James Beattie, LL.D. was born on the 5th of November, in the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-five. The parish of Laurencekirk, in the county of Kincardine, in Scotland, has the honour of enrolling his name among those of several other literary characters, which that remote part of the island has produced.
His ancestors had resided there for a considerable period. The Beatties or Beatons, however, came originally from the western isles; upon what occasion, or at what precise time, cannot be exactly ascertained. His father, James Beattie, followed the honourable profession of a farmer. His mother's name was Jean Watson.
Dr. Beattie's father was a man of very considerable abilities — of the strictest probity — exact in taking an account of the manner wherein he spent his time; and at his leisure hours he cultivated the Muses. A journal kept by him, as well as some specimens of his poetry, are still in the possession of his descendants. This last circumstance is the more worthy of being noticed, as it proves that Dr. Beattie derived his poetical turn from his father.
The subject of this memoir was deprived of his father at a very tender age; he was then only seven years old. An event of this kind is always accompanied with serious consequences, in whatever situation the sufferer may be placed; such misfortunes, however, are felt more severely by some ranks in society than by others. Those who are in circumstances, not sufficiently destitute to excite the commiseration of the public, are generally left to their own unassisted exertions; and in this situation was the family of Mrs. Beattie. The hopes of the widow, and her helpless offspring, were immediately fixed upon the senior, and only brother of the doctor. In him they were not disappointed. David Beattie, at the time of his father's death, was eighteen years old: and as it was not then the custom, in Scotland, to initiate boys so early into the knowledge of the learned languages, as has of late become fashionable, he was at that age at school prosecuting his studies. His father in consequence of the promising talents which he discovered, had resolved to send him to the University; but a premature death deprived him of this advantage, and imperiously called upon him to relinquish such pursuits, and to devote his time and abilities to the support of his mother's family. This duty, for a long series of years, he discharged with assiduity and affection; and whatever pleasure, or instruction, the public have derived from Dr. Beattie's writings, they ought to confider themselves. as highly indebted for it to the fostering, generous, and, I may say, parental care of his elder brother.
In his early years Dr. Beattie was of a very weakly constitution. It is, however, of little consequence to inquire in what particular year he went to school; it is likely he would afford as early indications of a capacity to acquire the elements of knowledge, as the generality of boys exhibit; and this, it will be admitted, is the ordinary and common maxim, whereby a judicious parent is actuated, when it is resolved on to send a child to school.
A narrative of the most minute circumstances in the history of the progress of a man of letters, will be considered by every judicious person as a most invaluable treasure. We are informed in the Essay on Poetry, that the first opportunity he ever had of being acquainted with Virgil, was through the medium of Ogilvie's translation. It is probable that he had at this time made some progress in the knowledge of classical literature; but this allusion, trifling as it may appear to some, discovers the early bent of his mind, and the pleasure he derived from poetry.
The practice of writing Latin verses has never been generally introduced into the public schools of Scotland — Beattie had seldom or never surely attempted this in the early part of his life, because he was wont to confess at a time, when he had already acquired the most distinguished reputation as an author of real poetical genius, that he experienced great difficulty when he tried it. I suppose he never wrote six lines of Latin verse.
At a very early period of life Beattie was distinguished by his fellow-scholars not only by the superiority of his powers, but by his indefatigable application. He was always in the highest station in his class. Diligent, attentive, and regular in accomplishing the talks prescribed to him, his reputation within the small circle of his friends began to extend.
The particular circumstances attending the progress of his fame among his school-fellows, I cannot now ascertain. It is an unquestionable truth, that he was called Poet Beattie at school. Owing to the delicate state of his health, his elder sister, Elizabeth, always accompanied him to school. This young lady died at an early age. Her attachment, however, to her brother was so great, that she not only gave attendance at the public school, but assisted him in private, and made such proficiency that she could read Virgil with facility.
In the year one thousand seven hundred and forty-nine, the two brothers left Laurencekirk, and directed their course to Aberdeen.
Beattie's, or rather his brother's circumstances not being very affluent, it was determined that he should be a candidate for what, in the academical language of Scotland, is called a burse, or bursary. The definition of the word bursar, by Johnson may have misled many Englishmen. He seems to have supposed that it was solely the prerogative of the presbytery to give a title to these exhibitions or petty pensions. This, however, is a great mistake. I may affirm with certainty, that no presbytery, of the seventy-eight in Scotland, possesses any similar prerogative.
The reputation of Marischal college had induced Beattie to appear as a candidate there. The form upon such occasions is, that a piece of English is dictated to the candidates by a professor, which they are required to translate into Latin. They are inclosed in the college hall, with one of the town clerks and the professor who prescribes the trial, and are at liberty to retire whenever they have written their version. The name of the writer is subscribed at such a convenient distance that it can be easily cut off. It is then numbered; and the same number is written upon the slip of paper, on which the name is. The judges are therefore prevented from being partial, even though they were so disposed. After the different merits of the competitors have been ascertained, and the most valuable burse adjudged to the writer of the best translation, they arrange such as remain according to their comparative excellence. When this part of the business is finished, the names of the successful candidates are easily obtained, by comparing the number on the version with the number on the slip of paper containing the writer's name.
On the day of the competition, David Beattie waited with great anxiety for the issue of the trial. He was surprized at the short time James had taken to finish his version, and even expressed to him his fears that be had been in too great a hurry, and had not bestowed sufficient pains upon it. Next day, however, when the roll was called, James Beattie's name was first on the list, and he was consequently entitled to the best burse.
The small sums of money thus bestowed upon young men are quite inadequate to support them while at college, without some other pecuniary aid; the value of money having fallen so much, since the funds were originally established from which the greater number burses are paid. The average value in Aberdeen may be considered as too high when it is stated at five pounds sterling per annum. There are several however much above that sum.
Beattie was exceedingly fortunate in having an opportunity presented to him of profiting by the instructions of Principal Thomas Blackwell, professor of Greek, author of the life of Homer, and of the court of Augustus.
As no evidence exists by which it can be proved how early in the session Blackwell discerned Beattie's genius, it is in vain to enter into a particular enquiry what the real state of the case might have been. It is an undoubted fact that Blackwell not only discovered the abilities of his pupil, but also patronized him.
I have conversed with several of Beattie's class fellows. They unanimously affirmed, that he was considered superior to any of his class. This is to small testimony of his proficiency. Boys do not judge very accurately upon many things. Upon the figure which one of their companions makes at college or even at school, they are impartial and unexceptionable witnesses.
Beattie's proficiency, during the first year of his college course, is the more remarkable, because he was then in a very delicate state of health. An anecdote frequently related by his brother proves this. — When David was about to leave Aberdeen, James accompanied him to a street called the Green. When they had separated, David could not resist the temptation to look back, and perceiving James still standing in the middle of the street, looking after him, he said to himself, how can I leave such a poor creature in Aberdeen for the winter; he cannot surely survive that period. He had boarded him with a distant relation, a Mr. David Langlands, whose son, if I mistake not, is an eminent counselor in London. Beattie's health nevertheless was but little altered during that winter.
On his return to Laurencekirk it improved considerably. During the vacation, which at this college is seven months in the year, he applied to his studies with unremitting industry.
At the proper period Beattie set out a second time for Aberdeen. Being a bursar, it was absolutely necessary that he should attend the different classes in the order prescribed by the statutes of the university, otherwise he could not apply for the degree of Master of Arts.
Beattie though possessed of unquestionable genius, never discovered any great attachment to mathematical pursuits. He sometimes expressed in conversation his own antipathy to that noble study, rather in strong terms. The turn of his mind does not seem to have led him to cultivate the science of quantity, for proficiency in which Dr. Reid and Dr. Smith were so eminent. Whatever light such an antipathy may throw upon the peculiarity of his mental character, it is certain that it produced no good effect during the period of his professorship.
Though Beattie discovered no particular partiality to the mathematics, it is plain from his essay on truth, and other works, that his powers of abstraction were not incompetent to have distinguished him as a mathematician.
Besides the study of mathematics, Beattie's attention was, during the second session, directed to history, geography, chronology, with an introduction to natural history.
It ought to be mentioned that Mr. Beattie was possessed of as much theoretic knowledge of the mathematics, and practical skill as to make a quadrant. With this instrument he took the altitude of the church of Laurencekirk, &c.
It is unnecessary to observe that Beattie uniformly returned to Laurencekirk at the conclusion of each session. In his mother's hospitable mansion, and by the frank and generous exertions of his brother, he was enabled to prosecute his studies without interruption. Dr. Beattie, as well as almost all his relations, possessed a very correct ear for music. Even at a period preceding this, the natural impulse of his mind had induced him to cultivate his talents in this way. And it is certain that he practiced, in the most busy part of his life, what he recommended to other students in his works, and what constituted the favourite amusement of Luther and of Milton, in the intervals between their usual hours of serious study.
Beattie was now about to enter the highest class in the academical arrangements in the university of Aberdeen. He could not have been more fortunate in a professor than in the person who, at that time, was to be his teacher. This was Dr. Alexander Gerard.
The Literary Society in Aberdeen, of which Reid, Campbell, Gregory, Skene, and Gerard were members, had existed several years before Beattie was added to their number. The object of their association was mutual improvement in literature and philosophy. The liberal intercourse which subsisted between the members must have greatly promoted the progress of their several studies. Not only the excellence of their different works, but the great similarity of the doctrines they have inculcated, both in philosophy and polite literature, shew that they were not inattentive to the suggestions of one another. What probable improvement Beattie derived from this we shall have occasion to notice as we proceed.
The regular course of Marischal college is completed in four years. No one can apply for the degree of master of arts who has not attended the classes in the order prescribed by the statutes of the university. Beattie at the usual time (in the end of the session 1753) took his degree. This ceremony was always public till he himself, from a dislike to what he considered to be ostentation, or perhaps from some other cause, made it private. During his professorship it was public only for sixteen years, and was private for the nine following years. In 1786, however, the graduation, as it is technically called, was public. His oldest son took his degree that year.
I have now brought down Beattie's history to the period when he left college; that is, when he had completed his term at those classes which gentlemen generally attend who purpose nothing else than obtaining the benefit of a liberal education.
About the beginning of April 1753, he returned to Laurenckirk, and waited patiently for some employment which would not greatly interrupt the progress of his studies.
Upon his return to Laurencekirk he was always treated with the greatest kindness and attention by the Rev. Andrew Thomson, minister of that parish. This gentleman possessed an excellent library, was a very good scholar, and was among the very first who patronized Beattie early in life.
But, as it was necessary that Beattie should now engage in some employment, and endeavour by his own exertions to support himself. To teach a school was the only way that was left for him.
His character, as a good scholar, and a young man of genius, was justly, on his return from college, so very high, that he ran little risk of being an unsuccessful candidate for any of those situations which are in general request by such persons as propose to be, and those who, in Scotland, are students of divinity.
While Mr. Beattie resided with his brother, the neighbouring parish of Fordoun was deprived of its schoolmaster. He applied for, and easily procured, that humble appointment. Its emoluments were small. He was then about the age of nineteen, as he entered upon his new employment in the end of 1753, or in the beginning of 1754.
With what ability he acquitted himself as the teacher of a school, in a remote country village, cannot be described with the utmost accuracy. What one would not have expected, I have been informed, upon evidence the most unquestionable, that he was a very severe disciplinarian. It is likely that he did not sit very easy under his new employment. His views were more aspiring than his situation at that time could warrant any hopes of every having it in his power to gratify. The teasing detail of the business of a country school was but little accommodating to a young man like Beattie. It is necessary that a schoolmaster should devote his time, his talents, and his pursuits, to those placed under his tuition. Any object, either higher or lower, is not calculated to benefit the scholars; and this (whatever other qualification the master may possess) is the ordinary standard whereby his ability is estimated.
Beattie's manner and address are represented as having been at this time blunt, and rather uncultivated. He had hitherto but little opportunity either of conversing or associating with his superiors, in regard to fortune. It is in such society that any little awkwardness of manner is most likely to he corrected; and no general rule can possibly accomplish this so effectually. Notwithstanding this disadvantage, wherever he went he always gained friends, and found individuals who did themselves honour by patronizing him as a man of genius.
About the time he went to Fordoun, he began to send his little poetical compositions to the Scots Magazine. This periodical publication commenced about the year 1738. Whoever conducted it, an association of Edinburgh booksellers were the proprietors. Ruddiman, the relation of the grammarian of the same name, and the author of the Life and Adventures of Peter Williamson, the best imitation which has yet appeared of the popular romance of Robinson Crusoe, had, not at that time begun to publish his magazine. A considerable number of Beattie's poems in the Scots magazine are under fictitious signatures. They are, in general, however, subscribed with the initials of his name. One of his earliest patrons was Mr. Francis Garden, afterwards Lord Gardenstone.
Mr. Garden was sheriff of Kincardineshire when Beattie went to Fourdon. He did Mr. Beattie a service which at that period of his history was not a small one. He afforded him his patronage, and introduced him to the principal gentlemen of the county: not the principal in point of fortune alone, but to those also who were qualified to appreciate real talents, and who possessed the asistocracy of genius. It must be confessed that few parochial schoolmasters ought to be compared with Mr. Beattie. There are, however, still fewer patrons like Lord Gardenstone.
While at Fordoun he resided in the house of James Anderson. The Rev. Mr. Forbes, at that time minister of the parish, shewed him many marks of kindness. He very soon discovered Beattie's abilities, and though he held them in just estimation, he was not blind to his defects. Beattie's situation, as parish schoolmaster, was early perceived by Mr. Forbes not to be very congenial to his inclination, nor adequate to his deserts. He generously wished that an opportunity might occur on which it might be in his power to afford him those recommendations which he so justly deserved. An opportunity of this kind, however, did not present itself for some time.
The discharge of the duties of Beattie's office, was not incompatible with his attendance at the Divinity Hall; at least what is reckoned attendance.
Before any one can be licensed to preach in the church of Scotland, it is necessary that he shall not only have previously attended the classes of philosophy, but he must also be enrolled as a student of divinity for a certain number of years, and have delivered, with the approbation of the professor, a certain number of discourses. The number of years depends upon the regularity with which the student attends the prelections of the professor. Young men, like Beattie, who are obliged to teach a school in order to enable them to attain the object of their ambition, cannot give regular attendance. They must be contented with a term very short indeed. The greater number of them take their leave of the hall for a session, when they have delivered the prescribed discourse.
Very little is left for a biographer to relate of one in Mr. Beattie's circumstances while at Fordoun. He had his public duty to perform, which consisted in teaching a school, and on each Sunday in officiating as clerk, or what in Scotland is called precentor. Every parish schoolmaster must do the latter as well as the former, or pay another for doing it.
Of his particular studies during this period, an exact account cannot be given. There is little doubt that a very considerable portion of his time was devoted to the classics. However excellent his abilities were, he could not have otherwise reached that degree of eminence which he attained. Sudden and irregular fits of study are incapable of producing very great effects, because the lot of man is such, that proficiency in any branch of knowledge cannot be reasonably expected without laborious and long continued application. Notwithstanding that the bent of Mr. Beattie's mind seems to have led him to the cultivation of polite literature, it may be observed, that it was one of those studies which a person in his situation could best prosecute with success. He had not to submit to the drudgery of learning the elements; and he was in the possession of some of the best classics, having necessarily purchased them when at school and at college. Such books are also most commonly to be met with in a country place, where public libraries have not been established.
At Fordoun also he amused himself by composing little poems. Many of these were shewn to his friends, who universally agreed in their admiration of his poetical talents. They transcribed some of them, and they were handed about in a certain circle.
It is probable that soon after he went to Fordoun he was engaged in the translation of Virgil's pastorals. This he published in the first edition of his poems. In the preface we are informed that it was written at a "very early time of life when solitude left the mind at liberty to pursue, without any fixed design, such amusements as gratified the present hour." This appears to suit no period of his life so well as that which elapsed between his going to Fordoun in 1753, and his brother David's removing from Laurencekirk, and taking up his residence at Fourdon in 1755.
Though not altogether discontented with his situation, Mr. Beattie had for a considerable time looked out for some preferment which would contribute to his comfort, and place him in the way of improving himself in his favourite pursuits. The first opportunity of this kind was in consequence of a vacancy in the grammar school of Aberdeen, occasioned by the death of Mr. John Smith, one of the masters; but on this application he was unsuccessful, a preference being given to the competitor James Smith.
Beattie returned to his old employment at Fordoun, not without the expectation that he might succeed according to his wishes. He however did not procure, because be did not apply for an appointment to any other school.
About seven months alter his competition with Mr. Smith, another vacancy occurred in the grammar school of Aberdeen. Mr. Alexander Reid, one of the masters, and a preacher of the gospel, was presented to the church of Kemnay in Aberdeenshire. Whether the patrons of the school upon more serious consideration esteemed it a dangerous precedent to introduce any master into the school without a competition — or whether they had only expressed themselves in general terms to Mr. Beattie when he stood a candidate — or whether, as is more probable, it had been the opinion of two or three of the judges only that he ought to he preferred to the first vacancy, I know not, but certain it is, that an advertisement informed the public, "That upon the 15th June, 1758, a competition was to take place for the grammar school in room of Mr. Alexander Reid."
Mr. Beattie was not desired by those who had formerly examined him to come forward a second time. His brother and Mr. Forbes, however, did not fail to urge him to make a second attempt. For reasons best known to himself, he would not comply with their solicitations, and therefore did not make his appearance on the day appointed. Two candidates however appeared, and when examined were declared to be unfit for the office. The patrons now considered themselves at liberty, without farther delay, to give the preference to one who, they knew, was fully competent to acquit himself with honour, with credit to the school, and benefit to the public. Their choice fell on Mr. Beattie, who being invited by them to accept of the vacant office, repaired to the spot, and being inducted after the usual manner, taught there upwards of two years. Thus having resided at Fordoun for the space of five years, he discharged the duties of a schoolmaster for the space of seven years.
Mr. Beattie's situation was now very different from what it had been at Fordoun. He was in every respect more comfortable. He was a master in by far the most respectable seminary for classical literature in the north of Scotland. He was much more in the way of receiving the patronage of those who could promote his advancement. He had an opportunity of associating with literary men, and of obtaining access to books. These advantages he improved as well as he could.
His ardour however was considerably relaxed, and his studies interrupted by frequent headaches. He had from his earliest years been afflicted with attacks of that kind. They might however become more frequent in consequence of his removing from the country, and residing in a town. The necessary confinement to which he was subjected, might likewise affect the general state of his health.
The hours of attendance required of Mr. Beattie were, if I mistake not, precisely the same with those at present established. He had to teach five hours on each day, Wednesday and Saturday excepted, when the classes do not meet in the afternoon. Two of those hours, by a regulation sufficiently absurd, are, during summer and winter, between three and five in the afternoon. The health, both of the master and scholars, cannot fail to be injured in some degree by being close pent up in a crowded room, where for a considerable part of the year it is necessary to keep so many candles constantly burning. Besides, neither master nor scholars are so fit for mental exertion immediately after as before dinner.
The time which Beattie passed as a teacher in the grammar school seems to have been very agreeably spent. He was more in his element, and as a natural consequence of that situation, he either spontaneously, or at the recommendation of his friends, determined to exhibit a specimen to the public of what he was capable of performing.
It is not unworthy of remark, that the same paper which contained the first intimation of his intention to publish a volume of poems, contained also a notification of the death of his colleague Mr. James Smith, who had only taught for two years and three months. The volume appeared in February 1765.
It was one of the peculiarities of Dr. Beattie's character, that he was very solicitous about his poetical fame. The numerous alterations and emendations of his poems are not so much here alluded to, as the zeal which he uniformly discovered to obliterate any remembrance of the verses composed by him at an early period. The latter presents a feature very characteristic of him.
There is every reason to presume, that Mr. Beattie had paid an uncommon attention to the Latin classics, during his residence at Fordoun. When he was more particularly called upon to distinguish himself as a professional man in the grammar school, Aberdeen, it is not improbable that his diligence was redoubled, though no proof of it can at this distance of time be specified.
He had not resided long in Aberdeen when he was universally acknowledged to be a young man of genius. Classical learning has long been cultivated there; and those of the inhabitants who have a taste for literature have frequent opportunities of meeting together. A man's abilities are consequently very soon ascertained. Mr. Beattie might have remained in obscurity for life, even though his knowledge of Roman literature had been much more profound than it really was, had he not possessed poetical genius. Otherwise he could never have excited so general interest, never have raised the admiration, nor called forth the good offices of the public. Poetry is more generally read than any other kind of composition; it is more agreeable to the taste of both sexes than the study of any art or science; and an individual rarely possesses the ability of excelling and contributing so essentially to the pleasure and happiness of his fellow-creature. These, as well as other causes, have no doubt stamped a value upon the productions of the poet.
Mr. Beattie had, as I have already observed, published proposals for printing his poems. Many of his pieces were shewn to his friends, and from their opinion of the merit they possessed, the genteelest part of the inhabitants of Aberdeen were desirous of cultivating his acquaintance, and were anxious to be favoured with a perusal of his verses. His situation as a master of the grammar school was also the means of introducing him into the best company in the town of Aberdeen.
In May, 1760, about two months after he printed his proposals, Mr. Beattie had accepted of an invitation to dinner from the parents of one of his scholars. It required little sagacity to discover his superior abilities; and besides, his fame had gone before him. He was, however, at last requested to recite a part of a poem he had written. It had in a great measure escaped his memory. The specimen it was then in his power to give produced a great desire in those who heard it, to hear the whole. He accordingly went to his lodgings, and returned to the company with his manuscript. He was informed, however, either while he was going or returning from the place where he lived, of the sudden and unexpected death of Professor William Duncan. This information he naturally communicated to those persons to whom he was about to shew his poetical effusions.
There were now, it will be remembered, two vacant professorships in Marischal College, because Dr. Gerard had a year before been chosen professor of divinity on the death of Dr. Pollock, and the chair of moral philosophy had not yet been filled.
It was suggested by Mr. Arbuthnot, at whose particular request Beattie had gone home for his poems, that a young man of genius, and who had produced such unquestionable proof of his talents, would be a very fit successor either to Duncan or Gerard. In consequence of this conversation, it is likely Beattie received a considerable accession to his ambition; and, though conscious of his own powers, he was pleased with the favourable opinion of Mr. Arbuthnot.
This gentleman however did not confine himself to empty and un meaning compliments; but generously offered to write in his behalf to the Earl of Erroll, Lord High Constable of Scotland. He actually prevailed upon his lordship to recommend him to his Majesty, as one well worthy of being appointed to a professorship.
The late Duke of Argyle had in those days the nomination to almost every office in Scotland under the patronage of the crown; and it is by no means improbable, that Lord Erroll's application had been principally regarded by his Grace. Yet it is certain, that others interested themselves in Mr. Beattie's success. The late Lord Gardenstone, in particular, made application to government, and in very strong terms recommended Mr. Beattie to those who were most likely to do him a service.
Nearly four months, however, had elapsed before Mr. Beattie was officially informed that the recommendations of his friends had proved successful, and had made him be esteemed in the eyes of those at the helm of affairs as a fit object of royal bounty. Towards the end of September, 1760, his Majesty's patent came to Aberdeen appointing him a professor of philosophy in Marischal College; and on Wednesday, the 1st of October following, his Majesty's patent came to Aberdeen, to Mr. George Skene, appointing him also a professor of philosophy.
The newly appointed professors, had both fixed their eyes upon the chair of moral philosophy. Though Mr. Beattie's patent had the advantage of being received a few days earlier than Mr. Skene's, yet this was considered as conferring no additional title to precedence, as it regarded the right of choice. It was argued, that the whole plan of education in the college, as it then (in 1760) stood, was a mere private stipulation among the professors themselves; the patents had nothing to do with the question at issue.
Whether the two gentlemen actually cast lots, as I have often heard affirmed, I will not pretend to say, but upon Wednesday, the 8th of October, 1760, Mr. George Skene was admitted professor of natural and civil history, and Mr. Beattie, professor of moral philosophy and logic.
We have now deduced Mr. Beattie's history till he received as honourable, useful, and respectable an appointment as any member of society can hold. He was undoubtedly more fortunate than most men. The discharge of all the duties of his office was perfectly compatible with the possession of much leisure, wherein he could both prepare himself for the better performance of those duties that were publicly required of him, and could prosecute other favourite studies without interruption.
It must be remembered that he obtained his professorship very unexpectedly. No one will therefore be surprised that, in his twenty-fifth year, Mr. Beattie was not so well prepared to deliver a course of prelections upon moral philosophy, and logic, as he would doubtless have been, had he possessed time to examine and study those extensive, and in some respects, abstruse sciences with that express object in view.
The very circumstance of being obliged to write out a system of ethics or of logic to comprehensive in its outline as to deserve that name, is not the work of a few days. And besides, as an academical course is designed to initiate the youth into the knowledge of a science, with the very first principles of which they, are by supposition unacquainted, there is a necessity for a minuter detail and greater amplification, than if those to whom the course is delivered had made greater progress.
Nearly a year before Mr. Beattie became a professor, Adam Smith had published his Theory of Moral Sentiments. This year forms as it were a new aera in the history of Scottish literature. Hume published his history of the house of Tudor. Robertson published his History of Scotland, and upon the 11th of December, 1759, Dr. Blair began his Lectures on Rhetoric. Blair had the example set him by professor Robert Watson, of St. Andrews, who, in winter 1755-56, after the example of Dr. Smith, (shewed him some years before) delivered a course of lectures upon the same subject.
From those and other sources Mr. Beattie derived much information. His habits of study were regular and constant. Little time was spent in idleness, because he was ambitious to acquit himself with credit, and to benefit his students as far as was in his power.
An academical life is so barren of incidents, that it cannot be expected to furnish much in the narrative. The lives of most literary men consist of little more than a history of their works. His pleasant and agreeable manners, even at this time, have been much commended. To his old associates he was kind and affable. And at his house and table they were always welcome.
The Doctor informs us that his Essay on Poetry and Music, as they affect the mind, was written in the year 1762. It was delivered before the Literary Society, of which we have already given some account.
The only prose composition he had acknowledged, and I have reason to think that (besides the discourses he delivered in the hall) the only small pieces he had written, were his preface to the first edition of his poems, and the short notes he added to the pastorals of Virgil.
Mr. Beattie, with a felicity of arrangement peculiar to himself, has discussed with great judgment and taste, the subjects he had proposed to treat of in this essay. He was eminent as an elegant critic; and every deference is due to an authority to which the public have so long looked up. After a few introductory observations, he, in the first chapter, treats of the End of Poetical Composition.
This essay is so well known, that it appears to he an unnecessary labour to give a very full account of its contents. It is admirably calculated to initiate the youth into the general principles of criticism; and is undoubtedly one of the best treatises of the kind in the English language. The illustrations he has given of his particular doctrines are so many; or, in other words, there is so much amplification, that it is much adapted to serve those purposes for which it was originally composed.
The remarks on music which he has introduced are exceedingly ingenious, and very interesting; and discover a thorough acquaintance both with the theory and practice of that art. The style of all Beattie's writings is excellent; but if he has surpassed himself in that respect in any part of them, it is (in my opinion) in the chapter appropriated to music in this essay. A fastidious critic might perhaps affirm, that the connection between the chapter referred to, and the other parts of the essay, is not very apparent; and that it ought rather to be considered as analogous to what in poetical composition is called an episode.
During the interval that elapsed between the composition of his Essay on Poetry, &c. and his writing, in the year 1764, the Essay on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition, he was busily employed in polishing his lectures, and in making them more useful to the youth committed to his care.
The general doctrine of this essay, though not so copiously treated, had been laid before the public by Dr. Campbell in his philosophy of Rhetoric. It is worthy of being remarked, that the authors of both performances have informed the public that they had followed the same train of thought when assigning the cause or object of laughter, without any mutual communication of their sentiments. "It may not be improper," says Beattie, "to inform the public, that neither did he know of my having undertaken this argument, nor I of his having discussed that subject, till we came mutually to exchange our papers, for the purpose of knowing one another's sentiments in regard to what we had written."
The busiest part of Dr. Beattie's life was between the time that he became a professor, and the year in which he published his Minstrel. All the works he ever published were planned and written during this period, excepting his Evidences of the Christian Religion, and his projected treatise on the slave trade.
In the year 1766, he married Miss Mary Dun, daughter of Dr. James Dun, who, for nearly seventy years, was a teacher in the grammar school, Aberdeen. It has been mis-stated by some, that Beattie was married during the time that he was a master in that school. He had been nearly six years a professor before he was married; and this lady still survives him. Her brother succeeded Mr. Beattie in the grammar school.
I have every reason to presume, that the far-famed Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, was composed about this period, though not published till some time after. His duty as a professor naturally led him to the examination of those doctrines so zealously maintained by the admirers, or I ought rather to say, authors of the sceptical philosophy. And how he has acquitted himself in that respect is well known to the public.
This essay raised the author's fame very high. It was much read and much praised in England; and what is very extraordinary, this was at a time when the writings of Reid, from whom Beattie derived whatever it contained of any importance, were, comparatively speaking, little known. In South Britain his character as a philosopher was much higher than in his native country.
We are informed by Mr. Beattie himself, that the greater part of the Minstrel was composed in the year 1768. It is probable that his great anxiety to qualify himself for the discharge of his professional duty had interrupted, in a considerable degree, the strong bent of his genius to cultivate the muses. However he returned with new vigour to his favourite amusement; and the Minstrel, or the progress of genius, has enrolled his name in the list of the most distinguished poets. The first part of this beautiful poem was not published till about three years after it was composed.
Few poems have been so generally read and so justly admired. In the preface he has assigned his reasons for imitating Spencer in the measure of his verse; and there are few who will not allow that what he has there stated deserves great attention. It suited the subject of the poem, and besides it pleased his ear. The measure which pleased the ear of Spencer, of Thomson, of Shenstone, and of Beattie, ought not to be rashly condemned. It must not be dissembled, however, that critics of very great eminence have been of a different opinion.
Mr. Beattie was then in the prime of life, being in his thirty-third year. A poem which has been so much read and admired by the public, stands in very little need of a critique on its merits. He has displayed very great powers of imagination. And the harmony, simplicity, and variety of the composition, will bear to be compared with the attainments of the greatest masters of English versification. There are few stanzas in the two books which do not exhibit the most conspicuous beauties — great correctness of taste — a most admirable choice of imagery combined with those other qualities which constitute excellence in poetical composition. The same opinion, however, has not so universally prevailed as to the unity or consistency of the fable.
The publication of Dr. Beattie's Minstrel, so very soon after his Essay on Truth, contributed most essentially to the general dissemination of the latter. In Scotland it did not produce so sudden nor so great effects as in England; but the friends whom his poetical genius gained him, were of all persons in the world best able to give popularity to a work of merit, and which treated of subjects in which few of the great mass of readers consider themselves interested.
On the 12th of December, 1770, he received the degree of Doctor of Laws from King's College, Aberdeen.
In the year 1771, Beattie, at the end of the session of the college, proposed to visit London. His fame, as a man of genius, easily procured for him letters of introduction to the most celebrated literary characters in the metropolis. He did not, however, leave Aberdeen till the month of July.
Mr. Boswell had the honour of introducing him to Dr. Johnson, and his other friends exerted themselves to procure for him as favourable a reception as his great merit deserved. In Scotland this was an easy matter, because he was already known to be a man of genius, and an author of very considerable reputation. Many were therefore willing to proffer their services, who, whilst they shewed their own consequence, were only making use of him to bring themselves into notice. Beattie's merit most certainly was the cause of the great attention which he received at London. He was, as the great Lord Bacon expresses it, "Faber suae fortunae," the architect of his own fortune.
After remaining a short time in London, he returned to Aberdeen, and felt those agreeable sensations which persons only who have experienced unexpected success can estimate.
His usual academical labours occupied his attention, for he was always zealous to promote the benefit of his pupils, and in their behalf did not regret any exertion on his own part. The extent and variety of his course could not fail to improve those students who attended his class, and the proficiency which many of his scholars have made puts this beyond a doubt.
About the beginning of June, 1773, he again went to London. His encouragement upon his former visit was, to a man in his easy circumstances, a sufficient inducement to undertake another journey to the capital. He had another reason, which, though considered by the envious and illiberal as entailing servitude, has never hitherto been applied to an improper purpose. His merit, as an author, had even called the attention of royalty; a signal proof how highly he was rated by all descriptions in the community.
His present Majesty has, beyond all precedent, extended his patronage to eminent literary characters. This patronage has originated solely from himself; and the most discontented candidates for public favour have not had the hardihood to affirm, that the royal bounty has in any instance been conferred upon an unworthy object. This is no small testimony to the rectitude of intention, and to the discrimination of the patron.
A short time after Beattie went to London a memorial was presented to the king. Dr. Beattie had, it is likely, the most express assurance from his Majesty's servants, that his memorial should not pass unnoticed. The form, however, of petitioning the king is never dispensed with. Beattie's petition was favourably received.
On the 30th of June, 1773, he was presented to the king at the levee by Lord Dartmouth. The levee was on that day exceedingly crouded. Dr. Beattie, however, had the distinguished honour of conversing with the king for five minutes; a mark of attention not conferred upon ordinary men, and which those who are in the greatest favour do not always presume to expect.
The substance of this conversation with his Majesty consisted chiefly in high commendations and compliments, strongly and elegantly expressed on his writings, particularly his Essay on Truth. Such unexpected panegyric could not fail to make a lasting impression on his mind.
On the 21st of August following; Dr. Beattie received a letter from Mr. Robinson, Lord North's secretary, which communicated to him the agreeable information that his Majesty had been pleased to appoint him a pension; and assuring him that when other necessary business was dispatched, the warrant for payment of the pension should be made out.
This was accordingly done after a reasonable time had elapsed. He was obliged, however, still to remain in London, as his business was not yet completed.
Beattie was during this time informed that his Majesty had expressed a desire to admit him to a private audience and accordingly upon the 27th of October he had an audience of their Majesties at Kew. He remained there for an hour and a quarter. He uniformly expressed his admiration of the general knowledge which both the king and queen discovered upon every topic which happened to become the subject of conversation. A more intimate knowledge with the former and present state of literature was discovered by them, than in his opinion could have been expected from persons in their elevated station.
When Dr. Beattie was about to retire, he expressed himself thus to his Majesty: "I hope, Sir, your Majesty will pardon me, if I take this opportunity of returning you my humble and most grateful acknowledgements for the honour you have been pleased to confer upon me." His Majesty was pleased to reply: "I think I could not have done less for a man who has done so much service to the nation in general, and to the cause of truth. I shall be always glad of an opportunity to shew the good opinion I have of you."
He was chiefly employed for a considerable period after he returned from London, in preparing his Essay on Truth for another edition. This he published at Edinburgh in the year 1776. Besides the two essays formerly mentioned, viz. that on Poetry and Music, and that on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition, there is in the same volume an Essay on the Utility of Classical Learning.
In the year 1777, he was engaged in copying for the press the Essay on Memory and Imagination (see p. 12 of that Essay). I say copying, because the public are expressly informed that what he then published were parts of those lectures which he delivered to the students under his care.
This Essay is, in my opinion, the master-piece of Beattie's prose works. It affords one of the best specimens of what I may perhaps be permitted to call "the popular lecture." It contains a vast variety of facts collected with great care, and his reasoning upon those facts is in general unexceptionable. The same observation, however, may be made here which was made upon the Essay on Poetry and Music, that the two parts of the Essay do not hang together so closely as perhaps a severe critic would be disposed to require.
Nothing very remarkable in his history occurred for some years. His fame was now firmly established and, if possible, was much higher in England than in his native country. He had now arrived at a more affluent situation than perhaps he had ever expected. In the year 1778, however, he projected a work on the slave trade, but never completed it. The substance of that treatise he has inserted in his Elements of Moral Science. And in a note he has stated what prevented him from accomplishing his original intention.
In the year 1779, he published, for the use of his class, a list of Scotticisms to the amount of two hundred. This pamphlet has been of great benefit to many. It has often been remarked, however, that a considerable number of those words and phrases, which he has named Scotticisms, might have been with as much propriety denominated vulgar Anglicisms. However, as they are not of classical authority, it is a matter of little importance by what name they are called.
The substance of Beattie's Essay on Dreaming was printed in a periodical paper called The Mirror, published at Edinburgh. He must have paid considerable attention to the subject. Yet I suspect that no person dreams much who sleeps sound. How it happens that in (what may be called) this intermediate state, the fancy should consider those things as realities which have no existence, will never perhaps be fully explained. It is certainly a proof of the activity of the human mind, and that after exertion it is not subjected to the same, or similar lassitude with the body, which requires rest to recruit what it has lost by fatigue.
The Theory of Language is one of his longest, and certainly the most important, and original of his detached Essays. I am not afraid of contradiction when I affirm it to be the most useful treatise on the subject in the language. The works of Harris and Monboddo are too abstract for young students, and rather calculated for those who have acquired some knowledge of the subject. Besides, their plan is not so comprehensive as Beattie's. Upon the whole, it is an excellent Essay. To enter, however, upon the discussion of the theories he has advanced, would be improper at the present time.
He who peruses the remaining three dissertations, contained in the same volume; on Fable and Romance; on the Attachment of Kindred; and Illustrations of Sublimity, will find many things to amuse and to instruct him.
These dissertations were published early in the year 1783.
Next year Dr. Beattie paid a visit to Dr. Porteus, then Bishop of Chester, and now Bishop of London. He "shewed his Lordship a sketch of the first and second chapter of a Treatise on the Evidence of Christianity, and gave him a general account of what he meant to introduce in the sequel." The bishop said; "that something of this kind was much wanted, and that a comprehensive view of the principal evidences of Christianity, drawn up in such a manner as to fix the attention without fatiguing it, might be highly useful in establishing the religious principles of our youth at their first entrance into the world."
The design of this little work, thus distinctly expressed, cannot possibly be misunderstood. It is drawn up with great ability, and though nothing new could be expected upon so trite a subject, yet to those who have paid little attention to the argument it may be useful.
In the year 1790, Dr. Beattie edited, at Edinburgh, Addison's Papers, in 4 vols. and wrote the preface.
About this time he sustained a great loss by the death of his eldest son James Hay Beattie. The Doctor wrote a very interesting account of this excellent young man. No one who has any taste for good writing, for simplicity of language, and narrative composed of as selection of the most interesting incidents, will, I am persuaded, be satisfied with perusing it only once.
Dr. Beattie never completely recovered the shock he received by his son's death. He was a tender and indulgent father; and the amiable dispositions, the filial obedience, and uncommon endowments of J. H. Beattie, gave full scope to the exercise of those paternal affections. He was cut off too at a time of life when the hopes of the father, and indeed of all who knew him, were raised very high. Though young, he had given the most undeniable proofs of great abilities, and promised to be an ornament to that University where of he was a member, and to be a source of comfort to his parent in his declining years.
In the year 1791, Dr. Beattie printed, but did not publish, a small volume of his son's works, wherein are contained several pieces which he has not thought proper to reprint.
He went to London in the summer of the same year, accompanied by his son Montagu Beattie. This young man, who was about ten years younger than his brother, died in the month of March, 1796. He was called Montagu, after Mrs. Montagu, who had patronized Dr. Beattie at a very early period, and whose Essay on Shakspeare the Doctor has taken so many opportunities of commending.
This youth died of a disease similar to that which cut off his brother.
There and other misfortunes, to use the language of the poet, "harrowed op the soul" of Dr. Beattie, and his health, never at any time good, was thereby very considerably impaired. He was no longer under the necessity of doing the duty of the class, because he had the influence to get Mr. George Glenny appointed his assistant and successor.
Of late years he entirely sequestered himself from society, and even the kind attentions and civilities of his friends and admirers were not relished by him. He dropped all correspondence with his old English friends, and their numerous inquiries after the state of his health did not now excite those quick sensibilities of which he had formerly been so susceptible. Premature old age, with all its infirmities, had made rapid advances upon him, and for three years before his death, he kept the house, and was for a great part of that time confined to his bed. If I mistake not, the last time he ventured out to take a short walk, was in the month of June, 1800. He was then very corpulent, and discovered extreme debility. At this time he was only about sixty-five years of age.
His person was about the middle size, of a broad square make, which seemed to indicate a more robust constitution than he really had. I have formerly mentioned that he was, during the whose course of his life, subject to attacks of head-ach, which upon many occasions interrupted his studies. His features were exceedingly regular; his complexion was somewhat dark; his eyes had more expression than those of any other person I remember to have seen.
In the earlier part of his life he shewed great convivial talents, and was much admired in company for his wit and uncommon flow of humour. He indulged himself, however, in liberties of that kind very seldom for many years past. He was a most admirable punster. Many of his puns are often quoted in conversation in the north; which, as far as that kind of wit deserves praise, discover great facility of invention. Any time that I ever saw him in company, he was remarkably silent, but I could discover that he was not only attentive to the conversation, but seemed to be studying the features of those persons with whom he was in company.
In another situation, and with other associates, it is likely that he would have exerted himself more, and would perhaps have taken a much greater share in the conversation. He was an excellent physiognomist, and from his great intercourse with the world, his long experience and his knowledge of human nature, he formed a very correct opinion of the characters of those with whom he happened to converse.
What enhances Dr. Beattie's merit in the estimation of all good judges, is, that the circumstances wherein he was originally placed were so unfavourable towards procuring advancement. If he had possessed the advantages of birth or of fortune, his success would not have been considered as so extraordinary.
In every situation in life he acquitted himself with credit, and had the address to recommend himself to such persons as were likely to do him a service. His manners were very conciliating, and he had a vein of good sense that rarely deserted him, and without which men of great abilities can never expect to interest in their behalf those who have it in their power to administer to their promotion. Learning alone cannot do this.
After he had endured much bodily pain, and in a great measure had become insensible even to what he himself was suffering Dr. Beattie died, at Aberdeen, upon the 18th day of August, 1803.
It will he admitted, that if he was not at the time of his death the first literary character in the United Kingdom, he was second or third in the list.