About Myself

Liam McIlvanney

  • The Electric Shepherd: A Likeness of James Hogg by Karl Miller
    Faber, 401 pp, £25.00, August 2003, ISBN 0 571 21816 4
  • Altrive Tales by James Hogg, edited by Gillian Hughes
    Edinburgh, 293 pp, £40.00, July 2003, ISBN 0 7486 1893 7

On a winter’s evening in 1803, James Hogg turned up for dinner at the home of Walter Scott. The man his host liked to call ‘the honest grunter’ was shown into the drawing-room, where a pregnant Mrs Scott was resting on a sofa. Unsure of the protocol in these toney surroundings, and deciding to take his cue from the hostess, Hogg flopped onto an adjoining sofa, smirching the chintz with his dung-spattered boots. In this position, according to J.G. Lockhart in his Life of Scott, Hogg ‘afforded plentiful merriment to the more civilised part of the company’.

Being jeered at by toffs was something Hogg expected. ‘Often have I been laughed at,’ he writes in his Memoir of the Author’s Life, ‘and I am aware that I shall be laughed at again.’ Much of this laughter was nervous, the defensive braying of those who felt threatened by Hogg’s peasant origins. ‘Swinish’, an epithet with some pedigree in anti-Jacobin polemic, kept attaching itself to Hogg, whose ‘unpoetical name’ (the phrase is Scott’s) seemed to stamp him with vulgarity. Hogg was not – like Burns – a radical, but the ‘innocent rusticity’ he cultivated could look like levelling insolence to anxious Tories. Wordsworth snubbed him at Mount Rydal. De Quincey, Scott and Byron questioned his breeding. Even his colleagues at Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, when tired of baiting Cockneys, kept their hand in by goading Hogg.

Hogg helped found Blackwood’s Magazine (or ‘Maga’); he co-authored the ‘Chaldee Manuscript’, a mock-biblical satire on the Edinburgh Whigs, that made its reputation; he was a vigorous contributor. To his periodic chagrin, he also appeared every month or so in the Noctes Ambrosianae, a fictional symposium that ran in the paper between 1822 and 1835. The author of the Noctes was John Wilson, who constructed dialogues between his own alter ego (‘Christopher North’) and that of Hogg (‘the Shepherd’). The Shepherd gets the best lines – better, some have suggested, than anything Hogg ever wrote – but he is also made to look a ‘boozing buffoon’. He says things like, ‘Hoots, man – I dinna understand you sae weel now,’ and describes Theocritus as ‘the Allan Ramsay o’ Sicily’. One episode has the Shepherd galloping naked around Selkirkshire on an angry bull.

When a new version of Hogg’s 1807 Memoir appeared in 1821, Blackwood’s carried a review so brutal (he is ‘the greatest boar on earth’; his existence has been ‘one continued bungle’; ‘Pray, who wishes to know anything about his life?’) the printer refused to touch it. The reviewer – it may have been Wilson – exhibits Hogg as a liar, fool and plagiarist. About the kindest things in the piece are the aspersions on Hogg’s grammar: ‘Give him a sentence, and force him, at the point of a sword, to point out an accusative, and he is a dead man.’

At times, Hogg managed to laugh with his tormentors, but he felt – quite rightly – that this sort of thing did him real harm, and that the jokes were more than jokes:

I know that I have always been looked on by the learned part of the community as an intruder in the paths of literature . . . The walks of learning are occupied by a powerful aristocracy, who deem that province their own peculiar right; else what would avail all their dear-bought collegiate honours and degrees? No wonder that they should view an intruder, from the humble and despised ranks of the community, with a jealous and indignant eye, and impede his progress by every means in their power.

It’s hard not to sympathise with this. The Spy, Hogg’s weekly journal, was forced to close after Edinburgh’s bluestockings convicted it of ‘coarseness’. (‘Everything nat’ral, and easy, and true, is ca’d coorse,’ he is made to say in one of the Noctes.) Publishers often treated him shabbily. Some even denied him the authorship of his works, on the grounds that a shepherd could hardly have written the ‘Chaldee Manuscript’ or The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). (This canard is still current: in his survey of Enlightenment Edinburgh, James Buchan describes the Confessions as ‘attributed to Hogg’.[*]) And Hogg’s editors, in his own time and since, have felt free to ‘improve’ his works by excising indelicacies, so that he has come down to us in editions that are botched and mangled.

Censured and censored, Hogg was made to look, at best, like a writer of the second rank. For a long time, even his admirers were reluctant to press his claims. In her 1927 biography, The Ettrick Shepherd, Edith Batho decided that Hogg ‘hardly deserves to have his life fully written or his works fully edited’. Her uncertainty has been challenged, and Hogg’s Collected Works are being edited, quite as fully as one could wish, in the Stirling/South Carolina Research Edition; 14 volumes of a projected 31 have now appeared.[†] But has Hogg’s life been fully written? The answer, on the evidence of Karl Miller’s book, must be: not yet. Miller provides a thoughtful survey of Hogg’s poetry and prose, against a finely drawn backdrop of literary Edinburgh, but he doesn’t attempt a full-scale biography.

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[*] Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World (John Murray, 436 pp., £20, August 2003, 0 7195 5446 2).

[†] John Barrell wrote about the first three volumes in the LRB (22 February 1996). The Queen’s Wake, edited by Douglas Mack and Meiko O’Halloran, is the most recent volume (Edinburgh, 470 pp., £40, July, 0 7486 1617 9).