DR. BEATTIE was born at Laurencekirk, in the county of Kincardine, Scotland, on the 25th day of October 1735. His father, who was a farmer of no considerable rank, is said to have had a turn for reading and for versifying: but, as he died in 1742, when his son James was only seven years of age, could have had no great share in forming his mind.
James was sent early to the only school his birth-place afforded, where he passed his time under the instructions of a tutor named Milne, whom he used to represent "as a good grammarian, and tolerably skilled in the Latin language, but destitute of taste as well as of some other qualifications essential to a good teacher." He is said to have preferred Ovid as a school-author, whom Mr. Beattie afterwards gladly exchanged for Virgil. Virgil he had been accustomed to read with great delight in Ogilvy's and Dryden's translations, as he did Homer in that of Pope; and these, with Thomson's Seasons and Milton's Paradise Lost, of all which he was very early fond, probably gave him that taste for poetry which he afterwards cultivated with so much success. He was already, according to his biographer, inclined to making verses, and among his school fellows went by the name of The Poet.
At this school he made great proficiency by unremitting diligence, which he was sensible was the only stock he could command; and appeared to much advantage on big entering Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1749, where he obtained the first of those bursaries or exhibitions left for the use of students whose parents are unable to support the entire expenses of academical education. Here he first studied Greek, under Principal Thomas Blackwell, author of the Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer; Letters concerning Mythology; and Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, a teacher who, with much of the austerity of pedantry, was kind to his diligent scholars, and found in Mr. Beattie a disposition worthy of cultivation and of patronage. In the following year he bestowed on him the premium for the best Greek analysis, which happened to be part of the fourth book of the Odyssey, and at the close of the session 1749-50, he gave him a book elegantly bound, with the following inscription: "Jacobo Beattie, in prima classe, ex comitatu Mernensi, post examen publicum librum hunc [Greek characters], premium dedit T. Blackwell, Aprilis 3, MDCCL." The other professor, with whom Mr. Beattie was particularly connected, was the late Dr. Alexander Gerard, author of the Genius and Evidences of Christianity; Essays on Taste and Genius; and other works. Under these gentlemen our author's proficiency, both at college and during the vacations, was very exemplary, and he accumulated a much more various stock of general knowledge than is usual with young men whose ultimate destination is the church. The delicacy of his health requiring amusement, he found as he supposed, all that amusement can give in cultivating his musical talents, which were very considerable. But there is reason to think that his hours of relaxation were too few, and that the earnestness with which he dissuaded his son from excessive study, arose from his repenting that he had not paid more attention to the exercises which promote health.
The only science in which he made no extraordinary proficiency, and to which he even seemed to have a dislike, was mathematics. In this, indeed, he performed the requisite tasks, but was eager to return to subjects of taste, or general literature. In every other branch of academical study, he never was satisfied with what he learned within the walls of the college. His private reading was extensive and various, and it was with him as it appears to have been with almost every man of learning, of whom we have had a minute account; that he became insensibly partial to the cultivation of those branches on which his future celebrity was to depend.
In 1753, having gone through every preparatory course of study, he took the degree of master of arts, the only one attainable by students (except of medicine) in any of the universities of Scotland. The first degree of bachelor is not known, and that of doctor of laws or divinity is usually bestowed on application, at any time of life after leaving college, without the necessity of keeping terms. Mr. Beattie, therefore, had now technically finished his education, and had a profession to seek. He had hitherto been supported by the generous kindness of an elder brother; but he was anxious to exonerate his family from any farther burden. With this laudable view, there being a vacancy for the office of school-master and parish-clerk, to the parish of Fordoun, adjoining to Laurencekirk, he accepted the appointment August 1, 1753. There can be no doubt that he performed the duties of this situation with punctuality, but it was neither suited to his disposition, nor advantageous to his progress in life. The emoluments were very scanty, the site remote and obscure; and there was nothing in it to excite emulation, or gratify the ambition which a young man, conscious as he must have been of superior powers and knowledge, might indulge without presumption. He obtained in this place, however, a few friends, particularly lord Gardenstown, and lord Monboddo, who honoured him with encouraging notice; and his imagination was delighted by the beautiful and sublime scenery of the place, which he appears to have contemplated with the eye of a poet. His leisure hours he employed on some poetical attempts, which, as they were published in the Scots Magazine, with his initials, and sometimes with his place of abode, must have contributed to make him yet better known and respected. There are few introductions into life more successful than a pleasing or popular poem; and, indeed, any literary production from an obscure part of the country is generally considered as a phenomenon. These poems attracted the more attention that they happened to be dated from a village little known, and written by a man never heard of.
The church of Scotland was at this time the usual resource of well educated young men, and with their academical stores in full memory, there were few difficulties to be surmounted before their entrance on the sacred office. Although this church presents no temptations to ambition, Mr. Beattie appears to have regarded it as the only means by which he could obtain an independent rank in life; and with his diligence, was confident that the transition from the studies of philosophy and ethics to that of divinity would be easy. He returned, therefore, during the winter to Marischal College, and attended the divinity lectures of Dr. Robert Pollock, of that college, and of professor John Lumsden, of King's, and performed the exercises required by the rules of both. One of his fellow-students informed sir William Forbes, that during their attendance at the divinity-hall, he heard Mr. Beattie deliver a discourse, which met with much commendation, but of which it was remarked by the audience, that he spoke poetry in prose.
While the church seemed his only prospect, and one which, I have been told, he never contemplated with satisfaction, although few young men lived a more pious and regular fife, there occurred in 1757, a vacancy for one of the masters of the grammar school of Aberdeen, a situation of considerable importance in all respects. This school, which is a public foundation, is conducted by a rector, or head master, and three subordinate masters; the whole is in the patronage of the magistrates of the city, who are, however, governed in their choice by the issue of a very severe trial of the candidate's ability, carried on by the professors of the university. On this occasion, Mr. Beattie was advised to become a candidate; but he was diffident of his qualifications, and did not think himself so retentive of the grammatical niceties of the Latin language as to be able to answer readily any question that might be put to him by older and more experienced judges. In every part of life, it may be here observed, Mr. Beattie appears to have formed an exact estimate of his own talents; and in the present instance he failed just where he expected to fail, rather in the circumstantial than the essential requisites for the situation to which he aspired. The other candidate was accordingly preferred. But Mr. Beattie's attempt was attended with so little loss of reputation, that a second vacancy occurring a few months after, and two candidates appearing both unqualified for the office, it was presented to him by the magistrates in the most handsome manner, without the form of a trial, and he immediately entered upon it in June 1758. He was now in the midst of literary society, and find easy access to books, and his conversation-talents, it is yet remembered, daily increased the number of his friends. His emoluments were not great, but his situation find a consequence in the opinion of the public, which to so young a man was not a little flattering.
He had not been long an usher at this school before he published a volume of poems. An author's first appearance is always an important era. Mr. Beattie's was certainly attended with circumstances that are not now common. This volume was announced to the public in a more humble manner than the present state of literature is thought to demand in similar cases. On the 18th of March 1760, not the volume itself, but Proposals for printing original Poems and Translations, were issued. The poems appeared accordingly on Feb. 16, 1761, and were published both in London and Edinburgh. They consisted partly of originals, and partly of the pieces formerly printed in the Scots Magazine, but altered and corrected, a practice which Mr. Beattie carried almost to excess in all his poetical works.
The praise bestowed on this volume was very flattering. The English critics, who then bestowed the rewards of literature, considered it as an acquisition to the republic of letters, and pronounced that since Mr. Gray (whom in their opinion Mr. Beattie had chosen for his model) they had not met with a poet of more harmonious numbers, more pleasing imagination, or more spirited expression. This verdict they endeavoured to confirm by extracts from the Ode to Peace, and the Triumph of Melancholy. But notwithstanding praises which so evidently tended to give a currency to the poems, and which were probably repeated with eagerness by the friends who had encouraged the publication, the author, upon more serious consideration, was so dissatisfied with this volume as to destroy every copy he could procure, and I have been assured by many of his oldest friends that they have in vain endeavoured to obtain a sight of it. Nor was this a sudden or splenetic humour in our author. Some years after, when his taste and judgment became fully matured, he refused to acknowledge above four of them, namely Retirement, Ode to Hope, Elegy on a Lady, and the Hares, and these he almost re-wrote before he would permit them to be printed with the Minstrel.
But notwithstanding the lowly opinion of the author, these poems during their first circulation, which was chiefly in manuscript, contributed so much to the general reputation he had acquired, that he was considered as an honour to his country, and deserving of a higher rank among her favoured sons. Accordingly a vacancy happening in Marischal College, his friends made such earnest applications in his behalf, that in September 1760 he was appointed by his late majesty's patent professor of philosophy. His department in this honourable office extended to moral philosophy and logic; and it added, in his mind, a very affecting importance to it, that his was the last course of instruction previous to the students leaving college, and dispersing themselves in the world.
This promotion was sudden and unexpected; and it may be supposed that a youth of twenty-five must be ill prepared to give a course of lectures, and a train of instruction on subjects which have been but imperfectly treated by veteran philosophers. Yet it is evident from his printed works, that most of the subjects which belong to his province, had been familiarized to him by a long course of reading and thinking, and that he had very early accustomed himself to composition; and it is highly probable that he brought into the professor's chair such a mass of materials as might with very little trouble be moulded into shape for his immediate purpose. It is certain, however, that such was his diligence, and such his love of these studies, that within a few years he was not only enabled to deliver an admirable course of lectures on moral philosophy and logic, but also to prepare for the press those works on which his fame rests; all of which, there is some reason to think, were written, or nearly written, before he gave the world the result of his philosophical studies in the celebrated Essay on Truth. It may be added likewise, that the rank he had now attained in the university entitled him to associate more upon a level with Reid and with Campbell, with Gerard and with Gregory, men whose opinions were in many points congenial, and who have all been hailed by the sister country among the revivers of Scotch literature. Yet their names, it is gratifying to recollect, are but a small part of that catalogue which has, in less than half a century, dispelled national prejudice, and has left none of the effects of comparison except a generous and beneficial emulation. With the gentlemen already mentioned, and a few others, he formed a society, or club, for the discussion of literary and philosophical subjects. A part of their entertainment was the reading a short essay, composed by each member in his turn. It is supposed that the works of Reid, Campbell, Beattie, Gregory and Gerard, or at least the outlines of them, were first discussed in this society, either in the form of essays, or of a question for familiar conversation.
In 1765 Mr. Beattie published The Judgment of Paris, a poem, in 4to. Its design was to prove that virtue alone is capable of affording a gratification adequate to our whole nature, the pursuits of ambition or sensuality promising only partial happiness, as being adapted not to our whole constitution, but only to a part of it. So simple a position seems to require the graces of poetry to set it off. The reception of this poem however was unfavourable, and although he added it to a new edition of his poems in 1766, yet it was never again reprinted, and even his biographer has declined reviving its memory by an extract. To this edition of 1766, he added a poem On the talk of erecting a Monument to Churchill in Westminster Hall, which, sir Wm. Forbes says, was first published separately and without a name. That it was printed separately, I am informed on undoubted authority, but I question if it was ever published for sale unless in the above mentioned edition of his poems. The asperity with which these lines are marked, induced his biographer, contrary to his first intention, to omit them, but they are now added to his other poems.
Although Mr. Beattie had now acquired a station in which his talents were displayed with great advantage, and commanded a very high degree of respect, the publication of the Essay on Truth was the great era of his life; for this work carried his fame far beyond all local bounds and local partialities. It is not, however, necessary to enter minutely into the history of a work so well known. Its professed intention was to trace the several kinds of evidence and reasoning tip to their first principles, with a view to ascertain the standard of truth, and explain its immutability. He endeavours to show that his sentiments, however inconsistent with the genius of scepticism, and with the practice and principles of sceptical writers, were yet perfectly consistent with the genius of true philosophy, and with the practice and principles of those whom all acknowledge to have been the most successful in the investigation of truth; and he concludes with some inferences or rules, by which the most important fallacies of the sceptical philosophy may be detected by every person of common sense, even though he should not possess acuteness of metaphysical knowledge sufficient to qualify him for a logical confutation of them.
When this work was completed, so many difficulties occurred in procuring it to be published, that his friends sir William Forties and Mr. Arbuthnot were obliged to become the purchasers, unknown to him, at a price with which they thought he would be satisfied. Sir William accordingly wrote to him that the manuscript was sold for fifty guineas, as the price of the first edition. So little of the spirit of enterprise was then among the booksellers; and, it may be added, such was the slender opinion of the author himself, that in a very grateful letter addressed to his friends, he says that "the price really exceeded his warmest expectations."
The first edition of this Essay was published in an octavo volume in 1770, and bought up with such avidity that a second was called for, and published in the following year. The interval was short, but as the work had excited the public attention in an extraordinary degree, the result of public opinion had reached the author's ear, and to this second edition he added a postscript, in vindication of a certain degree of warmth of which he had been accused, but which in our opinion does not appear, either in with-holding justice from his adversaries, or in treating them with a language unbecoming the importance of the subject. He engaged in no personal controversy, and except for Hume, could not be supposed to entertain any personal regard for the writers whose sophistry he endeavoured to expose. This postscript, however, is highly valuable on many accounts. It may be read detached from the work, and read with advantage. It is not only one of the most elegant specimens of writing in our language, but a more faithful summary of the general conduct and artifices of modern sceptics than we have any where seen; and it contains a prediction of the consequences of scepticism on the happiness of mankind, which all who have lived to witness infidelity let loose upon an infatuated nation, without limitation and without punishment, must acknowledge to be true in every respect.
The Essay on Truth, whatever objections were made to it, and it met with very few public opponents , had a more extensive circulation than probably any work of the kind ever published. This may he partly attributed to the charms of that popular style in which the author conveyed his sentiments on subjects which his adversaries had artfully disguised in a metaphysical jargon, the meaning of which they could vary at pleasure; but the eagerness with which it was bought up and read, arose chiefly from the just praise bestowed upon it by the most distinguished friends of religion and learning in Great Britain. With many of these, of high rank both in church and state, the author had the pleasing satisfaction of dating his acquaintance from the publication of this work. There appeared, indeed, in the public in general an honourable wish to grace the triumph of sound reasoning over pernicious sophistry. Hence in less than four years five large editions of the Essay were sold, and it was translated into several foreign languages, and attracted the notice of many eminent persons in France, Germany, Holland, Italy, and other parts of the continent.
Among other marks of respect, the university of Oxford conferred time degree of doctor of lows on the author, and on his second arrival in London be was most graciously received by his majesty, who not only bestowed a pension on him, but admitted him to the honour of a private conference. Many years after, when Dr. Beattie went to pay his respects to his majesty, he was still received with every mark of royal condescension and kindness. In the last, or nearly the last conversation I enjoyed with him, he observed how much he was always surprised with the intelligent remarks and intimate knowledge which his majesty displayed, not only on general topics of national literature, but even the minute history of what was going on at the Scotch universities.
It was in July 1771 that Dr. Beattie first visited London, and commenced a personal acquaintance with men of the first eminence, with lord Mansfield and lord Lyttelton, Drs. Hurd, Porteus, Johnson, Mr. Burke, and, indeed, the whole of the literary society whose conversations have been so pleasantly detailed by Mr. Boswell; and returned to Scotland with a mind elevated and cheered by the praise, the kindness, and the patronage of the good and great. It was, however, on his second visit to London, in 1773, that he received his degree from Oxford, and those honours from his majesty, which we anticipated as a direct, though not an immediate consequence of the services he rendered to his country by the publication of the Essay on Truth. His conversation with his majesty is detailed at some length by himself in a Diary, published by sir William Forbes.
Soon after this visit to London he was solicited by a very flattering proposal sent through the hands of Dr. Porteus, to enter into the church of England. A similar offer had been made some time before by the archbishop of York, but declined. It was now renewed with more importunity, and produced from him the important reasons which obliged him still to decline an offer which he could not but consider as "great and generous." By these reasons, communicated in a letter to Dr. Porteus, we find that he was apprehensive of the injury that might be done to the cause he had espoused, if his enemies should have any ground for asserting that he had written his Essay on Truth, with a view to promotion: and he was likewise of opinion, that it might have the appearance of levity and insincerity, and even of want of principle, were he to quit, without any other apparent motive than that of bettering his circumstances, the church of which he had hitherto been a member. Other reasons he assigned, on this occasion, of some, but less weight, all which prevailed on his friends to withdraw any farther solicitation, while they honoured the motives by which he was influenced. In the same year he refused the offer of a professor's chair in the university of Edinburgh, considering his present situation as best adapted to his habits and to his usefulness, and apprehending that the formation of a new society of friends might not be so easy or agreeable in a place where the enemies of his principles were numerous. To some of his friends, however, these reasons did not appear very convincing.
Although Mr. Beattie had apparently withdrawn his claims as a poet, by cancelling as many copies of his juvenile attempts as he could procure, he was not so inconscious of his admirable talents, as to relinquish what was an early and favourite pursuit, and in which he had probably passed some of his most delightful hours. A few months after the appearance of the Essay on Truth, he published the first book of the Minstrel, in 4to, but without his name. By this omission, the poem was examined with all that rigour of criticism which may be expected in the case of a work, for which the author's name can neither afford protection or apology. He was accordingly praised for having adopted the measure of Spenser, because he had the happy enthusiasm of that writer to support and render it agreeable; but objections were made to the limitation of his plan to the profession of the Minstrel, when so much superior interest might be excited by carrying him on through the practice of it. It was objected, also, that the sentiment of the first stanza appeared too close a copy from a passage in Gray's celebrated Elegy; and several lines were pointed out as unequal, and inconsistent with the general measure, or with the dignity of the subject.
These objections appear to have coincided with the author's re-consideration: and be not only adopted various alterations recommended by his friends, particularly Mr. Gray, but introduced others, which made the subsequent editions of this poem far more perfect than the first. Of the original preface he retained so little, that an exact copy of it may not be unacceptable to our readers, as the old editions of the Minstrel are become very rare.
"The first hint of this performance was suggested by Dr. Percy's ingenious Essay on the English Minstrels, prefixed to his first volume of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.
"My design was to trace the progress of a poetical genius, born in a rude and illiterate age, from the first dawnings of fancy and reason, till that period in which he may be supposed capable of supporting the character of a Minstrel, that is, of an itinerant poet and musician — a character which, according to the notions of our forefathers, was not only respectable but sacred. A poetical illustration of such a subject seemed to premise variety of amusement, and even seine topics of instruction both moral and philosophical. Perhaps I mistook it, as well as my own abilities: however, in making a trial there could not be much harm. My friends are pleased with what I have done; but, as they cannot entirely acquit themselves of partiality, advise me to lay a specimen before the public.
"The pursuits and amusements of the Minstrel's childhood and early youth are described in this first book; which, if the title were altered, and a few phrases struck out that refer to a sequel, might perhaps he considered as a sort of whole by itself. The incidents that qualify him for his profession, and determine him to enter upon it, will furnish materials for the books that are to follow. If this be honoured with the public approbation, I shall think it has merit sufficient to justify my bestowing some time in finishing what remains, which is already in great forwardness. Should it be unsuccessful, I will, with no great concern, relinquish a scheme which cannot be completed without such expense of time and thought as a person in my way of life cannot easily spare. If, as the critics tell us, the chief end of poetry is to please, surely the man who writes verses with seine inconvenience to himself, and without any pleasure to the public, spends his time to very little purpose.
"I have endeavoured to imitate Spenser, not in his allegory or antiquated dialect, which, though graceful in him, appear sometimes awkward in modern writers, but in the measure and harmony of his verse, and in the simplicity and variety of his composition. All antiquated expressions I have studiously avoided; admitting, however, some old words, where they seemed peculiarly suitable to the subject; but I hope none will be found that are now obsolete, or in any degree unintelligible to a reader of English poetry.
"To those who may be disposed to ask, what could induce me to write in so difficult a measure, I can only answer, that it pleases my ear, and seems from its gothic structure and original to bear some relation to the subject and spirit of the poem. it admits both simplicity and magnificence of sound and language, beyond any other stanza that I am acquainted with. It allows the sententiousness of the couplet, and something too of the diversified cadence and complicated modulation of blank verse. What some of our critics have remarked of its uniformity growing at last tiresome to the ear, will be found to hold true only when the poetry is faulty in other respects."
The Minstrel, however, in its first form, contained so many passages of genuine poetry, the poetry of nature and of feeling, and was so eagerly applauded by those whose right of opinion was incontestible, that it soon ran through four editions; and in 1774 the author produced the second book. This, although of a more philosophical cast, and less luxurious in those descriptions which appeal to every heart, yet contained such noble imagery, and so many proofs of the "lively, plastic imagination," as to place the author in the first rank of modern poets. As the success of the second book was not inferior to that of the first, it was the general wish that the author would fulfil his promise by completing the interesting subject, but the increasing business of education, the cares of a family, and the state of his health, originally delicate, and never robust, deprived him of the time and thought which he considered as requisite. In 1777, however, he was induced to publish the two parts of the Minstrel together, and to add a few of his juvenile poems. In his advertisement he informs us, that "they are all of which he is willing to he considered as the author." Some poems about this time had been ascribed to him which he never wrote; and those pieces which he wished to consign to oblivion, had been published by persons who hoped to profit by the now established fame of the author.
During the preceding year, 1776, he prepared for the press a new edition of the Essay on Truth, in a more splendid form than it had hitherto appeared in, and attended with circumstances of public esteem which were very flattering. These will be best understood in his own modest advertisement.
"About three years ago some persons of distinction in England, who had honoured me with their friendship, were pleased to express a desire that the Essay on Truth should be printed in a more splendid form than that in which it had hitherto appeared; and so as to ensure profit, as well as honour, to the author. And the proprietors of the copyright, being at the same time applied to, declare their willingness to permit an edition to be printed for his advantage, on his agreeing to certain terms, which were thought reasonable.
"It was then proposed that a new edition of the Essay should be printed in quarto by subscription. To this the author had some objections; he was apprehensive that the size of that work might be inadequate to such a purpose. Besides, to publish in this manner a book which had already gone through two or three editions, seemed hazardous, because unprecedented; and might to those who were uninformed of the affair, give ground to suspect the author of an infirmity, which no person who knows him will ever lay to his charge, an excessive love of money.
"It was answered, that the volume might be extended to a sufficiency of size, by printing, along with that on Truth, some other Essays, which, though not originally designed for the press, his friends, who had seen them, were pleased to think not unworthy of it; and that the proposed subscription, being of a peculiar kind, should be conducted in a peculiar manner. 'It shall never,' said the promoters of the undertaking, 'be committed to booksellers, nor made public by advertisements: nobody shall be solicited to join in it; we, by ourselves and our friends, shall carry it on, without giving you any further trouble, than just to signify your consent, and prepare your materials; and if there be, as we have reason to think there are, many persons of worth and fortune who wish for such air opportunity as this will afford them, to testify their approbation of you and your writings, it would seem capricious in you to deprive them of that satisfaction, and yourself of so great air honour.'
"To a proposal so uncommonly generous the author could not refuse his consent, without giving himself airs which would not have become him. He therefore thankfully acquiesced, &c."
The subscription money was a guinea, but I am not certain that subscribers were limited to that sum. The list of subscribers amounted to four hundred and seventy-six names of men and women of the first rank in life, and of all the distinguished literary characters of the time. The copies subscribed for amounted to seven hundred and thirty-two, so that no inconsiderable sum must have accrued in this delicate manner to the author. Dr. Beattie was by no means rich; his pension was only two hundred pounds, and the annual amount of his professorship, I have reason to think, never reached that sum.
The Essays added to this volume, and which he afterwards printed separately in octavo, were on Poetry and Music: on Laughter and ludicrous Composition; and on the Utility of Classical Learning. They were written many years before publication, and besides being read in the private literary society already mentioned, had been submitted to the judgment of his learned friends in England, who recommended them to the press. In ordinary cases this advice has no value, because it is a matter of course; but Dr. Beattie could have easily discerned flattery had it been offered him, and was too good a critic to be deceived by the common-place returns to such applications. His friends, however, in this instance, only anticipated the praises of a more numerous class, to whom his Essays appeared to discover a taste and style, formed and improved on the chastest models, and remarkable for elegance, correctness, and sound judgment. The first, which was written in 1762, when the author had only reached his twenty-seventh year, evinces a great fund of reading, and such acquaintance with antient and modern learning, and such discrimination in objects of criticism, as are, rarely found in persons of that age. He is particularly happy in his illustrations; and as he had no new theories to advance, and no paradoxes to catch applause at the expence of established truths, perhaps there are few books that may with more safety be placed in the hands of a young man to regulate his taste, and direct him in the study of polite literature. This opinion, which belongs more particularly to the first two of these Essays, may yet be applied to the third, where we have air important question in education discussed with logical precision, and with a force of argument which it will be difficult to answer. It is, however, still more pleasing to remark, that in these as well as ill his next work, he never fails to introduce into questions of taste allusions to those subjects of piety and morals, of which, as a teacher of youth, he never lost sight, and was eager to inculcate.
For the frequent introduction of practical and serious observations, he offers a satisfactory reason in the preface to Dissertations Moral and Critical, on Memory and Imagination; on Dreaming; the Theory of Language; on Fable and Romance; on the Attachments of Kindred; and Illustrations on Sublimity, 4to, 1783. These, he informs us, were at first composed in a different form, being part of a course of prelections read to those young gentlemen whom it was his business to initiate in the elements of moral science; and he disclaims any nice metaphysical theories, or other matters of doubtful disputation, as not suiting his ideas of moral teaching. Nor was this the disgust of a metaphysician "retired from business." He had ever been of the same opinion. In a letter to his friend Gray, dated March 30, 1767, he says, "It is a fault common to almost all our Scotch authors, that they are too metaphysical. I wish they would learn to speak more to the heart and less to the understanding; but alas! this is a talent which Heaven only can bestow; whereas a philosophical spirit (as we call it) is merely artificial, and level with the capacity of every mail who has lunch patience, a little learning, and no taste." Dr. Beattie's aim was, indeed, in all his lectures, "to inure young minds to habits of attentive observation to guard them against the influence of bad principles; and to set before them such views of nature, and such plain and practical truths, as may at once improve the heart and the understanding, and amuse and elevate the fancy."
Of these Essays, the preference has been generally given to those on Memory and Imagination, and on Fable and Romance, and on the Theory of Language. In re-publishing the latter separately for the use of seminaries of education, he complied with the wish of many readers and critics. In all these Essays, his elegant and pertinent remarks, forcible illustrations, and occasional anecdotes and digressions, afford a variety and pleasure in the perusal which are rarely to be expected front the discussion of such subjects, when the writer's object is to surprise by paradoxical assertions, and, at whatever expense of truth and sense, to obtain the praise due to original theory.
During a visit to the metropolis in 1784, Dr. Beattie submitted to the present bishop of London, with whose friendship he had long been honoured, a part of a work which at that excellent prelate's desire he published in 1786, entitled Evidences of the Christian Religion briefly and plainly stated, 2 vols. 12mo. This likewise formed part of his concluding lectures to his class, and he generally dictated an abstract of it to them in the course of the session. From a work of this kind and on a subject which had employed the pens of the greatest and best English writers, much novelty was not to be expected, nor in its original form was any novelty intended. It must be allowed, however, that he has placed many of the arguments for the evidences of Christianity in a very striking and persuasive light, and it is not too much to suppose that if he could have devoted more time and study to a complete review and arrangement of what had, or might be advanced on these evidences, he would have produced a work worthy of his genius, and worthy of the grandeur and importance of the subject.
In the preface to Dr. Beattie's Dissertations, he intimated a design of publishing the whole of his Lectures on Moral Science, but from this he was diverted by the cogent reasons there assigned. He was encouraged, however, to present to the public, in a correct and somewhat enlarged form, the abstract which he used to dictate to his scholars. Accordingly, in 1790, he published Elements of Moral Science, vol. i. 8vo. including psychology, or perceptive faculties and active powers; and natural theology; with two appendixes on the incorporeal nature and on the Immortality of the Soul. The second volume was published in 1793; containing ethics, economics, politics, and logic. All these subjects are necessarily treated in a summary manner; but it will be found sufficiently comprehensive, not only for a text-book, or book of elements, which was the professed intention of the author, but also as an excellent aid to the general reader who may not have an opportunity of attending regular lectures, and yet wishes to reap some of the advantages of regular education. To the religions, moral or literary opinions occasionally interspersed, it will not be easy to find an objection; and ill this, as in his former works, his peculiar excellence lies in exposing the sophistries of modern philosophy, sometimes by the argumentative process, and sometimes by showing how incapable and unworthy they are of any serious refutation.
In vol. ii. there occurs a dissertation against the Slave Trade, which the author informs us he wrote in 1778 with a view to a separate publication. He exposed the weak defences set up for that abominable traffic with wonderful acuteness, and thus had the honour to contribute to that mass of conviction, which at length became irresistible, and delivered the nation from her greatest reproach.
These Elements have not had the success of some of his other works, yet perhaps they may be preferred to all in point of utility. It were to he wished, however, that the work had been accompanied by an index, and by that pathetic lecture with which he was accustomed to conclude his course. He has also omitted the list of books on subjects treated in his lectures, which he dictated to his scholars. This list, indeed, would now perhaps appear very imperfect, although his criticisms on books were always valuable; but he had so much more pleasure in praise than in censure, that in his essays and dissertations and in his lectures he expatiated chiefly on those authors of whom he could speak with delight, and whom he could recommend as models of elegant taste and pure morals. It was one of his parting exhortations to his scholars to "read no bad books, as the world afforded more good ones than they could ever have leisure to read with the attention they deserved."
To the second volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, published in 1790, he contributed Remarks on some Passages of the Sixth Book of the Aeneid. This was, in fact, a dissertation on the mythology of the Romans, as poetically described by Virgil, in the episode of the descent of Aeneas into Hell; and the author's object was to vindicate his favourite poet front the charges of impiety, &c. brought against him by Warburton and others. In the same year he is said to have superintended an edition of Addison's periodical papers, published at Edinburgh in 4 vols. 8vo. To this, however, he contributed only a few notes to Tickell's Life of Addison, and to Dr. Johnson's remarks. It were to be wished he had done more. Addison never had a warmer admirer, nor a more successful imitator. He always recommended Addison's style to his pupils, and it is evident from the whole of his works that it was his own model. No man in our times has imitated the chaste simplicity and perspicuity for which Addison is distinguished with such palpable success. I know that he "gave his days and nights to Addison," and it was by this that he attained an English style, "familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious."
In 1794 appeared the last work our author composed, and its history requires some notice of his family. In 1767 he married Miss Mary Dun, daughter of Dr. James Dun, rector or head master of the grammar school of Aberdeen, a man of great personal worth, and an excellent classical scholar. He had been either a teacher or rector of that school above half a century, and will be long remembered by his numerous pupils, as one who united the dignity of the master to the suavity of the parent.
With this lady Dr. Beattie enjoyed for many years as much felicity as the married state can add; and when she visited London with him, she shared amply in the respect paid to him, and in the esteem of his illustrious friends. By her he had two sons, James Hay, so named from the earl of Errol, one of his old and steady friends; and Montague, from the celebrated Mrs. Montague, in whose house Dr. Beattie frequently resided when in London. While these children were very young, Mrs. Beattie was seized with an indisposition, which, in spite of all care and skill, terminated in the painful necessity of separation from her husband. The care of the children now entirely devolved on the father, whose sensibility received such a shock from the melancholy circumstance alluded to, as could only he aggravated by an apprehension that the consequences of Mrs. Beattie's disorder might not be confined to herself. This alarm, which often preyed on his spirits, proved happily without foundation. His children grew up without the smallest appearance of the hereditary evil; but when they had just begun to repay his care by a display of early genius, sweetness of temper and filial affection, he was compelled to resign them both to an untimely grave. His eldest son died November 19, 1790, in his twenty-second year; and his youngest on March 14, 1796, in his eighteenth year. The death of the latter was occasioned by a rapid fever. The suddenness of the shock made it more deeply felt by the father, as he had not yet recovered from the loss of the eldest, who was taken from him by the slow process of consumption.
Soon after the death of James Hay, his father drew up an account of his Life and Character; to which were added, Essays and Fragments, written by this extraordinary youth. Of this volume a few copies only were printed, and were given as "presents to those friends with whom the author was particularly acquainted or connected." Dr. Beattie was afterwards induced to permit the Life and some of the Essays and Fragments to be printed for publication. The life is perhaps one of the most interesting and affecting narratives in our language. It is written with great simplicity of style, and with so much impartiality in these passages where praise or censure can have admittance, that there is probably no reader of whatever judgment who would not rather subscribe to his opinion than exert the privilege of criticism. It is impossible, indeed, to contemplate without emotion the exquisite tenderness of an affectionate and mourning parent, soothing himself by the remembrance of filial piety and departed excellence; and humbly, yet fondly, endeavouring to engage the sympathies of the world in behalf of a genius that might have proved one of its brightest ornaments.
After the loss of this amiable youth, who in 1787 had been appointed successor to his father, and had occasionally lectured in the professor's chair, Dr. Beattie resumed that employment himself, and continued it, although with intervals of sickness and depression, until the unexpected death of his second and last child, in 1796. His hopes of a successor, of his name and family, had probably been revived in this youth, who exhibited many proofs of early genius, and for some time before his death had prosecuted his studies with great assiduity. But here too he was compelled again to subscribe to the uncertainty of all human prospects. Great, however, as the affliction was, it would be pleasing to be able to add that he acquiesced with pious resignation, and laid hold on the hopes he knew so well how to recommend, and which yet might have cheered, if not gladdened his declining life. But from this period be began to withdraw from society, and brooded over the sorrows of his family, until they overpowered his feelings, and abstracted him from all the comforts of friendship and all power of consolation. Of the state of his mind, sir William Forbes has given all instance so extremely affecting, that no apology can be necessary for introducing it here.
"The death of his only surviving child completely unhinged the mind of Dr. Beattie, the first symptom of which, ere many days had elapsed, was a temporary but almost total loss of memory respecting his son. Many times he could not recollect what had become of him: and after searching in every room of the house, he would say to his niece, Mrs. Glennie, 'You way think it strange, but I must ask you if I have a son, and where he is?' She then felt herself under the painful necessity of bringing to his recollection his son Montagu's sufferings, which always restored him to reason. And he would often, with many tears, express his thankfulness that he had no child, saying, 'How could I have borne to see their elegant minds mangled with madness!' When he looked, for the last time, on the dead body of his son, he said, 'I have now done with the world:' and he ever after seemed to act as if he thought so."
The last three years of his life were passed in hopeless solitude, and he even dropt his correspondence with many of those remote friends with whom he had long enjoyed the soothing interchange of elegant sentiment and friendly attachment. His health, in this voluntary confinement, gradually decayed, and extreme and premature debility, occasioned by two paralytic strokes, terminated his good and useful life, on the 18th day of August, 1803. His reputation was so well founded and so extensive, that he was universally lamented as a loss to the republic of letters, and particularly to the university to which he had been so long a public benefactor and an honour.
Of his general character a fair estimate may be formed from his works, and it is no small praise that his life and writings were in strict conformity. No man ever felt more strong impressions of the value of the virtues he recommended than Dr. Beattie. Although he disdained the affectation of feeling, and the ostentation of extraordinary purity, he yet more abhorred the character of those writers whose professions and practice are at variance. His zeal for religious and moral truth, however censured by those to whom religion and truth are adverse, originated in a mind fully convinced of the importance of what he prescribed to others, and anxious to display, where such a display was neither obtrusive nor boastful, that his conviction was sincere, and his practice resolute.
It may not be amiss in this place to take some notice of a slander which the friends, at least the injudicious ones, of Hume have been industrious to propagate, because, if true, it would have proved a littleness of mind of which none who knew Dr. Beattie could accuse him. It has been said that he submitted his juvenile poems to Mr. Hume, at that time considered as the arbiter of taste, who either returned them with severe censure, or spoke of them with contempt, and that this was the real motive which prompted Dr. Beattie to write the Essay on Truth. Such is the story; and whoever compares the provocation with the revenue, will not think it very probable. It is the part of malignity itself to search painfully for one bad motive where so many good ones are at hand. Nothing surely can be more false or absurd than this piece of slander. If Mr. Hume criticised Dr. Beattie's poetry with severity, which may be admitted, he certainly could not have been a more rigid censor than the author himself. Dr. Beattie, almost as soon as his volume of early poems was published, and while the praises of every friend and of many strangers were yet sounding in his ears, suppressed the farther publication, and endeavoured to recover the copies that had been circulated; and for many years refused all applications to reprint the few articles in our present volume, and that with the utmost pertinacity. The presumption therefore must be, either that he originally thought as slightingly of those poems as Mr. Hume, or that Mr. Hume had brought him over to his opinion. In either case there could be no such breach of friendship, and surely no such indignant recollection as to provoke the Essay on Truth. The fact will be acknowledged by all who had personal intimacy with Dr. Beattie, and they only can be the proper judges of his feelings, that it was not the severity of criticism that he at any time dreaded or avoided. In Gray, who was his intimate friend and correspondent, he found a critic whose opinions might have mortified the vanity of the least conceited of youthful poets. On one occasion, indeed, Gray placed the dangers of poetry before his eyes in such a striking light that he appeared willing to renounce the Muses altogether. Such was our author's diffidence in all his productions, that he ventured nothing without consulting his friends, and received very few proposals of correction in which he did not acquiesce. If with this humble and respectful disposition Mr. Hume insulted his feelings, or wished to discourage the early attempts of genius, although his conduct might not provoke the Essay on Truth, it forms apart of his character on which his friends ought to be silent, unless they can explain it in a more satisfactory manner.
As a poet, it must be confessed that Dr. Beattie came slowly into the world; he did not astonish in his days of childhood and ignorance, by those wonderful efforts which speak the extraordinary teachings of nature. That he had a talent for poetry will not be denied, but it was a talent to be cultivated, and in this respect he has not differed from the most eminent names on the list of English poets. "To touch and re-touch," says Cowper, "although some writers boast of negligence, and others would be ashamed to show their foul copies, is the secret of almost all good writing, especially in verse." Dr. Beattie was a poet without self-love and without conceit, and his fame might be safely trusted in his own hands. What he wrote, and at whatever period of his life, he was able to criticise with impartiality and with taste. He had an eye rather to future than to present reputation, and so far was he from soliciting the complimentary opinions of friends, that I suspect he did not rate very highly the judgment of those who had praised the early productions of his Muse. It is certain that he suppressed those poems, in defiance of their suffrages; and, until he was encouraged to publish The Minstrel, never in his own opinion had laid a fair claim to the reputation of a poet. The many touchings and retouchings he made in this excellent poem are no inconsiderable proofs of his judgment and his diffidence, for he frequently corrected that which all who then distributed the rewards of fame considered as perfect.
As a philosopher, it is no deduction from his merit that his celebrated Essay is now little read. It rose to higher reputation in its day than any work of the kind ever published; and the little opposition made to it is a proof that it answered the full purpose of the author. His expectations, indeed, were moderate: he knew that in controversy it is more easy to gain the victory than to impose terms on the vanquished. Hume, we are told, remained silent, in consequence of a resolution he had formed, not to answer any opponent; and after declining all notice of Dr. Campbell, whose superiority, in his Essay on Miracles, has never been disputed, it was not to be supposed he would break his engagement in favour of Dr. Beattie. But that he felt the attack is generally acknowledged, for this was the first time that the sophistry of his general system had been detected in a popular manner, and the absurdity as well as the mischief accruing from his principles fairly laid open. As to the French philosophers, whom our author incidentally noticed, it was not their object at that time to provoke a public controversy. They were, effecting their purpose by surer means, and Dr. Beattie lived to see their principles triumphant in the destruction of religion, humanity, and social order.
Infidel writings have been obtruded on the world at different periods, and after having been set to rest for a time, have again been revived to serve new purposes. But on these revivals, it does not always happen that the controversial works of one period will supply the wants of the next. New means of attack require new means of defence.
The infidel publications which appeared about the conclusion of the last century, were, in substance, mere transcripts of those which appeared at the beginning of it. But style was altered, and cunning assumed new shapes: a new class of men were to he influenced, and what once was confined to the speculations of the learned, was now to be adapted to a certain weak and feverish state of mind among the vulgar: until at length the controversy seemed to be taken entirely out of the hands of men of literature, and placed in those of mechanics and paupers. The blasphemies of Paine might have sunk into contempt, had they not been circulated, with liberal industry, among those who could read, but could not think, and who wanted a palliative to their conscience, or a screen to their profligacy. To debauch the minds of the lower classes was the last effort of the last race of infidels, and the suppression of them necessarily devolved on the civil magistrate.
But whatever reputation Dr. Beattie enjoyed from his philosophical and critical works, his praise was yet higher in all the personal relations of public and private life. His excellence as an instructor may he gathered from his printed works; but it remains to be added, that few men have exceeded him in anxious and kind attentions to his pupils. It was his practice, while under his care, to invite them by small parties to his house, and unbend his mind in gay conversation, eneouraging them to speak with familiarity on common topics, and to express their doubts with freedom on any subjects connected with their studies. Those whom he observed particularly regular and attentive in the class, and who by their answers or remarks discovered the improvements of private assiduity, he honoured with his kindest patronage, and corresponded on easy and friendly terms with many of them, long after they quitted the university. By these means he was so endeared to his scholars, that I am not able to mention him at all as a disciplinarian. I can recollect no instance in which he found it necessary to command attention by any influence more strong than the reverence which his character and manners procured without any effort, and continued without any abatement.
As a husband and father, if he had any fault, it was that of extreme tenderness and sensibility. He was indeed "tremblingly alive" to every circumstance that affected the objects of his love. Yet who will arraign these feelings, or set bounds to parental care? The danger, let it be remembered, was all his own: his children betrayed none of the wayward consequences of indulgence; they amply repaid his anxious fondness, and he derived a pleasure from their advancement, which was very remote front the unsteady caprice of parental weakness. The talents of his eldest son, as they were cultivated chiefly in retirement, were not generally known; but those with whom he associated knew him for a youth of wonderful innocence, purity and simplicity of mind and manner. Nor was his brother, of whom however I knew less from personal acquaintance, inferior in the valuable qualities of the heart. On them, therefore, the father's fondness produced none of the consequences of an affection which in many is rather a weakness than a virtue. He was himself the only sufferer by his excess of sensibility; and we must ever lament that it embittered those years which good men usually pass in cheerful remembrances, and exemplary resignation.
None were more affected by his melancholy retreat from society, than those who could recollect him in his happier days of health and hope. As a companion, few men exhibited more captivations, from his assiduous application to study, and the time he found it necessary to devote to his published works and to his academical duties, it may easily be supposed he could not spare many hours to company. Yet he had a keen relish for social intercourse, and was remarkably cheerful and communicative. It has not yet been mentioned, but it may be observed from various parts of his writings, that he had a turn for humour, and a quick sense of the ridiculous. This, however, was so chastened by the elegance of his taste, and the benevolence of his disposition, that whatever fell from him of that kind was devoid of coarseness or asperity. In conversation he never endeavoured to gain superiority, or to compel attention, but contrived to take his just share, without seeming to interrupt the loquacity of others. He had however what most men have who are jealous of their reputation, a degree of reserve in promiscuous company, which he entirely discarded among those whom he loved, and in whom he confided. Among strangers, too, there was a studied correctness in his expression, which was either unnecessary, or appeared more easy and natural, in his familiar hours.
Of his talent for humour, he gave some specimens in a periodical journal published at Aberdeen, which seem not unworthy of being added to his miscellaneous works, if they could be ascertained; but he did not seek the reputation of a wit, and I am not sure that he permitted his name to transpire. In London, it is yet remembered that his conversation-talents were much admired, and no doubt procured him a long continuance of those friendships with men of rank, which are rarely to be preserved without something more than the mere possession of genius. His modest and engaging manners rendered him equally acceptable to the courtly and elegant Mansfield, and to the rough and unbending Johnson. To Mrs. Montague's literary parties he was ever a most acceptable addition; and he lived with the present bishop of London, with sir Joshua Reynolds, and with Mr. Burke, on terms of the easiest intimacy. If flattery could have spoiled him, he had enough; as in England, for whatever reason, his character always stood higher than in his own country.
Dr. Beattie's person was rather above the middle size. His countenance was very mild, and his smile uncommonly placid and benign. His eyes were remarkably piercing and expressive, and there was a general composure in his features which sir Joshua Reynolds has given admirably in his picture, which has been engraven for his Life.
His person was apparently stout and even robust, but this certainly was not the case. Its original conformation may have been that of strength and vigour; but he had frequent interruptions from sickness at a very early period of life. As he advanced, he discovered all the delicate and valetudinary temperament of genius. At the age of forty-five he had the walk and manner and precautions that are usually observable at sixty, and was much afflicted with head-achs and other symptoms that are commonly called nervous. When I saw him on his last visit to London, he seemed painfully affected by sudden noises of any kind, and was particularly averse to the bustle of the London streets. There was evidently a great portion of irritability in his habit. That this was precipitated by the loss of his domestic endearments, cannot be doubted; but the primary cause must he sought in his application to study, which at all times of his life, but particularly in his youth, was too close, and absolutely inconsistent with a healthy habit of body. Of this he was so sensible, that it appears to have been his constant object to prevent his son from falling into the same errour; and I received some letters from him many years ago on the subject, in which he strongly deprecates an unremitting attention to books.
The Life of Dr. Beattie, lately published by sir William Forbes, exhibits him in the character of an epistolary writer. His letters embrace a very large portion of the literary history of his time, but it may be doubted whether they have always the ease and vivacity which are expected in this species of composition. They are valuable, however, as exhibiting many lesser traits of his character, and as disclosing its lesser infirmities.
It was the original intention of the present writer to have given no more of his poems in this collection than were contained in the last authorized edition, and the arguments in favour of this intention are still prevalent. In compliance, however, with the opinion of sir William Forbes, and others who have pleaded for a revival of many pieces which their author thought proper to reject, they are all now reprinted.