1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 797.



JAMES BEATTIE, an admired poet and a moralist, was born about 1735, in the county of Kincardine, in Scotland. His father was a small farmer, who, though living in indigence, had imbibed so much of the spirit of his country, that he procured for his son a literary education, first at a parochial school, and then at the college of New Aberdeen, in which he entered as a bursar or exhibitioner. In the intervals of the sessions, James is supposed to have added to his scanty pittance by teaching at a country-school. Returning to Aberdeen, he obtained the situation of assistant to the master of the principal grammar-school, whose daughter he married. From youth he had cultivated a talent for poetry; and in 1760 he ventured to submit the fruit of his studies in this walk to the public, by a volume of Original Poems and Translations. They were followed, in 1765, by The Judgment of Paris; and these performances, which displayed a familiarity with poetic diction, and harmony of versification, seem to have made him favourably known in his neighbourhood.

The interest of the Earl of Errol acquired for him the post of professor of moral philosophy and logic in the Marischal College of Aberdeen; in which capacity be published a work, entitled An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism, 1770. Being written in a popular manner, it was much read, and gained the author many admirers, especially among the most distinguished members of the Church of England; and, at the suggestion of Lord Mansfield, he was rewarded with a pension of 200 from the King's privy purse.

In 1771 his fame was largely extended by the first part of his Minstrel, a piece the subject of which is the imagined birth and education of a poet. Although the word "Minstrel" is not with much propriety applied to such a person as he represents, and the Gothic days in which he is placed are not historically to be recognised, yet there is great beauty, both moral and descriptive, in the delineation, and perhaps no writer has managed the Spenserian stanza with more dexterity and harmony. The second part of this poem, which contains the maturer part of the education of the young bard, did not appear till 1774, and then left the work a fragment. But whatever may be the defects of the Minstrel, it possesses beauties which will secure it a place among the approved productions of the British muse.

Beattie visited London for the first time in 1771, where he was received with much cordiality by the admirers of his writings, who found equal cause to love and esteem the author. Not long afterwards, the degree of LL.D. was conferred on him by his college at Aberdeen. In 1777 a new edition, by subscription, was published of his Essay on Truth, to which were added three Essays on subjects of polite literature. In 1783 he published Dissertations Moral and Critical, consisting of detached essays, which had formed part of a course of lectures delivered by the author as professor. His last work was Evidences of the Christian Religion, briefly and plainly stated, 2 vols. 1786. His time was now much occupied with the duties of his station, and particularly with the education of his eldest son, a youth of uncommon promise. His death of a decline was a very severe trial of the father's fortitude and resignation; and it was followed some years after by that of his younger son. These afflictions, with other domestic misfortunes, entirely broke his spirits, and brought him to his grave at Aberdeen, in August, 1803, in the 68th year of his age.