Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

HOGG, JAMES (1770-1835)

HOGG, JAMES (1770-1835), Scottish poet, known as the Ettrick Shepherd, was baptized at Ettrick in Selkirkshire on the 9th of December 1770. His ancestors had been shepherds for centuries. He received hardly any school training, and seems to have had difficulty in getting books to read. After spending his early years herding sheep for different masters, he was engaged as shepherd by Mr Laidlaw, tenant of Blackhouse, in the parish of Yarrow, from 1790 till 1799. He was treated with great kindness, and had access to a large collection of books. When this was exhausted he subscribed to a circulating library in Peebles. While attending to his flock, he spent a great deal of time in reading. He profited by the company of his master’s sons, of whom William Laidlaw is known as the friend of Scott and the author of Lucy’s Flittin’. Hogg’s first printed piece was The Mistakes of a Night in the Scots Magazine for October 1794, and in 1801 he published his Scottish Pastorals. In 1802 Hogg became acquainted with Sir Walter Scott, who was then collecting materials for his Border Minstrelsy. On Scott’s recommendation Constable published Hogg’s miscellaneous poems (The Mountain Bard) in 1807. By this work, and by The Shepherd’s Guide, being a Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Sheep, Hogg realized about £300. With this money he unfortunately embarked in farming in Dumfriesshire, and in three years was utterly ruined, having to abandon all his effects to his creditors. He returned to Ettrick, only to find that he could not even obtain employment as a shepherd; so he set off in February 1810 to push his fortune in Edinburgh as a literary adventurer. In the same year he published a collection of songs, The Forest Minstrel, to which he was the largest contributor. This book, being dedicated to the countess of Dalkeith (afterwards duchess of Buccleuch), and recommended to her notice by Scott, was rewarded with a present of 100 guineas. He then began a weekly periodical, The Spy, which he continued from September 1810 till August 1811. The appearance of The Queen’s Wake in 1813 established Hogg’s reputation as a poet; Byron recommended it to John Murray, who brought out an English edition. The scene of the poem is laid in 1561; the queen is Mary Stuart; and the wake provides a simple framework for seventeen poems sung by rival bards. It was followed by the Pilgrims of the Sun (1815), and Mador of the Moor (1816). The duchess of Buccleuch, on her death-bed (1814), had asked her husband to do something for the Ettrick bard; and the duke gave him a lease for life of the farm of Altrive in Yarrow, consisting of about 70 acres of moorland, on which the poet built a house and spent the last years of his life. In order to obtain money to stock his farm Hogg asked various poets to contribute to a volume of verse which should be a kind of poetic benefit for himself. Failing in his applications he wrote a volume of parodies, published in 1816, as The Poetic Mirror, or the Living Bards of Great Britain. He took possession of his farm in 1817; but his literary exertions were never relaxed. Before 1820 he had written the prose tales of The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) and two volumes of Winter Evening Tales (1820), besides collecting, editing and writing part of two volumes of The Jacobite Relics of Scotland (1819–1821), and contributing largely to Blackwood’s Magazine. The Chaldee MS., which appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine (October 1817), and gave such offence that it was immediately withdrawn, was largely Hogg’s work.

In 1820 he married Margaret Phillips, a lady of a good Annandale family, and found himself possessed of about £1000, a good house and a well-stocked farm. Hogg’s connexion with Blackwood’s Magazine kept him continually before the public; his contributions, which include the best of his prose works, were collected in the Shepherd’s Calendar (1829). The wit and mischief of some of his literary friends made free with his name as the Shepherd of the Noctes Ambrosianae, and represented him in ludicrous and grotesque aspects; but the effect of the whole was favourable to his popularity. Whatever may be the merits of the picture of the Shepherd [in the Noctes Ambrosianae]—and no one will deny its power and genius, writes Professor Veitchit is true, all the same, that this Shepherd was not the Shepherd of Ettrick or the man James Hogg. He was neither a Socrates nor a Falstaff, neither to be credited with the wisdom and lofty idealizings of the one, nor with the characteristic humour and coarseness of the other. The Three Perils of Woman (1820), and The Three Perils of Man (1822), were followed in 1825 by an epic poem, Queen Hynde, which was unfavourably received. He visited London in 1832, and was much lionized. On his return a public dinner was given to him in Peebles,—Professor Wilson in the chair,—and he acknowledged that he had at last found fame. His health, however, was seriously impaired. With his pen in his hand to the last, Hogg in 1834 published a volume of Lay Sermons, and The Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott, a book which Lockhart regarded as an infringement on his rights. In 1835 appeared three volumes of Tales of the Wars of Montrose. Hogg died on the 21st of November 1835, and was buried in the churchyard of his native parish Ettrick. His fame had seemed to fill the whole district, and was brightest at its close; his presence was associated with all the border sports and festivities; and as a man James Hogg was ever frank, joyous and charitable. It is mainly as a great peasant poet that he lives in literature. Some of his lyrics and minor poems—his Skylark, When the Kye comes Hame, his verses on the Comet and Evening Star, and his Address to Lady Ann Scott—are exquisite. The Queen’s Wake unites his characteristic excellences—his command of the old romantic ballad style, his graceful fairy mythology and his aerial flights of imagination. In the fairy story of Kilmeny in this work Hogg seems completely transformed; he is absorbed in the ideal and supernatural, and writes under direct and immediate inspiration.

See Hogg’s Memoir of the Author’s Life, written by himself, prefixed to the 3rd edition (1821) of The Mountain Bard, also Memorials of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, edited by his daughter, Mrs M. G. Garden (enlarged edition with preface by Professor Veitch, 1903), and Sir G. B. S. Douglas, James Hogg (1899) in the Famous Scots series; also The Poems of James Hogg, selected by William Wallace (1903). John Wilson (Christopher North) had a real affection for Hogg, but for some reason or other made no use of the materials placed in his hands for a biography of the poet. The memoir mentioned on the title-page of the Works (1838–1840) never appeared, and the memoir prefixed to the edition of Hogg’s works published by Blackie & Co. (1865) was written by the Rev. Thomas Thompson. See also Wilson’s Noctes Ambrosianae; Mrs Oliphant’s Annals of a Publishing House, vol. i. chap. vii.; Gilfillan’s First Gallery of Literary Portraits; Cunningham’s Biog. and Crit. Hist. of Lit.; and the general index to Blackwood’s Magazine. A collected edition of Hogg’s Tales appeared in 1837 in 6 vols., and a second in 1851; his Poetical Works were published in 1822, 1838–1840 and 1865–1866. For an admirable account of the social entertainments Hogg used to give in Edinburgh, see Memoir of Robert Chambers (1874), by Dr William Chambers, pp. 263-270.

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

HOGG, James (1770-1835) by David Stewart

James Hogg in 2023 enjoys a high position in Scottish literature and in studies of the Romantic period. Since 1995, Stirling and South Carolina Universities have been publishing a major edition of Hogg’s collected works, and has thus far produced over thirty volumes. He is taught in schools and universities, and he appeared in the Top Ten of a public vote organised by the BBC and the Scottish Book Trust in 2016 to find Scotland’s Favourite Book. That Hogg would enjoy such a position may have surprised readers early in the 20th century, though doubtless it would have pleased Hogg. The entry for Hogg the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica is well-informed, appreciative, and largely accurate (one notable error is that The Three Perils of Woman was published in 1823). Further detail on Hogg’s life can be found in Gillian Hughes’s meticulous Life, published in 2007. The most astonishing fact for readers today is that it contains no mention at all of the book on which Hogg’s contemporary fame almost entirely rests: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824.

James Hogg
Fox, Charles. James Hogg. 1830, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Hogg’s Confessions appealed, famously, to French novelist André Gide (1869-1951), who, in 1947, in an introduction to the Confessions, did much to bring Hogg back to the world’s attention. The novel’s Gothic themes of doubling, Satanic possession, and guilt, combined with its proto-postmodern double structure that plays with the idea of authorship, suited it well to literary studies influenced by post-structuralism in the later twentieth century. The Confessions presents a dazzling display of generic modes. It is a teasing intervention in the historical novel, and in particular a dialogue with Walter Scott; it has much to say about Scottish religious and political identities; it is a direct engagement with periodical culture, part of the novel having appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1823; it toys with Hogg’s identity as the labouring-class Ettrick Shepherd; it adopts comic, scientific, picturesque, Gothic, religious, and historical modes, and has the added attraction of combining these modes in disorientating patterns. Hogg’s connections with the Edinburgh scientific community included Sir David Brewster, whose specialism in optics led him to invent the kaleidoscope. An important study by Meiko O’Halloran, James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art (2016), takes this toy as its organising metaphor. The novel’s very playfulness, combined with the fact that Hogg published it anonymously, led to it being sidelined for a century. In 2022, it is the centrepiece of the oeuvre of a writer who was consistently experimental, ready to try any new form of writing.

If the omission of the Confessions in Britannica is startling in 2022, then the inclusion of so much else that Hogg wrote is startling in more positive ways. It is only recently that scholars have devoted sustained attention to the full range of Hogg’s kaleidoscopic art, from epic poetry to periodical writing, from short stories to historical novels, from parodies and sermons to autobiography—and much else. Hogg’s lifelong interest in music led to several publications that are overlooked in Britannica but attract much interest today. Emphasis on such works as The Spy, Mador of the Moor, his early poems for the Scots Magazine, and The Shepherd’s Guide, will be pleasingly familiar to Hogg specialists, but relatively unfamiliar to many who know Hogg as the author of that one famous novel. Works such as these point to aspects of Hogg’s career that are only hinted at the Britannica entry, but that have helped Hogg make an important impact on recent historicist and ecocritical studies of the Romantic period.

Hogg did indeed lack any formal education after the age of around seven, but his Borders home was not an isolated backwater. Shepherds shared books and periodicals, including the Scots Magazine, where Hogg’s first known publication appeared in 1794. His Shepherd’s Guide was a success, and scholars have recently used this to open up Hogg’s connections with the discourse of agricultural improvement that had such vast impacts on the land and economy in these years. His visits to the Highlands (1802-4) to scout for a farm were part of a broader set of transnational migrations, at the centre of which was the introduction of the Cheviot breed of sheep to the Scottish Highlands (important in the Highland Clearances).

Hogg’s connections with the print industry of his age are registered in Britannica, but they gain greater emphasis today. While it is debatable whether the Chaldee Manuscript printed in Blackwood’s in October 1817 was largely his work (it is more likely that he initiated the project and that the most offensive parts were written by John Gibson Lockhart and John Wilson), the episode is important because Hogg’s relationship with William Blackwood, his magazine and publishing house lasted—with occasional interruptions—throughout Hogg’s life. Hogg, from his days at The Spy onwards, took an interest in all the aspects of the print industry, an interest often reflected in his creative work. He published successfully in annuals in the 1820s and 1830s and in many other periodicals, notably Fraser’s Magazine. Fraser’s was, like Blackwood’s, a brilliantly creative publication that took a Tory standpoint. Hogg’s published opinions tended to be Tory too, though many of his comments suggest a willingness to take an independent line, and his fictions frequently show a great affinity with those who resist authority.

The Britannica entry ends by claiming that it is mainly as a great peasant poet that he lives in literature. While Hogg’s poetry retains its appeal, it is by means of a novel forgotten by the first decade of the twentieth century that he lives in university syllabuses in 2022. Yet the combination of great with peasant points to a tension in readings of Hogg that remains unresolved. Hogg remained something of an outsider to the print culture of his era, and his financial and literary status was always precarious. He is rightly celebrated as a labouring-class writer, and readers have always been alert (more or less patronisingly) to his connections with the culture of the people. But to say that Hogg wrote under direct and immediate inspiration sentimentalises and delimits Hogg’s achievement in a way that is hard to square with the very range of work he produced, a range appropriately registered in Britannica. Hogg lives today, and he does so for his provocative failure to fit neatly into categories such as peasant poet or even Gothic novelist. The kaleidoscopic variety of his life and work leaves much to puzzle and enchant future generations of readers.

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