James Beattie

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 6:469-70.

JAMES BEATTIE was born on the 25th of October 1735, at Lawrencekirk, an obscure hamlet in the county of Kincardine, in Scotland. His father kept a small retail shop in the village, and at the same time rented a farm in the neighbourhood, on which his forefathers for several generations had carried on the same useful agricultural employments; he had six children, of whom our present subject was the youngest.

If from this humble line of ancestry Beattie derived no lustre, it may be truly said that he incurred no disgrace, for they were honest, and distinguished in the neighbourhood for their superior understanding. The first rudiments of education Beattie received at the parish school of Lawrencekirk, which was at that time of some reputation, and the same in which Ruddiman, the celebrated grammarian, had taught about forty years before. Even at this early period, Beattie's turn for poetry began to appear; and by his school-fellows he was named the Poet.

In the year 1749, he commenced his academical course, and attended the Greek class in Marischal college, Aberdeen, under the care of Dr. Blackwell, by whom he was much noticed. Having finished his studies at the university. In August 1753, he was appointed to be schoolmaster of the parish of Fordown, where he also filled the office of preceptor, or parish clerk. In June 1758, he was nominated assistant in the grammar seminary of Aberdeen; and in 1760 was advanced to the professorship of moral philosophy and logic in Marischal college. By this honourable appointment Beattie found himself raised to a situation of much respectability, and in which he could give ample scope to his talents, and indulge his favorite propensity, of communicating knowledge of the most important nature, and thereby promoting the best interests of mankind. Here he composed, and and afterward published his Elements of Moral Science, a most excellent compendium of lectures, prepared for the use of the students. But it was not solely to ethics, metaphysics, and logic, that Beattie devoted his time and attention at this period; he unbent his mind from studies of greater pith and moment, by a perusal of works of imagination, thereby preparing himself for the composition of those admirable essays on poetry, and other subjects of taste, which afterwards added lustre to the literature of his country.

In 1760 he put forth a collection of Original Poems and Translations, of which he avowed himself the author, and inscribed it to the Earl of Errol. These were successive, and led triumphantly on by his Judgment of Paris, a poem in 4to. The justly celebrated Essay on Truth, the all-beautiful Minstrel, and many other pieces. In June 1767, he married Miss Mary Dunn, daughter of the rector of the grammar-school at Aberdeen, a lady of great beauty and merit, and with whom he hoped for that happiness which the married state, when wisely engaged in, is calculated to insure; but unfortunately, this connexion proved to him a source of the deepest sorrow; Mrs. Beattie having inherited from her mother that most tremendous of human evils, a distempered mind, which in a few years defied medical skill, and ended in the dire necessity of a personal division, which embittered every future hour of his rise, and unquestionably contributed to bring him to his grave.

In 1763 he received an honorary degree in the theatre at Oxford, and soon after was admitted to a private audience of the king, and gratified by his royal master with a pension of two hundred pounds a year, which, added to the emoluments of his office in Scotland, enabled him to live independent, and as comfortable as a deep and undecaying sense of his domestic affliction would admit. At length a premature debility, without any acute disorder, closed his amiable and useful life, on the 18th day of August 1803.

Of all Beattie's poetical works, The Minstrel is, beyond all question, the best. The language is sweetly simple, yet polished to elegance; the versification is melodious; it exhibits the richest imagery, mingled with the most sublime, delicate, and interesting sentiment. In a word, it is at once boldly conceived, and admirably executed. His little poem of The Hermit has so much of the beauty of simplicity, and the purity of Moore, that we insert it in these selections with his Minstrel.