James Beattie

Anonymous, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 78:111-23.

JAMES BEATTIE, the present subject of our attention, was born on the twenty-fifth of October, 1735, at Laurencekirk, in the county of Kincardine, in Scotland; and was the sixth son of parents of lowly rank, who kept a small village shop and rented a little farm. On the death of his father, he was sent at an early age by his mother to the parish school; and there, under the instructions of a master who possessed more learning than could generally be found in such an humble situation, he obtained some knowledge of Latin, and imbibed that passion for poetry and literature which incited his unremitted industry; and, aided by the abilities given to him by nature, eventually lifted him to eminence and renown.

In 1749 he was removed to the Marischal College at Aberdeen, where he obtained one of those bursaries, or exhibitions, which have been bequeathed to the college for the purpose of relieving the poor parent from a part of the expense of his son's academical education. As a bursary is given only to the claim of a proficiency in learning, the gaining of one in the present instance was honorable to young Beattie; and seems to prove, that the steady exertions of his own mind had carried him beyond the attainments to be expected from the lessons of his master. In his present situation the field of literature was more extensively opened to our student's prospect; for here he found adequate instructions; and his application and his talents were here certain of observation and reward. Here he began his study of the Greek language; and as, fortunately at that time, Dr. Blackwell presided over the Greek class, young Beattie was under a master who could at once stimulate his industry, instruct his progress, and appreciate the result of his literary efforts. The effect of such a master on the mind of such a pupil was very soon apparent; for, at the close of the very first session, Beattie received from Dr. Blackwell the present of a handsome book, with an inscription expressive of the donor's sense of the student's proficiency in Greek. The gift was made, indeed, as a prize, in consequence of a public examination; and could not, therefore, be imputed to the Professor as an act of partial regard.

During the four years of our author's residence at Aberdeen, he applied to the study of philosophy under Dr. Gerard, and attended the divinity lectures of Dr. Pollock. But all the accumulation of various knowledge, which he must necessarily have made, seemed at once to be rendered of no effect by his being compelled, under a consciousness of the insufficiency of his family finances for his support, to accept of the of schoolmaster and parish clerk in the parish of Fordoun, an obscure and solitary village not far from his native Laurencekirk, and contiguous to the Grampian Hills. To this appointment he succeeded on the first of August, 1753, having previously in the same year taken his M.A. degree.

In the loneliness of Fordoun, and in the humility of his present occupations, Beattie was removed from all that could promote his prospects in life; and the ambition, which had naturally been awakened in his bosom by the consciousness of innate power and of acquired knowledge, could not find any thing to foster or to soothe it in the society of peasants and amid the solitudes of Grampian desolation. By the wild and picturesque scenery, however, with which he was surrounded, his imagination was strengthened and elevated; and, by conversing with Nature in her majestic nakedness, his poetic passion was gratified and its stores of description were affluently increased. At Fordoun, also, he was so fortunate as to attract the notice and to conciliate the regard of two eminent men, Mr. Garden and Mr. Burnet; both of whom, under their respective titles of Lord Gardenstown and Lord Monboddo, became distinguished judges in the supreme court of law in Scotland; and the latter of whom subsequently made himself conspicuous in the literary world by his learning, his ability, and the wild eccentricity of his opinions.

With his views directed to the church, as suggesting at that time the sole means of his future subsistence, Beattie returned in the winter to the divinity lectures of his college; and distinguished himself; among the students in the theological class, by the ability and the elegant composition of his exercises.

In 1757 he became a candidate for a mastership in the school of Aberdeen; and, though he failed in his first attempt on the place, he succeeded to it on its next vacancy, being honorably instated in it, without the previous and customary examination, by the magistrates of the town, on the twentieth of June, 1758. He now, of course, removed his residence from Fordoun to Aberdeen; and, humble as still was his promotion, he now entered as it were upon a new epoch of his life, and felt himself on a stage in some degree adequate to the demand of his powers.

Cheered by this improvement of his situation, he now ventured for the first time as an author before the public; and the experiment was made in the character of a poet. On the sixteenth of February, 1761, a volume of his poems issued from the press, and was published in Edinburgh and in London. Though the success of this adventure was sufficient to satisfy the reasonable expectations of the young publisher, who had only lately completed his twenty-sixth year, it either fell short of his hopes, or the work itself, in consequence of the decision of his riper judgment, became dispossessed of his regard; for he subsequently repented of the publication, and endeavoured to recall and to destroy the whole of the impression.

His reputation, however, was now so established and extended that, on the occurrence of a vacancy in the higher department of the Marischal College, his friends succeeded in obtaining for him, through the influence of the Earl of Erroll, the appointment to a professor's chair in that respectable establishment; and he was accordingly installed, by the king's patent, its Professor of Philosophy and Logic, on the eighth of the October of 1760. In this conspicuous and responsible office he signalized himself by a zealous and able discharge of its duties; and he became a member of a literary society (formed by a selection from the two colleges of Aberdeen) in which he was associated with Reid, Campbell, Gregory, and Gerard, men who were all known, in their different degrees, to the world by their philosophical or theological publications.

In 1765 Beattie published a poem called The Judgment of Paris, which was not successful; and in the same year he became acquainted with the celebrated Gray, who was then on a visit to Scotland; and our author contracted a friendship with that accomplished poet and scholar which subsisted during his life.

On the twenty-eighth of June, 1767, occurred an event of memorable importance in the domestic history of Beattie; for on that day he married Mary, the daughter of Dr. Dun, the rector of the school of Aberdeen; and thus involved himself in a union, which, running clear through a short course, subsequently impoisoned the whole current of his life, and eventually, as his biographers assert, was the occasion of his hastened death. The cause of this sad result of a match, which had fairly promised happiness, was the breaking out of hereditary insanity in the lady; and the effects of so dire an evil, in such immediate contact with his family repose, on the sensibilities of our author's fine mind, must have been great beyond what we can readily conceive. They must, indeed, have constituted a more severe infliction than that which was invented by the Thuscan tyrant, when he tied the living to the dead, and suffered the former to expire in the corrupt embraces of the latter.

Mortua quinetiam jungebat corpora vivis,
Componens manibusque manila atque oribus ora,
Tormenti genus! et sanie taboque fluentes
Complexu in misero, longa sic morte necabat.

By this unhappy marriage Beattie had two sons, James Hay, named after his patron and friend, Lord Erroll; and Montagu, so called in honor of Mrs. Montagu, renowned at that period for her talents and her literary parties, by whom he had been distinguished with much gratifying attention.

In the May of 1770 was published our author's great work, An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth; and it carried his reputation throughout Britain and over nearly the whole extent of civilized Europe. Its circulation was equally rapid as extensive; and it procured for its fortunate writer a pension from the king, an LL.D. degree from the University of Oxford, an introduction into the high literary circle of London, the friendship of some of the English prelates, and an offer of considerable preferment in the English church: an offer which, with that also of a more lucrative professorship in the college of Edinburgh, he very handsomely and disinterestedly declined, from a feeling of respect to his own church and his own college. The pecuniary advantages, therefore, which he derived from this effort of his intellect, were restricted to the attainment of his pension and the sale of his copyright; but its favorable result, in the extension of his fame and in the increase of his honorable friendships, was doubtless of more value in his estimation than any augmentation which it could have brought to his annual receipts; though these are stated by his biographer and friend, Sir William Forbes, not to have exceeded in their total amount four hundred pounds. On his subsequent visits to the British capital, he found every valuable door open to him; and he indulged in the first literary society, where he was acknowledged as the friend of Hurd, Porteus, Burke, Johnson, and Reynolds.

This eventful essay is now little read; but its intrinsic merit is not small, and its adventitious merit at the period of its publication was great. The deistical writings of David Hume had at that time made an impression much beyond what properly belonged to the effect of their genuine power. The metaphysical subtlety with which they baffled the eye of the common reader, and the semblance of profundity which they drew over their actual shallowness, had imparted to them and to their author a consequence not rightfully their own; and on the principle that, "omne ignotum pro magnifico est," they stood in darkness, like shapeless and uncertain phantoms, to alarm the good and to confound the weak. A plain and perspicuous work, therefore, which threw light upon their nothingness, and, untwisting their web of sophistry, exposed them in their naked vileness to the world, must necessarily have been acceptable to all by whom morality and the gospel, involving the whole great interest of man, were holden in any dear regard. Of the many who have been raised by a fortunate coincidence of circumstances to any high eminence of literary renown, David Hume, perhaps, is one of the least intitled to the distinguishing elevation. With a small portion of classical learning, and without any extraordinary intellectual powers, he has obtained a seat among the heroes and demigods of British literature, for metaphysics which are flimsy and false; and for a history, which exhibits neither the depth of research, nor the comprehension of thought, nor the impartiality of judgment, nor the truth of narrative, which ought all together to be found in the accomplished historian. But he was born on the northern side of the Tweed; he attacked opinions which were of sacred value with the world; he possessed the art of communicating to his writings a cast of deep and acute thought; he composed in an easy and not inelegant, though inaccurate and weak, style; and in his principal production, made popular by its brevity and its diction, he flattered the prejudices of a powerful party in the state. As a metaphysician, he was the opponent of Warburton and Hurd: as a historian, he succeeded the ponderous and laborious Rapin; and, availing himself of the felicity of his situation, he mounted at once to the pinnacle of fame, For the overthrow of his metaphysical fabric we are indebted principally to the ability of Beattie; and the hand that would lay in the dust his historic column, which, like London's, "lifts the head and lies," would be equally intitled to our gratitude. Though the boast of our northern sister, David Hume is the just property of oblivion; and it had been well for mankind, if he had not been rescued by fortuitous circumstances from the sentence pronounced on him by Nature.

In the height of his reputation, as the successful antagonist of this renowned advocate of scepticism, and not many months after the publication of his victorious essay, Beattie produced to the world the first book of The Minstrel. If the issue of his former poetical adventure had not answered to his wishes, he received a compensation from the remilt of his present enterprise; for The Minstrel became popular, and obtained by the general suffrage a seat for its author in the sacred synod of the poets. It soon passed through four editions; and in 1774 he conducted his plan to the end of a second book. Here, however, it still continued incomplete: and here, in consequence of the poet's increasing avocations and the distractions of his domestic life, the story was destined finally to close. The two books, indeed, of the poem were published together in 1777, and the volume was augmented with some of the juvenile productions of the author's muse; but Edwin was not brought from his birthplace and the scenes of his education, to show his accomplishments to the world.

In 1776 the solicitations of his friends prevailed on our author to publish by subscription a splendid edition of his Essay in quarto; and to this work were appended some shorter Essays on various subjects, which had not been intended for the public, but which were now received by it with very general applause. The subscription list in this instance was large; and the kind intention of Beattie's friends, who had overcome with no slight importunity his reluctance to the measure, was not disappointed by the event. A sum of no trifling magnitude was thus delicately given to him; and, with finances which, as we have already observed, were far from affluent, he could not feel such a present to his literary merit as altogether unacceptable.

In 1786 he published, at the request of his friend Dr. Porteus, the bishop of London, A Brief and Plain Statement of the Evidences of the Christian Religion; and in 1790 he gave to the public an abstract of his college lectures on philosophy, under the title of The Elements of Moral Science. Of this work one volume only was now sent from the press, and an interval of nearly three years ensued before the appearance of the second.

To notice some minor productions of our author's, either as a contributor to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, or as engaged in the superintendence of an edition of the Works of Addison, an employment which has rather doubtfully been ascribed to him, would but uselessly suspend our attention to his last and, in some respects, his most interesting composition, which was printed in 1794: an account, we mean, of the life and character of his accomplished and amiable son, James Hay Beattie. This excellent young man, who had been appointed his father's successor in the professorial chair and had officially lectured in it; was torn, in his twenty-second year, from the affection and the hopes of his parent by the effect of pulmonary consumption. This melancholy event occurred on the nineteenth of the November of 1790; and, after the soothing lapse of nearly four years, the father so far recovered from his afflicting wound as to he able to compose a memoir of his deceased son; and, together with some essays written by the lamented youth, to consecrate it publicly to his memory. Of this work, indeed, in the first instance it was intended only to distribute copies to the author's immediate friends; but it was subsequently thrown into general circulation, to awaken the sympathy of all feeling hearts; and to be read with throbbing interest by every father deprived of an exemplary son.

Scarcely had this affecting composition passed into the world, when our author's fortitude was summoned to another trial, to the encounter of which it was unhappily found to he unequal. In 1796 his second, and now only son, Montagu, was hurried to the grave, in his eighteenth year, by the violence of a fever: and the parent may be said to have expired with the child; for the few remaining years of the former were years of melancholy, during which the sufferer lived to none of the more active purposes of life, and in nearly a total abandonment of the world. The last three of these heavy and inert years were passed by him in entire seclusion, till a second paralytic stroke dismissed him, on the eighteenth of August, 1793, in the sixty-eighth year of his age, and after eight months of total imbecility, to the peaceful sepulchre of his children.

As described by his biographers, who were acquainted with him, Beattie's person was of the middle size but rather above the middle height, and, though not elegantly, was not awkwardly formed: his eyes were black and piercing; his countenance was placid and benignant, and its animation under a smile was peculiarly sweet. In his character as a man he was benevolent and pious; and his conduct approved him to be faithful to all his several duties in private and in public life, as a husband, a father, as a friend, an instructor, and a citizen. In his character as an author, it is not within our jurisdiction to sit in judgment on his prose composition; and of his verse, which alone is under our cognizance, our opinion may briefly be expressed. From an early period of his life Beattie discovered a strong propensity to poetry, and his first present to the public was a volume of poems. Though called by his professional studies and duties from an intercourse with the powers of song, he still cherished his affection for them; and, amid the blaze of his renown as the triumphant antagonist of Hume, he avowed it by his publication of The Minstrel. Surely then he must be a poet. But inclination is not in every case identified with power: and the most exerted reach even of high and tutored intellect cannot always attain the palm of poesy; which, like the golden bough of Proserpine, will surrender itself only to the fated hand.

Ipse volens facilisque sequetur,
Si te fata vocant: aliter non viribus ullis
Vincere, nec duro poteris convellere ferro.

If we were to admit Beattie to a place among the favored band of poets, our judgment would convict us of an erroneous deed. He possesses all that knowledge, taste, and industry can accomplish for his purpose: he is master of diction and of all the mechanism of his art: but he wants that undefinable something — that etherial essence shall we call it? which constitutes the peculiar mind of the poet. The Minstrel is a sweet composition, which presents us with much pleasing description, and exhibits a greater command of the Spenserian, or nine-lined stanza than is to he found in the productions of any of the moderns, excepting in those of Thompson, of Shenstone, and perhaps of our immediate contemporary Lord Byron; though in those of this living bard it is occasionally disfigured by the license of his blending one stanza with that which succeeds to it. But with every advantage of successful execution, and labored into mechanical faultlessness, The Minstrel cannot he owned for the progeny of authentic poetry. We read it with quiet pleasure, without feeling any emotion of delight; and we look in it in vain for the thoughts instinct with life, and the words of fire, which surprise us with their power, and kindle us into rapture. It is not, like the Timavus of the poet, a great river bursting at once with tumult from some immense reservoir in a mountain,

—vasto cum murmure montis
It mare proruptum et pelago premit arva sonanti;

but it is a rill, drawn by the labor of the swain from a scanty source, and following in the channel, which be opens for it, to gurgle along the fields,

Ecce supercilio clivosi tramitis undam
Elicit: illa cadens raucum per levia murmur
Saxa ciet.

Of The Minstrel the first book is unquestionably the best: the second languishes, and is occupied for the most part by the trite expedient of a hermit, brought within the prolonged rambles of Edwin we know not whence or how, and descanting to his accidental visitor, in a long and commonplace lecture, on the evils of ambition and the uncontrolled guidance of passion. By this lecture the young minstrel may be edified, but the reader is certainly fatigued; and, when he has toiled through it, his disappointment is severe on finding that it promotes no purpose in the action of the poem; that the hero of the piece and his casual instructor are here to part forever; each to retire into darkness, and not to be traced by the most exploring imagination. This defect would, doubtless, have been supplied on the completion of the author's plan: but we must speak of the production as it exists.

With respect to Beattie's smaller poems, including his translations, it cannot be said that any of them attain to excellence. To one of them, indeed, The Hermit, we are tempted to give peculiar and higher praise. It was written in a felicitous moment, and it must he allowed to be exquisitely beautiful and pathetic. From a melancholy and accidental association in the mind of the writer of this short biography, the Hermit of Beattie is read by him with a mingled feeling of sorrow and delight, of which no one but himself can be sensible, and which no other production of poetry can excite in his bosom. It was a favorite with one human being who was "dearer to him than are the ruddy drops that warm his heart;" and he has frequently listened to if as it rolled in liquid sweetness from a tongue whose every accent was music to his soul. That human being is now severed from him by the tomb — that seraphic tongue can never again pour its melodies on his mortal ear! Nata, Vale! Heu, quanto minus est cum reliquis versari quam tui meminisse!"