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Five Questions: Meiko O’Halloran on James Hogg and British Romanticism

Meiko O'Halloran - James Hogg and British Romanticism

Meiko O’Halloran is a Lecturer in Romantic Literature at Newcastle University.  She has published articles and book chapters on writers including Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Joanna Baillie and touching on topics including borders and boundaries, the theatre, poetic self-fashioning, cosmic ascents and illustration.  At the centre of her network of interests is James Hogg, the subject of her first monograph, James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art, which was published last year by Palgrave Macmillan.  Below, we discuss her book in the contexts of her long engagement with Hogg, his positions and his legacies.

1) How did you first become interested in James Hogg and his works?

My interest in Hogg began when I read The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner the summer before my second year as an undergraduate at UCL.  The narrative was riveting and I thought the idea of telling it twice from different points of view was ingenious.  The changing narrative lenses and the open-endedness of the novel made it fascinatingly indeterminate.  It’s a novel that forces you to think for yourself and I found that incredibly exciting.

I wrote an essay on the Confessions at the start of term and listened with great excitement to Karl Miller’s lecture on Hogg; Karl had retired, but he taught a series of seminars on Romantic-era fiction that year which I felt privileged to attend.  When I later decided to write a longer research essay on Hogg, John Sutherland suggested I ask Karl’s advice.  The first volumes of the Stirling/South Carolina edition of The Collected Works of James Hogg had recently been published and I wanted to write on several of Hogg’s works of fiction.  Hearing Karl talking inside his office at the time of our appointed meeting, I politely waited until he’d finished speaking before nervously knocking at the door.  I was startled when he asked, from his chaise longue, why I was twenty minutes late and revealed that he’d expected me to interrupt his phone conversation with Christopher Ricks!  After quizzing me on why I’d chosen an author who is so difficult to write about, he eventually conceded that I “might have something to say” and advised me to focus on the Confessions.  I got a pass to the British Library reading room (then in the British Museum) and began my research.  Karl was kind enough to take an interest in reading my essay after I graduated, and over the next seventeen years, we became friends.

I’d planned to include Hogg’s work in my proposed Oxford MPhil thesis on Romantic Outcasts, but when the time came, Hogg didn’t seem to fit in!  I abandoned the outcasts and, with Fiona Stafford’s encouragement, decided to concentrate on developing my understanding of Hogg’s fiction instead.  This paved the way for my DPhil.  Little did I realise that my graduate research would eventually lead me to argue for Hogg’s inclusion in and centrality to British Romanticism.

2) How did you come to settle on the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the kinds of art which Hogg produced?

Changeability is a feature of nearly all Hogg’s works—in his handling of literary form, genre, voice, and so on.  But it wasn’t until I returned to the Confessions to write about it in my DPhil thesis that I was struck by its kaleidoscopic qualities—in the multiple interpretative possibilities that are opened and the startling effects produced on readers’ sympathies by continuously shifting the narrative lens.  The most impressive shape-shifter in the novel, Gil-Martin, is said to have the ‘cameleon art’ [sic] of changing his appearance; it seemed to me that the novel also reconfigures its identity continuously, and that Hogg himself demonstrates an enjoyment of shape-shifting across his literary career—through his bold experiments with literary form and by playing with his own identities, as well as creating protean characters in his works.

To my surprise, I found that Hogg had been friends with David Brewster, a fellow Borderer from Scotland, who had invented the kaleidoscope at a time when they were both living in Edinburgh.  I learnt more about the features which made Brewster’s invention a sensation all over Europe in the late 1810s.  I had no idea that Brewster’s kaleidoscope was so sophisticated.  Its most distinctive feature was the huge array of choices it gave viewers.  It was up to each viewer to choose how to assemble the kaleidoscope (in its ‘simple’, polyangular, annular, parallel, polycentral, or stereoscopic forms) and to select what items to put in the viewing cell at one end (these could include beads, glass, coloured fluids, spun thread, or painted images).  If the objects in the cell were loose, the kaleidoscope could produce an infinite number of images, making each viewing unique.  Viewers were also encouraged to experiment with looking at objects outside the instrument, using the kaleidoscope in its telescopic or microscopic modes.  Hogg was fascinated by optical science—as seen in his dramatic use of the Brocken Spectre at Arthur’s Seat in the Confessions—but it’s the unpredictability of his genre-mixing and the range of interpretative choices he gives readers that makes the kaleidoscope such a fitting analogy.

Brewster’s kaleidoscope offers a model from Hogg’s day that foregrounds the flexibility and endless creativity that characterises him as a writer.  It’s tremendously helpful for reassessing Hogg’s work as both a maker and a viewer of Romantic literary culture.  The idea of a ‘kaleidoscopic’ literary practice helps us to understand Hogg’s radical literary aesthetic—his creation of textual spaces in which readers can exercise choice and play with their perceptions.  But the kaleidoscope is also wonderfully apt for defining Hogg’s art because in the act of turning the kaleidoscope, the reflections of the objects being viewed are continually realigned so that the viewer sees what was peripheral becoming central and what was central being moved to the periphery.  Hogg, who was (and is still) often regarded as a “minor” or “marginal” writer, not only shakes up, plays with, and juxtaposes existing literary genres and traditions, but also re-focalises readers’ attention through a range of narrative perspectives, some of which involve placing himself at the centre of his works.  He repeatedly repositions himself and his readers in relation to his texts in ways that force us to reassess our views.

3) What do you think are the main insights that can be gained through situating Hogg as a central figure in British Romanticism?

Hogg positions himself centrally in The Poetic Mirror, or The Living Bards of Britain (1816), and invites us to examine an emerging Romantic poetic canon both from the inside and the outside.  Crucially, here, as elsewhere, he is a critical viewer as well as a maker of literary culture.  Through his kaleidoscopic unsettling of readers’ perceptions of what is central and peripheral, his self-positioning invites us to reconsider British Romanticism itself; with Hogg at the centre of the picture, it looks more miscellaneous, expansive, and dynamically unpredictable.

Hogg was widely known in the Romantic marketplace as the author of The Queen’s Wake (1813) and many short stories, and the Ettrick Shepherd of the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae’ in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.  By returning him to a central place in his era, we see that his inventiveness and playfulness are absolutely part of the wider Romantic practice of genre-mixing—and that, like William Blake, he is one of the most exciting and daring genre-mixers of them all.  Given that Hogg is experimenting with literary form in more invigorating and extreme ways than many of the poets in Stuart Curran’s Poetic Form and British Romanticism (1986) or other genre-mixers in David Duff’s fascinating Romanticism and the Uses of Genre (2009), it becomes clear that his work deserves substantial attention in critical accounts of Romantic formal experimentation.

Resituating Hogg as a central figure in British Romanticism also enables us to examine a much broader array of his intertextual relationships.  While it’s wonderful that he is now recognised as a major figure in Scottish Romanticism, there’s still a critical tendency to compare him with his most “proximate” models, Burns and Scott, or to pigeonhole the Confessions as a defiant reaction to the manipulation of his identity in Blackwood’s.  This critical mould tends to emphasise Hogg as a rebellious victim of the literary marketplace rather than an inventive and willing player in it, in a way that can misrepresent or reduce his creative achievement.  Examining the distinctive, kaleidoscopic quality of his work puts him into productive dialogue as well as dispute with many of his more famous contemporaries, and opens up our understanding of his agency, his flexible self-positioning as an author, and his deft use of a plethora of literary traditions.  I explore his responses to major English as well as Scottish writers, because the work of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sterne was demonstrably as important and stimulating to his imagination as, say, that of Macpherson, Burns, and Scott, or Byron, who was half Scottish.

4) Which particular works by Hogg – beyond the obvious Confessions of a Justified Sinner – would you recommend to scholars seeking to incorporate insights from his works into undergraduate and taught postgraduate courses?

My top recommendation is The Poetic Mirror which includes Hogg’s parodies of Wordsworth and Coleridge and is brilliant for discussing canon-making and the tensions and competiveness that are part of that process.  It would be great to teach alongside the Smith brothers’ Rejected Addresses, Byron’s English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, or Leigh Hunt’s The Feast of Poets, for example.  I think Hogg’s witty mock epic about ancient Scotland, Queen Hynde (1824), would be fantastic to teach alongside Don Juan and other Romantic appropriations of the epic.  I’ve found that undergraduates and postgraduates learn a lot from reading The Pilgrims of the Sun (1815) in dialogue with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Queen Mab due to its use of otherworld journeys, pantheistic ideas, and syncretic methods.

Students who are interested in pursuing Hogg’s experimental narrative techniques beyond the Confessions should read Tales of the Wars of Montrose (1835), which is fascinatingly rich and surprisingly critically neglected; the EUP edition is available in paperback, which is helpful for teaching purposes.  Lots of the stories in The Shepherd’s Calendar (1829) and Winter Evening Tales (1820) are also full of unexpected narrative techniques and many of them draw on rural superstition and folklore in a way that’s illuminating to consider in relation to urban magazine culture, the rise of the short story, and the Gothic.  The Three of Perils of Woman (1823) is well worth studying for ideas of nationhood, the treatment of history, and formal innovation in the novel.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

My new book project examines how Romantic poets reconceptualised the role of the poet and the social value of poetry, using imagined places and otherworld journeys to confront real-world issues.  I explore how, in picking up the mantle of first-generation poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, poets who included Shelley, Hogg, Keats, and Byron sought to sustain a radicalism of form and imagination by reconnecting with a longer poetic ancestry—which included epic forefathers, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, as well as popular ballads of supernatural abduction.

One Response to Five Questions: Meiko O’Halloran on James Hogg and British Romanticism

  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking comments; even if poetry is not one’s forte.

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