1803 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 73 (September 1803) 885-86.



At Aberdeen, in his 68th year, James Beattie, LL.D. F.R.S. Edinburgh, one of the professors of moral philosophy and logick in the Marischal college, and member of several philosophical societies. This very distinguished writer was born in the county of Kincardine, studied at Aberdeen, and became a schoolmaster, first at Alloa, in Fife and afterwards in his native province. Thence he went to Aberdeen, to assist as usher in the grammar-school of that place, and, while in that situation, wrote his celebrated Minstrel, and married the daughter of the schoolmaster. He had before published, 1761, an octavo volume of original poems and translations, reprinted in duodecimo; and, in 1776, The Judgment of Paris, a Poem, in 4to. The first book of The Minstrel was published in 1770, and the second in 1774. The elegance and feeling which characterize this poem, derived from Dr. Percy's Essay on the English Minstrels, prefixed to the first volume of his Reliques of Antient Poetry, and written in imitation of Spenser, have been generally acknowledged, and it is to be regretted that it was never finished. In his odes and elegies he took Gray for his model. His beautiful song called The Hermit, and other poems, have also obtained him distinguished applause. Mr. Hume having severely criticized his poems, be determined to seek his revenge in the character of a Christian philosopher, who had penetrated the sophistry, and was deeply alarmed at the consequences, of his reasonings. His Essay on the Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism, 1777, 4to, conciliated to him the friendship of Dr. Gregory, of Edinburgh, of Lord Lyttleton, Bp. Hurd, and particularly of Bp. Porteus. He was also honoured with the esteem of the late Lord Mansfield, of whom he has been heard to declare, that he never conversed with any person who had conceived such clear and just ideas of his philosophy." He was promoted to a professorship in Marischal college through the favour of the noble family of Errol. Not being in holy orders, he was recommended to his Majesty for a pension, which he obtained and held for many years.

"The approbation of the great characters abovementioned is a sufficient testimony in favour of the Essay On Truth. His manner of treating the scepticks of the day, especially Mr. Hume, gave great offence to many readers and his work was answered by Dr. Priestly: but, from the clergy in general, it received the most decisive approbation; and they justly estimated the merit of writer who, on this occasion, appeared an anxious promoter of the best interests of mankind, a judicious philosopher, and a pertinent and captivating reasoner. The quarto volume of Essays was published in that form at the desire of many of the Doctor's friends, and contains a republication of the Essay on Truth, with the addition of the other ingenious Essays on Poetry and Musick, as they affect the Mind, on Laughter, and ludicrous Composition, and on the Utility of Classical Learning, which were not originally designed for the press, but which some of those friends had seen and desired to possess; and the suffrage of the world at large has borne testimony to their taste."

The Dissertations moral and critical, 1783, one volume 8vo, were part of a course of lectures read to a young gentleman, whom it was the author's business to initiate in moral science. The subjects are, Memory and Imagination, Dreaming, the Theory of Language, Fable and Romance, the Attachments of Kindred, and Illustrations on Sublimity. They abound with criticisms, both on books and men, are enlivened by many pleasing images and scenes, as well as anecdotes, and are written in style unaffected, simple, and perspicuous. Virtue is recommended, not in the dry and uninteresting manner of didactic system, but as the appears in human form, in all the glowing colours of every amiable and heroic affection and passion. Such views of Nature are exhibited as amuse and elevate the fancy, and such plain and practical truths is serve to direct the conduct of life. Impartial criticism, however, obliges us with reluctance to confess that, in these dissertations, there occurs little original or new; their chief merit consists in compilation or selection, and in the exercise of taste. But, in general, they seldom strike into new paths; and, where they do, they too frequently betray inconsistency of theory, prejudices, both of sentiments and persons, many of the whims of a valetudinary poet, and not a few instances of that unphilosophical credulity which religious Zeal opposes to the enquiries of Curiosity and Reason. The Evidences of the Christian Religion briefly and plainly stated, 1786, 2 vols, small 8vo, were drawn up at the particular request of the present Bishop of London. Excellent as the intention of this publication, and respectable as its execution must, on the whole, be allowed to be, we cannot help thinking that it is without that strength, energy, and luminous conviction, which might have been expected in such a work from such a writer. Elements of Moral Science, 2 vols. 8vo, I. 1790, II. 1793, consist of the essence or substance of a series of lectures delivered in the duty of his professorship, comprising metaphysicks, rhetorick, politicks, and natural religion, as well as moral philosophy, strictly so called, and display good sense, extensive knowledge, and able reasoning.

"As the coldness of scepticism is equally opposite to the fire of poetical fancy, and the enthusiasm of religion, the philosophy of Dr. Reid met with the approbation. And countenance of many pious and poetical persons; and Dr. Beattie appeared as a coadjutor to his countryman in the support of religion, virtue, and truth; objects which he considered to be materially injured by a philosophy which professed a total ignorance and uncertainty with regard to every species of truth, it is in the spirit of his earlier publications to withdraw the mind from the abstractions of metaphysicks, and to inspire a reverence for the authority of sense; to wean the understanding from the habits of reasoning, and to amuse the imagination, and interest the heart, by holding up to view the most afflicting pictures or nature, and all that is fitted to work upon the apprehensions of religion, and the sensibility of taste. Peculiarities of every kind increase with years; and, as years advanced, he grew still more inimical to abstracted reasoning, still more devoted to sentiment and feeling: has employed himself more in practical reflections, and been more than ever studious to defend the doctrines, and enforce the precepts of religion." New Catalogue of living English Authors, I. 186-192.

Dr. Beattie experienced a severe calamity in the death of his son, a youth of brilliant talents and promising genius, Mar. 14, 1796. The Doctor printed some Memoirs of his Life, to distribute among his numerous acquaintance, and not for general circulation. He used to spend his Summers in England, with his early patroness, Mrs. Montagu (LXII. 505), after whom his son was named (LXVI. 352). The feeble taunts at him by a correspondent in our vol. LXIII. p. 396, are only to be despised and pitied.