- The Collected Works of James Hogg. Vol. VIII: The ‘Spy’ edited by Gillian Hughes
Edinburgh, 641 pp, £60.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 07 486136 0
For those brought up to associate Scottishness with silence, exile and cunning, much Scots verse sounds megaphonically noisy. ‘You’ve a good Scots tongue in your heid,’ generations of mothers have told their children, preparing them to meet royalty, headmasters, Sloane Rangers or public transport officials. This lore of speaking out is evident in the poetry of thieving, upstart medieval bagpipers (as ventriloquised by Lowland poets) or, even further back, of the saintly immigrant, Columba, bringing the celestial house down with his apocalyptic organ-blasts of aureate Latin. The percussive, masculinist Scottish muse lets rip through the rat-a-tat of Blind Hary’s Wallace; and in the brassy Reformation of John Knox it blares even in the sophisticated George Buchanan’s over-the-top ‘Elegy for Jean Calvin’. The volume remains high in some of Robert Fergusson’s sophistic-performative street-talk, Burns’s on-off, rip-roaring ‘Tam o’Shanter’, MacDiarmid’s last trump blawing ‘tootle-ootle-oo’, Edwin Morgan’s Loch Ness Monstering ‘Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!’ and Kathleen Jamie’s equally exclamatory concluding line ‘THE QUEEN OF SHEBA!’ The orality of Scottish poetry is of the battlefield and pulpit. It does contain subtleties, even in the brass section, but it’s seldom averse to a yell.
James Hogg could sound polished when he felt like it, but he was thought noisy by the aspiring Edinburgh gentry. They were eager for lessons in belletristic politeness, and knew he could be vulgar and uncouth. He knew they knew it, too. Hogg was a sharp-eared, coorse-tongued spy in their midst. Mud and shite from his Borders sheep-pastures fucked up the carpets of their New Town drawing-rooms. Hogg was homely, but in Edinburgh he didn’t seem at home. That experience, digested and at times compellingly raw, is evident throughout the journal he edited, the Spy, which forms the eighth volume of the research edition of Hogg’s works, produced under the general editorship of Douglas Mack. When complete, Mack’s edition will contain more volumes than the Waverley Novels. Hogg, so vitally displaced, yet so easily able to articulate his native terrain, is finding his true home at last. Even the provenance of this great edition, slashed between Stirling and South Carolina, seems to catch the fruitful, sometimes paradoxical mobility of his position. One of the most memorable passages in the Spy is about a foreign visitor who keeps finding that the citizens of Edinburgh are ‘not at home’.
Home is an endless topic of Scottish writing. The country has its great exiles, wandering Scots such as Stevenson or Spark, but where Shakespeare takes us from Caliban’s tropics to Verona, Burns’s internationalism makes all the world an Ayrshire. ‘Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,/Who never to himself hath said,/This is my own, my native land!’ Scott presented this as an exclamation, not a question. Scotland is Scotland’s greatest theme. Some of Hogg’s poems in the Spy, as Scottish poems like to do, trumpet a rather self-satisfied nationalism. Scottish writers are too fond of gazing at the thistle.
Over the last few centuries, canny Scottish writers have liked to hustle, often embarrassingly. Boswell was self-consciously, sycophantically pushy. How he would have loved the world of London PR. Scott, Stevenson and Barrie, all of whom lived at times when Scottishness was a marketable commodity, had a vital sense of how to exploit and develop international readerships. MacDiarmid was less immediately successful although he was equally keen to manipulate taste. He even set up a book club to promote his own publications. Irvine Welsh, Scotland’s highest profile recent literary exporter, is a master of the trumpet-blast, and scathingly obsessed with the topic of home. He also writes at times like a canny man with an MBA.
All this noise, home-worship and canniness have translated into empowering myths of Scottish writing, particularly the notion of its democratic mode of address. Neither Dunbar’s aureate diction nor the verse of King James I seems particularly democratic; Scott loved the feudal system; MacDiarmid hymned Lenin and rejoined the Communist Party after the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising to make manifest his solidarity with Stalin. Nevertheless, ‘democratic’ is a word often applied to Scottish writing, although to define it simply as this (or as noisy, or cosmopolitan, or nationalistic) is to box it in hopelessly. At least as productive is the writer who operates between and across these conditions, slipping from one to another, lingo to lingo, loyalty to loyalty, able to be noisy and to be silent, home and away, cunning as well as canny. Burns did that, and so did his disciple, Hogg. Ventriloquial, shifty, fiercely loyal and productively betraying, Hogg’s is the position of the spy. Poets can be patriotic bards, but, as Michel Deguy puts it in an early prose poem, ‘Le poète est le traître.’
The Spy, a weekly, included a lot of Hogg’s own verse, but also the first substantial flowerings of his literary prose. He published other people, too, most of them his female and male friends. The magazine ran from 1 September 1810 to 24 August 1811 and its title probably derives from that of the Spectator, which was popular with Scots, not least students, in search of ‘improvement’. Hogg stole or adapted some of his material from the London mag. Yet whereas the English language presents a ‘spectator’ as impartial, the word ‘spy’ suggests stronger, more complex loyalties, and hints at someone who has more to lose.
Hogg had already lost a lot. Born in 1770 and brought up in the Scottish Borders as a farm servant (what he called ‘an illiterate’), he had become a shepherd, written a manual about how to look after sheep, failed as a farmer and published three scarcely known books of verse. In her shrewd and elegant introduction to the Spy, Gillian Hughes points out that by 1809 Hogg had been rejected by his own community, who distrusted his poetic pretensions, and, knowing that he had failed at farming, refused him work as a shepherd. Cold-shouldered by the people he had grown up with, he was, at 40, a failure. He had some small literary reputation, but not nearly enough. He urgently needed money, work, company. He had to reinvent himself.
The Spy was his solution. Moving to Edinburgh in 1810, he found that no magazine would pay him for his writing. He was trying hard to find a publisher for his collection of poems, The Forest Minstrel, whose title demonstrates his eager ear for the market. James Beattie’s The Minstrel (1771-74), about a primitive-sophisticated poet, was still thought to be a classic, while Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) was a recent bestseller. Hogg’s Forest Minstrel did win him patronage when he finally got it published, but it sold badly. In trying to establish the Spy his intention was to set up a substantial vehicle for himself, and one whose profits would go straight into his pocket: the journal was at once his outlet and his income-stream.
To start with, no publisher or printer would touch it. Hogg hustled. He was told he needed sponsorship from a bookseller. Eventually he found a little-known Edinburgh printer, James Robertson, who was willing to produce a small magazine to Hogg’s design. Hogg plotted daily with Robertson in ‘a dark house in the Cowgate, where we drank whisky and ate rolls with a number of printers, the dirtiest and leanest-looking men I had ever seen’. Robertson thought that the countryman Hogg was simply being used as a go-between by the real, anonymous editor of the Spy, and Hogg was happy to adopt this role. In the magazine itself, he developed his ‘Spy’ persona. The Spy is presented as an elderly Highland bachelor only recently arrived in Edinburgh. He is a failed preacher, failed farmer, failed poet, who becomes instead ‘a Spy upon the manners, customs, and particular characters of all ranks of people, and all ranks of authors in particular’. The Spy is cut off in the metropolis, ‘alone in the midst of my species; or rather like a cat in a large family of men, women, and children, to whose joys it bears witness, without being able to partake of them’. This Spy, then, is close in some ways to Hogg, but he is also sufficiently different (in age, native language and place of origin) to allow him to develop the spy as another self that diverges from as well as interacts with his own.
With the invention of the Spy, Hogg sets off on the road that will lead to The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), that marvellous pas de deux of self and other, whose title, like that of the Spy, teeters between concealment and revelation. In its little eight-page issues, the Spy plays with points of view and narratives. In one story a preacher is viewed as a devil, the ultimate Bad Shepherd (Hogg used this device again in his Winter Evening Tales, 1820). As he plays with the persona of the Spy, Hogg discovers what it is to be an author. But the Spy served a much more immediate purpose. The epigraph from Burns at the head of its first issue gave the magazine a distinctive provenance. Including the celebrated words, ‘A chiel’s amang you takin’ notes,/An’ faith he’ll prent it’, the epigraph conjures up not just the subject of Burns’s poem (Francis Grose, an Englishman in Scotland), but also Burns’s own position as an insider-outsider in Edinburgh society. Hogg, who invited and received the nickname ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’, wished to be seen as successor to the ploughman poet.
Partly, this was a matter of straightforward literary ambition. Early numbers of the Spy present a procession of the muses of Scottish poets, ladies whose beauties and defects the reader is invited to judge. For the historian of taste this is an intriguing spectacle. Just as the Spy reveals much about the mores of early 19th-century Edinburgh (from its attitudes to foreigners to its prison conditions to its citizenry’s prowess at skating), so it tells us about literary tastes and institutions. Hogg as Spy parades the vying muses of Scott and Thomas Campbell. He also offers, just behind them, the muse of James Hogg. This was deliberate literary hype. Hogg had got hold of the means of literary production with the intention of developing a market for his own poetry, mapping his achievement onto that of Burns. Yet Hogg’s hype, his preoccupation with ‘the love of fame’ (a recurring topic in the Spy), also signals something more. Hogg, like Burns, could play Edinburgh at its own games, while remaining a ‘man of independent mind’. As Burns had done, Hogg sought to write in a variety of voices, some bonded to popular oral tradition, others distinctively textual. In his polyvocality he belongs with Burns, Dunbar, Drummond, MacDiarmid and many other Scottish writers. The Spy was Hogg’s sound-box and echo-chamber. Sometimes quietly pious, sometimes boisterously noisy, Hogg’s voices greeted and confounded the citizens of Auld Reekie.
Often they were affronted. Several subscribers cancelled after the indelicacy of a story involving a bastard child, while the ‘Epitaph on a Living Character’ whose body ‘will scream like a goat at the grand resurrection’ was considered – rightly – to be disturbing. His noisiness can be heard in one of the best poems printed in the Spy, ‘Border Song’, which begins,
Lock the door Lariston, lion of Liddisdale;
Lock the door Lariston, Lowther comes
The Armstrongs are flying,
The widows are crying;
The Castleton’s burning and Oliver’s gone.
The dactylic rush here makes for clatter and speed. The alliteration on the ‘l’ sounds results in an odd thump very different from the plangent alliteration of, say, Yeats’s ‘The light of evening, Lissadell’. ‘Border Song’ is noisy poetry at its best, but too much of the poetry of the Spy is 13th-rate stuff, interesting for its content or ideas (druids, Wallace-praise, tearfulness), rather than its form and articulation. What is new in the Spy is much less the verse than the prose.
The Spy is one of the places the modern short story was born. Though Scott is usually identified as an inventor of the literary short story, Hogg and others were there before him. Coming from the ballad tradition, but modified by a belles-lettres taste schooled on Spectator essays, Gothic fiction and Man of Feeling-type sentimentalism, Hogg’s writing in the Spy includes some of his first published stories, such as ‘The Country Laird’ (later reprinted as ‘The Wool Gatherer’ in his 1818 volume, The Brownie of Bodsbeck). Here Hogg writes not as the ‘Spy’ but as ‘John Miller’, a man with an ear for Scots and a sharp eye that notices exactly how ‘little George was eating at a lump of dry pease bannock, making very slow progress.’ ‘The Country Laird’ was spread over three issues of the Spy. Its first part begins not with moralising or descriptive scene-setting, but with direct speech: ‘“I tell you this will never do George,” said the old lady to her son.’ Part One ends on a note of suspense likely to make readers eager for the next issue.
Hogg the short-story writer and Hogg the editor learned their crafts together; the Spy’s hodgepodge of genres and voices is springily productive. As he learned on the hoof, Hogg invited others to pitch in. The other contributors included the short-story writer Mary Gray (1767-1829), a close friend of Burns’s Clarinda, and the man of letters Robert Anderson (a contemporary and pal of Burns’s favourite Scottish poet, Robert Fergusson, and editor of The Poets of Great Britain). Hogg outshines these helpers, but they enriched his contact with literary life.
Reprinting the periodical in full, Gillian Hughes lets us see all the more clearly the milieu in which Hogg’s deep and tricksy gift acquired its protean flexibility. Here, cannily, he learned the taste of the market, but he did not simply follow fashion. Experimenting with points of view, tuning and retuning his voices, he became the author who would write some of the strangest fiction of his age, and whose sense of generic mobility would take him from being an exponent of the ballad and essay to a pioneer of the short-story form. The Spy documents his self-education as a writer. Through it he made himself, for good and bad, a Romantic icon. The Spy ran for exactly 12 months. In so doing, it demonstrated that he was a year-round professional writer. The little magazine’s final issue trumpets a confident self-knowledge. Hogg had been patronised, admonished, helped and strengthened. At the age of 41, he had come of age as an author, and he knew it. As the bad shepherd stepped forward to tell his readers in late August 1811,
They have had, at all events, the honour of patronising an undertaking quite new in the records of literature; for that a common shepherd who never was at school, who went to service at seven years of age and could neither write nor read with accuracy when 20, yet who, smitten with an unconquerable thirst after knowledge, should run away from his master, leave his native mountains, and his flocks to wander where they chose, come to the metropolis with his plaid wrapt round his shoulders, and all at once set up for a connoisseur in manners, taste and genius, has certainly much more the appearance of a romance than a matter of fact. Yet a matter of fact it certainly is, and such a person is the editor of the Spy.