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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 32

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

It has been my desire for some years now to have an article by Dr. Patrick Scott on this website and here he writes on the relationship of Robert Burns and James Hogg, “The Ettrick Shepard”. This article adds additional depth and another dimension to the pages of the Robert Burns Lives! Website.

Let me introduce you to Dr. Scott if you have not had the opportunity of meeting him.  Patrick is Director of Special Collections (Rare Books), Thomas Cooper Library, as well as Professor of English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.  Although he says, “I’m not by training a Burns scholar”, he is, in his own right and as my Burnsian friends will testify, a Burns scholar and is highly respected by those who profess a love and scholarship for Burns.

He is my friend and has helped immensely in my research regarding the bard. Patrick has given me invaluable advice regarding my Scottish library and particularly the books in my Burns library.  Actually, there are no high-priced books in my library on or about Burns that Patrick, along with his senior colleague, Ross Roy, has not given me advice on, including the Kilmarnock purchased a few years back. Additionally, there are few speeches or articles that I have given or written over the last four years that have not included his imprint in one form or another. Unbeknown to Patrick, in our conversations, phone calls and emails, I have picked up many ideas and put them in print or used them in speeches. It is a distinct privilege for me to welcome Dr. Scott to the pages of Robert Burns Lives!  (FRS: 6-11-08)

By Patrick Scott 

What was it like for a younger Scottish poet, in the next generation after Robert Burns?  In the few short years between the Kilmarnock edition in 1786 and the poet's death in 1796, Burns had gained international recognition, not only in Scotland and the British Isles, but in America and Europe.  In the years after his death, publishers and editors and biographers and anecdotalists all had their say.  For a younger writer like James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd (1770-1835), the fame of Burns was both inspiration and challenge.  Burns's influence is part of Hogg's story, but the influence was reciprocal: Hogg’s own image influenced how his early nineteenth-century contemporaries and subsequent generations regarded Burns. 

            Very few aspects of literary history have changed as much in the past forty years as the study of what we used to call influence.  Old fashioned literary historians like me love to trace influence, but traditional literary study teaches us to prize originality above everything, and the most original poets struggle hardest against the most original of their predecessors, with lasting consequences for how the predecessors are understood.  James Hogg’s struggle against Burns’s influence gives some revealing clues to the character of Burns’s achievement, and the contemporary reviews of James Hogg’s poetry provide a new kind of evidence, untapped by Burns scholars, about how Burns’s poetry was being read in the decades after his death.

            James Hogg was born in 1770, so he was about ten years younger than Burns, but he outlived Burns by nearly forty years, surviving and writing till the mid-eighteen-thirties.  Hogg was not only a poet.  His best-known work now is his remarkable psychological novel, the Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), about a Calvinist ordinand who murders his handsome cosmopolitan brother, a crime story told twice over from different perspectives.  As well as writing several other novels--The Brownie of Bodsbeck (about the Covenanters), The Three Perils of Man, and the The Three Perils of Women, Hogg was also a prolific short-story-writer and essayist. But in Hogg’s lifetime, and indeed in his own estimation, Hogg was one of the great Scottish poets, legitimate heir to Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson, and to Robert Burns himself.  By 1819, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine could plausibly describe Hogg as Burns’s “only worthy successor.”

            From the very beginning of Hogg’s career, Burns was his model and hero.  Even more than William Burnes, Hogg’s father had been over-ambitious, a sheep-farmer in the Scottish Borders south of Edinburgh, who took on too much risk in the agricultural expansion of the late 1700s.  Unlike William Burnes, Hogg’s father lost literally all the family’s resources, and his son went off to work at the age of six, herding cows. Unlike Burns, too, James Hogg had very little schooling, though during his teen years one of his employers lent him books to read. When he turned poet in his twenties, he later recounted, even the physical process of writing had to be painfully learnt over again.

            Perhaps in conscious imitation of Burns’s famous letter to Dr. John Moore, Hogg left us a detailed autobiographical record of how he became a poet, in a long letter he addressed to Walter Scott in 1806 printed as the introduction to his book The Mountain Bard (1807).   Hogg was a compulsive autobiographer: as he later wrote, “I like to write about myself: in fact, there are few things which I like better.”  And as an autobiographer, Hogg could be both imaginative and inventive, especially where Burns was involved; he routinely claimed to have been born on January 25th, Burns’s birthday, and was terribly disappointed when his parish minister proved to him from the registers that this wasn’t so.  (It seems almost incidental that he got the year wrong, too.)

            Burns’s was not the first Scottish poetry Hogg encountered--as a semi-literate teenager he’d struggled through Hamilton of Gilbertfield’s Sir William Wallace and Allan Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd--, but when he did encounter Burns, at the age of twenty-seven, the impact was immediate:

One day during that summer [in 1797], a half daft man, named John Scott, came to me on the hill, and to amuse me repeated Tam o’ Shanter. I was delighted! I was far more than delighted--I was ravished! I cannot describe my feelings; but, in short, before Jock Scott left me, I could recite the poem from beginning to end, and it has been my favourite poem ever since. He told me that it was made by one Robert Burns, the sweetest poet that was ever born; but that he was now dead, and his place would nevere supplied. He told me all about him, how he was born on the 25th of January, bred a ploughman, how many beautiful songs and poems he had composed, and that he had died last harvest, on the 21st of August.


This formed 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? I too was born on the 25th of January, and I have much more time to read and compose than ever ploughman could have, and can sing more old songs than ever ploughman could in the world. But then I wept again because I could not write. However, I resolved to be a poet, and to follow in the steps of Burns.

Hogg did indeed follow in the steps of Burns. His first book, Scottish Pastorals, published in Edinburgh in 1801, used a subtitle, as Burns had done in 1786, to draw attention to the language issue: Poems, Songs, &c., mostly written in the language of the South [i.e. the Scottish Borders, the south of Scotland].  Hogg’s best-received poem, “Kilmeny,” from his volume The Queen’s Wake (1813), about a young Scottish maiden who mysteriously disappears from her native glen into the spirit world and returns to tell her vision, shows Hogg exploring his own variant version of the supernatural territory Burns had explored in “Tam o’ Shanter.” As with Burns’s work for Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum and Thomson’s Select Collection, Hogg’s contribution to Scottish literature included the recovery and editing of traditional song, supplying ballad texts for Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, writing new poems for traditional airs in his volume The Forest Minstrel (1810), and editing a still-influential collection, The Jacobite Relics of Scotland, published in two series in 1819 and 1821. One of the greatest public triumphs of Hogg’s later years was his appearance in London as guest of honour at a great dinner in London on Burns Night 1832, when he not only speechified but brewed up the punch in Burns’s own punchbowl: as Hogg complacently reported to his wife, “though the name of Burns is necessarily coupled with mine, the dinner has been set on foot solely to bring me forward.”

            And Hogg’s writing career ended as it had begun, with Burns, for when he died in 1835 publication in part-issue had recently started for a  new edition of Burns edited by Hogg and his fellow-poet William Motherwell.  (Incidentally, the G. Ross Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina includes Hogg’s marked-up text of Burns, with copious annotations in Hogg’s hand.)  F. B. Snyder memorably dismissed Hogg’s memoir of Burns in this edition as “perhaps the worst life of Burns written before the twentieth century,” but the memoir has some revealing strengths.  Like Burns, Hogg had stood in his local church to be admonished for fathering a child out of wedlock, and like Burns he had been dismissed and caricatured as a drunk.  Hogg strives to be realistic without being judgmental, asserting that, forty years after Burns’s death, “none but the most narrow-minded bigots think of his errors and frailties but with sympathy and indulgence,” and “none but the blindest enthusiasts deny their existence.” Moreover, in his concluding comments on Thomas Carlyle’s famous essay about Burns, Hogg points out what would increasing go wrong in Victorian commentary--an over-spiritualizing or romanticizing of a poet firmly rooted in real social experience; Carlyle, Hogg implies, simply doesn’t grasp Burns’s humor.   

            But Hogg’s best tribute to Burns’s influence is itself a poem, a moving reminiscence of that first sense of bereavement forty years earlier, when he had learnt at one and the same time both of Burns’s achievement and of his death “last harvest”:

Ae night, I’ the gloaming, as late I pass’d by,
A lassie sang sweet as she milkit her kye,
And this was her sang, while the tears down did fa’--
O there’s nae bard o’ nature sin’ Robin’s awa’!
The bards o’ our country, now sing as they may,
The best o’ their ditties but maks my heart wae;
For at the blithe strain there was ane beat them a’,--
O there’s nae bard o’ nature sin’ Robin’s awa’!

Burns, then, served for James Hogg, as for a host of other humbly-born poets both Scots and English for the next fifty or more years, as the role-model who pointed them to the possibility of authorship.  Typically, when beginning poets are so strongly influenced by a predecessor, they go through an extended process of accepting, repressing, rejecting, and redefining that influence as they seek to establish their own voice.  The process can be persuasively analyzed in psychological terms, as a struggle against the poetic father, but in the case of Hogg and Burns, altered circumstances, not just individual psychology, played a part in the development of poetic difference.

            First, though Hogg shared Burns’s heritage of Scottish folk-song and folk culture, he lacked Burns’s early education or extensive early interaction with the literary and intellectual culture of late 18th century Scotland.  Burns had taken in the ideas of the Scottish enlightenment from his friends at Tarbolton in his late teens, Hogg encountered such thinking only as an outsider, only in his thirties.

            Second, even in Burns’s brief lifetime, the Scottish political atmosphere changed, from the democratic self-assertion of the seventeen-eighties to the conservatism that followed the French revolution.  Hogg’s ties throughout his writing career were to cultural traditionalism, so in some ways he was liberated by the movement of literary fashion in the early years of the century away from political debate. But cultural traditionalism brought him ties to Tory patrons like Walter Scott or the Buccleuch family, and to Tory magazines like Blackwood’s or Fraser’s.  Late in his life, during the furore over parliamentary reform, Hogg’s reputation certainly suffered because, unlike Burns, his poetry could not be pressed into service on the popular side. 

            Thirdly, perhaps most important, publishing conditions had also changed.  Burns’s defining success had come quickly, from his Kilmarnock volume, locally published by subscription, and it had come very much on his own terms, at least initially. By contrast, Hogg’s career had to be negotiated volume by volume through powerful Edinburgh publishers.  His first books were collections of songs, but by the eighteen-tens the publishers wanted, not ballads or songs, but long narrative poems like those of Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Thomas Moore. By the late eighteen-twenties the publishers claimed not to want poetry at all. In spite of his strength as a song-writer and his satiric abilities, Hogg found himself increasingly defined as a poet of bygone supernatural legend. The pawky humour of some of his early ballads seemed dangerously coarse to publishers in the age of Dr.  Bowdler. And the same pressures affected his treatment of religion. Although Hogg applauded Burns’s New Licht satire on the unco’ guid, Hogg increasing wrote as the voice of a devout Auld Licht tradition, and editors, mindful of the growing middle-class evangelical market, pushed him in that direction. The traditionalism, other-worldliness, and diffuse ambition of his own poetic bent were reinforced by the pressures of a changed literary market-place.

            But to these historical factors in Hogg’s differences from Burns can be added a difference of geography. In one of the most famous contemporary comparisons of the two poets, John Wilson contrasted “the poetry of the agricultural and that of the pastoral districts of Scotland.” “Scotland,” Wilson asserted, “has better reason to be proud of her peasant poets than any other country in the world,” but he argued that their poetry varied with the area of Scotland each came from.  In Burns’s Ayrshire, for instance, the hard struggle of arable farming encouraged a human, sociable, down-to-earth, this-worldly poetry, while Burns’s descriptions of nature, Wilson asserted, were often derivative and conventional; it was a good thing Burns was dead before the Romantic fashion for “descriptive poetry,” else he might have been “seduced from the fireside to the valley.” The isolated sheep-farming country of Hogg’s Selkirkshire, by contrast, encouraged individuality, other-worldliness, and a “wild enthusiasm towards external nature.”  The Burnsians who already, by 1819, “hold annual or triennial festivals in honour of their great dead poet,” Wilson admonishes, should not “be cold to the claims of the gifted living,” because “the genius of the two poets is as different as their life.” Hogg naturally responded positively to Wilson’s arguments about place and poetry--indeed, his response was so positive that fifteen years later he included it pretty much word for word, without acknowledgement, as chapter two in his own memoir of Burns.

            These varied factors--psychological, historical, and geographical--all influenced Hogg’s development and self-definition as a writer.  In claiming poetic kinship with Burns, and in recognizing differences from him, Hogg defined Burns as well as himself.  The very strong admiration at the core of this interrelationship is thrown into relief by Hogg's more troubled relationship with a living contemporary, Walter Scott.  Scott was not only a fellow-borderer, near to Hogg in age, but Hogg’s one-time patron, his social superior, and far and away more successful in exploiting the expanding early nineteenth-century book-market. Indeed Hogg blamed Scott for turning public taste away from poetry and towards fiction; “I was obliged from the irresistible current that followed him,” Hogg complained, “to forego the talent which God gave me at my birth and enter into a new sphere with which I had no acquaintance.”

            Hogg’s sometimes rather truculent struggle to assert equality with Scott gives a clue to the significance Burns held for him and for his reviewers. At first any such comparison was a matter of pride, yet Hogg must soon have wearied of (in Wilson’s phrase) the “not uncommon” contemporary assumption that “Burns had preoccupied the ground, and is our only great poet of the people.” The Oxford Review might describe Hogg rather loftily as “a poet of nature’s own creation, and worthy to rank among the most distinguished of the Caledonian Bards;” the long-established Scots Magazine might comment that “Mr. Hogg seems at present to hold, in this country, the first rank among men of self-taught genius.” But the subtext of the reviewers was always Hogg’s belatedness.

            As early as Hogg’s second volume The Mountain Bard (1807), the Poetical Register commented that “the labouring class of society has, of late years, teemed with poets and would-be poets,” while the Annual Review snorted that “few classes of writer have, generally speaking, less claim to originality that these self-taught poets.”  The London-based Critical Review, while painting Hogg as “a literal sans-culotte” and purporting to be horrified at Hogg’s “amorous familiarity,” nonetheless praised some of his 1807 poems as “worthy of Burns, without copying him,” and lamented “England’s inferiority” to Scotland in protecting “men of rising genius.”  But even in 1807, the Cabinet complained that “the rage for . . . obscure bards,” on the model of “the Ayrshire Ploughman,” “is becoming almost ridiculous,” and by 1811 the Critical Review had started to mock “the now fashionable rage for rude simplicity” as “the very jacobinism of taste and genius.” By 1814, even the Analectic Magazine of Philadelphia commented that “it is nothing new, in these days, to hear of shepherds and ploughmen writing poetry,” and pointed out the very brief careers enjoyed by most poets of Hogg’s class “since Burns died.”  The constant undertow of Hogg’s reviewers was always the no-win comparison with Burns. In that 1811 piece, the Critical Review had commented that “it is very evident that Burns is the model of imitation with most of these lyrical poets of the mountains,” and rather backhandedly praised Hogg, even if he had “obligingly turned some of Burns’s purest gold to his own use,” as being “not altogether void of native genius,” and “more worthy to be compared with his original” than other “geniusses of modern times.”

            This anxious and often snobbish critical reaction against the sheer multitude of Burns’s over-hyped would-be successors influenced the way Hogg himself, and nineteenth century critics generally, came to view Burns.  Burns, they had to believe, was not only earlier than Robert Bloomfield the farmer’s boy, Stephen Duck the thresher, Ann Yearsley the dairy-maid, and so on; Burns  was on a different poetic plane.  The others, wrote the Literary Review in 1815, were simply novelties:

                        Burns alone, like Shakespeare, received from nature
                        powers which education could not have improved.  He
                        was one of the great original characters to whom the
                        common rules of life are scarcely applicable…
                        To compare Burns with any of the other self-made
                        poets, who have nothing in common with him but
                        obscurity of birth,…would be to compare the untamed
                        majesty of a stupendous range of Alpine scenery with
                        the neglected barrenness of a heath or common.

W. H. Auden famously wrote of his poetic precursor W. B. Yeats that “poetry survives in the valley of its making,” and much modern biographical and historical scholarship has labored to place Burns back in his original context, but Burns’s importance to nineteenth-century readers lay precisely in the way his poetry, especially his songs, continued to speak outside that original context, across the years, beyond literary or political fashion.

            The specialness of Burns was just as important to Hogg himself.  Burns became the symbol to Hogg that a poet could rise above, not just humble origins, but also financial vicissitudes and personal failings and geographical isolation and political upheavals and even the difficulties of the literary market-place. In attributing to Burns this kind of timelessness, Hogg kept alive the hope that his own poetry too could survive, could be distinctive, could overcome the frequent disdain of modish contemporaries.

            In mid-career, Hogg’s poetry had been very different from that of Burns; during the eighteen-tens, he had churned out a whole series of quasi-antiquarian supernatural poems, with diminishing effect. But in his past decade or so, Hogg returned to shorter lyrical poems much closer in style to those of Burns. For the title of one of his last books he chose simply Songs of the Ettrick Shepherd. Hogg’s poetic career had begun with song-writing, and some of even his earliest efforts have a lilt to them:

            Life is a weary, weary, weary,
            Life is a weary cobble o’ care;
                        The poets mislead you,
                        Wha ca’ it a meadow,
            For life is a puddle o’ perfect despair.

But of course one doesn’t believe in the despairing sentiment of so upbeat and bouncy a lament. In his later songs, like this resonant one about a poor man asking for shelter written as Hogg himself was on the threshold of old age, the tone can be much more personal and much more haunting:

            Loose the yett an’ let me in,
                        Lady wi’ the glist’ning ee;
            Dinna let your menial train
                        Drive an auld man out to dee.
            Cauld rife is the winter ev’n,
                        See the rime hangs at my chin;
            Lady, for the sake of Heav’n,
                        Loose the yett an’ let me in.

There is an authentic Burnsian ring to a song like this, from the eighteen-twenties, portraying the joys of rural love as “a secret that courtiers dinna ken:”

            Awa’ wi’ fame and fortune, what comfort can they gie?
                        And a’ the arts that prey upon man’s life and liberty:
            Gie me the highest joy that the heart o’ man can frame,
                        My bonny, bonny lassie, when the kye comes hame,
                        When the kye comes hame, when the kye comes hame,
                        ‘Tween the gloaming an’ the mirk, when the kye comes hame.

And the echoes of Burns’s influence in Hogg’s later poetry turn up again and again where you might least expect them. I can well remember copying out and learning by heart, at the age of seven or eight or thereabouts, a children’s song about two boys playing in a country stream. It was one of the most widely-anthologized of any of Hogg’s works:

                        Where the pools are bright and deep
                        Where the grey trout lies asleep
                        Up the river and over the lea
                        That’s the way for Billy and me.

It was only recently that I recognized behind the central image of Hogg’s song the echo from Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne” of a still-recoverable childhood friendliness because “we twa ha’ paiddled i’ the burn.”

            The continuing impact of Robert Burns on Scottish poets of the next generation like Hogg was both liberating and rather daunting. But in the reaction to Burns both of Hogg himself and of his reviewers we can see, not only the pervasiveness of Burns’s influence, but also the way the literary situation and conflicts of the early nineteenth-century helped to shape the lasting significance subsequent generations would find in Burns’s work:

                        The bards o’ our country, now sing as they may,
                        The best o’ their ditties but maks my heart wae,
                        For at the blithe strain there was ane beat them a’,--
                        O there’s nae bard o’ nature sin’ Robin’s awa’!


Hogg’s writings are now much more available than they used to be, and much more is also now known about his life.  His best-known book The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is in print in several paperback editions.  There have been several modern selections of from his writings, notably Selected Poems of James Hogg, ed. Douglas Mack (Clarendon Press, 1970), Selected Stories and Sketches, ed. Douglas Mack (Scottish Academic Press, 1982), and Selected Poems and Songs, ed. David Groves (Scottish Academic Press, 1986).  A scholarly edition, The Stirling/South Carolina Edition of the Collected Works of James Hogg (Edinburgh University Press, 1995- ), also edited by Douglas Mack, has published over twenty volumes so far, and is projected to reach nearly forty volumes in all.  There have been two recent biographies, very different but both good: Karl Miller’s Electric Shepherd, A Likeness of James Hogg (Faber, 2003) and Gillian Hughes’s James Hogg, A Life (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), and Gillian Hughes has also edited Hogg’s Collected Letters (3 vols., Edinburgh University Press, 2004-2007).  Finally, though this essay was first written independently of them, see David Groves, “James Hogg on Robert Burns,” Burns Chronicle, 100 (1991), 51-59; Douglas S. Mack, “Hogg as Poet: A Successor to Burns?,” in Love and Liberty: Robert Burns: A Bicentenary Celebration, ed. Kenneth Simpson (Tuckwell, 1997), 119-127; and Kirsteen McCue, “Singing ‘more old songs than ever ploughman could:’ the songs of James Hogg and Robert Burns in the musical marketplace,” in Hogg and the Literary Marketplace, ed. Sharon Alker and Holly Nelson (Ashgate, forthcoming).   (PS: 6-10-08)

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