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.

In place of Hogg’s life, Miller offers a ‘likeness’. The word is well chosen. In Hogg’s Confessions, the devilish Gil-Martin assumes the likeness of other men and penetrates their thoughts just by pondering their faces. This is close to Hogg’s practice as a writer. Impersonation, mimicry, ventriloquism: these are central to his work. Hogg forged old ballads. He parodied Wordsworth and Byron. And he formed, with the other Blackwood’s writers, a kind of composite authorship, a multiple personality. They swapped and re-swapped pen-names. They impersonated one another and sometimes they impersonated themselves; Wilson seems to have written the parodies of his own poems that appear in Hogg’s Poetic Mirror (1816). At one stage, the paper invented an entire journalistic career for an innocent Glasgow dentist, who enjoyed a fortuitous éclat as ‘Blackwood’s celebrated Odontist’. If ‘like is an ill mark,’ as a character in the Confessions suggests, it was a mark at which the Blackwood’s group delightedly took aim.

But Miller’s ‘likeness’ also has the force of a disclaimer, a warning that some of the things we might ask of a biography – a sense, for example, of how Hogg’s life was lived, if not day by day, then at least month by month – will not be provided. But then, to mount a rigorous chronological reconstruction of Hogg’s life – to do for Hogg what Roy Foster has done for Yeats – would be neither profitable nor possible. Hogg spent decades herding sheep in a wilderness. He was 40 before he played much of a part in the literary life of Edinburgh, 50 before Blackwood’s Magazine hit its stride. How do you reconstruct his early life? How do you write engrossingly about shepherding? Hogg himself wasn’t sure. A reviewer of his Memoir wondered if the author had been asleep during his tenure as a Border shepherd. ‘How do shepherds employ themselves? Of this he tells us nothing. Day after day, year after year, seems to have passed over his head in a state of mystification, and the honest man is no more able to give an account of them than an old ram, or his dog Hector.’

It is tempting to make the same complaint of Miller. Though he is keen to remind us that ‘Hogg really was a shepherd,’ and though ‘shepherd’ is right there in the title of his book, Miller has little to say on the subject. He makes dutiful noises about the piety of Border shepherds and he mentions the expansion of sheep farming in the later 18th century. And that’s about it. On the other hand, we are interested in Hogg because he wrote books, not because he herded sheep. Conceding this, The Electric Shepherd begins briskly and Miller needs only 70 pages to get Hogg bundled in his plaid, tramping north to Edinburgh in his 40th year, a bankrupt farmer and jobless shepherd, to start a new life as a man of letters.

Edinburgh is where Hogg’s career – and with it Miller’s book – takes off. Still reeling from a recent bankruptcy, he tours the booksellers with a parcel of his songs, persuading Constable to publish them as The Forest Minstrel (1810). He founds the Spy, improves his taste at the Forum debating society, and nearly drinks himself to death at the Right and Wrong Club. Holed up in tawdry lodgings, he writes The Queen’s Wake (1813) and becomes a celebrity. ‘Od, wha wad hae thought there was as muckle in that sheep’s-head o’ yours?’ marvels an acquaintance who stops him in the street: ‘d__d stupid poetical deevil that ye’re.’ He meets Wilson. He takes a farm in Altrive but spends much of his time at 17 Princes Street, where a new literary magazine is in preparation.

All this is brilliantly handled by Miller. Hogg’s Edinburgh – the city of the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s, of the Old Town and the New, of preening booksellers and drunken printers – may be the real hero of The Electric Shepherd. The conviviality, the politics, the squabbles and pranks, the in-jokes and code-words: a whole literary culture is rendered here in its motley pungency. The capital’s literati – J.G. Lockhart, John Wilson, Walter Scott, William Maginn, Allan Cunningham, William Blackwood, Francis Jeffrey, Henry Cockburn – are evoked, not as ciphers for their works but as bullish personalities. What Miller values most in Hogg’s fiction – its ‘intentness on a real, visible, palpable, smellable Scotland’ – is triumphantly exhibited in this book. There are twenty pages on ‘Flesh’, which trace the workings of appetite throughout Hogg’s life and works, while a chapter on ‘Sporting Life’ brings us the bonspiels and football matches, the great athletic debauches.

‘Glowing pictures dashed off in rapid powerful strokes, often of a fine poetic and emphatic quality.’ This is Carlyle on Wilson’s classroom manner – he was a professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. Miller quotes the passage and it’s a fair description of his own procedure: ‘Hale, happy, hectic, poet, peasant, debtor, rising bourgeois notable, storyteller, fiddler, singer, credited with a warm heart and sparkling eye, "the best lungs in Yarrow” but with "nearly as little voice as ever man had” – this, and more, was Hogg. He was a personality, and an aggregation of dualities.’ Elsewhere, the portrait is brisker: ‘a man of feeling who used to bite the balls off sheep’.

The Electric Shepherd is a book of riffs and insights. Miller picks up a theme and rinses it in his own distinctive style before moving on to something else. He earmarks topics for later discussion: ‘Duels were to be an aspect of his future’; ‘Madness was thereafter to be a concern of Hogg’s writings’; ‘The word "electric” was to be an important one for Hogg.’ But these hints are seldom pursued. Miller rarely finds time to sustain a discussion or develop a thesis. At the level of argumentation, the book is embryonic, unfinished. We seem to be reading the jotted notes, not the final copy: ‘Hogg was a collector of ballads. So was his mother, and his uncle William. So was Walter Scott. And so was Allan Cunningham.’ This is the opening of Miller’s third chapter, and it is the voice of a man thinking aloud, preparing his materials before formulating his point. Miller doesn’t marshal his facts so much as push them out, one by one, to fight their corner as best they can: ‘Scott went bankrupt. So, less resonantly, did Cockburn . . . William Laidlaw went bankrupt too, and so did the city of Edinburgh.’

This is a book of vigour and intelligence, but at times it forsakes patient analysis and careful demonstration for little heaves of oracular assertion. Even the metaphysical Shepherd of the Noctes might hesitate to propose that Walter Scott ‘was Hogg’ or that Hogg ‘was the Scottish peasantry raised to genius by the power of the imagination. He was Scotland.’ At one point, Miller defines Hogg as ‘a genius, whose looks were a part of that genius’. His looks may have helped Hogg’s genius become more widely known and celebrated, but in what sense were they part of his genius? There is something gnomic, too, in Miller’s use of paradox and contradiction. Gregory Smith’s ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ – the union of opposites – is a familiar trope in Scottish criticism, and Miller makes use of it here: his Hogg is ‘an equivocal icon’, ‘a strange compound of roughness and refinement’. But while Hogg may conceivably be described as ‘both heaven-taught and earthy, both delicate and gross’, it’s difficult not to feel that things have gone too far when we learn that Hogg ‘both was and was not tall’.

More overtly than most critical biographies, The Electric Shepherd is a work of creative ” reach and ingenuity: its first word is an imperative ‘Imagine’. But Miller can be a little too speculative, too subjunctive, too trickily hypothetical. There’s a lot of critical toe-dipping here, much musing on how you might view Hogg, if you emphasised this or that dimension: ‘Hogg could be thought both singular and plural’; ‘It may be said of Hogg that he was eaten by Maga’; ‘It could be claimed’; ‘It’s possible to argue’. At first, these formulations suggest a commendable circumspection, a meticulous probing of the limits of what may legitimately be said. Pretty soon, though, they look like evasion. You want to know not merely what can be said about Hogg from a particular angle, but what Miller is prepared to say.

When he does arrive at a point, it usually has to do with Hogg’s modernity. This is Miller’s specific for Hogg’s unwarranted neglect: he will show Hogg’s centrality to ‘the way we think of ourselves now’, he will identify Hogg’s ‘anticipations of the future’. Miller’s Hogg is the Proleptic Shepherd – Hogg our contemporary – whose work foreshadows Frost, Irvine Welsh, Kafka, Beckett, William McGonagall and the Incredible String Band. Davie Tait’s style of praying in The Brownie of Bodsbeck anticipates the ‘New Christianity of the 1960s’. Bits of The Three Perils of Man ‘read like a pre-run of the film Braveheart’. One of Hogg’s short stories offers a foretaste of ‘the Apollo 11 mission’. Writing in this mode, Miller resembles those popular historians who assure us that everything – from the undershirt to parliamentary democracy – was invented by the Scots.

The contingency of truth, the incoherence of the self, the limitations of Enlightenment: Hogg’s preoccupations are modern. His doubtful narratives – in which events are retold from multiple perspectives, and oral tradition confronts the authority of print – are innovative and influential. There is a case for Hogg’s modernity, and Miller makes it well. But he can’t leave it alone. No connection, however flickering, is beneath his notice. Recounting an unsolved murder in Hogg’s Edinburgh, Miller notes that the victim – James Begbie – shares a surname with a character in Trainspotting. Discussing ‘Lucy’s Flitting’, a poem by Hogg’s friend William Laidlaw, Miller tells us that the farm mentioned in the poem was later the site of a castle, and that ‘the 20th-century novelist Emma Tennant’ spent some of her childhood there.

Miller reads the work in a similar way. Hogg’s early dramatic tales have ‘the interest of their anticipations’; All-Hallow Eve ‘is predictive of what he went on to write’. What he went on to write, of course, is the Confessions, and Miller tends to flatten the early work into a slipway for the great novel: ‘this play can . . . look like a precursor of the Confessions’; ‘this is what happens in the Confessions’; ‘the uncertainties pictured there look forward to the Confessions.’ These remarks leave Hogg exactly where he has been for far too long, as the author of an oddball masterpiece and not much else. This is far from Miller’s intention. He makes bold – sometimes extravagant – claims for the quality of Hogg’s less celebrated work, but every door he opens in these texts seems to lead to the Confessions.

That Hogg should greet posterity as the author of a single novel is more of an injustice than it might seem. Hogg wrote at a time when the Collected Prose – as in the magnum opus edition of the Waverley Novels – was coming into vogue, and writers like Maria Edgeworth were having their tales reprinted in monthly volumes. Hogg coveted the distinction of a Collected Prose and he worked hard to get it. When Blackwood first agreed and then hesitated, Hogg looked elsewhere. A London publisher, James Cochrane, suggested a 12-volume edition of the tales and Hogg seized his chance. With a parting flounce at Blackwood (‘You have starved me fairly out of my house and country’), he headed south to work on his edition.

Hogg’s London visit – he arrived on the final day of 1831 – was a triumph. For three months he was feasted and fêted. Barons and earls contended for his company. He sat for his portrait. There was even, so Lord Montagu informed him, a ‘danger of being knighted’. His letters to his wife run on about gilded satin chairs, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and silver dinner-sets. Not even Margaret’s bluffness – ‘I hope you have got warm drawers,’ she wrote, and warned him not to accept a title – could bring Hogg back to earth. When ‘Mr Shepherd’ was given as the toast at a gala Burns Night dinner – two of Burns’s sons were present, and the punch was mixed in the late poet’s bowl – Hogg had every reason to think he had finally arrived.

Within a year, Cochrane had gone bust, and only one volume of Hogg’s prose – Altrive Tales (1832) – ever saw the light. From being the collective noun for Hogg’s fictional prose, Altrive Tales became the title of a solitary volume, which now takes its place, skilfully edited by Gillian Hughes, in the current Collected Works. Conceived as the first book of a dozen in which Hogg would ‘give the grave and gay tales, the romantic and the superstitious, alternately, as far as is consistent with the size of each volume’, Altrive Tales doesn’t stand up too well on its own. As a self-contained volume it lacks direction and coherence. In her introduction, Hughes labours to prove otherwise, but the best she can manage by way of unifying themes is ‘the relationship between the individual and society, and what it is to be human’.

Altrive Tales opens with the Memoir of the Author’s Life (which is now made generally available for the first time since Douglas Mack’s 1972 edition). This is an updating of the 1821 Memoir, and is followed by ‘Reminiscences of Former Days’, in which Hogg rehearses his anecdotes of Wordsworth, Southey, Scott and others. Tacked onto this biographical material are three miscellaneous tales. ‘The Adventures of Captain John Lochy’ is the fictional memoir of a Scottish soldier of fortune, hacking his way around Europe; Miller calls it ‘jolting’ and ‘Brechtian’, which may be a polite way of saying that it’s all over the shop. ‘The Pongos’ is the implausible tale of a child abducted by apes; and ‘Marion’s Jock’ is a demotic parable on the hazards of gluttony.

The best thing in the volume, by a very long way, is the Memoir. Its wonderful opening – ‘I like writing about myself: in fact, there are few things which I like better’ – strikes the trademark note of self-deprecating vanity. Hogg has, in the Scottish phrase, a good conceit of himself, and his cheerful egotism (he admits to ‘a heavenly gift, conferring the powers of immortal song’) gets an airing here. But Hogg’s vanity is knowing, and therefore mitigated, and he combines it with a vein of candid self-censure. He condemns his own early verses (the Scottish Pastorals are ‘sad stuff’, The Queen’s Wake a ‘very imperfect and unequal production’), talks with unflustered ease of his bankruptcy and drunkenness, and reflects equably on his financial improvidence: ‘Being now master of nearly three hundred pounds, I went perfectly mad.’

Hogg is similarly unsparing in his treatment of his early life. The young shepherd cuts a ‘very grotesque figure’ in these pages. Habitually shirtless, his trousers sagging below his arse, he tends his restive flocks and beds down at night with the horses and cows. His leisure hours are spent murdering old Scots tunes on a battered fiddle and struggling to read – let alone understand – the newspapers, theological treatises and odd volumes of poetry that come to hand. Beginning a letter to his brother, he finds he no longer knows how to shape some of the characters and has to cobble his missive together with an incomplete alphabet. When he finally masters his ABC, he turns out ballads and songs, becoming ‘Jamie the poeter’ to the local lasses, and giving his neighbours a good laugh when he compares himself to Burns.

There is no pathos in any of this, no reverberating tremolo of complaint. Hogg’s early life has elements of farce and he’s happy to acknowledge this. But there’s no buffoonery, either. He writes with relished frankness and a conscious desire to offend the fastidious. Here, as much as in Mrs Scott’s drawing-room, Hogg is sprawling on the sofa, shitty boots and all. And since he does no favours to himself, he is free to treat others with similar brusqueness. Blackwood, Lockhart, Jeffrey, Scott: each finds his shortcomings and shabbinesses laid bare, as Hogg reveals private conversations and contractual agreements in a style at once dispassionate and damning. He was strongly criticised for this, but it’s fitting that those who put words in his mouth should have their own words – or at least Hogg’s version of them – exposed to the public. It’s also gratifying to witness a man so ferociously patronised turning the tables with such lightness of touch. ‘I am writing this in London,’ remarks Hogg, the literary lion of the metropolis, the occupant of a Pall Mall address, while alluding to Blackwood as ‘an Edinburgh editor’.

In 1947, Gide wondered how Hogg’s Confessions – ‘this astounding novel’ – had failed to become famous. ‘Taken as it is,’ he wrote in his introduction to the Cresset Library edition, ‘his book well deserves to re-emerge from the shades in which it has been waiting for us for more than a century. I consider it an extraordinary achievement and shall be happy if what I have to say of it awakens the belated glory to which I believe it has a right.’ Gide’s advocacy did help the Confessions, which now stands as a major work of European fiction and one of the two or three greatest Scottish novels. But Hogg’s other works – too many of them – still linger in the shades. It may take some time, but when the current Collected Works reaches its culmination, Hogg’s great novel should seem a little less oddly unique, and some other astounding books – The Three Perils of Man (1822), for instance – may receive their share of belated glory.

[*] 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).