1774 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

Anonymous, "A Short Account of the Life and Writings of the celebrated Dr. Beattie" Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement 25 (14 July 1774) 82-85.



The history of an author's life is frequently little more than an account of his works: for it is the lot of few to unite, like Cervantes or Rousseau, the spirit of adventure with the pursuits of genius, or the acquirements of learning. Of all authors, the life of a poet affords the fewest materials to amuse a man of the world, as that extreme sensibility, which ever attends a favourite of the Muses (the perpetual source of extreme joy or sorrow), disqualifies the poet for the general offices of life: his simplicity exposes him to all the insidious approaches of cunning; his sensibility to the slightest appearance of contempt: Though often possessed of fortitude to stand unmoved the greatest event, yet of feelings so exquisitely keen, as to agonize under the slightest disappointment. Such has been the poet's fate uniformly from Homer down to the author of the Minstrel!

Dr. James Beattie was born in the year 1735 or 1736, at Laurence-kirk, a little village on the south side of the Grampian mountains, in Kincardineshire in Scotland, of parents not eminent for wealth, but highly respectable for piety, probity, and good sense. He was the youngest of five children, who had the misfortune to lose their father when very young, but who were carefully educated under the inspection of a prudent, a pious, and most affectionate mother. He studied Latin at the grammar-school of his native village; a school of which the learned Mr. Thomas Ruddiman was formerly master, and which had been in good repute ever since his time. About the year 1750, he removed to the Marischal college, in the university of Aberdeen, where he prosecuted his studies under Dr. Blackwell and Dr. Gerard with good success; and, after having gone through the usual course of philosophy, classical learning, and mathematics, was admitted to the degree of master of arts. He very early discovered signs of an almost universal genius, and shewed an excellent capacity for languages, philosophy, music, and poetry, which last was his darling pursuit. He has been frequently heard to mention the raptures he felt when Virgil was first put in his hand at the grammar-school; and Dryden's translation of that poet. Pope's Homer, Thomson's Seasons, and Milton's Paradise Lost, were his favourite companions while he was yet a child.

From the time of his leaving the university till the year 1759, he was partly employed in prosecuting his studies, and partly in teaching; during which period he composed several poetical pieces, the greatest part of which was never published, but which, by their wit and humour, and other merit, procured him the acquaintance and friendship of several persons of rank and literature, by whose recommendation he was, in the year 1760, presented by his late majesty to the office of professor of moral philosophy in the Marischal College; which trust he has discharged with great assiduity and universal approbation ever since. In the same year he published a volume of Poems, which were very well received, and have been several times printed, but of which he has, of late years, been often heard to speak in terms which his friends thought rather too contemptuous.

Being now led, by the duties of his office, to study the ancient and modern metaphysicians, he was particularly shocked at the absurdities of the modern skeptical philosophy, which seemed to him utterly subversive of religion, virtue, and sound literature, though, from the influence of some eminent writers, it was become very fashionable: and it is probable that he began to meditate a continuation of this philosophy soon after he commenced professor, although, for several years, he did not disclose his intention, perhaps from a diffidence of his ability to undertake such a task. His design was not only to censure the most dangerous errors of the modern skeptics, but also, by unfolding the principles of evidence with a plainness of language and argument adopted to every capacity, to destroy the skeptical system altogether.

Whoever is acquainted with the genius and spirit of skepticism, and has reflected on its obvious and manifest tendency to involve the heart in coldness and insensibility; to spread a gloom over the whole intellectual and moral world; to divest the mind of man of every principle; to subvert the most solid foundations of his happiness; and, in a word, to render him an useless and a wretched being, will be highly pleased with this laudable attempt to expose it in its genuine colours, and to vindicate the cause of truth and virtue. Such, likewise, as have been long wandering in metaphysical mazes, been fond of the refinements and subtleties of modern skeptics, and, as the fruit of their cold, intricate, and often uninteresting investigations, have reaped little more than darkness and uncertainty, will receive great satisfaction from the perusal of this essay; through the whole of which the author appears not in the character of a good citizen, earnestly desirous of promoting the best interests of mankind, but in that of a judicious philosopher and elegant writer.

The success of this work, first published in 1770, considering the abstruseness of the subject, has been very great. Four numerous editions were sold off in about three years, and the fifth is now on sale. It has been translated into several foreign languages, has attracted the notice of many eminent persons in Holland, Germany, France, and Italy, and has been received with great approbation in America. In what light he and his writings are considered in England, may appear from the rewards and honours conferred on him by his majesty, and by the university of Oxford, and from the extraordinary attention that has been shewn him by so many persons of the highest distinction in rank and literature. These circumstances seem to do equal honour to his talents as a writer, and his manners as a private man. — While he was composing the Essay on Truth, he amused himself at intervals with writing his Minstrel; the only one of his poetical performances on which he now seems to set any value. The first book was published in the year 1771, and has already gone through four editions: the second book was published a few weeks ago.

This beautiful poem, more, perhaps, than his celebrated philosophical works, will be the means of transmitting his name to posterity. It is certainly one of the most elegant and highly finished pieces in our language, and abounds with proofs of real genius throughout, some of which we cannot resist the pleasure of laying before the reader.

"The first hint of this performance (says Dr. Beattie, in his address to the public) was suggested by Dr. Percy's ingenious Essay on the English Minstrels, prefixed to his first volume of Reliques of Antient 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 at 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 promise variety of amusement, and even some 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 altered, and a few phrases struck out that refer to a sequel, might perhaps be 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 compleated without such an expence 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 some 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 aukward 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 particularly suitable to the subject: but I hope none will now be found that are 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 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 poem then opens in such a manner as instantly to command the attention of the most insensible reader.

Ah! who can tell how hard it is to climb
The steep where Fame's proud temple shines afar!
Ah! who can tell how many a soul sublime
Hath felt the influence of malignant star,
And waged with Fortune an eternal war!
Check'd by the scoff of Pride, by Envy's frown,
And Poverty's unconquerable bar,
In life's low vale remote hath pined alone,
Then drops into the grave, unpitied and unknown!

And yet, the languor of inglorious days
Not equally oppressive is to all.
Him, who ne'er listen'd to the voice of praise,
The silence of neglect can ne'er appall.
There are, who, deaf to mad Ambition's call,
Would shrink to hear th' obstreperous trump of Fame;
Supremely blest, if to their portion fall
Health, competence, and peace. Nor higher aim
Had HE, whose simple tale these artless lines proclaim.

Tho' richest hues the peacock's plumes adorn,
Yet horror screams from his discordant throat.
Rise, sons of harmony, and hail the morn,
While warbling larks on russet pinions float;
Or seek at noon the woodland scene remote,
Where the grey linnets carol from the hill.
O let them ne'er, with artificial note,
To please a tyrant, strain the little bill,
But sing what heaven inspires, and wander where they will.

A little father on, painting the beauties of nature and rural life, he thus expresses himself:

O how canst thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which Nature to her votary yields!
The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,
The pomp of groves, and garniture of fields;
All that the genial ray of morning gilds,
And all that echoes to the song of even,
All that the mountain's sheltering bosom shields,
And all the dread magnificence of heaven,
O how canst thou renounce, and hope to be forgiven!

For a description of the young bard see Vol. Xiii. P. 50.

The following description of the morning is truly poetical:

But who the melodies of morn can tell?
The wild brook babbling down the mountain-side;
The lowing herd; the sheepfold's simple bell;
The pipe of early shepherd dim descried
In the lone valley; echoing far and wide
The clamorous horn along the cliffs above;
The hollow murmur of the ocean-tide;
The hum of bees, and linnet's lay of love,
And the full choir that wakes the universal grove,

The cottage-curs at early pilgrim bark;
Crown'd with her pail the tripping milkmaid sings;
The whistling plowman stalks afield; and, hark!
Down the rough slope the ponderous waggon rings;
Through rustling corn the hare astonish'd springs;
Slow tolls the village-clock the drowsy hour;
The partridge bursts away on whirring wings;
Deep mourns the turtle in sequester'd bower,
And shrill lark carols clear from her aereal tour.

He thus addresses the Sophist:

Hence! ye, who snare and stupefy the mind,
Sophists, of beauty, virtue, joy, the bane!
Greedy and fell, though impotent and blind,
Who spread your filthy nets in Truth's fair fane,
And ever ply your venom'd fangs amain!
Hence to dark Error's den, whose rankling slime
First gave you form! hence! lest the Muse should deign,
(Though loth on theme so mean to waste a rhyme),
With vengeance to pursue your sacrilegious crime.

But hail, ye mighty masters of the lay,
Nature's true sons, the friends of man and truth!
Whose song, sublimely sweet, serenely gay,
Amused my childhood, and inform'd my youth.
O let your spirit still my bosom sooth,
Inspire my dreams, and my wild wanderings guide.
Your voice each rugged path of life can smooth;
For well I know, where-ever ye reside,
There harmony, and peace, and innocence, abide.

Shall he, whose birth, maturity, and age,
Scarce fill the circle of one summer-day,
Shall the poor gnat with discontent and rage
Exclaim, that Nature hastens to decay,
If but a cloud obstruct the solar ray,
If but a momentary shower descend!
Or shall frail man Heaven's dread decree gainsay,
Which bade the series of events extend
Wide through unnumber'd worlds, and ages without end!

One part, one little part, we dimly scan
Through the dark medium of life's feverish dream;
Yet dare arraign the whole stupendous plan,
If but that little part incongruous seem.
Nor is that part perhaps what mortals deem;
Oft from apparent ill our blessings rise.
O then renounce that impious self-esteem,
That aims to trace the secrets of the skies:
For thou art but of dust; be humble, and be wise.

Drawing has also had a place among Dr. Beattie's amusements; and he is said to perform very agreeably on the violin-cello, and some other instruments; and to understand the principles of music so well, as to have attempted several things in the way of composition with good success.

Dr. Beattie is of the middle size, his features regular, his look composed and thoughtful, of few words, especially among strangers. His manner, free from singularity, is modest, unaffected, and obliging, and improves greatly upon acquaintance. Though fond of solitude, he is both sociable and cheerful; and, when among his friends, has not disinclination to innocent mirth of any kind. He is good-natured, humane, and affectionate in his disposition; and his behaviour in all the relations of his life irreproachable and exemplary. He has all his life been afflicted with head-ache, and other disorders incident to literary men, which has of late years been a great interruption to his studies.