The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

X. Burns

§ 26. James Hogg

Next to Burns, by far the most considerable poet of humble birth was James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd; and, though, in richness of natural endowments, he is not to be compared to Burns, his poetic career was, in some respects, more astonishing. His record, in his autobiography, of how he became the poet that he was, is a plain and simple statement of unexaggerated fact; but it reads almost like a sheerly impossible romance. In all, he was not more than six months at school, and, when he left, at the age of seven, he had only “advanced so far as to get into the class that read the Bible”; and, in writing, he was able only to scrawl the letters, “nearly an inch in length.” In his early years, his poetic tendencies did not receive any instruction or fostering influence except that derived from his peasant mother’s imperfect recital of ballads and fairy tales. From his eighth year, his hours from daybreak to sunset were spent in the fields as a herdboy and, later, as a shepherd. Until his eighteenth year, the only verses that he had seen in print were the metrical Psalms of David, and, when he obtained access to The Life and Adventures of Sir William Wallace and The Gentle Shepherd, he could make very slow progress in reading them: “The little reading that I had learned,” he says, “I had nearly lost, and the Scottish dialect quite confounded me.” While a shepherd with Laidlaw, of Blackhouse, he was, however, supplied by him with a number of books, which, he says, he “began to read with considerable attention”; and, “no sooner,” he relates, “did I begin to read so as to understand them, than, rather prematurely” (he was, however, twenty-six years of age) “I began to write.” His first compositions “were songs and ballads made up for the lassies to sing in chorus.” “I had no more difficulty,” he naïvely tells us, “in composing them than I have at present, and I was equally well pleased with them.” His main difficulty was in writing them out after he had composed and corrected them in his mind; he had “no method of learning to write save by following the Italian alphabet”; and, with laborious toil, he could not do more than “four or six lines at a sitting.” So isolated was he in his southern solitudes, that, he says, “the first time I heard of Burns was in 1797, the year after he died,” when a half-daft man came to him on the hill and surprised and entranced him by repeating to him Tam o’ Shanter. This “formed,” so he writes, “a new epoch of my life. Every day I pondered on the genius and fate of Burns. I wept and always thought with myself what is to hinder me from succeeding Burns?”

The ambition of Hogg—recorded by him with characteristically ingenuous vanity—may well seem rather extravagant. His career as a poet, remarkable though it was, cannot be said to entitle him to rank as a second Burns. Save that, like Burns, he was a Scottish peasant, he has very little in common with him. He lacks his predecessor’s marked intellectuality as well as his strongly passionate temperament. Emotion, imagination, a good musical ear, a faculty for riming, a strong sympathy with nature, created by years of solitary converse with her, were his principal gifts. He had an excellent eye for scenery, and his descriptions are remarkably fine and truthful; but he is somewhat superficial; the vigour and penetration of Burns are beyond him. As he possessed, however, a peculiarly lightsome and joyful disposition, his hardships, disappointments and misfortunes did not, as in the case of Burns, give him any very deep concern.

  • One may think [he writes], on reading over this memoir, that I have worn out a life of misery and wretchedness; but the case has been quite the reverse. I never knew either man or woman who has been so universally happy as I have been; which has been partly owing to a good constitution, and partly from the conviction that a heavenly gift, conferring the powers of immortal song, was inherent in my soul.
  • The wide difference in the individualities of Burns and Hogg is shown in their relations with Edinburgh. Lacking the personal prestance of Burns, Hogg could not attain there to the great personal success commanded by Burns; his rustic simplicity, combined with his vanity and certain eccentricities of manner, partly created by his early circumstances, even made him a kind of butt in the higher literary circles of which he was proud to be reckoned a member; and, to many, he is now best known by the unfair caricature of him as the irrepressible “Shepherd,” in Noctes Ambrosianae. But, unlike Burns, he made a definite attempt, and, considering his antecedents, with quite marvellous success, to establish himself as a littérateur in Edinburgh. Having lost, in farming, the money gained by the publication of The Mountain Bard, he, as late as 1810—when he was forty years of age—set out to the capital on his adventurous quest. “I tost,” he writes, “my plaid about my shoulders, and marched away to Edinburgh, determined, since no better could be, to push my fortunes as a literary man.” He even set up, as he puts it, for “a connoisseur in manners, taste and genius,” by founding a weekly critical journal The Spy; and, fresh from wielding his shepherd’s crook in the wilds of Ettrick, essayed to supply literary guidance and direction to the enlightened denizens of the metropolis. This paper—a literary curiosity of which, unhappily, no copy is now known to survive—written three-fourths by himself, was carried on for more than a year; and, largely for his own mental discipline, he set on foot a debating society, the Forum, where his speeches must have been sufficiently amusing.