James Hogg 1770-1835
Scottish poet, novelist, short story and song writer, journalist, editor, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Hogg from 1979 through 1998. For further discussion of Hogg's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 4.
A well-known Scottish author of the early nineteenth century, Hogg established a persona as the “Ettrick Shepherd,” a rustic and provincial poet, and gained fame through his association with the influential Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Abundant in his literary output, Hogg wrote a variety of poetry, ballads, songs, short stories, and historical narratives, many of which feature his extensive knowledge of Scottish folklore. He is primarily remembered today for his experimental novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), which was largely dismissed by contemporaries as an obtuse satire on Christian fanaticism. Featuring Gothic and supernatural elements, including a schizophrenic narrator and a psychological double/devil figure, as well as a proto-modern narrative complexity, the work has been rediscovered by modern critics who have come to view it as a masterpiece of prose fiction. Though many of Hogg's works have been neglected for a century and a half, contemporary scholars have begun the process of reevaluating his literary achievements and are generally receptive to his work.
Born to a pious tenant farmer, Hogg spent his early life as a shepherd in the Ettrick hills of Scotland following his family's bankruptcy in 1777. With minimal formal schooling, he taught himself to read using the only book available, a Bible, while his early interest in literature was founded on the Scottish oral tradition of ballads, songs, and fairy tales that were recited to him by his mother. As his self-education continued in his late teens, Hogg began to read the great works of English and Scottish literature and composed his first pieces of poetry, including verses imitative of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and others. By 1802 he had met Sir Walter Scott as the famous writer was collecting folk ballads for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Hogg later read the work and, largely unimpressed with its quality, determined to compose superior verse on the same subject. He subsequently sent several poems to Scott, both his own original ballads and adaptations of those his mother had taught him. Hogg's poetic abilities and his knowledge of Scottish lore impressed Scott, and in the following years a friendship grew between the two men that had an important influence on Hogg's career. Hogg's writings of this period appeared in his 1807 collection, The Mountain Bard: Consisting of Ballads and Songs, Founded on Facts and Legendary Tales. In February of 1810, after Hogg had lost two farms due to lack of funds, he departed the pastoral tranquility of Ettrick for several years and moved to Edinburgh. His weekly periodical, The Spy, containing articles, poems, and tales mostly written by Hogg himself, was published between 1810 and 1811, but collapsed following the printing of a particularly scandalous story. Meanwhile, Hogg began crafting his literary persona as the “Ettrick Shepherd,” a self-taught poet of provincial Scotland. He contributed poetry and prose to Scottish literary magazines and established himself as a national literary figure with his collection The Queen's Wake in 1813. The parodies of The Poetic Mirror; or, The Living Bards of Britain (1816) delighted audiences and maintained Hogg's popularity, though many of his other works of this period were ignored or denigrated by contemporary critics. In 1817 Hogg began a successful relationship with the newly founded Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, which published the collaborative “Translation from an Ancient Chaldee MS.” in October of that year. Coauthored with John Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart, the anonymous satire written in biblical form lampooned prominent Edinburgh Whigs and created a stir in the city. By 1820 Hogg had married and returned to rural life, retreating to his Altrive farm near Yarrow. The sales of his 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner proved discouraging, and Hogg's writings of the subsequent period were frequently ignored or panned by his contemporaries, though he remained a recognizable figure in Scottish literary circles. His reminiscences of a lifelong friendship, Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott, appeared in 1834 and capitalized on interest in Scotland's most popular writer, but his later collection of short stories, Tales of the Wars of Montrose (1835), was a failure. Hogg died in November of 1835 after a prolonged illness and was buried in Ettrick.
Hogg's earliest pieces of verse appear in the largely derivative Scottish Pastorals, Poems, Songs, etc., Mostly Written in the Dialect of the South (1801), which includes eclogues and a number of lyric poems composed to traditional Scottish melodies. His first significant and extended poetic composition, The Queen's Wake, contains twelve songs, ostensibly performed by competing minstrels at a seventeenth-century celebration in honor of Mary, Queen of Scots, at Holyrood Palace. The work contains two of Hogg's best-known works, “Kilmeny,” a visionary, religious allegory, and “The Witch of Fife,” a comic narrative poem steeped in the supernatural in which the luckless husband of a witch joins in a celebration with his wife's sorceress friends. When he is found still inebriated the following morning, authorities have him burned at the stake. The symbolic Pilgrims of the Sun (1815) owes an imaginative and stylistic debt to the poetry of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and John Dryden. In it the angel Cela leads Mary Lee, the poem's skeptical heroine, on a tour of the universe and paradise. Another allegorical poem, Mador of the Moor, (1816) offers a traditional seduction narrative in a romantic, medieval setting and is vaguely reminiscent of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. The Poetic Mirror; or, The Living Bards of Britain is a collection of parodies of such great poets of Hogg's day as Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth. The episodic historical novel The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818) takes place in 1865 and mixes legends of a preternatural creature with the efforts of several defeated revolutionaries to hide from political and religious persecution in the hills and farmlands of Scotland. Intertwined narratives and the supernatural abound in the novel The Three Perils of Man; or, War, Women, and Witchcraft (1822), which demonstrates Hogg's early mastery of the frame-story device. A work that most modern critics acknowledge is still incompletely understood, The Three Perils of Woman; or, Love, Leasing, and Jealousy (1823), features two romantic heroines and a trio of interconnected stories as it explores the dynamics of thwarted love, guilt, and envy before the backdrop of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scottish history. The figure alluded to in the title of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Colwan-Wringham, bastard son of a reverend, is brought up as a Antinomian Calvinist and thus believes himself a member of God's elect—therefore assured of divine salvation regardless of his sins in life. After the strange disappearance of his elder brother, Robert meets a mysterious individual, Gil-Martin, who encourages him to commit acts of violence against the “ungodly,” culminating in several murders and Robert's own suicide. The novel features a dual narrative, first that of the deluded and possibly schizophrenic “sinner,” followed by the apparently objective account of the work's fictional editor who had purportedly discovered Robert's memoirs after his body was exhumed some one hundred years later. The twisting plot of the romantic epic Queen Hynde (1825) relates a tale of Viking hostilities toward a mythologized Scotland, concluding with a heroic duel between the Norwegian aggressor, Eric, and the Scottish Prince Eiden.
Hogg was a prolific writer, yet most of his work was ignored by commentators prior to the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, many of Hogg's short poems and tales were written purely to turn a profit, and these hastily composed and conventional works are generally regarded as deeply flawed and of little interest. Nevertheless, several of Hogg's best writings were appreciated by his contemporaries, who enjoyed his poetry celebrating Scottish rural scenes and superstitions, particularly “Kilmeny,” as well as his imitations of ancient Scottish ballads in “The Witch of Fife.” In the years since his death, much of Hogg's work received little attention from critics, who found his plots inadequate, his endings haphazard, and his poetry poorly crafted and diffuse. A turning point in Hogg's critical reputation occurred in 1924 when André Gide “rediscovered” Hogg's novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, recognizing it as a significant work of world literature and as Hogg's masterpiece. Since Gide's comments, numerous scholars have studied the novel and praised its sophisticated narrative technique, psychological complexity, and deeply ironic and ambivalent elements. More recently, some critics have begun to take an interest in Hogg's other writings, reevaluating Pilgrims of the Sun, The Three Perils of Women, and other long-neglected and misunderstood works. Also under scrutiny is the construction and utility of Hogg's literary persona, the “Ettrick Shepherd.” Other areas of scholarly interest in Hogg's writings include his extensive use of Biblical allusion, his development of multiple narrative perspectives in poetry and prose, and his unique position within the tradition of Romantic poetry.