by John Herdman

Ewes Too

October 21, 2009 | by John Herdman

JAMES HOGG believe, or so at least he wrote to a friend at the time of his first failure as a sheep farmer in Dumfriesshire, that his misfortunes in that sphere were such as to suggest that providence wished to direct his energies into another field of activity. If that was the case he certainly proved ready enough to assist providence in its efforts, exhibiting a consistent lack of judgement in his dealings which led him to fail again with serious consequences at Mount Benger in 1830. The truth is that he found the routine life of a sheep farmer monotonous and the conversation of his fellows stultifying. Yet farming was the obvious way for a competent shepherd to advance his life socially and economically, and there was no doubt of Hogg’s professional competence and authority as a shepherd. His The Shepherd’s Guide established itself as a classic in its field and his writings on the diseases of his charges even earned him the title, as far away as Germany, of the “Hippocrates of Sheep”.

Moreover this aspect of his life, and his status as a local celebrity in Ettrick and Yarrow, remained permanently integral to the whole, and essential to his conception of himself long after he was established as a famous author. His home base was always indispensable to him, and it must be remembered that his economic situation was never really strong enough to make Edinburgh residence a long-term possibility; his visits there became less frequent after the departure of his friend and later brother-in-law James Gray, with whom he habitually lodged, to be Rector of Belfast Academy, simply because he then had to pay for accommodation. The division between Edinburgh literary character and rooted countryman is only one, if a central, aspect of a man whose character was fruitfully riven with doubleness, a self-confident and self-possessed personality with a well developed sense of his own worth who could nonetheless feel himself at moments of difficulty to be “the most easily discouraged being alive”.

The new Life of Hogg by Gillian Hughes is notable for its even-handedness in giving equal weight to those provokingly diverse aspects of Hogg’s trajectory and its soundness in exploring the never wholly resolved tensions between them. The author calls Hogg’s life one of “contradictions, the friends of radicals…becoming a mainstay of Toryism, a man who was proud to declare himself a shepherd clinging to a middle-class lifestyle while failing to conserve the funds to support it, an apparently careless soul whose determination was so powerful that it can even appear slightly deranged.” In developing this theme of “double vision” the author does not seek to emulate the literary and cultural pyrotechnics of Karl Miller’s remarkable study Electric Shepherd (2003); instead, her book is solidly grounded in the day-to-day minutiae of Hogg’s domestic and professional life (or lives), and especially in the details of economic circumstances. One would not go to this life study in search of his greatest works (it makes, after all, no claim to be a critical biography), but for information on how exactly he kept body and soul together it is unlikely ever to be surpassed. And body and soul, their togetherness or apartness, are central to the preoccupations of Hogg’s art.

Even more than for most writers, the insight that the body is the mirror of the soul is integral to Hogg’s vision. In his periodical The Spy, which was published for about a year from 1810, he projected himself into an editorial persona as an alien outsider who not only positions himself as a strategic observer, but, in Hughes’s words, “has an uncanny ability to take on the thoughts and feelings of others that renders him conspicuous and leads him into difficulties.” Even if the Spy were not described as “that long, lean, hungry looking d–l”, it would be impossible not to see in this figure the prototype of Gilmartin, who at his second meeting with Robert Wringhim in Confessions of a Justified Sinner famously tells his victim:

“If I contemplate a man’s features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character. And what is more, by contemplating a face minutely, I not only attain the same likeness but, with the likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well as the mode of arranging them, so that, you see, by looking at a person attentively, I by degrees assume his likeness, and by assuming his likeness I attain the possession of his most secret thoughts. This, I say, is a peculiarity in my nature, a gift of the God that made me; but, whether or not given me for a blessing, He knows Himself, and so do I.”

This, of course, is the double blessing and curse of the artist. Hogg prepared himself to be an artist by assuming a likeness, that of Robert Burns. By entering into his predecessor’s experience with unreserved empathy, he placed at his own disposal an imaginative form which he could inhabit provisionally, as it were, while he grew into his own full stature. The identification extended deep: not only did he persuade himself on no evidence that he shared Burns’s birthday, he related towards the end of his life that “I had learned to identify myself so much with my predecessor that I expected to die at the same age and on the very same day of the month”, to the extent that as the dread date approached he became genuinely ill and recovered only when it was safely past. The example of Burns’s rise to literary fame from humble and rural origins obviously gave Hogg psychological licence to aspire in the same way, though the personal sense of empathy must have extended beyond that (he was immensely proud of his acquaintance with several of Burns’s surviving relatives). He was happy enough to accept the stereotype of the peasant genius conferred upon him by the Tory intelligensia, as when

John Wilson, addressing a Burns Dinner at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh in 1819, stress “the high and holy connection between the dead and the living peasant”. If this was role in which he could feel comfortable, it did not altogether do away with social insecurity, and many of the intermittent difficulties of his relationship with Scott, whom he intensely admired and loved, can be traced to the tension between the terms of intellectual equality and genuine friendship on which they met, and the sense of an unmentioned, but at some important levels, unbridgeable social gulf which the mores of the time made inevitable and on which the persona of the Shepherd in Noctes Ambrosiane implicitly drew. The complex relation of that figure to his original was a bafflingly difficult challenge for Hogg to deal with, much more so than if the portrait had been an outright parody or pastiche. In a sense it alienated him from his own personality, for he became more famous in the world at large as “The Shepherd” than as James Hogg, while for many of his readers the reality of the difference between them was altogether lost.

It was but another aspect of Hogg’s doubleness that he at once did and did not resent the truth. His robust self-belief did not exclude a vein of paranoia, and he could explode with fury at unexpected moments and in ways that ran distinctly counter to his self-interest. Anticipating Hugh MacDiarmid, Hogg was a man who consciously embraced extreme positions, exclaiming in one poem, “Be mine the faith diverging to extremes!” As a fiction writer he was most at home entering into and representing extreme states of mind and conditions of altered consciousness, and as a poet in dealing with extravagance, diablerie and other worlds. Yet it is a complementary truth that he remained in many ways a notably ordinary man, rooted in the local reality in which he had been born and raised and blessed with what seems to have been a genuinely happy, if late, marriage. He declared once that in spite of financial difficulties the bare relation of which might suggest that his life was one of unrelieved misery, on the contrary.

“I never knew either man or woman who has been so uniformly happy as I have been; which has been partly owing to a good constitution, and partly from the conviction that a heavenly gift, conferring the powers of immortal song, was inherent in my soul.

Indeed so uniformly smooth and happy has my married life been, that on a retrospect I cannot distinguish one part from another, save by some remarkably good days of fishing, shooting, and curling on the ice.”

Hogg was ambivalent about politics as about most other things. Towards the end of his life he claimed to have been a Tory as long as he could remember, though he could not really say why – it seemed to him that he had been born with these principles. In those last years his Toryism did become more aggressive, yet he could talk of “his Whiggish heart, with its Covenant tie” which seemed at odds with his Jacobite sympathies, and expressed unease at various stages of his life at being represented as a Tory firebrand. He certainly disliked the division of literary Edinburgh along political lines and had many radical friends, notably James Gray, the Royal High School classics master whose literary circle was so important to him during his early stays in the capital. In politics as in so many matters Hogg was guided more by his heart and his intuitions that by intellectual conviction. But his services to the Tory cause were real enough for him to be granted financial aid by Peel’s government during the last year of his life, on which occasion he concluded his letter of thanks to the Prime Minister with the disarming words, “rather tipsy But your’s most affectionately” above his signature.

In that kind of way Hogg maintained his directness and simplicity to the end. Yet he clearly played consciously upon the rustic stereotype which could not elude deflecting it back upon his audience in a way which simultaneously fulfilled and defeated their expectations. A contemporary account from the months in 1832 when he was lionised in London gives a good sense of his style as an after-dinner speaker:

“His action in speaking is semi-comic, and his intonation full of humour. He does not boggle at a ‘thumper,’ but does it with such an air of simplicity and rusticity that you believe him sincere in every thing, are fain to think that he only deceiving himself when he is in truth a spiriting away your own judgement. The mixture of shrewdness and fun in his manner, his looks, and in his words, must be seen to be understood.”

Gillian Hughes concludes that Hogg’s wholeheartedness was the key to both his happiness and his ultimate success as a writer against the odds. He had formidable powers of concentration and determination which allowed him to focus completely on the matter in hand, whether it was his writing, athletics or field sports, his skills as a shepherd, or his campaign to have the Selkirk Silver Arrow returned to the Borders whence it had been spirited away by the Royal Company of Archers (it was returned to Selkirk only recently). He himself singled out “a certain keenness of disposition, prompting to the most active exertions, as the first ingredient in the happiness of man”, and defined happiness as “the mind and object in full possession of one another. A man’s life will always be pleasant, if he enter with all his heart and soul into the concerns of it.” This admirable biography shows him doing just that.


JAMES HOGG, A LIFE
by Gillian Hughes
Edinburgh University Press, £25
pp320, ISBN 074861639X

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