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James Hogg and The Unfathomable Hell

  • Richard D. Jackson

…plus d’informations

  • Richard D. Jackson
    Independent Scholar

Peter Garside's edition of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the Stirling-South Carolina research edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg has illuminated what is now recognised as one of the most significant of nineteenth-century Scottish novels. One aspect of the novel highlighted by Garside is the prevalence of the use of opium in the early part of the nineteenth century. Grevel Lindop, in his review of Alethea Hayter's book The Wreck Of The Abergavenny in The Times Literary Supplement, explains that William Wordsworth's brother John lobbied the East India Company to obtain the command of a ship on the London-Bengal-Canton route because this would enable him to buy opium in Bengal to sell at a handsome profit in Canton. John Wordsworth went down with his ship on 5 February 1805 when it struck on the submerged sandbank east of Portland Bill. Lindop exonerates the Wordsworths of the possible accusation of seeking to become drug barons by pointing out that the trade in opium "was sanctioned by the enthusiastic connivance of British and Chinese officials alike" and that in Britain "opium was sold without legal control and regarded as a medicine or, at worst, a personal indulgence" (6). In her book Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Alethea Hayter states that Britain imported 22,000 lbs. of opium in 1830 and that as well as being sold in the liquid form of laudanum "it was imported as solid opium, a brown bitter granular powder" (34).

Opium was a topic of discussion in literary circles in the early nineteenth century. James Hogg's attitude to it is revealed in his comments in Anecdotes of Scott with regard to Lady Scott's use of the drug. In one of the passages that caused Scott's son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart to take such great offence at the Anecdotes, he said:

She was subjected in her latter years to a habit which I know gave Sir Walter a great deal of pain but which I do not understand and should therefore have passed over in silence if it had not been for some false aspersion of it getting abroad. It was the taking of opium for a complaint which (poor woman) was never revealed until the time was past for curing it.

xl-xliii, 10-11

In this article I would like to relate Hogg's views on the usage of opium to the possible sources of his creative imagination. In his introduction to Hogg's novel Garside refers to his acquaintance with Thomas De Quincey, the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), and mentions "De Quincey's 'specimens of dreams' given late in his account, as indications of the mental detorioration caused by opium – one with a dated heading, the other culminating in a nightmarish descent into Hell" (xlv-xlvii, lxxxviin75). By the time that Hogg wrote his Confessions he had met and talked to De Quincey and they had put in a joint appearance in one of the satirical "Noctes Ambrosianae" series in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (Wilson 485-86). [1] This "Noctes," in which the fictional character of "The Ettrick Shepherd" describes his supposed experience of opium-eating, was written by John Wilson who, together with Lockhart, had a major involvement with the contents of Blackwood's. Wilson himself is known to have taken laudanum, the medicinal compound by means of which opium was generally ingested at the time. While at university in Oxford he wrote a letter to his friend Robert Findlay in which he describes how the "blessed beverage" of laudanum "played the devil with my intellects" (see Jackson 98). In his article "Blackwood's Berserker: John Wilson and the Language of Extremity," Robert Morrison quotes from two letters written by Wilson, probably in late 1826, in which he refers to an affliction which has been killing his soul for years past and which weighs him down with sorrow and despair. Morrison argues that although further research is needed to try to determine the exact source of Wilson's misery, his rhetoric and physical condition seem at least to suggest the possibility of opium addiction (12).

James Hogg was also aware of another man who was undoubtedly an opium user. In the autumn of 1814 Hogg spent a month with Wilson at Elleray, the latter's house overlooking Lake Windermere. While at Elleray, Hogg competed with Wilson between breakfast time and dinner to write the best poem. In 1831 Hogg said that one poem that he wrote at this time was "Isabelle," an imitation of Coleridge's poem "Christabel" (Strout 79, 85). David Groves quotes an anonymous reviewer of Hogg's imitation of Coleridge as saying that he has captured "The soft unmeaningness of what Mr Coleridge terms a conclusion" (75, 85). [2] A brief quotation will serve to show how, in advance of the actual date of publication of the poem, Hogg humorously but sympathetically assimilated its content and "felt in the blood, and felt along the heart" its emotional and poetic tenor. In Coleridge's poem, Christabel kneels in prayer in a bare forest on a chill and windless night where bleak moaning may (or may not) come from the other side of a huge tree:

Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly, but not dark.
The thin gray cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind, and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is gray:
'Tis a month before the month of May,
And Spring comes slowly up this way.

"Christabel" 4; lines 14-22

In his poem, Hogg situates his heroine similarly and provides an equally dispiriting weather report:

It is a strange and lovely night,
A grayish pale, but not white!
Is it rain, or is it dew,
That falls so thick I see its hue?
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
Why does the Lady Isabelle
Sit in the damp and dewy dell,
Counting the racks of drizzly rain,
And how often the rail cries over again?
For she's harping, harping in the brake,
Craik, craik – Craik, craik –
Ten times nine, and thrice eleven; –
That last call was a hundred and seven.

"Isabelle" 215-23; ll. 9-12, 16-23

"Isabelle" was eventually published in 1816 in Hogg's book The Poetic Mirror that also contained imitations of Wordsworth's The Excursion, and the poetry of Wilson, Byron and Southey. "Christabel" was rejected by Wordsworth for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800) and was published for the first time also in 1816. In the Preface in that volume Coleridge says that he wrote the first part of "Christabel" in 1797 at Stowey in the county of Somerset and the second part in 1800 at Keswick, Cumberland (101-02, 326-27). [3] "Christabel" was certainly circulating widely in manuscript for years before it was published. Walter Scott had seen it, for Lockhart states that in the years leading up to the publication of The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) Scott cast about for some new variety of diction and rhyme and recalled a casual recitation of the unpublished "Christabel" which had "fixed the music of that noble fragment in his memory" (180-81). There is every likelihood, therefore, that in composing his imitation Hogg too had seen a copy of a draft or heard it recited.

There is no doubt that by the 1820s Hogg had taken an interest in, and would have been familiar with, much of Coleridge's poetry. I suggest that, in formulating the plot of Confessions, he was influenced by a particular poem that resonates with the same kind of deeply disturbed emotion of despair felt by Robert Wringhim, Hogg's Justified Sinner, as, in a state of unbalanced mental confusion, he flees towards the place where he ends his life and from where his body is carried to a suicide's grave. Coleridge's poem "The Pains of Sleep" was first published in Christabel; Kubla Khan; The Pains of Sleep in 1816. In this volume he provides a note after "Kubla Khan" which concludes with this sentence before the inclusion of "The Pains of Sleep": "As a contrast to this vision, I have annexed a fragment of a very different character, describing with equal fidelity the dream of pain and disease" (54).

Alethea Hayter in her book Opium and the Romantic Imagination quotes an extract from the first draft of "The Pains of Sleep" including these lines:

Desire with Loathing strangely mixt,
On wild or hateful Objects fixt:
Pangs of Revenge, the powerless Will,
Still baffled, and consuming still,
Sense of intolerable Wrong,
And men whom I despis'd made strong.
Vain-glorious Threats, unmanly Vaunting,
Bad men my boasts and fury taunting.
Rage, sensual Passion, mad'ning Brawl,
And Shame, and Terror over all!


Much of this poem as finally published in 1816 reads like a draft script for the mindset of Robert Wringhim as described in Hogg's Confessions:

But yester-night I pray'd aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorn'd, those only strong!
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! mad'ning brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know,
Whether I suffered or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame!
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stain'd with sin:
For aye entempesting anew
Th' unfathomable hell within
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish to do! ()

"Pains" 62-64

Richard Holmes comments on "Kubla Khan" and "The Pains of Sleep" in his selection of poems by Coleridge. He writes:

Both poems are inspired by opium, but they are probably separated by four or five years, and by a gulf of experience. In style and subject "The Pains of Sleep" clearly belongs to the later period of confessional pieces, which began in the Lakes when Coleridge's opium addition had become seriously disabling. The first known version was sent to Robert Southey on 11 September 1803; and a second to Tom Poole on 3 October. The subject is not opium-taking, but opium-withdrawal. The symptoms of withdrawal are now medically well-known: sweating, feverish shaking, muscular cramps, acute physical discomfort, diarrhoea and horrific nightmares. Both Coleridge's letters and Notebooks of this autumn vividly describe all these symptoms [. . .]. The poem is then an accurate transcription of Coleridge's sufferings, but remains curiously reticent about exactly what horrors the dreams actually contained. Scenes of humiliation, powerlessness, sexual perversion, fear, violence and shame, seem to be suggested.

Holmes, Selected Poems 326-7

Alethea Hayter says that in 1802-03 Coleridge had reduced his dosage of opium both in amount and in frequency (200). During Hogg's visit to the Lakeland district in 1814, Robert Southey acted as Hogg's host at his house in Keswick for a few days, when it is not unlikely that poetry and the "pains" of poets were a subject of discussion (Strout 80-81). It is not suggested that Robert Wringhim took opium or was suffering from withdrawal symptoms but rather that Hogg was aware of the effects of the drug when he created the character of the Justified Sinner and Wringhim's confessional "Memoirs."

There is a connection between Hogg's Confessions and another Lakeland poet whose intellects were demonised and whose soul was weighed down partly as a result of the use of opium. While he was staying with Wilson at Elleray in 1814, Hogg paid two visits to Wordsworth's home at Rydal Mount. On 16 September he and Wilson dined there, but it was five days earlier at Rydal Mount that an incident took place that Hogg describes in the "Memoir of the Author's Life" that he included in his 1832 volume of Altrive Tales. The Kendal Chronicle records that on Sunday 11 September a meteor was seen overhead. All Wordsworth's guests, including John Wilson, who had already published his poem The Isle of Palms, joined their host to watch the phenomenon. Hogg semi-jocularly suggested that they were gazing at a triumphal arch "raised in honour of the meeting of the poets." De Quincey, who was there too, told Hogg that Wordsworth had then remarked "Poets? Poets? What does the fellow mean – Where are they?" This reported remark caused Hogg great offence and he remembered the episode for the rest of his life ("Memoir" cxxvii-cxxix; Moorman 276n; Selincourt 160).

Another poetic guest of Wordsworth who was present on this occasion was Charles Lloyd of Low Brathay. From 1796 onwards Lloyd, who was an epileptic, had suffered from fits of delirium, and his recurrent illness was no secret to his friends and acquaintances. In 1796 he had become a paid personal pupil and private houseguest of Coleridge, who thought him to be "assuredly a man of great Genius" (Holmes, Coleridge 125). Coleridge shared a bed with his protégé when Sara Coleridge was nursing their newly born baby Hartley and in October of the same year Coleridge printed privately 200 copies of a pamphlet called Sonnets by Various Authors, which contained poems by numerous authors including four by Lloyd. In November Coleridge suffered a severe bout of neuralgia, dosed himself with between twenty-five and seventy drops of opium every five hours and ran about the house naked and deliriously frantic with pain. Lloyd, also a consumer of opium, soon also became ill and, like Hogg's Justified Sinner, fell into a kind of nightmare in which "all the Realities round him mingle with, and form part of, the strange Dream" (Holmes, Coleridge 127). He was sent to a sanatorium at Lichfield and helped his own temporary recovery by writing his novel Edmund Oliver (1798) in which Coleridge features as an opium-hazed hero volunteering for the dragoons – a satirical portrait of the latter's escapade under the alias of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache (Holmes, Coleridge 122-27, 142). In Lloyd's novel when Edmund sinks into debt, he runs away, gets drunk, and exclaims, "I have some laudanum in my pocket. I will quell these mortal upbraidings! – I cannot endure them!" (qtd. in Ashton 132).

In July 1813 Lloyd became seriously mentally ill and was eventually placed in The Retreat, the Quaker asylum near York. From there he escaped in the summer of 1816 and found his way back to Westmorland where he appeared at De Quincey's cottage. De Quincey was acquainted with Richard Woodhouse, the friend of John Keats. Woodhouse kept an account of his conversations with De Quincey and these were published in Richard Garnett's 1885 edition of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (Woodhouse 200-02). In the entry for 15 November 1821, Woodhouse describes how De Quincey told him that in that summer of 1816, Lloyd, in one of his fits of extreme and intense nervousness, announced that he was the Devil and foredoomed from all eternity to be the author of all evil.

In "The Pains of Sleep" Coleridge referred to "the fiendish crowd/ Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me;/ A lurid light, a trampling throng." In his reminiscences of Charles Lloyd in the March 1840 number of Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, De Quincey recalls that Lloyd said that "it seemed to him as if on some distant road he heard a dull tramping sound, and that he knew it, by a misgiving, to be the sound of some man, or party of men, continually advancing slowly, continually threatening, or continually accusing him" (326-27). Similarly Robert Wringhim, haunted by the Devil in the doppelganger form of Gil-Martin, flees in mental torment from the approach of a phantom-like throng of pursuers out to take revenge for his alleged double-murder of his lover and mother. On the roof of the house in which he has taken refuge he seems to hear that:

the tumult had increased to such a degree, that it shook the house to its foundations, being louder and more furious than I could have conceived the heat of battle to be when the volleys of artillery are mixed with groans, shouts, and blasphemous cursing. It thundered and lightened; and there were screams, groans, laughter, and execrations, all intermingled.

Hogg, Confessions 159-60

Henry Crabb Robinson has this to say of Lloyd in his journal entry for 9 October 1823

Read a little of Lloyd's poems [. . .] which contain interesting characters of Charles Lamb, of Coleridge, and Wordsworth. That of Coleridge is particularly interesting on account of the affectionate admiration it breathes; but the book, the Desultory Thoughts, is a melancholy work. It is the production of a man just redeemed from a state of lunacy, and every moment in danger of falling into it again. It is the work of a man of genius, diseased, and all but mad [. . .].


Madness was a subject touched upon by Hogg in several of his works including The Three Perils of Woman (1823), and in 1830 he returned to the theme of a doppelganger in his story called "Strange Letter of a Lunatic." This story may have been a little too strange even for William Blackwood, who rejected it when it was offered to him in April 1830 despite the fact that Blackwood's became notorious for its literary assassinations and preoccupation with bloodshed, persecution and hysteria, as Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick have shown in their Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magazine (xiii).

Hogg re-wrote this strange story extensively and it was printed in the December 1830 number of Fraser's Magazine. It opens with a letter ostensibly sent to James Hogg. The writer of the letter, James Beatman, tells how he accepts a pinch of snuff taken from an elegant gold snuffbox belonging to an old man who is a complete stranger to him. Seeing the old man so overjoyed at succeeding in getting him to accept the offer he says to himself "The devil I am sure is in that body" ("Strange Letter" 158). Beatman then becomes involved in a series of extraordinary experiences. He encounters an exact alter ego who "looked as I looked, thought as I thought, and expressed what I would have said" (164) so completely that he tells himself that "I am either become two people, else I am not the right James Beatman" (160). On a boat to Alloa he drinks ginger beer and brandy and becomes very dizzy. The boat rolls and he falls on top of four ladies who scream horribly. When he arrives at Alloa, the brother of one of the young ladies demands an apology. He goes to her house and sees a "most beautiful and elegant young lady" to whom he swears that he "never till this moment beheld that lovely face of yours" (163). He is eventually challenged to a duel by his alter ego, who accuses him of being the Devil. Pistols are fired, he is injured and he ends up in a lunatic asylum where the keeper says he has "droonken away [his] seven senses" (166). He admits to "having been turned into two men, acting on various and distinct principles, yet still conscious of an idiosyncrasy" (166).

The old man with the snuffbox may be a manifestation of the protagonist in the portion of an old Scottish lyrical romance recovered by David Herd and published by him as "The wee wee Man" (sic) in 1776. Allan Cunningham, in the first of his four volumes of Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern published in 1825, identifies the wee man as "a more intractable sort of brownie or goblin [. . .] endowed with supernatural powers" whose form was "strangely distorted and disproportioned [. . .] his brows with a span between, joined the head of a giant to the limbs of a dwarf" (303-05). When in 1859 John Ritchie Findlay was shown De Quincey's dead body laid out on his bed, he found it small in build and very thin, the head seeming large in comparison (Lindop, Opium 387). Hogg had met Allan Cunningham many years before and in March 1828 corresponded with him about a contribution to a literary annual edited by Cunningham called The Anniversary, one of many such annuals in which Hogg placed more than twenty poems between 1825 and 1830 (Garside, Queer xix, xxxvi n).

James Beatman's experiences recall those of Robert Wringhim, who has to cope with a devilish doppelganger and is accused of drinking heavily and of seducing a young woman, a deed of which he has no recollection. Beatman's encounter with the old man seems to have induced in him a kind of schizophrenic state of mind similar to that of someone who is demented by drink or drugs. Hogg may have had in mind that the old man's snuff was "spiked" with the fashionable opium in the form of the "brown bitter granular powder" in which the substance was imported. There is, however, a mention of a drug-filled snuff-box in Andrew Lang's Life of Lockhart, in which he quotes a letter postmarked 29 November 1815 from Lockhart to his Oxford College friend Jonathan Christie. In this letter Lockhart records a dinner at Sir Thomas Hamilton's at which he met Thomas De Quincey. He says:

After dinner he set down two snuff-boxes on the table; one, I soon observed, contained opium pills – of these he swallowed one every now and then, while we drank our half-bottle apiece.

qtd. in Lang 98

There is another connection between Hogg's Confessions, the English Opium-Eater and a contemporary novel involving murder and parricide. In August 1823 Blackwood's printed a letter from Hogg called "A Scots Mummy" about a body found in an Ettrick grave, most of which reappears in his 1824 Confessions. In October 1823 Longmans published an anonymous novel entitled The Stranger's Grave. Attempts were made to guess the name of the author of this novel and for some time it was mistakenly assigned to Thomas De Quincey. In 1993, however, Barry Symonds revealed the author to be the Reverend George Robert Gleig, a prolific contributor of miscellaneous works to Blackwood's and other publications (105-07). [4]

In a brief reference to Gleig's novel in the "Noctes" of March 1824, Tickler says, "Well, Longman has published, however, one little book this year, that bears no marks of the knife – have you seen that clever thing – the 'Stranger's Grave', I mean." Odoherty replies, "I have to be sure, so has all the world" (Blackwood's 361). The novel is likely to have attracted the notice of Hogg, who certainly had the grave of a stranger on his mind at this time. His Confessions was published in June 1824, but in 1895 J. Shiells & Company published an edition of the novel under the lead title of The Suicide's Grave, or Memoirs and Confessions of a Sinner.

Edmund Baxter, in his introduction to his 1988 edition of The Stranger's Grave, writes:

The Stranger's Grave purports to be based upon the testament of its hero, Edward Stanley, whose life-story is recast by an elderly Editor into a third-person narrative. The supposed Editor thus strategically side-steps the inner lives of the characters: as a general rule, the Editor repeatedly refuses even to attempt to portray how Stanley (or anyone else) feels or thinks [. . .]. It is apparently beyond the Editor's powers of description to bring Stanley to life.


In Confessions it is interesting that Hogg improves on Gleig's literary technique by including the device of introducing both an Editor and a testament or set of "Memoirs." Stanley arrives in the village of Wetherall looking "young in years" but "old in misery" (19). The vicar, William Townsend, sees him in church demonstrating an unequalled "depth and even bitterness of devotion" (19). On his deathbed in Townsend's house, Stanley confesses that "there is not a crime, of which man or devil can be guilty, that I have not committed" (38), including incest, murder and parricide. In a boating accident he allowed his former sweetheart to drown in order to save his niece with whom he has fallen incestuously in love. His niece dies giving birth to a stillborn child and he later finds that his father has died of grief (as did Wringhim's) and his mother has gone mad. In response to his confessions Townsend says that "there is but one sin mentioned in the Gospel, for the commission of which no hope of pardon is held out: that sin you have not named" (40). The sin is the kind of despair that leads to a determination to commit suicide. Whatever sins Robert Wringhim has committed he may yet be redeemed through penitence unless Gil-Martin, alias the Devil, can persuade him to despair and to take his own life. It is by committing that deed that he forfeits salvation.

Unlike Wringhim Stanley demonstrates penitence by requesting the sacrament. He then points to a bundle of papers which contain the particulars of his melancholy story. He asks to be buried in the churchyard "placing a cross at my feet, and a stone at my head [. . .] and let the only inscription upon the head-stone be 'The Stranger's Grave'" (40). The Editor tells the story in the papers in his own words and the novel concludes by saying that of the cross and headstone "nothing now remains to meet the eye of the curious traveller. Time has swept them both into oblivion" (41). But for the digging-up of his hundred-year-old bones, Wringhim's grave too would have been swept into oblivion.

The theme of the devilish bondage of opium usage has concerned authors throughout the years. At the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens associated it with that of murder, maniacal aggression and sexual obsession in the character of John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A final quotation will serve to illustrate James Hogg's earlier revulsion at the unfathomable abyss into which opium "eaters" were in danger of falling. In an undated letter to Walter Scott, Hogg offered him a suggested cure for spasms in the pit of his stomach that involved pressing a palmful of gun-powder to the source of the pain. He wrote:

I fear you were very ill last night that it was found necessary to let blood – You could not be the worse of that but I have a perfect horror at Laudenum and such things as I know they would administer.

Letter [6]

In the introduction to his book on James Hogg in 1976, Douglas Gifford says that for too long Hogg has been known as the simple shepherd poet of Ettrick. He entitles his first chapter "Ettrick Hogg and Edinburgh Hogg." Since then much has been written about those aspects of Hogg's work that reflect his rural background and his understanding of traditional beliefs and ways of life as well as about those aspects that were the result of his involvement with Enlightenment Edinburgh and the Blackwoodian Circle in particular. More recently thought has been given to a wider range of influences, particularly in the Stirling-South Carolina editions of The Collected Works of James Hogg and in Studies in Hogg and his World. David Groves says that "James Hogg was a genuine Romantic poet, a creator of metaphors and myth to embody difficult truths" (80). It may be time to give further consideration to Hogg's awareness of, and relationship with, those of his contemporaries who are studied under the heading of "Romanticism."

Parties annexes