JOSEPH BEAUMONT, a contemporary and opponent of [Henry] More, was born at Hadleigh, in Suffolk, March 13th, 1615, and having received the rudiments of his education in the Grammar School of that town, he was, in his sixteenth year, sent to Cambridge, and entered of Peterhouse. The love of study, which had marked his boyhood, accompanied him to the University, and together with the propriety of his demeanour, attracted the notice of Dr. Cosins, the master of Peterhouse. After obtaining his Bachelor's Degree, he was elected Fellow and Tutor of his College. The rebellion, however, drove him from Cambridge, and he retired to his native place, where he forgot his persecutions in the composition of his elaborate poem Psyche, which he completed with astonishing rapidity. Of this work, Pope has observed that it contains a great many flowers well worth the gathering, and that a man who has the art of stealing wisely, will find his account in reading it.
Beaumont possessed in Bishop Wren, a sincere friend and a liberal patron: when deprived of all his preferments by the Parliament, that Prelate welcomed him to his house, appointed him domestic chaplain, and in 1650, gave him his step-daughter in marriage: with this lady, Beaumont lived in retirement until the Restoration drew him from his seclusion. He was created Doctor of Divinity in 1660, by the King's Letters, and from this time his life was prosperous and tranquil. He succeeded Dr. Pearson in the Mastership of Jesus College, in 1662, which he shortly afterwards exchanged for that of Peterhouse. In 1670, he was chosen Regius Professor of Divinity, a situation he retained till his death in 1699. He was buried in the College Chapel, where his son Charles also lies.
Beaumont has been highly commended for the excellence of his Latin style. He was, also, an artist. The pictures by the altar of Peterhouse were drawn by him in chalk and charcoal; and Carter, the Cambridge historian, thought the Wise Men's Offering, on the north side, particularly fine.
Dr. Southey has condemned Psyche to oblivion, as unreadably dull; and few students will be found armed with sufficient patience to penetrate through the dreariness of its twenty cantos. But the barren heath is intersected by many green and flowery paths, and nourished by little streams of genuine poetry. The misfortune is, that we grow weary before we find them. The poem represents the intercourse between Christ and the human spirit; and Beaumont endeavoured to portray a soul conducted by Divine Grace and its guardian Angel, through all the temptations and assaults of its earthly enemies, into the permanent happiness of heaven. If he had restricted himself to an undeviating observance of this outline, many of the defects of the work would have been avoided; but he added fable to fable, and piled truth upon fiction, with so rash and tasteless a hand, as to impair not only the aspect, but the foundation of the structure. It may not be just to censure him for the familiarity of his expressions, and the ludicrous contrasts which every page presents. The theological literature of the age is open to a like reproof. In one of Dr. Hammond's Sermons, the angels are called "glittering courtiers of the superior world:" and the reader of Jeremy Taylor will not require to be reminded how often that master of eloquence degrades the dignity of a comparison by a common allusion or inappropriate expletive, or how frequently he raises statues of pure gold on pedestals of clay. In his sublimest productions these spots are visible, detracting from the solemnity of the theme, in the same manner as a humorous extravagance of Hogarth sketched in the corner of a picture by Raphael. While Taylor only stooped at long intervals to the prevailing corruptions of style, Beaumont seldom elevated himself above them. But when he rose into a clearer element, his imagination was proportionably spiritualized. When he unfolds the "ruby gates" of the Orient, and discloses to our eyes the spirit of the Morning "mounting his chariot of gold," whose diamond wheels" burn along the paths of Heaven, we regret that his taste was not always the handmaid of his fancy.
Beaumont has not been admitted into any collection of specimens of our poets; but the advice of Pope has drawn a few industrious eyes to his pages. A recent critic has traced Milton, Pope, and Collins, to his works; and has quoted the following verses, as the probable original of a very beautiful passage in Kehama [by Robert Southey]:
Here having knocked her breast and turned her eye,
Her generous eye, three times upon the cup,
She chid herself profoundly with a sigh,
And looking then with noble furour up,—
"Yet why should I demur," she cried, "since mine
Own will is not my own, but long since thine."
"And now I know thy will is mingled here
With this sad potion, whatsoever be
The present relish, Psyche does not fear
But it will end in perfect suavity.
I fear it not" — and here she took the cup,
And bravely to the bottom drank it up.