloss or tinsel from the glittering but unsubstantial adornments of society. They have little of the polish, and none of the arts, derivable from an intercourse with the world. Their interests, their pursuits, and their feelings, are the same; they are like one widely-scattered but soul-united family, who participate in every emotion, and with whom every feeling is mutual; they are unmoved by the storms of mankind around them; politics and sectarianism are to them tales of a distant country; they have but one king to serve, and the same tolling of the village bell unites all in the service of the same protecting God. The rays of knowledge and of education, which have glanced through these calm retreats, have taught them merely to investigate the manners of more remote districts, not to change their own. Their thirst for information is proportionate to the opportunity which their habits afford them of gratifying it; and their natural shrewdness has directed their taste to the most pure and useful channels. It is seldom that you can encounter a shepherd upon the hills, that he is not busily occupied with a book, whilst his plaid, thrown across his arm, shelters the beams of the sun from the page over which he has lain down to ponder; and every idea he is imbibing takes a tinge from the sublimity or beauty of the scenery by which he is surrounded. From this daily and uninterrupted stream of knowledge, they derive an acquaintance with literature and the world, unparalleled in any equally humble class of any country in Europe, and excelled by few in the higher walks of life. When they retail the opinions of others, it is with an accuracy acquired by study and research; and when they advance their own, it is with a clearness the result of searching thought and a firmness that implies, while it commands conviction; whilst their language, their imagery, and their ideas, possess a pathos and a poetry unknown to the natives of less lofty or more frequented districts.

Once, whilst rambling through the south of Scotland, I visited the cottage of one of these men, William Hogg, brother to the Ettrick Shepherd. It is situated in a little recess at the base of Penvallloch, and though snug enough bore no external evidence of luxury beyond the rank of its proprietor. He was out amongst the hills when I came to the door, but shortly after returned a low-built, honest-looking man of fifty or
sixty years old, with a Scots bonnet, an ordinary dress, and neither shoes nor stockings, as the grass was wet. I was shown into, I believe, the only apartment besides the kitchen which the house contained, and was no little surprised to find its walls covered to the low ceiling with bookshelves loaded with standard and popular productions, and a complete set of the ‘
Encyclopdia Britannica.’ The value of his library could not be less than adequate to purchase the rest of the establishment; and it was a curious circumstance to see the desire for knowledge so strong as to induce a man, engaged in an occupation the most pastoral but the least productive, to vest the one half of his toil-bought earnings in the purchase of books. Nor were they merely for show; their magnetic influence had long been communicated to their owner's mind, and his conversation afforded fine illustration of his class. Original without eccentricity, and erudite without dogmatism or pedantry, he seemed merely to prize, not to boast of, his acquirements; even his boldest assertions were cloaked in modesty, and, if any thing, enhanced by the diffidence with which they were adduced.

The taste for literature of the Ettrick Shepherd seems to have commenced late in life, but even in his youth, he had the germ of that ambition for fame which has been the unrelaxing goad to all his after efforts. His early performances seldom extended beyond a rude rhyme at a country dance, or a rustic satire on his clumsy associates; but when he begun to associate with men, and such men as I have described, a higher order of enthusiasm seemed to occupy him; the flood of inspiration was late, but it came with all the impetuosity of a retarded torrent. The scattered forces of his genius, which had before been detached in various quarters, and wasted on worthless pursuits, were now called in and concentrated on the one object of his ambition, and the effort was successful. From the crysalis confined to the humble stem, he soared at once in all the gaudy hues of poetry above his native hills, and revelled in the atmosphere of romance, and spread his glittering wings to catch every reflection from the sun-beams of sublimity and beauty. The origin of his predilection for poetry may, however, be traced to an early source: the valleys of the south of Scotland abound, like the mountains of Germany, with endless legends connected with themselves; every glen has its tradition, every stream its tale, and every hill its history. These of course are confined to oral registrars, and during the long evenings of a dreary winter, their repetition forms the chief amusement of their secluded hearths. In a knowledge of these romantic chronicles, Hogg's mother was versed beyond the most skilful of her companions. Of the old Border Ballads, she retained many thousand verses fresh in her memory, which were deposited in no other record, and had, perhaps, never been immortalized in types, but communicated from generation to generation like the learning of the Druids. It was from her lips that Sir Walter Scott wrote down several of the most interesting ballads in his Border Minstrelsy, and many, which she alone could have repeated, died with her uncommunicated.

From her the Ettrick Shepherd drew, not only his poetic bias, but many of the tales, the clothing of which in poetic garb has served to establish his fame. He was truly cradled in song and nursed in tradition; and he has himself, in a poem on the death of his mother, described the influence of her impressive recitals, and the hold which they took upon his young imagination.

Hogg's memoirs contain few episodes; in his sequestered valleys his life was monotony, and when he attained distinction, his actions are his books; but in obscurity or fame, whether rhyming for some rustic adorer, or writing for the saloons of the wealthy, the man has always been the same. Though borne upon the tide of circumstances, they effected no change in his composition he arrived at his destination, popularity, with the same freight of feelings and traits of disposition, with which he had floated through indigence and obscurity; and to the present hour, his dearest, proudest title, is the ‘Ettrick Shepherd,’ which marks at once his humility and his pride, and enables him to say, like the Scythian philosopher, that he has added honour to his origin, not that his origin casts a slur upon him. At length, when verging on forty years of age, he tired of the monotony of the mountains; he had already published one or two works which he had thrown out like feelers to tell him the pulse of the public: they were successful, and he descended like the Dacian gladiator, to wrestle in the Stadium of learning. Like every act of his life, his first step was a bold one. He threw his grey plaid across his arm, left his flocks and his home, ranged himself amongst the gamblers for popularity, boldly seized the die, and threw for fame; the cast was an auspicious one.

Hogg's manner has acquired a wildness from want of association with men; his early writings have the same from want of converse with books: the flights of his muse are not more eccentric or daring, than the flights of his head. One of his first acts was to establish and absolutely support, for upwards of twelve months, a talented periodical, by his own unaided pen. He once solicited contributions from most of the distinguished living poets, for a volume he proposed publishing: they disappointed him, and he wrote himself the articles he had hoped for with so close an imitation of style as to puzzle the Edinburgh savans. He is decidedly the second poet of Scotland, Campbell alone is superior. Compared to his Queen's Wake, Scott's metrical tales are doggerel, and Wilson's verses mere prosing. In point of richness and repose, the descriptions in Kilmeny are unrivalled, as is the ‘Wytch of Fife’ in quaint humour and imitation of antiquated style.

The distinguishing trait of his poetry is originality, he owes nothing either by acquisition or improvement to imitation; Burns's ideas are more glittering, his have greater intensity. Hogg's verses combine sublimity with mellowness; Burns's, picquancy with polish. The sweetness of the latter is like that of crystalized sugar, whose minutest particles are pointed; that of the former is like the smoothness of honey, whose every rounded atom is a luscious globule: Hogg's poetry possesses the dim richness of a cairngorm; Burns's the lively sparkle of a topaz or a diamond.

Like several of his poetical contemporaries, the Ettrick Shepherd has attempted prose-writing; but here he has not been so successful. He has not sufficient knowledge of the world and of life. He describes polished manners as a traveller depicts those of a strange country, where those which are the most common-place to the natives, are the most striking to him. His plots want ingenuity, and his diction polish. But his ‘Winter Evening Tales,’ are an exception from this censure. They are written in his own character, and they are natural. In them he has embodied those legendary recitals, better adapted to prose than to poetry. Here his deficiency of style gives naïvetê and freshness to his unembellished facts, whilst in his fictions, his strong imagination has supplied him with some extraordinary materials. He sometimes revels in the supernatural, and here his details have a breathless interest: they speak to the heart; or, as Sir Walter Scott said of ‘Frankenstein,’ in an expressive Scotch idiom, ‘They go down with a pegh!’ in point of incident, he as far excels his contemporaries, as they surpass him in style. The Tales of Geoffrey Crayon, and some others, are written to engage the finer feelings of the heart; they operate upon the imagination like the polished weapons of modern surgery; they make a deep, but a delicate wound. Hogg's powerful recitals, like the fearful instruments of amputation or cautery, tear up the most delicate fibres of our feelings without mercy or gentleness. He bears the same relation, as a story-teller, to Hook or Irving, that Kean, dying in Othello, does to an Indian Juggler swallowing his scymitar; both produce the same overpowering excitement; but we reward the one with a shudder, the other with a smile.

The present residence of the Ettrick Shepherd is within a short distance of the valley where he was born. His house, called Mount Benger, is situated on the side of one of the hills of Yarrow, and is supposed to occupy the site of an ancient monastery. Around him are the glens and the mountains over which he has wandered since childhood, and which he has celebrated in his song; and from his windows he almost descries the placid mirror of St. Mary's Loch, so accurately described in the introduction to the Second Canto of ‘Marmnion,’ and so often referred to in his own metrical traditions. He is one of the keenest and most skilful sportsmen in Scotland, especially as a brother of the angle; and his time is divided between his fictions and his fishing-hooks. In pastime as in poetry, he is all enthusiasm: I have seen him stroll with his rod up the stream of the Yarrow as far as its junction with the Loch, walk in up to the middle so as to reach a scientific distance from the shore, and thus wade round till he again joined the stream on the left bank, and returned down the river to Mount Benger. The peasantry all know him, and his importance as a bard seems totally merged in his popularity as a shepherd. His appearance is clownish, but his expression is intellectual; and the very roughness of his exterior indicates the gentleness of his heart. His social habits are all unreserved good humour, and he has a ceaseless flow of sparkling good spirits. Being introduced to the convivialities of more polished society at a late period of his life, he entered upon the new scene with all the ardour of novelty, and the ambition of out-doing his rivals even here. Hence those whom envy or malice had armed against him, did not fail to represent his hospitality as profusion; his liveliness, as revelry; his wit, ribald; and his laugh of heartfelt good-humour, as the boisterous indication of exuberant excess. But the insinuation was as false as the hearts of its authors. Not only Hogg's real habits, but his early education, gave it the lie; and his passive disposition chose rather to live down the slander than to write it down. The whole tenor of his life has been an illustration of the dying charge of the mother of Anagnosti, ‘Let others fear their foes; you, my son, beware only of your friends!’

The political opinions of ‘The Shepherd,’ are the result of imitation rather than conviction. During his pastoral life, he had little to do with the revolutions of empires; but when he began to enjoy the blushing honours of celebrity, and associate with the magnates of literature, he imbibed the principles of his earliest and most respected patrons. That impression he has still retained; and, right or wrong, he has, at least, the merit of calm consistency, without bigotry or virulence. The tone of his mind is gentle and unruffled, and he composes with astonishing facility and readiness. Four Books of ‘Queen Hynde’ were written in little more than as many weeks; and though they bear traces of haste, contain many sparkling gems of poetry unequally spangled over them. He is a generous and acute critic of the works of others, though, by a common failing, his estimates of his own productions are often crude and erroneous. He possesses an egregious proportion of personal vanity, and is very candid in the acknowledgment of it. Speaking once of Dr. John Leyden, and condemning him for the empty ambition which was a strong ingredient in his character, Hogg turned sharply round, and, ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘do you conceive that men have ever had all equally powerful stimulus to exertion with vanity? Why, if I had not just been the vainest creature alive, I should never have attained the celebrity I enjoy. I wrote and rhymed away for ten long years, amidst the jibes
and laughs of my companions; every one ridiculed my verses, except
Willy Laidlaw;* but he and I always saw their merit, and deemed that they would one day do something for me; my vanity bore me up through good report and bad report; and I now find that Willy and I were right.’

In domestic life, Hogg is extremely amiable. He possesses the soul of hospitality; and his romantic cottage seldom wants a succession of literary or admiring visitors. His character is now firmly stamped; and let the colour of his future life be as it may, let him repose in affluence or struggle with difficulties, his grand object is attained; he has inscribed his name amongst those who have adorned his country and her annals; and his shepherd's plaid will descend, like the mantle of Elijah, bearing genius and inspiration to his pastoral successors.

* Son to the gentleman whom Hogg served as a shepherd. He was, till lately, land-steward to Sir Walter Scott, and is author of the beautiful Scots ballad of ‘Lucy's Flitting.’