Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 27. The Queen’s Wake

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

X. Burns

§ 27. The Queen’s Wake

But, by his publication of The Queen’s Wake, he more than surprised even his warmest admirers. “’Od,” said one of his vernacular acquaintances, “wha wad hae thought there was as muckle in that sheep’s head o’ yours?” It firmly established his reputation as a poet; but, owing to the failure of his publishers, his fortunes were yet to seek, when the duke of Buccleuch bestowed on him the farm of Altrive in Yarrow, at a nominal rent. Here, until his death in 1835—with occasional visits to Edinburgh and the lakes—he continued to spend a life in which farming and sports were, not in a pecuniary sense very successfully, but, otherwise, happily enough, combined with literary labours, his conviction of his supreme success in which made him blissfully content with his, from a worldly point of view, comparatively humble lot: “Yes,” so he wrote in his old age:

  • Yes—I hae fought and won the day;
  • Come weel, come woe, I care na by;
  • I am a King! My regal sway
  • Stretches o’er Scotia’s mountains high
  • And o’er the fairy vales that lie
  • Beneath the glimpses of the moon,
  • Or round the ledges of the Sky
  • In twilight’s everlasting noon.
  • The poetry of Hogg is more akin to that of Scott than that of Burns. Properly, he does not belong to the Scottish poetic school of the revival. His poetic powers were first nourished by, and received their special bent from, old border tales and ballads. He was nearly thirty years of age before he had even heard of Burns; and if, latterly, he was well read in Scottish vernacular verse, he, while employing a kind of Scots in certain of his pieces, did not make any use of the old traditional Scottish staves. Long before he had studied the vernacular bards, he had become acquainted with the works of various English poets. Thus, unlike Burns, he never had, in a literary sense, any strong vernacular bias; and, since a great period of poetic revival had now begun, both in Scotland and England, he, necessarily, received from it much stimulus and guidance; in fact, it was with these later poets he loved to be classed, and he reckoned himself by no means the least of the brilliant galaxy. While, therefore, his verse, like himself, displays, now and again, a certain naïve rusticity, and is occasionally marred by superficial solecisms, it is not only distinguished by the native charm derived from his early nurture on adventurous ballad tales and fairy lore, and from his mode of life as a solitary shepherd in a beautiful pastoral region, but, also, bears tokens of cultured refinement. Unlike Burns, he wrote English verse with perfect facility. His excessive fluency, his extempore voluminousness, his inability to condense—due, partly, to his insufficient mental discipline in early life—is, in truth, the occasion of his chief literary sins as a writer both of prose and verse; his larger poems as well as his ballads are, generally, too long drawn out. Yet, he has his passages of high inspiration. The concluding portion of The Witch of Fife in The Queen’s Wake is a quaintly unique specimen of fantastic eeriness, touched with humour, e.g. the flight of the bewitched old man from Carlisle:

  • His armis war spred and his heid was hiche,
  • And his feite stack out behynde;
  • And the laibis of the auld manis cote
  • War wauffing in the wynde.
  • And aye he nicherit, and aye he flew,
  • For he thochte the ploy sa raire;
  • It was like the voice of the gainder blue,
  • Quhan he flees throw the ayr.
  • Bonny Kilmeny—which most critics unite to praise—in the same poem, is in a quite different vein. Though it has certain superficial faults, he here succeeds with delicate imaginative art in invoking to admirable purpose the old mystic fairy spells, faintly preserved in what remains of the old ballad stories of tradition. Many, also, of the ballad imitations in the same poem, though lacking in conciseness, have much spirit; the eleventh bard’s song, The Fate of Macgregor (“Macgregor, Macgregor remember our Foemen”), is, also, a splendidly vivid and impressive recital, and the poem abounds in finely descriptive passages, somewhat after the manner of Scott, with others more airily mystical. In Mador of the Moor, he employs the Spenserian stanza with perfect success: he tells us, in characteristic fashion, that he “had the vanity to believe,” that he was “going to give the world a new specimen of this stanza in its proper harmony”; and, if the story is badly constructed, the narrative flows on with perfect ease and smoothness. He is, also, pretty near the truth when he remarks, with his usual selfsatisfaction, “There is no doubt whatever that my highest and most fortunate efforts in rhyme are contained in some of the descriptions of nature in that poem”; and the remark applies more particularly to the delineation of the hunting episodes, the mountain and river scenery and the weather effects in canto 1. In the rather fantastic Pilgrims of the Sun, he attempts more daring imaginative flights, but not always quite happily; and, in the long historic poem Queen Hynde, he still more mistook his powers, notwithstanding his firm opinion that it “was the best epic poem that ever had been produced in Scotland.”

    The reputation of Hogg now rests, mainly, on The Queen’s Wake, and several of his shorter pieces. In 1810, he published The Forest Minstrel, two-thirds of which were written by himself, and the rest by his acquaintances, including the pathetic Lucy’s Flittin by William Laidlaw, Scott’s steward. Of the songs in this volume, Hogg himself frankly says: “In general they are not good, but the worst of them are all mine, for I inserted every ranting rhyme that I had made in my youth, to please the circles about the firesides in the evening.” Such was the shepherd’s own opinion of what were, in present day slang, uncommon good “folk songs”; and, on the whole, his opinion of them is correct. They are, most of them, merely “ranting rhymes,” much better versified and written and cleverer than the average example of their genus, but, on the whole, best fitted for the appreciation of those for whom they were primarily intended. On the other hand, there is admirable spirit and fire in such later war odes and Jacobite songs as M’Kinnon, Rise Rise Lowland and Highland Man, Lock the Door Lauriston, Cam Ye by Athol and The Gathering of the Clans; his grotesque sketch of the wicked village of “Balmquhapple,” in Fife, is quite worthy of Burns; and, while his love songs, for the most part, are a little cold and commonplace, O Weel Befa’ (in The Haunted Glen: not the longer version of the song) and When the Kye comes Hame are charmingly fine pastorals; though the most perfect of his lyrics and of his shorter pieces in The Skylark, itself sufficient to justify his proud conviction that he possessed in his soul the gift of immortal song.