JAMES BEATTIE was born on the 25th of October, 1735, at Laurencekirk, in the county of Kincardine, in Scotland. His father, who kept a small shop in that place, and rented a little farm near it, is said to have been s man of acquirements superior to his condition. At his death, the management of his concerns devolved on his widow. David, the eldest of her six children, was of an age to assist his mother. James, the youngest, she placed at the parish school of his native village, which about forty years before had been raised to some celebrity by Ruddiman, the grammarian, and was then kept by one Milne. This man had also a competent skill in grammar. His other deficiencies were supplied by the natural quickness of his pupil, and by the attention of Mr. Thomson, the minister of Laurencekirk, who, being a man of learning, admitted young Beattie to the use of his library, and probably animated him by his encouragement. He very early became sensible to the charms of English verse, to which he was first awakened by the perusal of Ogilby's Virgil. Before he was ten years old, he was as well acquainted with that writer and Homer, as the versions of Pope and Dryden could make him. His schoolfellows distinguished him by the name of the Poet.
At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he attended the Greek class, taught by Dr. Blackwell, author of the Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, and was by him singled out as the most promising of his scholars. The slender pittance spared him by his mother would scarcely have sufficed for his support, if he had not added to it one of the bursaries or pensions that were bestowed on the most deserving candidates. Of a discourse which he was called on to deliver at the Divinity Hall, it was observed, that he spoke poetry in prose. Thomson was censured for a similar impropriety in one of his youthful exercises; but Beattie gained the applause of his audience.
His academical education being completed, on the 1st of August, 1753, he was satisfied with the humble appointment of parish-clerk and schoolmaster at the village of Fordoun, about six miles distant from Laurencekirk. Here he attracted the notice of Mr. Garden, at that time sheriff of the county, and afterwards one of the Scotch judges, with the appellation of Lord Gardenstown. In a romantic glen near his house, he chanced to find Beattie with pencil and paper in his hand; and, on questioning him, discovered that he was engaged in the composition of a poem. Mr. Garden desired to see some of his other poems; and doubting whether they were his own productions, requested him to translate the invocation to Venus at the opening of Lucretius, which Beattie did in such a manner as to remove his incredulity. In this retirement, he also became known to Lord Monboddo) whose family seat was in the parish; and a friendly intercourse ensued, which did not terminate till the death of that learned but visionary man. In 1758, he was removed from his employment at Fordoun, to that of usher in the Grammar School at Aberdeen, for which he had been an unsuccessful competitor in the preceding year, but was now nominated without the form of a trial.
At Aberdeen, his heart seems to have taken up its rest; for no temptations could afterwards seduce him for any length of time to quit it. The professorship of Natural Philosophy in the Marischal College, where he had lately been a student, being vacant in 1760, Mr. Arbuthnot, one of his friends, exerted himself with so much zeal in the behalf of Beattie, that he obtained that appointment; although the promotion was such as his most sanguine wishes did not aspire to. Soon after he was further gratified, by being permitted to exchange it for the professorship of Moral Philosophy and Logic, for which he thought himself better fitted. In discharge of the duties belonging to his new function, he immediately entered on a course of lectures, which, as appears from his diary in the possession of Sir William Forbes, he repeated with much diligence for more than thirty years.
This occupation could not have been very favourable to his poetical propensity. He had, since his twentieth year, been occasionally a contributor of verse to the Scots Magazine; and in 1760, he published a collection of poems, inscribed to the Earl of Erroll, to whose intervention he had been partly indebted for the office he held in the college. Though the number of these pieces was not considerable, he omitted several of them in subsequent editions, and among others a translation of Virgil's Eclogues, some specimens of which, adduced in a letter written by Lord Woodhouselee, author of the Principles of Translation, will stand a comparison with the parallel passages in Dryden and Warton.
In the summer of 1763, his curiosity led him for the first time to London, where Andrew Millar the bookseller, was almost his only acquaintance. Of this journey no particular is recorded but that he visited Pope's house at Twickenham.
In 1765, having sent a letter of compliment to Gray, then on a visit to the Earl of Strathmore, he was invited to Glammis Castle, the residence of that nobleman, to meet the English poet, in whom he found such a combination of excellence as he had hitherto been a stranger to. This appears from a letter written to Sir William Forbes, his faithful friend and biographer, with whom his intimacy commenced about the same time.
"I am sorry you did not see Mr. Gray on his return; you would have been much pleased with him. Setting aside his merit as a poet, which, however, in my opinion, is greater than any of his contemporaries can boast, in this or in any other nation, I found him possessed of the most exact taste, the soundest judgment, and the most extensive learning. He is happy in a singular facility of expression. His conversation abounds in original observations, delivered with no appearance of sententious formality, and seeming to arise spontaneously, without study or premeditation. I passed two very agreeable days with him at Glammis, and found him as easy in his manners, and as communicative and frank as I could have wished."
Gray could not have requited him with such excess of admiration; but continued during the rest of his life to regard Beattie with affection and esteem. It was not till the spring of this year, when his Judgment of Paris was printed, that he again appeared before the public as an author. This piece he inserted in the next edition of his poems, in 1766, but his more mature judgment afterwards induced him to reject it. Some satirical verses on the death of Churchill, at first published without his name, underwent the same fate. The Wolf and the Shepherds, a Fable, and an Epistle to the Rev. Mr. Thomas Blacklock, which appeared in the second edition, he also discarded from those subsequently published. He now projected and began The Minstrel, the most popular of his poems. Had the original plan been adhered to, it would have embraced a much wider scope.
In 1767, he married Mary, the daughter of Dr. Dun, rector of the Grammar School at Aberdeen. This union was not productive of the happiness which a long course of previous intimacy had entitled him to expect. The object of his choice inherited from her mother a constitutional malady which at first shewed itself in capricious waywardness, and at length broke out into insanity.
From this misery he sought refuge in the exercise of his mind. His residence at Aberdeen had brought him into the society of several among his countrymen who were engaged in researches well suited to employ his attention to its utmost stretch. Of these the names of Reid, author of An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense — and Campbell, Principal of Marischal College, author of An Essay on Miracles, are the most distinguished. His own correspondence with his friends about this time evinces deep concern at the progress of the sceptical philosophy, diffused by the writings of Hobbes, Hume, Manville, and even, in his opinion, of Locke and Berkeley. Conceiving the study of metaphysics itself to be the origin of this mischief, in order that the evil might be intercepted at its source, he proposed to demonstrate the futility of that science, and to appeal to the common sense and unsophisticated feelings of mankind, as the only infallible criterion on subjects in which it had formerly been made the standard. That his meaning was excellent, no one can doubt; whether he discovered the right remedy for die harm which he was desirous of removing, is much more questionable. To magnify any branch of human knowledge beyond its just importance may, indeed, tend to weaken the force of religious faith; but many acute metaphysicians have been good Christians; and before the question thus agitated can be set at rest, we must suppose a certain proficiency in those inquiries which he would proscribe as dangerous. After all, we can discover no more reason why sciolists in metaphysics should bring that study into discredit, than that religion itself should be disparaged through the extravagance of fanaticism. To have met the subject fully, he ought to have shewn that not only those opinions which he controverts are erroneous, but that all the systems of former metaphysicians were so likewise.
The Essay on Truth, in which he endeavoured to establish his own hypothesis, being finished in 1769, he employed Sir William Forbes and Mr. Arbuthnot to negotiate its sale with the booksellers. They, however, refused to purchase it on any terms; and the work would have remained unpublished, if his two friends, making use of a little pious fraud, had not informed him that the manuscript was sold for fifty guineas, a sum which they at the same time remitted him, and that they had stipulated with the booksellers to be partakers in the profits. The book accordingly appeared in the following year; and having gained many admirers, was quickly followed by a second impression, which he revised and corrected with much pains.
In the autumn of 1771, he again visited London, where the reputation obtained by the Essay and by the first book of The Minstrel, then recently published, opened for him an introduction into the circles most respectable for rank and literature. Lord Lyttelton declared that it seemed to him his once most beloved minstrel, Thomson, was come down from Heaven refined by the converse of purer spirits than those he lived with here, to let him hear him sing again the beauties of nature and the finest feelings of virtue, not with human, but with angelic strains. He added his wishes that it were in his power to do Beattie any service. From Mrs. Montagu he on different occasions received more substantial tokens of regard.
Except the trifling emolument derived from his writings, he had hitherto been supported merely by the small income appended to his professorship. But the Earl of Dartmouth, a nobleman to whom nothing that concerned the interests of religion was indifferent, representing him as a fit object of the royal bounty, a pension of two hundred pounds a year was now granted him. Previously to his obtaining this favour, he was first presented to the King, and was then honoured by an interview with both their Majesties. The particulars of this visit were minutely recorded in his diary. After much commendation of his Essay, the sovereign pleasantly told him that he had never stolen but one book, and that was his. "I stole it from the Queen," said his Majesty, "to give it to Lord Hertford to read." In the course of the conversation, many questions were put to him concerning the Scotch Universities, the revenues of the Scotch clergy, and their mode of preaching and praying. When Beattie replied, that their clergy sometimes prayed a quarter or even half an hour without interruption, the King observed, that this practice must lead into repetitions; and that even our own liturgy, excellent as it is, is faulty in this respect. While the subject of his pension was under consideration, the Queen made a tender of some present to him through Dr. Majendie, but he declined to encroach on her Majesty's munificence, unless the application made to the crown in his behalf should prove unsuccessful. A mercenary spirit, indeed, was not one of his weaknesses. Being on a visit at Bulstrode, his noble hostess the Duchess of Portland, would have had him take a present of a hundred pounds to defray the expenses of his journey into England; but he excused himself, as well as he was able, for not accepting her Grace's bounty.
With his pension, his wishes appear to have been bounded. Temptation to enter into orders in our church was thrice offered him, and as often rejected; once in the shape of a general promise of patronage from Dr. Drummond, Archbishop of York; next, of a small living in Dorsetshire, in the gift of Mr. John Pitt and the third time, of a much more valuable benefice, which was at the disposal of Dr. Thomas, Bishop of Winchester. In answer to Dr. Porteus, through whom the last of these offers came, and whose friendship he enjoyed during the remainder of his life, he represented in addition to other reasons for his refusal, that he was apprehensive lest his acceptance of preferment might render the motives for his writing the Essay on Truth suspected. He at the same time avowed, that if "he were to have become a clergyman, the church of England would certainly have been his choice; as he thought that in regard to church-government and church-service, it had many great and peculiar advantages." Unwillingness to part from Aberdeen was, perhaps, at the bottom of these stout resolutions. It was confessedly one of the reasons for which he declined a proposition made to him in the year 1773, to remove to the chair of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh; though he was urged by his friends not to neglect this opportunity of extending the sphere of his usefulness, and the change would have brought him much pecuniary advantage. His reluctance to comply was increased by the belief that there were certain persons at Edinburgh to whom his principles had given offence, and in whose neighbourhood he did not expect to live so quietly as he wished. In the same year, he was complimented with the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, by the University of Oxford, at the installation of Lord North in the Chancellorship .
He now, therefore, lived on at Aberdeen, making occasionally brief visits to England, where he was always welcome, both at the court and by those many individuals of eminence to whom his talents and virtues had recommended him. In the summers he usually indulged himself with passing some time at Peterhead, a town situated on the most easterly promontory of Scotland, and resorted to for its medicinal waters, which he thought beneficial to his health; for he had early in life been subject to a vertiginous disorder, the recurrence of which at times incapacitated him for any serious application.
The second book of the Minstrel appeared in 1774. In 1776 he was prevailed on to publish, by subscription in a more splendid form, his Essay on Truth, which was now accompanied by two other essays, On Poetry and Music, and On Laughter and Ludicrous Composition; and by Remarks on the Utility of Classical Learning. This was succeeded in 1783, by Dissertations moral and critical, on Memory and Imagination, on Dreaming, on the Theory of Language, on Fable and Romance, on the Attachments of Kindred, and on Illustrations of Sublimity; being, as he states in the preface, "part of a course of prelections read to those young gentlemen whom it was his business to initiate in the elements of moral science." In 1786, he published a small treatise, entitled Evidences of the Christian Religion, at the suggestion of Porteus, who was now a bishop; and in 1790 and 1793 two volumes of Elements of Moral Science, containing an abridgment of his public lectures on moral philosophy and logic.
His only remaining publication was an edition of the juvenile works of the elder of his two sons, who was taken off by a consumption (November 1790), at the age of twenty-two. To the education of this boy he had attended with such care and discernment as the anxiety of a parent only could dictate, and bad watched his unfolding excellence with fondness such as none but a parent could feel. At the risque of telling my reader what he may, perhaps, well remember, I cannot but relate the method which he had taken to impress on his mind, when a child, the sense of his dependence on a Supreme Being; of which Porteus well observed, that it had all the imagination of Rousseau, without his folly and extravagance.
"The doctrines of religion," said Beattie, "I had wished to impress on his mind, as soon as it might be prepared to receive them; but I did not see the propriety of making him commit to memory theological sentences, or any sentences which it was not possible for him to understand. And I was desirous to make a trial how far his own reason could go in tracing out, with a little direction, the great and first principle of all religion, the being of God. The following fact is mentioned, not as a proof of superior sagacity in him (for I have no doubt that most children would, in like circumstances, think as he did), but merely as a moral or logical experiment. He had reached his fifth or sixth year, knew the alphabet, and could read a little; but had received no particular information with respect to the Author of his being: because I thought he could not yet understand such information; and be cause I had learned, from my own experience, that to be made to repeat words not understood, is extremely detrimental to the faculties of a young mind. In a corner of a little garden, without informing any person of the circumstance, I wrote in the mould, with my finger, the three initial letters of his name; and sowing garden cresses in the furrows, covered up the seed, and smoothed the ground. Ten days after, he came running to me, and with astonishment in his countenance told me, that his name was growing in the garden. I smiled at the report, and seemed inclined to disregard it; but he insisted on my going to see what had happened. 'Yes,' said I, carelessly, on coming to the place, 'I see it is so; but there is nothing in this worth notice; it is mere chance;' and I went away. He followed me, and taking hold of my coat, said with some earnestness, 'It could not be mere chance, for that somebody must have contrived matters so as to produce it.' I pretend not to give his words, or my own, for I have forgotten both; but I give the substance of what passed between us in such language as we both understood. — 'So you think,' I said, 'that what appears so regular as the letters of your name cannot be by chance.' 'Yes,' said he, with firmness, 'I think so.' 'Look at yourself,' I replied, 'and consider your hands and fingers, your legs and feet, and other limbs; are they not regular in their appearance, and useful to you?' He said, 'they were.' 'Came you then hither,' said I, 'by chance? 'No,' he answered, that cannot be; something must have made me.' 'And who is that something?' I asked. He said, 'he did not know.' (I took particular notice, that he did not say, as Rousseau fancies a child in like circumstances would say, that his parents made him.) I had now gained the point I aimed at; and saw, that his reason taught him (though he could not so express it) that what begins to be must have an intelligent cause I therefore told him the name of the Great Being who made him and all the world; concerning whose adorable nature I gave him such information as I thought he could, in some measure, comprehend. The lesson affected him greatly, and he never forgot either it or the circumstance that introduced it."
So great was the docility of this boy, that before he had reached his twentieth year, he had been thought capable of succeeding his father in his office of public professor. When death had extinguished those hopes the comfort and expectation of the parent were directed to his only surviving child, who, with less application and patience, had yet a quickness of perception that promised to supply the place of those qualities. But this prospect did not continue to cheer him long. In March 1796, the youth was attacked by a fever, which, in seven days, laid him by the side of his brother. He was in his eighteenth year. The sole consolation, with which this world could now supply Beattie, was, that if his sons had lived, he might have seen them a prey to that miserable distemper under which their mother, whose state had rendered a separation from her family unavoidable, was still labouring. From this total bereavement he sometimes found a short relief in the estrangement of his own mind, which refused to support the recollection of such a load of sorrow. "Many times," says Sir William Forbes, "he could not recollect what had become of his son; and after searching in every room of the house, he would say to his niece, 'Mrs. Glennie, you may think it strange, but I must ask you, if I have a son, and where he is?'" That man must be a stern moralist who would censure him very severely for having sought, as he sometimes did, a renewal of this oblivion in his cups.
He was unable any longer to apply himself to study, and left most of the letters he received from his friends unanswered. Music, in which he had formerly delighted, he could not endure to hear from others, after the loss of his first son; though a few months before the death of the second, he had begun to accompany him when he sang, on his own favourite instrument, which was the violoncello. Afterwards, as may be supposed, the sound of it was painful to him. He still took some pleasure in books, and in the company of a very few amongst his oldest friends. This was his condition till the beginning of April 1799, when he was seized with a paralytic stroke, which rendered his speech imperfect for several days. During the rest of his life he had repeated attacks of the same malady: the last, which happened on the 6th of October, 1802, entirely deprived him of motion. He languished, however, till the 18th of August in the following year, when nature being exhausted, he expired without a struggle.
He was interred, according to his own desire, by the side of his two sons, in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, at Aberdeen, with the following inscription from the pen of Dr. James Gregory, Professor of Physic, at Edinburgh.
JACOBI BEATTIE. LL.D.
In. Academia. Marescallana. Hujus. Urbis.
Per. XLIII. Annos.
Pietati. Probitate. Igenio. Atque. Doctrina.
Scriptoris. Elegantissimi. Poetae. Suavissimi.
Philosophi. Vere. Christiani.
Natus. Est. V. Nov. Anno. MDCCXXXV.
Obiit. XVIII. Aug. MDCCCIII.
Omnibus. Liberis. Orbus.
Quorum. Natu. Maximus. JACOBUS. HAY.
Vel. A. Puerilibus. Annis.
Patrio. Vigens. Ingenio.
Novumque. Decus. Jam. Addens. Paterno.
Suis. Carissimus. Patriae. Flebilis.
Lenta. Tabe. Consumptus. Peritt.
Anno. Aetatis. SSIII.
GEO. ET. MAR. GLENNIE.
H. M. P.
"In his person," says Sir William Forbes, "Doctor Beattie was of the middle size, though not elegantly yet not awkwardly formed, but with something of a slouch in his gait. His eyes were black and piercing, with an expression of sensibility somewhat bordering on melancholy; except when engaged in cheerful and social intercourse with his friends, when they were exceedingly animated." In a portrait of him, taken in middle life by Reynolds, and given to him as a mark of his regard by the painter, he is represented with his Essay on Truth under his arm. At a little distance is introduced the allegorical figure of Truth as an angel, holding in one hand a balance, and with the other thrusting back the visages of Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly.
He is, I believe, the solitary instance of a poet, having received so much countenance at the Court of George the Third; and this favour he owed less to any other cause than to the zeal and ability with which he had been thought to oppose the enemies of religion. The respect with which he was treated, both at home and abroad, was no more than a just tribute to those merits and the excellence of his private character. His probity and disinterestedness, the extreme tenderness with which he acquitted himself of all his domestic duties, his attention to the improvement of his pupils, for whose welfare his solicitude did not cease with their removal from the college; his unassuming deportment, which had not been altered by prosperity or by the caresses of the learned and the powerful, his gratitude to those from whom he had received favours, his beneficence to the poor, the ardour of his devotion, are dwelt on by his biographer with an earnestness which leaves us no room to doubt the sincerity of the encomium. His chief defect was an irritability of temper in the latter part of his life, which shewed itself principally towards those who differed from him on speculative questions.
In his writings, he is to be considered as a philosopher, a critic, and a poet. His pretensions in philosophy are founded on his Essay on Truth. This book was of much use at its first appearance, as it contained a popular answer to some of the infidel writers, who were then in better odour among the more educated classes of society than happily they now are. If (as I suspect to have been the case) it has prevented men, whose rank and influence make it most desirable that their minds should be raised above the common pitch, from pursuing those studies by which they were most likely so to raise them, the good which it may have done has been balanced by no inconsiderable evil. One can scarcely examine it with much attention, and not perceive that the writer had not ascended to the sources of that science, which notwithstanding any thing he may say to the contrary, it was evidently his aim to depreciate. Through great part of it he has the appearance of one who is struggling with some unknown power, which he would fain comprehend, and at which, in the failure to comprehend it, his terror is changed into anger. The word metaphysics, or, as he oftener terms it, metaphysics) crosses him like a ghost. Call it pneumatology, the philosophy of the mind, the philosophy of human nature, or what you will, and he can bear it.
Take any shape but that, and his firm nerves
Shall never tremble.
Once, indeed, (but it is not till he has reached the third and last division of the essay) he screws up his courage so high as to question it concerning its name; and the result of his inquiry is this: he finds that to fourteen of the books attributed to Aristotle, which it seems had no general title, Andronicus Rhodius; who edited them, prefixed the words, "ta meta ta physica," that is, the books placed posterior to the physics; either because, in the order of the former arrangement they happened to be placed, or because the editor meant that they should be studied, next after the physics. And this, he concludes, is said to be the origin of the word "metaphysic." This is not very satisfactory; and if the reader thinks so, he will perhaps, be glad to hear those who, having dealt longer in the black art, are more likely to be conjurors in it.
Harris, who had given so many years of his life to the study of Aristotle, tells us, that "Metaphysics are properly conversant about primary and internal causes." "Those things which are first to nature, are not first to man. Nature begins from causes, and thence descends to effects. Human perceptions first open upon effects, and thence by slow degrees ascend to causes."
His own definition might have been enough to satisfy him that it was something very harmless about which he had so much alarmed himself. Still he proceeds to impute to it I know not what mischief; till at last, in a paroxysm of indignation, he exclaims, "Exult, O metaphysic, at the consummation of thy glories. More thou canst not hope, more thou canst not desire. Fall down, ye mortals, and acknowledge the stupendous blessing."
About Aristotle himself, he is scarce in less perplexity. He sets out by defining truth according to Aristotle's description of it in these fourteen dreaded books of his metaphysics. Again he tells us, "he is most admired by those who best understand him;" and once more refers us to these fourteen books. But afterwards it would seem as if he had not himself read them; for speaking of metaphysics, he calls it that which Aristotle is said to have called theology, and the first philosophy: whereas Aristotle has explicitly called it so in these fourteen books; and when he is recommending the study of the ancients, he adds, "Of Aristotle, I say nothing. We are assured by those who have read his works, that no one ever understood human nature better than he." What are we to infer from this, but that he had not himself read them? For his distinction between common sense and reason, on which all his theory depends, he sends the reader to the fourth book of Aristotle's Metaphysics, and to the first of his latter Analytics; and yet somewhere else he speaks of these as the most worthless of Aristotle's writings. As for Plato, who on such a subject might have come in for some consideration, we are told that he was as much a rhetorician as a philosopher; and this, I think, is nearly all we hear of him.
Beattie is among the philosophers what the Quaker is among religious sectaries. The [Greek characters], or common sense, is the spirit whose illapses he sits down and waits for, and by whose whispers alone he expects to be made wise. It has sometimes prompted him well; for there are admirable passages in the Essay. The whole train of his argument, or rather his invective, in the second part, against the sceptics, is irresistible.
Scalda ogni fredda lingua ardente voglia,
E di sterili fa l'alme feconde.
Ne mai deriva altronde
Soave finme d'eloquenza rara.
"What comes from the heart, that alone goes to the heart," says a great writer of our own day; and there are few instances of this more convincing than the vehemence with which Beattie dissipates the reveries of Berkeley, and refutes the absurdities of Hume.
In the second edition, (1771) speaking of those writers of genius, to whom he would send the student away from the metaphysicians, he confined himself to Shakespeare, Bacon, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Few will think that other names might not well have replaced the last of these. In the fourth edition, we find Johnson added to the list. This compliment met with a handsome requital; for Johnson, soon after, having occasion to speak of Beattie, in his Life of Gray, called him a poet, a philosopher, and a good man.
In his Essay, he comforts himself with the belief "that he had enabled every person of common sense to defeat the more important fallacies of the sceptical metaphysicians, even though he should not possess acuteness, or metaphysical knowledge, sufficient to qualify him for a logical refutation of them." It is lamentable to see at how great a cost to himself he had furnished every person of common sense with these weapons of proof. In a letter to Sir William Forbes, written not long after, he makes the following remarkable confession. "How much my mind has been injured by certain speculations, you will partly guess when I tell you a fact that is now unknown to all the world, that since the Essay on Truth was printed in quarto, in the summer of 1776, I have never dared to read it over. I durst not even read the sheets, and see whether there were any errors in the print, and was obliged to get a friend to do that office for me."
As he proceeded, he seems to have become more afraid of the faculty of reason. In the second edition he had said, "Did not our moral feelings, in concert with what our reason discovers of the Deity, evidence the necessity of a future state, in vain should we pretend to judge rationally of that revelation by which life and immortality have been brought to light." In the edition of 1776, he softened down this assertion so much, as almost to deprive it of meaning. "Did not our moral feelings, in concert with what reason discovers of the Deity, evidence the probability of a future state, and that it is necessary to the full vindication of the divine government, we should be much less qualified than we now are to judge rationally of that revelation by which life and immortality have been brought to light." There was surely nothing, except perhaps the word "necessity," that was objectionable in the proposition as it first stood.
It may be remarked of his prose style in general, that it is not free from that constraint which he, with much candour, admitted was to be found in the writings of his countrymen.
Of his critical works, I have seen only those appended to the edition of his Essay, in 1776 . Though not deficient in acuteness, they have not learning or elegance enough to make one desirous of seeing more. His remarks on the characters in Homer are, I think, the best part of them. He sometimes talks of what he probably knew little about; as when he tells us that "he had never been able to discover anything in Aristophanes that might not be consigned to eternal oblivion, without the least detriment to literature;" that "his wit and humour are now become almost invisible, and seem never to have been very conspicuous;" with more that is equally absurd, to the same purpose.
The few of his poems which he thought worthy of being selected from the rest, and of being delivered to posterity, have many readers, to whom perhaps one recommendation of them is that they are few. They have, however, and deservedly, some admirers of a better stamp. They soothe the mind with indistinct conceptions of something better than is met with in ordinary life. The first book of The Minstrel, the most considerable amongst them, describes with much fervour the enthusiasm of a boy "smit with the love of song," and wakened to a sense of rapture by all that is most grand or lovely in the external appearances of nature. It is evident that the poet had felt much of what he describes, and he therefore makes his hearers feel it. Yet at times, it must be owned, he seems as if he were lashing himself into a state of artificial emotion, as in the following lines:
O! Nature, how in every charm supreme!
Whose votaries feast on raptures ever new!
O! for the voice and fire of seraphim,
To sing thy glories with devotion due
We hear, indeed, too often of "nature's charms."
Even here he cannot let the metaphysicians rest. They are, in his mind, the grievance that is most to be complained of in this "vale of tears."
There was one other thing that Beattie detested nearly as much as "metaphysic lore." It was the crowing of a cock. This antipathy he contrived to express in The Minstrel, and the reader is startled, by the expression of it, as by something out of its place. Of the stanza beginning, "O how canst thou renounce," Gray told him that it was, of all others, his favourite; that it was true poetry; that it was inspiration, and, if I am not mistaken, it is related of Bishop Porteus, that when he was once with Beattie, looking down on a magnificent country that lay in prospect before them, he broke out with much delight into the repetition of it: Gray objected to one word, "garniture," "as suggesting an idea of dress, and what was worse, of French dress;" and the author tried, but tried in vain, to substitute another. It would, perhaps, be impossible to find a better for the place in which it stands. There is no ground of censure which a writer should admit with more caution, than that a particular word or phrase happens to suggest a ludicrous or unsuitable image to the mind of another person. Few probably would have thought of French dress on this occasion: and to some, a passage in our translation of the Bible might have occurred, where it is said, that "the Lord garnished the heavens." Another of Gray's criticisms fell on the word "infuriate," as being a new one, although, as Sir William Forbes remarks, it is found not only in Thomson's Seasons, but in the Paradise Lost.
The second book of The Minstrel is not so pleasant as it is good. The stripling wanders to the habitation of a hermit, who has a harp, not a very usual companion for a hermit, to amuse his solitude; and who directs him what studies to pursue. The youth is pleased with no historian except Plutarch. He reads Homer and Virgil, and learns to mend his song, and the poet would have told us how he learnt to sing still better, if sorrow for the death of a friend had not put a period to his own labours. The poem thus comes abruptly to an end; and we are not much concerned that there is no more of it. His first intention was to have engaged the Minstrel in some adventure of importance, through which it may be doubted whether he could well have conducted him; for he has not shown much skill in the narrative part of the poem.
The other little piece, called The Hermit, begins with a sweet strain, which always dwells on the ear, and which makes us expect that something equally sweet is to follow. This hermit too has his "harp symphonious." He makes the same complaint, and finds the same comfort for it, as Edwin had done in the first book of The Minstrel. Both are the Christian's comment on a well-known passage in the Idyllium of Moschus, on the death of Bion. Of his Ode on Lord Hay's Birth-day, Gray's opinion, however favourable, is not much beyond the truth; that the diction is easy and noble; the texture of the thoughts lyric, and the versification harmonious; to which he adds, "that the panegyric has nothing mean in it."
The Ode to Hope looks like one of Blair's Sermons east into a lyrical mould.
There is, I believe, no allusion to any particular place that was familiar to him, throughout his poems. The description of the owl in the lines entitled Retirement, he used to say, was drawn from nature. It has more of that appearance than any thing else he has written, and pleases accordingly.
Between his systems in poetry and philosophy, some exchange might have been made with advantage to each. In the former, he counted general ideas for nearly all in all. (See his Essay on Poetry and Music, p. 431.) In the latter, he had not learnt to generalize at all; but would have rested merely in fact and experience.