JAMES BEATTIE was born in the parish of Lawrence Kirk, in Kincardineshire, Scotland. His father, who rented a small farm in that parish, died when the poet was only seven years old, but the loss of a protector was happily supplied to him by his elder brother, who kept him at school till he obtained a bursary at the Marischal College, Aberdeen. At that university he took the degree of master of arts; and, at nineteen, he entered on the study of divinity, supporting himself, in the mean time, by teaching a school in the neighbouring parish. Whilst he was in this obscure situation, some pieces of verse, which he transmitted to the Scottish Magazine, gained him a little local celebrity. Mr. Garden, an eminent Scotish lawyer, afterwards Lord Gardenstone, and Lord Monboddo, encouraged him as an ingenious young man and introduced him to the tables of the neighbouring gentry: an honour not usually extended to a parochial schoolmaster. In 1757, he stood candidate for the place of usher in the high-school of Aberdeen. He was foiled by a competitor, who surpassed him in the minutiae of Latin grammar; but his character as a scholar suffered so little by the disappointment, that at the next vacancy he was called to the place without a trial. He had not been long at this school, when, in 1761, he published a volume of Original Poems and Translations which (it speaks much for the critical clemency of the times) were favourably received, and highly commended in the English Reviews. So little satisfied was the author himself with those early effusions, that, excepting four, which he admitted to a subsequent edition of his works, he was anxious to have them consigned to oblivion; and he destroyed every copy of the volume which he could procure. About the age of twenty-six, he obtained the chair of Moral Philosophy in the Marischal College of Aberdeen, a promotion which he must have owed to his general reputation in literature: but it is singular, that the friend who first proposed to solicit the High Constable of Scotland to obtain this appointment, should have grounded the proposal on the merit of Beattie's poetry. In the volume already mentioned there can scarcely be said to be a budding promise of genius.
Upon his appointment to this professorship, which he held for forty years, he immediately prepared a course of lectures for the students; and gradually compiled materials for those prose works, on which his name would rest with considerable reputation, if he were not known as a poet. It is true, that he is not a first-rate metaphysician; and the Scotch, in undervaluing his powers of abstract and close reasoning, have been disposed to give him less credit than he deserves, as an elegant and amusing writer. But the English, who must be best able to judge of his style, admire it for an ease, familiarity, and an Anglicism that is not to be found even in the correct and polished diction of Blair. His mode of illustrating abstract questions is fanciful and interesting.
In 1766, he published a poem entitled The Judgment of Paris, which his biographer, Sir William Forbes, did not think fit to rank among his works. For more obvious reasons Sir William excluded his lines, written in the subsequent year, on the proposal for erecting a monument to Churchill in Westminster Abbey — lines which have no beauty or dignity to redeem their bitter expression of hatred. On particular subjects, Beattie's virtuous indignation was apt to be hysterical. Dr. Reid and Dr. Campbell hated the principles of David Hume as sincerely as the author of the Essay on Truth; but they never betrayed more than philosophical hostility, while Beattie used to speak of the propriety of excluding Hume from civil society.
His reception of Gray, when that poet visited Scotland in 1765, shows the enthusiasm of his literary character in a finer light. Gray's mind was not in poetry only, but in many usher respects, peculiarly congenial with his own, and nothing could exceed the cordial and reverential welcome which Beattie gave to his illustrious visitant. In 1770, he published his Essay on Truth, which had a rapid sale, and extensive popularity; and within a twelvemonth after, the first part of his Minstrel. The poem appeared at first anonymously; but its beauties were immediately and justly appreciated. The second part was not published till 1774. When Gray criticised the Minstrel he objected to its author, that, after many stanzas, the description went on and the narrative stopped. Beattie very justly answered to this criticism, that he meant the poem for description, not for incident. But he seems to have forgotten this proper apology, when he mentions in one of his letters his intention of producing Edwin, in some subsequent books, in the character of a warlike bard inspiring his countrymen to battle, and contributing to repel their invaders. This intention, if he ever seriously entertained it, might have produced some new kind of poem, but would have formed all incongruous counterpart to the piece as it now stands, which, as a picture of still life, and a vehicle of contemplative morality, has a charm that is inconsistent with the bold evolutions of heroic narrative. After having portrayed his young enthusiast with such advantage in a state of visionary quiet, it would have been too violent a transition to have begun in a new book to surround him with dates of time and names of places. The interest which we attach to Edwin's character, would have been lost in a more ambitious effort to make him a greater or more important, or a more locally defined being. It is the solitary growth of his genius, and his isolated and mystic abstraction from mankind, that fix our attention on the romantic features of that genius. The simplicity of his fate does not divert us from his mind to his circumstances. A more unworldly air is given to his character, that instead of being tacked to the fate of kings, he was one "Who envied not, who never thought of kings;" and that, instead of mingling with the troubles which deface the creation, he only existed to make his thoughts the mirror of its beauty and magnificence. Another English critic has blamed Edwin's vision of the fairies as too splendid and artificial for a simple youth; but there in nothing in the situation ascribed to Edwin, as he lived in minstrel days, that necessarily excluded such materials from his fancy. Had he beheld steam-engines or dock-yards in his sleep, the vision might have been pronounced to be too artificial; but he might have heard of fairies and their dances, and even of tapers, gold, and gems, from the ballads of his native country. In the second book of the poem there are some fine stanzas; but he has taken Edwin out of the school of nature, and placed him in his own, that of moral philosophy; and hence a degree of languor is experienced by the reader.
Soon after the publication of the Essay on Truth, and of the first part of the Minstrel, he paid his first visit to London. His reception in the highest literary and polite circles, was distinguished and flattering. The university of Oxford conferred on him the degree of doctor of laws, and the sovereign himself, besides honouring him with a personal conference, bestowed on him a pension of £200 a year.
On his return to Scotland, there was a proposal for transferring him to the university of Edinburgh, which he expressed his wish to decline, from a fear of those personal enemies whom he had excited by his Essay on Truth. This motive, if it was his real one, must have been connected with that weakness and irritability on polemical subjects which have been already alluded to. His metaphysical fame perhaps stood higher in Aberdeen than in Edinburgh; but to have dreaded personal hostility in the capital of a religious country, amidst thousands of individuals as pious as himself, was a weakness unbecoming the professed champion of truth. For reasons of delicacy, more creditable to his memory, he declined a living in the church of England which was offered to him by his friend Dr. Porteous.
After this, there is not much incident in his life. He published a volume of his Essays in 1776, and another in 1783; and the outline of his academical lectures in 1790. In the same year, he edited, at Edinburgh, Addison's papers in The Spectator, and wrote a preface for the edition. He was very unfortunate in his family. The mental disorder of his wife, for a long time before it assumed the shape of decided derangement, broke out in caprices of temper, which disturbed his domestic peace, and almost precluded him from having visitors in his family. The loss of his son, James Hay Beattie, a young man of highly promising talents, who had been conjoined with him in his professorship, was the greatest, though not the last calamity of his life. He made an attempt to revive his spirits after that melancholy event, by another journey to England, and some of his letters from thence bespeak a temporary composure and cheerfulness; but the wound was never healed. Even music, of which he had always been fond, ceased to be agreeable to him, from the lively recollections which it excited of the hours which he had been accustomed to spend in that recreation with his favourite boy. He published the poems of this youth, with a partial eulogy upon his genius, such as might be well excused from a father so situated. At the end of six years more, his other son, Montague Beattie, was also cut off in the flower of his youth. This misfortune crushed his spirits even to temporary alienation of mind. With his wife in a madhouse, his sons dead, and his own health broken, he might be pardoned for saying, as he looked on the corpse of his last child, "I have done with this world." Indeed he acted as if he felt so; for though he performed the duties of his professorship till within a short time of his death, he applied to no study, enjoyed no society, and answered but few letters of his friends. Yet, amidst the depth of his melancholy, he would sometimes acquiesce in his childless fate, and exclaim, "How could I have borne to see their elegant minds mangled with madness!" He was struck with a palsy in 1799, by repeated attacks of which his life terminated in 1803.