James Hogg Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Scottish Pastorals, Poems, Songs, etc., Mostly Written in the Dialect of the South (poetry) 1801

Memoir of the Author's Life (memoirs) 1806

The Mountain Bard: Consisting of Ballads and Songs, Founded on Facts and Legendary Tales (poetry, songs, and autobiographical sketch) 1807

The Forest Minstrel: A Selection of Songs, Adapted to the Most Favourite Scottish Airs [with Thomas M. Cunningham and others] (poetry and songs) 1810

The Spy [editor and main contributor] (journalism, poetry, and sketches) 1810-11

The Queen's Wake (poetry) 1813

The Pilgrims of the Sun...

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Elizabeth W. Harries (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harries, Elizabeth W. “Duplication and Duplicity: James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.Wordsworth Circle 10, no. 2 (spring 1979): 187-96.

[In the following essay, Harries examines the inherent ambiguity of Hogg's double narrative in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.]

As I wrote, my imagination warmed to the task; everything took on the shape of a rounded work of art; and the tissue of lies, with which I hoped to veil the truth from the judge, became more and more closely-woven.

E. T. A. Hoffmann

One of the strengths of...

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Ian Campbell (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, Ian. “Hogg's Confessions and the Heart of Darkness.Studies in Scottish Literature 15 (1980): 187-201.

[In the following essay, Campbell reads The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as the depiction of a personal crisis of perverted morality.]

James Hogg's masterpiece, the Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is beginning to receive the critical attention it deserves. Since its anonymous publication in 1824 it has been frequently out of print, and still more frequently misunderstood or interpreted according to partial readings of the text. The purpose of this paper is to examine a...

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Nelson C. Smith (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Nelson C. “Conventional Poetry and Fiction.” In James Hogg, pp. 50-76. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses a number of Hogg's lesser works—including ballads, lyrics, and longer narrative poetry and fiction—focusing on the largely conventional techniques, forms, and themes of these writings.]

Samuel Johnson observed that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, and there can be little doubt that Hogg's literary aims were in great measure economic. He used his literary earnings to rent and stock farms; he preferred the life of the country, and was happiest there. He made little effort to correct or...

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David Groves (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Groves, David. “Myth and Structure in James Hogg's The Three Perils of Woman.Wordsworth Circle, 13, no. 4 (autumn 1982): 203-10.

[In the following essay, Groves contends that Hogg's The Three Perils of Woman demonstrates a mythical vision of descent into chaos followed by a reaffirmation of human unity.]

James Hogg's The Three Perils of Woman; or, Love, Leasing, and Jealousy (1823) is a minor masterpiece which treats the theme of love through sustained mythical and structural parallels between two time-settings. I use “myth” to denote a single meaningful pattern underlying the three very different narrative sections of Hogg's...

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David Oakleaf (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oakleaf, David. “‘Not the Truth’: The Doubleness of Hogg's Confessions and the Eighteenth-Century Tradition.” Studies in Scottish Literature 18 (1983): 59-74.

[In the following essay, Oakleaf analyzes the double narrative of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in terms of eighteenth-century conceptions of empirical and subjective experience and of the sublime and the beautiful.]

The double perspective of Editor and Justified Sinner is the central critical problem in Hogg's Confessions [The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner]. Certainly the two versions of the story are not in complete...

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John Bligh (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bligh, John. “The Doctrinal Premises of Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner.Studies in Scottish Literature 19 (1984): 148-64.

[In the following essay, Bligh interprets The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a didactic but finally ambivalent attack on Antinomian Calvinism and the associated theological doctrine of Predestination.]

Since 1924, when André Gide announced that he had read Hogg's masterpiece “with a stupefaction and admiration that increased at every stage,” the Confessions of a Justified Sinner has received a generous measure of critical attention.1 No one, however, has had much...

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David Groves (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Groves, David. “Other Prose Writings of James Hogg in Relation to A Justified Sinner.Studies in Scottish Literature 20 (1985): 262-66.

[In the following essay, Groves emphasizes the theme of Christian moderation in Hogg's writing, concluding that neither of the narrators in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner entirely represent the author's own beliefs.]

One controversy surrounding James Hogg's A Justified Sinner is the extent to which the antithetical attitudes of the two narrators reflect the attitude of the author himself. A review of other works in which Hogg develops the theme of duality against a similar...

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Douglas Jones (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Douglas. “Double Jeopardy and the Chameleon Art in James Hogg's Justified Sinner.Studies in Scottish Literature 23 (1988): 164-85.

[In the following essay, Jones argues against psychoanalytic interpretations of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, concentrating instead on the narrative's concern with subjectivity, ambiguity, circularity, and disguise.]

Critics of James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner have often cited Coleman Parson's observation that, for Hogg, the supernatural is “a corridor leading to the ultimate strangeness, that the individual is both tempter and...

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David Groves (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Groves, David. “Poetic Mirrors.” In James Hogg: The Growth of a Writer, pp. 54-85. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Groves evaluates Hogg as a Romantic poet.]

Heroic values and a concern for national unity made The Queen's Wake an ideal poem for a country at war. Yet although its ‘plan proved extremely happy’, Hogg could see that the Wake was still ‘very imperfect and unequal’.1 During 1814 and 1815, years which brought glimpses of prosperity, James Hogg wrote a series of long poems which culminated in the brilliant and witty parodies of his Poetic Mirror. He also revised The...

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Jonathan C. Glance (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glance, Jonathan C. “Ambiguity and Dreams in James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.Studies in Scottish Literature, 28 (1993): 165-77.

[In the following essay, Glance studies Hogg's use of dreams in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to “reinforce the novel's central theme of ambivalence.”]

Much recent critical attention to James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) has recognized as central to the novel its tone of radical ambiguity.1 Critics tend to locate this ambiguity in two primary locations: the questionable reliability of...

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Mark L. Schoenfield (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Schoenfield, Mark L. “Butchering James Hogg: Romantic Identity in the Magazine Market.” In At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism, edited by Mary A. Favret and Nicola J. Watson, pp. 207-24. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Schoenfield uses the example of Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and his relationship to Blackwood's Magazine to probe the social component of authorial identity in the early nineteenth century.]

[Hogg:] Were you the author of the article alluded to in my paper which places you at the head...

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Valentina Bold (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bold, Valentina. “James Hogg and the Scottish Self-Taught Tradition.” In The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-Taught Tradition, edited by John Goodridge, pp. 69-86. Helpston, England: The John Clare Society, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bold discusses Hogg's influence and reception as “The Ettrick Shepherd,” his peasant-poet persona.]

I'd like to start by quoting a letter from [John] Clare to Allan Cunningham, ‘the Nithsdale Mason’, a very close friend of ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’, James Hogg. Addressing his ‘Brother Bard and Fellow Labourer’ in 1824 Clare observed:

… the ‘Ettrick...

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Susan M. Levin (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levin, Susan M. “James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.” In The Romantic Art of Confession: DeQuincy, Musset, Sand, Lamb, Hogg, Frémy, Soulié, Janin, pp. 99-119. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1998.

[In the following essay, Levin elucidates the ironies and ambiguities of Hogg's confessional writing in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.]

The confessor of James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner kills his brother, mother, and finally himself. But his body is miraculously preserved, a freak of nature that may have to do with “the preservation o' that little...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Groves, David. “James Hogg, London, and the Royal Lady's Magazine.Library 10, no. 4 (December 1988): 339-46.

Relates anecdotes from Hogg's visit to London in 1832.

Parr, Norah. James Hogg at Home: Being the Domestic Life and Letters of the Ettrick Shepherd. Dollar, Scotland: Douglas S. Mack, 1980, 142 p.

Account of Hogg's married life (1820-1835) written by his great-granddaughter and containing reprints of numerous letters.


Campbell, Ian. “James Hogg and the Bible.” In The Bible in Scottish Life and Literature, edited by...

(The entire section is 749 words.)