1801 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

Anonymous, "Dr. James Beattie" European Magazine 39 (January 1801) 3-4.



It has sometimes been a subject of reproach to the literary character, and at the same time of regret, that great acquisitions of knowledge have not been united with corresponding virtues; that great talents have been often blemished by eccentricities and irregularities which more than degraded the possessor below the level of the most uninteresting peasant. Much candour, it must be confessed, is sometimes necessary in viewing the conduct of literary men, and prejudice and passion should have no voice when their merits or defects are canvassed or investigated. It sometimes, however, happens, that the brightest genius receives a lustre from the exercise of the domestic virtues; from a conduct directed by morality, and illuminated by the precepts and practice of religion. When such is the case, how amiable does the possessor appear! and such, we believe, may be confidently asserted to be the person whose conciliating manners obtained the friendship of the rough Johnson and the fastidious Gray, and whose portrait we now present to our readers.

DR. JAMES BEATTIE was born, we are informed, in Kincardineshire, in Scotland, and receive part of his education at the University of Aberdeen, where he cultivated the Belles Lettres with great assiduity, and as great success. His first employment was that of schoolmaster of Alloa; from whence he was transferred to his native county in the same situation. He then went to Aberdeen to assist in the grammar-school of that place, and during his residence there married the daughter of his principal. He was afterwards promoted to the Professorship of Moral Philosophy and Logic in the Marischal College of that University, in which post he still continues, greatly to the advantage of those who are educating at that seminary.

His first publication was in the year 1760, in a volume of Original Poems and Translation, 8vo.: a collection which afterwards he considered with so little favour as to declare, that the poems contained in it were in general so incorrect, that he would not rescue them from oblivion if a wish could do it. Accordingly a very few only remain in the last publication of his verses.

In 1765 he published The Judgment of Paris, a Poem, in 4to. which has not been preserved from the general proscription of his juvenile poems. In 1767 he became known to Mr. Gray, from whose friendship he received some valuable hints relative to his admirable poem of The Minstrel, chiefly written the succeeding year. In 1700 he published his excellent antidote against scepticism and infidelity, in An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism, 8vo, a work which has received the applause of every candid reader. In the last letter he received from Mr. Gray, that Gentleman says, "I am happy to hear of your success, because I think you are serving the cause of human nature, and the true interests of mankind; your book is read here too, and with just applause." On the writer Dr. Beattie contends against, the same admirable author gives his opinion in the following words: "I have often thought David Hume a pernicious writer, and believe he has done as much mischief here as he has in his own country: a turbid and shallow stream often appears to our apprehensions very deep. A professed sceptic can be guided by nothing but his present passions (if he has any) and interests; and to be masters of his philosophy, we need not his books or advice, for every child is capable of the same thing without any study at all. Is not that naivete and good humour which his admirers celebrate in him owing to this, that he has continued all his days an infant, but one that unhappily has been taught to read and write? That childish nation the French have given him vogue and fashion; we, as usual, have learned from them to admire him at second hand." On the publication of this work the admirers of Mr. Hume complained of the severe manner in which he was treated; but in this particular they will be joined by few who consider the nature and tendency of his writings. A few years after, in 1777, this work was republished in quarto, by subscription, at the desire of several persons of distinction, and the addition of Essays on Poetry and Music as they affect the Mind; on Laughter, and Ludicrous Composition; and on the Utility of Classical Learning.

In 1771 he published the first book of The Minstrel; or, The Progress of Genius, in 4to.; and in 1774 the second book; both which have been several times reprinted, and will be sufficient to establish the Author's reputation as a poet. About this time he was honoured with a pension from the Crown, and had the degree of Doctor of Laws conferred on him. In 1783 he published Dissertations Moral and Critical, in 4to.; and in 1786, by the recommendation of Bishop Porteous, he completed, and gave the world, Evidences of the Christian Religion briefly and plainly stated, 2 vols. 12mo. a performance intended for the use of young persons. In 1788 he republished The Theory of Language, one of his former Essays enlarged and corrected.

The remaining work of Dr. Beattie must create a sympathy in every good mind. On the 19th of November 1790, he lost his remaining son, at the age of twenty-two years, a youth whose talents and virtues gave promise of doing honour to his country and to human nature. On this occasion, the sorrowful father became the editor of his son's remains, and published a volume which exhibited a maturity of understanding beyond what could possibly be expected in so young a person, and a propriety of conduct which might be held out as an example to the rising generation. In this narrative, the sorrows of the man are alleviated by the resignation of the Christian; and the Author concludes his account in the following terms:

"I have lost the pleasantest, and, for the last four or five years of his short life, one of the most instructive companions that ever man was delighted with. But — THE LORD GAVE; THE LORD HATH TAKEN AWAY; BLESSED BE THE NAME OF THE LORD. I adore the Author of all Good, who gave him grace to lead such a life, and die such a death, as makes it impossible for a Christian to doubt of his having entered upon the inheritance of a happy immortality."