The subject of this memoir was horn on the 25th of October, 1735, at Laurencekirk, in the county of Kincardine, Scotland. His father, James Beattie, who kept a small shop in the village at the same time that he rented a little farm in the neighbourhood, was a man of considerable talents and acquirements: his mother, too, was distinguished for her abilities. Our author, James, was the youngest of the six children of this respectable pair.
After his father's decease, which happened when he was only seven years old, his mother, by means of the emoluments derived from the shop and the farm, was enabled to bring up her family in comfort. In the management of her affairs she was assisted by her eldest son, David, a youth of eighteen, who generously and affectionately relinquished all other pursuits for that of promoting her welfare and happiness, and who appears to have fostered his brothers and sisters with an almost parental care. James was placed at the parish school of Laurencekirk, which was then in some repute, and of which, about forty years before, Ruddiman, the famous grammarian, had been the master. At this time he had access to few books, except those which the minister of the village (the Rev. Mr. Thomson) kindly lent him, and which he read with avidity. It was then that he first became acquainted with English versification in Ogilby's Virgil. Even then he was known among his schoolfellows by the name of the poet; and sometimes he would rise from bed, during the night, that he might commit to writing any poetical idea that his fancy had happened to suggest.
In 1749 he began his academical career, at the Marischal College, Aberdeen: and as his circumstances were straitened, he became a competitor — and with success — for one of those bursaries or exhibitions, which are annually bestowed on students who are unable to support the entire expenses of a university education. He attended the Greek class taught by Dr. Blackwell. This scholar, whose writings on classical subjects, though now fallen into disrepute, once enjoyed considerable popularity, soon discovered that his pupil was no ordinary young man, and distinguished him by several encouraging marks of approbation. The kindness of the Professor made a deep impression on the mind of Beattie, and he used to declare in after life, that Blackwell was the first person who gave him reason to believe that he was possessed of any genius. During the four years of his attendance at the Marischal College he also studied philosophy and divinity. The last mentioned branch of knowledge he pursued doubtless with a view to the ministry, the church being then the chief resource of the well educated sons of the poorer classes in Scotland: he, however, soon abandoned all thoughts of the clerical profession.
Having taken the degree of M.A., he was elected, on the first of August, 1753, schoolmaster of Fordoun, a small hamlet at the foot of the Grampian hills, about six miles distant from his birthplace: here also he officiated as praecentor, or parish clerk.
Many an hour was now spent by Beattie in perfect solitude; the family of Mr. Forbes, the minister, being almost the only society, save the surrounding peasantry, which his situation allowed him to enjoy. But his days went happily by. When not occupied by his public duties, he appears to have devoted a portion of his time to the study of the classics; and occasionally he amused himself by composing little poems, a few of which were printed in the Scots Magazine. His fondness for music had ever been decided; and in his present retirement he cultivated it with uncommon success. In the grand and beautiful scenery of the neighbourhood he found a never-failing source of pleasure. Not far from the place where he dwelt, a large and well wooded glen communicates with the mountains. In it he loved to wander; in it some of his earliest verses were written; and his recollections of its wild and romantic charms may he traced in several vivid descriptions of nature in his poetical works. Sometimes he would pass the whole night among the fields, gazing on the sky, and observing the various aspects it assumed till the return of day; and the exhilarating song of "the lyric lark" in the mornings of summer used to fill him with delight. In 1755, his loneliness was cheered by the arrival of his brother David, who came to settle himself at the village of Fordoun.
The celebrated and eccentric Francis Garden, Esq. (afterwards one of the judges of the supreme courts of civil and criminal law in Scotland, by the title of Lord Gardenstone,) who was then sheriff of the county of Kincardine, and occasionally resided in the neighbourhood of Fordoun, was the earliest patron of our author. They accidentally became acquainted with each other. Mr. Garden having one day discovered Beattie busily writing with a pencil in his favourite glen, and learning that he was engaged in the composition of a poem, from that period took him under his protection.
At this time too he became known to another more celebrated and more eccentric character, Lord Monboddo, whose family estate is in the parish of Fordoun; and though their opinions on some important points by no means coincided, they ever after lived on friendly terms.
In 1757, the place of usher in the grammar-school of Aberdeen being vacant, Beattie, by the advice of Mr. Forbes, the minister of Fordoun, became a candidate for it, but without success. So conspicuously, however, had his abilities manifested themselves during his examination on that occasion, that the same place becoming again vacant about a year after, and two candidates having appeared, both of whom were declared unqualified for it, he was requested by the magistrates to fill it without further trial. He was accordingly elected to the office on the 20th June, 1758.
This was an important event in Beattie's life. From a secluded hamlet, where there was the greatest difficulty in obtaining either society or books, he was transplanted to a populous and flourishing town, where he might associate with those whose tastes were congenial with his own, and carry on his literary pursuits by means of public libraries. The friend of his earlier years, Professor Blackwell, had sunk into the grave; but he had soon the good fortune to become intimately acquainted with several persons of acknowledged talents and learning, connected with the Marischal and King's Colleges, as also with various well educated gentlemen, inhabitants of the town.
In 1760, a chair in the Marischal College becoming vacant, it was suggested to Beattie by his friend, Mr. Arbuthnot, that he should endeavour to procure the appointment for himself. Our author, who had never dreamed of aspiring to so dignified a situation, heard the proposal with astonishment. Mr. Arbuthnot, however, "willing to try what could be done," induced the Earl of Erroll, with whom he was on intimate terms, to solicit, by means of Lord Milton, the powerful interest of the Duke of Argyll in behalf of the humble usher. The application proved successful; and on the 8th October, 1760, Beattie was installed Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic in the Marischal College.
His first lectures were delivered during the winter session of 1760, and 1761; and for the long space of more than thirty years he continued to discharge most conscientiously the duties of the important station to which he had been so unexpectedly raised.
A literary and convivial club (to which the vulgar gave the nickname of the Wise Club) had been established for some years at Aberdeen, the members consisting of the Professors of the Marischal and King's Colleges, and of gentlemen of the town, who had a taste for literature and conversation. Into this society Beattie was now enrolled. They used to meet at a tavern, once a fortnight, at five o'clock in the afternoon, (for in those days the common dinner-hour was early) when, the President taking the chair, an essay was read, composed by one of the members in his turn, and a literary or philosophical subject discussed: at half past eight a slight meal was served up, and at ten they retired to their homes. To this club Dr. Reid, Dr. Campbell, Dr. Gerrard, and Dr. Gregory belonged and from it several admired works of philosophy and criticism may be said to have originated.
In 1761, Beattie made his first appearance in print, in his own character, by publishing a small volume, dedicated to the Earl of Erroll, entitled Original Poems and Translations. It consisted partly of some of the verses which he had formerly sent to the Scots Magazine, and partly of pieces which he had recently composed. "This collection," says his good-natured and not very tasteful biographer, Sir William Forbes, "was very favourably received, and stamped Dr. Beattie with the character of a poet of great and original genius." It was certainly "favourably received," the chief critical journals of the day being unanimous in its praise; but that it "stamped the author with the character of a poet of great and original genius," I cannot allow. The truth is, it does not contain a single poem which rises much above mediocrity; and if Beattie had never touched the lyre with a more powerful hand, a memoir of his life would not have been required for the Aldine Poets. So lightly, indeed, did he himself afterwards think of the collection in question, that he used to destroy all the copies of it which he could procure, and would only suffer four pieces from it (and these much altered and improved) to stand in the same volume with The Minstrel.
During the summer of 1763, Beattie for the first time visited London, among the inhabitants of which, Millar, his publisher, was almost his only acquaintance. While residing there, he made a pilgrimage to Pope's villa at Twickenham.
The Judgment of Paris, printed in 4to. in 1765, was the least successful of our author's poetical works. Several passages of considerable beauty could not prevent this elaborate, cold, and metaphysical production from being utterly neglected by the public.
That his Lines on the report of a monument to be erected to Churchill (which appeared anonymously very soon after The Judgment of Paris) were read with more attention, is to be attributed rather to the subject of the piece than to its intrinsic merit.
No one can peruse it without regretting that the amiable Beattie should have been betrayed by political feelings into such virulent abuse of a man of genius, who had just been gathered to the poets of other days. He is said to have written it at the solicitation of certain friends in Scotland, where the name of Churchill was held in detestation; and on these injudicious instigators let a portion of the odium rest.
In the autumn of 1765, Gray, who was then regarded as the first of living bards, paid a visit to the Earl of Strathmore at Glammis castle. No sooner did Beattie hear of his arrival, than he addressed to him the following letter:
"Marischal College of Aberdeen, 30th August, 1765.
"If I thought it necessary to offer an apology for venturing to address you in this abrupt manner, I should be very much at a loss how to begin. I might plead my admiration of your genius, and my attachment to your character; but who is he, that could not, with truth, urge the same excuse for intruding upon your retirement? I might plead my earnest dire to be personally acquainted with a man whom I have so long and so passionately admired in his writings; but thousands of greater consequence than I are ambitious of the same honour. I, indeed, must either flatter myself that no apology is necessary, or otherwise I must despair of obtaining what has long been the object of my most ardent wishes; I must for ever forfeit all hopes of seeing you, and conversing with you.
"It was yesterday I received the agreeable news of your being in Scotland, and of you intending to visit some parts of it. Will you permit us to hope, that we shall have an opportunity, at Aberdeen, of thanking you in person, for the honour you have done to Britain, and to the poetic art, by your inestimable compositions, and of offering you all that we have that deserves your acceptance, namely, hearts full of esteem, respect, and affection? If you cannot come so far northward, let me at least be acquainted with the place of your residence, and permitted to wait on you. Forgive, sir, this request; forgive me if I urge it with earnestness, for indeed it concerns me nearly; and do me the justice to believe, that I am, with the most sincere attachment, and most respectful esteem, &c. &c. &c.
"P.S. Dr. Carlysle of Musselburgh, and Dr. Wight of Glasgow, acquainted me of your being in Scotland. It was from them I learned that my name was not wholly unknown to you."
In consequence of this letter, Beattie received an invitation to Glammis castle; and a friendship and correspondence commenced between the two poets, which terminated only with the death of Gray. The impression which their first meeting made on our author he thus describes in a letter to Sir William Forbes: — "I am sorry you did not see Mr. Gray on his return; you would have been much pleased with him. Setting aside his merit as a poet, which, however, in my opinion, is greater than any of his contemporaries can boast, in this or in any other nation, I found him possessed of the most exact taste, the soundest judgment, and the most extensive learning. He is happy in a singular facility of expression. His conversation abounds in original observations, delivered with no appearance of sententious formality, and seeming to arise spontaneously without study or premeditation. I passed two very agreeable days with him at Glammis, and found him as easy in his manners, and as communicative and frank, as I could have wished."
A new edition of our author's Poems came forth in 1766. From it a large portion of the pieces published in the former collection was rejected; while The Judgment of Paris, the Lines on the proposed monument to Churchill, and one or two copies of verses never before printed, supplied the deficiency. The translation of Addison's Pygmaeogerano-machia, which concludes the volume, is remarkable for its spirited and graceful versification.
In a letter to Dr. Blacklock, dated 22nd September in the same year, Beattie thus alludes to his great work, The Minstrel:—
"Not long ago I began a poem in the style and stanza of Spenser, in which I propose to give full scope to my inclination, and be either droll or pathetic, descriptive or sentimental, tender or satirical, as the humour strikes me for, if I mistake not, the manner which I have adopted admits equally of all these kinds of composition. I have written one hundred and fifty lines, and am surprised to find the structure of that complicated stanza so little troublesome. I was always fond of it, for I think it the most harmonious that ever was contrived. It admits of more variety of pauses than either the couplet or the alternate rhyme; and it concludes with a pomp and majesty of sound, which, to my ear, is wonderfully delightful. It seems also very well adapted to the genius of our language, which, from its irregularity of inflexion and number of monosyllables, abounds in diversified terminations, and consequently renders our poetry susceptible of an endless variety of legitimate rhymes. But I am so far from intending this performance for the press, that I am morally certain it never will be finished. I shall add a stanza now and then, when I am at leisure, and when I have no humour for any other amusement; but I am resolved to write no more poetry with a view to publication, till I see some dawnings of a poetical taste among the generality of readers, of which, however, there is not at present anything like an appearance."
Writing to Sir William Forbes, 8th January, 1767, our author gives an account of the cause of his composing The Hermit, the most perfect of his minor poems:—
"The favourable reception you gave to my little poem, demands my acknowledgments. I aimed at simplicity in the expression, and something like uncommonness in the thought; and I own I am not ill pleased with it upon the whole; though I am sensible it does not answer the purpose for which I made it. I wrote it at the desire of a young lady of this country, who has a taste both for poetry and music, end wanted me to make words for a Scots tune called 'Pentland Hills,' of which she is very fond. The verses correspond well enough with the measure and subject of the tune, but are extremely unsuitable for the purpose of a song."
To Dr. Blacklock he again writes concerning The Minstrel:—
"Aberdeen, 20th May, 1767.
"My performance in Spenser's stanza has not advanced a single line these many months. It is called The Minstrel. The subject was suggested by a dissertation on the old minstrels, which is prefixed to a collection of ballads lately published by Dodsley in three volumes. I propose to give an account of the birth, education, and adventures of one of those bards; in which I shall have full scope for description, sentiment, satire, and even a certain species of humour and of pathos, which, in the opinion of my great master, are by no means inconsistent, as is evident from his works. My hero is to be born in the south of Scotland; which you know was the native land of the English minstrels; I mean of those minstrels who travelled into England, and supported themselves there by singing their ballads to the harp. His father is a shepherd. The son will have a natural taste for music and the beauties of nature; which, however, languishes for want of culture, till in due time he meets with a hermit, who gives him some instruction; but endeavours to check his genius for poetry and adventures, by representing the happiness of obscurity and solitude, and the bad reception which poetry has met with in almost every age. The poor swain acquiesces in this advice, and resolves to follow his father's employment; when, on a sudden, the country is invaded by the Danes, or English borderers, (I know not which,) and he is stript of all his little fortune, and obliged by necessity to commence minstrel. This is all that I have as yet concerted of the plan. I have written one hundred and fifty lines, but my hero is not yet born, though now in a fair way of being so, for his parents are described and married. I know not whether I shall ever proceed any farther: however, I am not dissatisfied with what I have written."
On the 28th June, 1767, Beattie was married at Aberdeen to Miss Mary Dun, only daughter of the rector of the Grammar-school in that city; a mutual attachment having for some time existed between them. She was a few years younger than our author: her person was pleasing, her manners were lively; and she possessed a moderate share of accomplishments. This union, which seemed to promise nothing but happiness to Beattie, threw the blight of misery over his later years, and undoubtedly contributed to shorten his career. The woman whom he had selected as a partner for life inherited from her mother the most dreadful of human maladies, — insanity; which, a few years after marriage, displayed itself in strange follies and caprices, and at last broke forth with such violence, as to render her separation from her family absolutely necessary. By this lady he had two sons, of whom particular mention will be made hereafter.
Beattie now employed himself on the composition of his Essay on Truth, a work, which was to be honoured with such marks of public approbation, as the most sanguine author in his wildest dreams of success could hardly have anticipated. In a letter to Sir William Forbes, dated 17th January, 1768, he says:—
"I have, for a time, laid aside my favourite studies, that I might have leisure to prosecute a philosophical inquiry, less amusing indeed than poetry and criticism, but not less important. The extraordinary success of the sceptical philosophy has long filled me with regret. I wish I could undeceive mankind in regard to this matter. Perhaps this wish is vain; but it can do no harm to make the trial. The point I am now labouring to prove, is the universality and immutability of moral sentiment, — a point which has been brought into dispute, both by the friends and by the enemies of virtue. In an age less licentious in its principles, it would not, perhaps, be necessary to insist much on this point. At present it is very necessary. Philosophers have ascribed all religion to human policy. Nobody knows how soon they may ascribe all morality to the same origin; and then the foundations of human society, as well as of human happiness, will be effectually undermined. To accomplish this end, Hobbes, Hume, Mandeville, and even Locks, have laboured; and, I am sorry to say, from my knowledge of mankind, that their labour has not been altogether in vain. Not that the works of these philosophers are generally read, or even understood by the few who read them. It is not the mode, now-a-days, for a man to think for himself; but they greedily adopt the conclusions, without any concern about the arguments or principles whence they proceed; and they justify their own credulity by general declamations upon the transcendent merit of their favourite authors, and the universal deference that is paid to their genius and learning. If I can prove those authors guilty of gross misrepresentations of matters of fact, unacquainted with the human heart, ignorant even of their own principles, the dupes of verbal ambiguities, and the votaries of frivolous, though dangerous philosophy, T shall do some little service to the cause of truth; and all this I will undertake to prove in many instances of high importance."
During this year, a poem in broad Scotch, entitled The Fortunate Shepherdess, by Alexander Ross, schoolmaster, of Lochlee, was printed by subscription at Aberdeen; and in order to excited some curiosity about the volume, Beattie good-naturedly wrote a copy of verses in the same dialect, addressed to the author, which appeared in the Aberdeen Journal.
He thus communicates to Dr. Blacklock his motives for attempting the laborious prose work, with which he was still occupied:—
"Aberdeen, 9th January, 1769.
"It was very kind in you to read over my Essay on the Immutability of Moral Sentiment with so much attention. I wish it deserved any part of the high encomium you bestowed on it. I flatter myself it will receive considerable improvements from a second transcribing, which I intend to begin as soon as I can. Some parts of it will be enlarged, and others (perhaps) shortened: the examples from history, and authorities from ancient authors, will be more numerous; it will be regularly distributed into chapters and sections, and the language will be corrected throughout. The first part, which treats of the permanency of truth in general, is now in great forwardness; ninety pages in quarto are finished, and materials provided for as many more. The design of the whole you will guess from the part you have seen. It is to overthrow scepticism, and establish conviction in its place; a conviction not in the least favourable to bigotry or prejudice, far less to a persecuting spirit; but such a conviction as produces firmness of mind, and stability of principle, in a consistence with moderation, candour, and liberal inquiry. If I understand my own design, it is certainly this; whether I shall accomplish this design or not, the event only will determine. Meantime I go on with cheerfulness in this intricate and fatiguing study, because I would fain hope that it may do some good; harm I think it cannot possibly do any.
"Perhaps you are anxious to know what first induced me to write on the subject; I will tell you as briefly as I can. In my younger days I read chiefly for the sake of amusement, and I found myself best amused with the classics, and what we call the belles lettres. Metaphysics I disliked; mathematics pleased me better; but I found my mind neither improved nor gratified by that study. When Providence allotted me my present station, it became incumbent on me to read what had been written on the subject of morals and human nature: the works of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, were celebrated as masterpieces in this way; to them, therefore, I had recourse. But, as I began to study them with great prejudices in their favour, you will readily conceive how strangely I was surprised to find them, as I thought, replete with absurdities: I pondered these absurdities; I weighed the arguments, with which I was sometimes not a little confounded; and the result was, that I began at last to suspect my own understanding, and to think that I had not capacity for such a study. For I could not conceive it possible, that the absurdities of these authors were so great as they seemed to me to be; otherwise, thought I, the world would never admire them so much. About this time some excellent antisceptical works made their appearance, particularly Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind. Then it was that I began to have a little more confidence in my own judgment, when I found it confirmed by those of whose abilities I did not entertain the least distrust. I reviewed my authors again, with a very different temper of mind. A very little truth will sometimes enlighten a vast extent of science. I found that the sceptical philosophy was not what the world imagined it to be, nor what I, following the opinion of the world, had hitherto imagined it to be, but a frivolous, though dangerous, system of verbal subtilty, which it required neither genius, nor learning, nor taste, nor knowledge of mankind, to be able to put together; but only a captious temper, an irreligious spirit, a moderate command of words, and an extraordinary degree of vanity and presumption. You will easily perceive that I am speaking of this philosophy only in its most extravagant state, that is, as it appears in the works of Mr. Hume. The more I study it, the more am I confirmed in this opinion. But while I applauded and admired the sagacity of those who led me into, or at least encouraged me to proceed in, this train of thinking, I was not altogether satisfied with them in another respect. I could not approve that extraordinary adulation which some of them paid to their arch-adversary. I could not conceive the propriety of paying compliments to a man's heart, at the very time one is proving that his aim is to subvert the principles of truth, virtue, and religion; nor to his understanding, when we are charging him with publishing the grossest and most contemptible nonsense. I thought I then foresaw, what I have since found to happen, that this controversy will be looked upon rather as a trial of skill between two logicians, than as a disquisition in which the best interests of mankind were concerned; and that the world, especially the fashionable part of it, would still be disposed to pay the greatest deference to the opinions of him who, even by the acknowledgment of his antagonists, was confessed to be the best philosopher and the soundest reasoner. All this has happened, and more. Some, to my certain knowledge, have said, that Mr. Hume and his adversaries did really act in concert, in order mutually to promote the sale of one another's works; as a proof of which, they mention, not only the extravagant compliments that pass between them, but also the circumstance of Dr. R[eid] and Dr. C[ampbell] sending their manuscripts to be perused and corrected by Mr. Hume before they gave them to the press. I, who know both the men, am very sensible of the gross falsehood of these reports. As to the affair of the manuscripts, it was, I am convinced, candour and modesty that induced them to it. But the world knows no such thing; and, therefore, may be excused for mistaking the meaning of actions that have really an equivocal appearance. I know likewise that they are sincere, not only in the detestation they express for Mr. Hume's irreligious tenets, but also in the compliments they have paid to his talents; for they both look upon him as an extraordinary genius; a point in which I cannot agree with them. But while I thus vindicate them from imputations, which the world, from its ignorance of circumstances, has laid to their charge, I cannot approve them in every thing; I wish they had carried their researches a little farther, and expressed themselves with a little more firmness and spirit. For well I know, that their works, for want of this, will never produce that effect which (if all mankind were cool metaphysical reasoners) might be expected from them. There is another thing in which my judgment differs considerably from that of the gentlemen just mentioned. They have great metaphysical abilities; and they love the metaphysical sciences. I do not. I am convinced, that this metaphysical spirit is the bane of true learning, true taste, and true science; that to it we owe all this modern scepticism and atheism; that it has a bad effect upon the human faculties, and tends not a little to sour the temper, to subvert good principles, and to disqualify men for the business of life. You will now see wherein my views differ from those of the other answerers of Mr. Hume. I want to show the world that the sceptical philosophy is contradictory to itself, and destructive of genuine philosophy, as well as of religion and virtue; that it is in its own nature so paltry a thing (however it may have been celebrated by some), that to be despised it needs only to be known; that no degree of genius is necessary to qualify a man for making a figure in this pretended science; but rather a certain minuteness and suspiciousness of mind, and want of sensibility, the very reverse of true intellectual excellence; that metaphysics cannot possibly do any good, but may do, and actually have done, much harm; that sceptical philosophers, whatever they may pretend, are the corrupters of science, the pests of society, and the enemies of mankind. I want to show, that the same method of reasoning, which these people have adopted in their books, if transferred into common life, would show them to be destitute of common sense; that true philosophers follow a different method of reasoning; and that, without following a different method, no truth can be discovered. I want to lay before the public, in as strong a light as possible, the following dilemma: our sceptics either believe the doctrines they publish, or they do not believe them; if they believe them, they are fools — if not, they are a thousand times worse. I want also to fortify the mind against this sceptical poison, and to propose certain criteria of moral truth, by which some of the most dangerous sceptical errors may be detected and guarded against.
"You are sensible, that, in order to attain these ends, it is absolutely necessary for me to use great plainness of speech. My expressions must not be so tame as to seem to imply either a diffidence in my principles, or a coldness towards the cause I have undertaken to defend. And where is the man who can blame me for speaking from the heart, and therefore speaking with warmth, when I appear in the cause of truth, religion, virtue, and mankind? I am sure my dear friend Dr. Blacklock will not; he, who has set before me so many examples of this laudable ardour; he, whose style I should be proud to take for my model, if I were not aware of the difficulty, I may say, the insuperable difficulty, of imitating it with success. You need not fear, however, that I expose myself by an excess of passion or petulance. I hope I shall be animated, without losing my temper, and keen, without injury to good manners. In a word, I will be as soft and delicate as the subject and my conscience will allow. One gentleman, a friend of yours, I shall have occasion to treat with much freedom. I have heard of his virtues. I know he hoe many virtues God forbid I should ever seek to lessen them, or wish them to he found insincere. I hope they are sincere, and that they will increase in number and merit every day. To his virtues I shall do justice but I must also do justice to his faults, at least to those faults which are public, and which, for the sake of truth and of mankind, ought not to be concealed or disguised. Personal reflections will be carefully avoided; I hope I am in no danger of falling into them, for I hear no personal animosity against any man whatsoever; sometimes I may perhaps be keen; but I trust I shall never depart from the Christian and philosophic character.
"A scheme like this of mine cannot be popular, far less can it be lucrative. It will raise me enemies; it will expose me to the scrutiny of the most rigid criticism; it will make me be considered by many as a sullen and illiberal bigot. I trust, however, in Providence, and in the goodness of my cause, that my attempts in behalf of truth shall not be altogether ineffectual, and that my labours shall be attended with some utility to my fellow creatures. This, in my estimation, will do much more than counterbalance all the inconveniences I have any reason to apprehend. I have already fallen on evil tongues (as Milton says), on account of this intended publication. It has been reported, that I had written a most scurrilous paper against Mr. Hume, and was preparing to publish it, when a friend of mine interposed, and, with very great difficulty, prevailed on me to suppress it, because he knew it would hurt or ruin my character. Such is the treatment I have to expect from one set of people. I was so provoked when I first heard this calumny, that I deliberated whether I should not throw my papers into the fire, with a 'Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur': but I rejected that thought; for so many persons have told me, that it was my duty to publish these papers, that I almost begin to think so myself. Many have urged me to publish them; none ever dissuaded me. The gentleman, named in the report, read the essay, and returned it with the highest commendations; but I do not recollect that he ever spoke a syllable about publishing or suppressing it. But I have certainly tired you with so long a detail, about so trifling a matter as my works. However, I thought it necessary to say something by way of apology for them, for I find that your good opinion is of too much consequence to my peace, to suffer me to neglect any opportunity of cultivating it."
The Essay on Truth being now finished, our author was desirous of selling the MS. to some bookseller, in order that he might avoid all risk to himself in the publication, and entrusted the care of this matter to Sir William Forbes and Mr. Arbuthnot. His two friends, however, having applied to the bookseller, whom they imagined the most proper person to publish the work, were vexed by his positive refusal to purchase it, although he had no objection to print it on Beattie's account. In this difficulty they generously resolved to become themselves the purchasers of the first edition. "I therefore," says Sir William Forbes, "wrote to him [Beattie] (nothing surely but the truth, although, I confess, not the whole truth) that the manuscript was sold for fifty guineas, which I remitted to him by a bank bill; and I added, that we had stipulated with the bookseller who was to print the book, that we should be partners in the publication."
At length in May, 1770, the Essay on Truth was given to the world. As it had been seen in manuscript by several eminent literary characters, and as it was understood to be a direct attack on the philosophy of Hume (who was then in the height of his popularity), its appearance excited immediate notice. It has been said, that, on its publication, Hume spoke of Beattie with great bitterness, complaining (and I am forced to allow that there was some cause for the complaint) that he had not used him like a gentleman: it has even been asserted that he could not endure the name of our author to be mentioned in his presence. I suspect that in all this there is great exaggeration. The placid temper of Hume was not likely to be much ruffled by any thing that might be written against his system; his friends and admirers were probably more disturbed by the attack than the philosopher himself. In less than four years five large editions of the Essay were circulated, and translations of it were made into French and other foreign languages.
From the rugged paths of philosophy Beattie turned once more into the flowery walks of poesy. In 1771, the First Book of The Minstrel was published without the author's name. Its success was complete. The voice of every critic was loud in its praise; and before the Second Book appeared (in 1774), four editions of the First had been dispersed throughout the kingdom. The following elegant and touching encomium was passed upon the poem by Lord Lyttelton, in a letter to Mrs. Montagu, who had put the First Book into the hands of that virtuous nobleman:
"Hill Street, 8th March, 1771.
"I read your Minstrel last night, with as much rapture as poetry, in her noblest, sweetest charms, ever raised in my soul. It seemed to me, that my once most beloved minstrel, Thomson, was come down from heaven, refined by the converse of purer spirits than those he lived with here, to let me hear him sing again the beauties of nature, and the finest feelings of virtue, not with human, but with angelic strains I beg you to express my gratitude to the poet for the pleasure he has given me."
Beattie received a letter from Gray, of the same date as the preceding, containing many minute remarks on his poem. As it consists almost entirely of verbal criticism, it scarcely admits of quotation: a single short extract may however be given from it: "St. 11. O, how canst thou renounce, &c. But this, of all others, is my favourite stanza. It is true poetry; it is inspiration; only (to show it is mortal) there is one blemish; the word garniture suggesting an idea of dress, and, what is worse, of French dress." When the poem was reprinted, one or two slight alterations were made in deference to the opinion of Gray.
In a letter to the Dowager Lady Forbes, 12th October, 1772, our author confesses that in the character of Edwin he meant to paint himself:
"From the questions your Ladyship is pleased to propose in the conclusion of your letter, as well as from some things I have had the honour to hear you advance in conversation, I find you are willing to suppose, that, in Edwin, I have given only a picture of myself, as I was in my younger days. I confess the supposition is not groundless. I have made him take pleasure in the scenes in which I took pleasure, and entertain sentiments similar to those, of which, even in my early youth, I had repeated experience. The scenery of a mountainous country, the ocean, the sky, thoughtfulness and retirement, and sometimes melancholy objects and ideas, had charms in my eyes, even when I was a schoolboy: and at a time when I was so far from being able to express, that I did not understand my own feelings, or perceive the tendency of such pursuits and amusements; and as to poetry and music, before I was ten years old I could play a little on the violin, and was as much master of Homer and Virgil, as Pope's and Dryden's translations could make me."
The intense thought which Beattie had devoted to the composition of the Essay on Truth having materially injured his health, he was advised by his physicians to try the remedy of change of scene. He accordingly set out on a journey to London, and arrived there in the beginning of Autumn, 1771. He was no longer the obscure individual who had visited it in 1763; he was now the triumphant adversary of scepticism, and the author of the admired Minstrel; a man whom the most distinguished characters in the literary and fashionable world were prepared to treat with attention and respect. Among several letters of introduction, which he carried with him, was one from Dr. Gregory, of Edinburgh, to Mrs. Montagu. At the splendid and hospitable mansion of this celebrated lady, Beattie became acquainted with various persons, both male and female, who were then the chief ornaments of London society: and he used to dwell with delight on the recollections of her more private parties, made up of Lord Lyttelton, Mrs. Carter, and a few others, who spent their evenings in the most unreserved conversation on literary, moral, or religious subjects. From this time, Mrs. Montagu continued to be one of his firmest friends; and their epistolary correspondence closed only with her life. The politeness and kindness of Hawkesworth, Armstrong, Garrick, and Johnson, also contributed much to render pleasant his visit to the metropolis. Concerning the last illustrious man he writes thus: "Johnson has been greatly misrepresented. I have passed several entire days with him, and found him extremely agreeable. The compliments he pays to my writings are so high, that I have not the face to mention them." In December Beattie had returned to Aberdeen.
In 1772, his mother died at the advanced age of fourscore, at the house of her affectionate son David, in the neighbourhood of Laurencekirk.
Towards the end of April, 1773, Beattie, accompanied by his wife, set out again for London. This journey was undertaken partly for the sake of his health, and partly with a view to another object, — the bettering of his circumstances. The emolument which he had derived from his writings bore unfortunately no proportion to the fame he had acquired; and the small income arising from his professorship afforded him the only means for supporting his family. During his former visit to the capital in 1771, his English friends had been very desirous to procure for him some permanent provision; and it was well known that his Majesty had expressed approbation of his writings, and had even declared his intention of conferring some reward on the man who had laboured so successfully to advance the interests of religion. With several important letters of introduction, one addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth, — he now arrived in London, and was cordially welcomed by Mrs. Montagu, and his other friends. His reception by Lord Dartmouth was kind and courteous: soon after which, being summoned to wait on Lord North, he was told by that minister, that an early opportunity should be taken to inform his Majesty of his arrival.
By some of his friends it had been suggested that Beattie should take orders, and enter the English church; but this mode of improving his fortunes he very properly rejected. At last, by the advice of the Archbishop of York, a memorial was drawn up "expressing his services, his wants, and his wishes;" which, having been transmitted to Lord Dartmouth, was by him laid before the King, who, on that occasion, spoke of Beattie and his writings with high approbation, and signified a desire to see him.
Meantime the number of our author's acquaintances in the metropolis increased daily, and his society was eagerly courted by a long list of illustrious names. He now became personally known to a distinguished churchman, with whom during the preceding year he had held some correspondence by letter, — Dr. Porteus, then Rector of Lambeth, and finally Bishop of London; and the friendship which took place between them was sincere and lasting.
At the first levee, Beattie was presented by Lord Dartmouth to his Majesty, who for several minutes talked to him concerning his Essay on Truth in the most condescending and affable manner.
Soon after this, the University of Oxford, at the installation of Lord North as its Chancellor, conferred on our author a very flattering mark of distinction, an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law.
At length the object of his wishes was attained. On the 20th of August, he received an official letter from the secretary of Lord North, informing him that the King had been pleased to allow him a pension of two hundred pounds a year. Of the private interview, with which, a few days after, he was honoured by their Majesties, he has left the following account in his Diary:
"Tuesday, 24th August, set out for Dr. Majendie's at Kew-Green. The Doctor told me, that he had not seen the King yesterday, but had left a note in writing, to intimate that I was to be at his house to-day; and that one of the King's pages had come to him this morning, to say, 'that his Majesty would see me a little after twelve.' At twelve, the Doctor and I went to the King's house, at Kew. We had been only a few minutes in the hall, when the King and Queen came in from an airing; and, as they passed through the hall, the King called to me by name, and asked how long it was since I came from town. I answered, about an hour. 'I shall see you,' says he, 'in a little.' The Doctor and I waited a considerable time (for the King was busy), and then we were called into a large room, furnished as a library, where the King was walking about, and the Queen sitting in a chair. We were received in the most gracious manner possible by both their Majesties. I had the honour of a conversation with them (nobody else being present but Dr. Majendie) for upwards of an hour, on a great variety of topics; in which both the King and Queen joined, with a degree of cheerfulness, affability, and ease, that was to me surprising, and soon dissipated the embarrassment which I felt at the beginning of the conference. They both complimented me, in the highest terms, on my Essay, which, they said, was a book they always kept by them; and the King said he had one copy of it at Kew, and another in town, and immediately went and took it down from a shelf. I found it was the second edition. 'I never stole a book but one,' said his Majesty, 'and that was yours (speaking to me); I stole it from the Queen, to give it to Lord Hertford to read.' He had heard that the sale of Hume's Essays had failed, since my book was published; and I told him what Mr. Strahan had told me, in regard to that matter. He had even heard of my being in Edinburgh last summer, and how Mr. Hume was offended on the score of my book. He asked many questions about the second part of the Essay, and when it would be ready for the press. I gave him, in a short speech, an account of the plan of it; and said, my health was so precarious, I could not tell when it might be ready, as I had many books to consult before I could finish it; but, that if my health were good, I thought I might bring it to a conclusion in two or three years. He asked, how long I had been in composing my Essay? praised the caution with which it was written; and said, he did not wonder that it had employed me five or six years. He asked about my poems. I said, there was only one poem of my own on which I set any value (meaning the Minstrel), and that it was first published about the same time with the Essay. My other poems, I said, were incorrect, being but juvenile pieces, and of little consequence, even in my own opinion. We had much conversation on moral subjects; from which both their Majesties let it appear that they were warm friends to Christianity; and so little inclined to infidelity, that they could hardly believe that any thinking man could really be an atheist, unless he could bring himself to believe that he made himself; a thought which pleased the King exceedingly; and he repeated it several times to the Queen. He asked, whether any thing had been written against me. I spoke of the late pamphlet, of which I gave an account, telling him, that I never had met with any man who had read it, except one Quaker. This brought on some discourse about the Quakers, whose moderation and mild behaviour the King and Queen commended. I was asked many questions about the Scots universities; the revenues of the Scots clergy; their mode of praying and preaching; the medical college of Edinburgh; Dr. Gregory (of whom I gave a particular character), and Dr. Cullen; the length of our vacation at Aberdeen, and the closeness of our attendance during the winter; the number of students that attend my lectures; my mode of lecturing, whether from notes, or completely written lectures; about Mr. Hume, and Dr. Robertson, and Lord Kinnoull, and the Archbishop of York, &c. &c. &c. His Majesty asked what I thought of my new acquaintance, Lord Dartmouth? I said, there was something in his air and manner which I thought not only agreeable, but enchanting, and that he seemed to me to be one of the best of men; a sentiment in which both their Majesties heartily joined. 'They say that Lord Dartmouth is an enthusiast,' said the King, 'but surely he says nothing on the subject of religion, but what every Christian may, and ought to say.' He asked, whether I did not think the English language on the decline at present? I answered in the affirmative; and the King agreed, and named the Spectator as one of the best standards of the language. When I told him that the Scots clergy sometimes prayed a quarter, or even half an hour at a time, he asked whether that did not lead them into repetitions? I said, it often did. 'That,' said he, 'I don't like in prayers; and excellent as our liturgy is, I think it somewhat faulty in that respect.' 'Your Majesty knows,' said I, 'that three services are joined in one in the ordinary church service, which is one cause of those repetitions.' 'True,' he replied, 'and that circumstance also makes the service too long.' From this, he took occasion to speak of the composition of the church liturgy; on which he very justly bestowed the highest commendation. 'Observe,' his Majesty said, 'how flat those occasional prayers are, that are now composed, in comparison with the old ones.' When I mentioned the smallness of the church livings in Scotland, he said, 'he wondered how men of liberal education would choose to became clergymen there;' and asked, 'whether, in the remote parts of the country, the clergy, in general, were not very ignorant?' I answered, 'No, for that education was very cheap in Scotland, and that the clergy, in general, were men of goad sense, and competent learning.' He asked whether we had any good preachers at Aberdeen? I said, yes, and named Campbell and Gerard, with whose names, however, I did not find that he was acquainted. Dr. Majendie mentioned Dr. Oswald's 'Appeal' with commendation; I praised it too; and the queen took down the name, with a view to send for it. I was asked, whether I knew Dr. Oswald? I answered, I did not; and said, that my book was published before I read his; that Dr. O. was well known to Lord Kinnoull, who had often proposed to make us acquainted. We discussed a great many other topics; for the conversation, as before observed, lasted for upwards of an hour, without any intermission. The Queen bore a large share in it. Both the King and her Majesty showed a great deal of good sense, acuteness, and knowledge, as well as of good nature and affability. At last, the King took out his watch (for it was now almost three o'clock, his hour of dinner), which Dr. Majendie and I took as a signal to withdraw. We accordingly bowed to their Majesties, and I addressed the King in these words: 'I hope, Sir, your Majesty will pardon me, if I take this opportunity to return you my humble and most grateful acknowledgments, for the honour you have been pleased to confer upon me.' He immediately answered, 'I think I could do no less for a man who has done so much service to the cause of Christianity. I shall always be glad of an opportunity to show the good opinion T have of you.' The Queen sate all the while, and the King stood, sometimes walking about a little. Her Majesty speaks the English language with surprising elegance, and little or nothing of a foreign accent. There is something wonderfully captivating in her manner; so that if she were only of the rank of a private gentlewoman, one could not help taking notice of her, as one of the most agreeable women in the world. Her face is much more pleasing than any of her pictures; and in the expression of her eyes, and in her smile, there is something peculiarly engaging. When the Doctor and I came out, 'Pray,' said I, 'how did I behave? Tell me honestly, for I am not accustomed to conversations of this kind.' 'Why, perfectly well,' answered he, 'and just as you ought to do.' — 'Are you sure of that?' said I. — 'As sure,' he replied, 'as of my own existence: and you may be assured of it too, when I tell you, that if there had been any thing in your manner or conversation which was not perfectly agreeable, your conference would have been at an end in eight or ten minutes at most.' The Doctor afterwards told me, that it was a most uncommon thing for a private man, and a commoner, to be honoured with so long an audience. I dined with Dr. and Mrs. Majendie, and their family, and returned to town in the evening, very much pleased with the occurrences of the day."
At this time, Sir Joshua Reynolds, having requested Beattie to sit for his picture, produced a likeness of him, which is generally regarded as one of the finest works of that admirable artist. He is represented in his Oxford gown of Doctor of Civil Law, with his famous Essay under his arm; while beside him is Truth, habited as an Angel, holding in one hand a pair of scales, and with the other thrusting down three frightful figures, emblematic of Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly.
Of this picture Sir Joshua made a present to Beattie, who set a due value on so noble a composition, and preserved it with the utmost care.
After an absence of a little more than five months, he returned to Aberdeen.
A striking proof how highly the character and talents of Beattie were appreciated, even by those to whom he was personally unknown, occurred in October of this year (1773,) when the chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh was offered to him by the electors, the magistrate of the city. He, however, declined accepting it. "Though my fortune" (he writes to Sir William Forbes, on the subject) "were as narrow now, as it lately was, I should still incline rather to remain in quiet where I am, than, by becoming a member of the University of Edinburgh, to place myself within the reach of those (few as they are) who have been pleased to let the world know that they do not wish me well." He alludes to the enemies whom his Essay on Truth had raised up.
The Second Book of The Minstrel, together with a new and corrected edition of the First, appeared in 1774, the author's name being now added. The poem, thus enlarged, suffered no diminution of its popularity.
The following year, Beattie and his wife spent several weeks in London, residing during the chief part of the time with Dr. Porteus, one of his kindest and most zealous friends. On this occasion, having shown himself at court, he was immediately recognized by the King, who spoke to him very graciously, and made several inquiries concerning his studies.
To a new and improved edition in quarto, of the Essay on Truth, printed by subscription in 1770, our author appended three other Essays; On Poetry and Music, as they affect the Mind; On Laughter and Ludicrous Composition; and On the Utility of Classical Learning. In 1777, he gave to the press a new edition of The Minstrel, to which he added a few of his minor poems: this volume (he says in the preface) contains "all the verses of which I am willing to be considered as the author." In 1778, he printed for private circulation a Letter to Dr. Blair on the Improvement of Psalmody in Scotland. In 1779, he published, for the use of the young men who attended his lectures, a List of Scotticisms, to the amount of about two hundred. And in 1780, he contributed some thoughts On Dreaming to the well known periodical paper, The Mirror.
The following portion of a letter from Dr. Johnson to Beattie shows how sincerely our author was esteemed by the great moralist:
"Bolt Court, Fleet Street, 21st August, 1780.
"More years than I have any delight to reckon have past since you and I saw one another. Of this, however, there is no reason for making any reprehensory complaint, 'sic fata ferunt': but, methinks, there might pass some small interchange of regard between us. If you say that I ought to have written, I now write; and I write to tell you, that I have much kindness for you and Mrs. Beattie, and that I wish your health better, and your life long. Try change of air, and come a few degrees southward; a softer climate may do you both good. Winter is coming on, and London will be warmer, and gayer, and busier, and more fertile of amusement than Aberdeen."
In 1781, Beattie made another journey to London, taking with him his eldest son, James Hay Beattie. While there, we find him writing thus to Sir William Forbes:
"I have been visiting all my friends again and again, and found them as affectionate and attentive as ever. Death has indeed deprived me of some since I was last here, of Garrick, and Armstrong, and poor Harry Smith; but I have still many left... Johnson grows in grace as he grows in years. He not only has better health and a fresher complexion than ever he had before (at least since I knew him), but he has contracted a gentleness of manners which pleases every body."
"I thought it my duty to appear at the levee before I left London; and accordingly the week before last I went to court. The King had not seen me for six years, and yet, to my surprise, knew me at first sight. He spoke to me with his wonted condescension and affability; and paid me a very polite compliment on the subject of my writings."
His Dissertations, Moral and Critical, were published in 1783.
A passage from a letter of the poet Cowper to the Rev. William Unwin, 5th April, 1784, must not be omitted here: "If you have not his poem, called The Minstrel, and cannot borrow it, I must beg you to buy it for me; for, though I cannot afford to deal largely in so expensive a commodity as books, I must afford to purchase at least the poetical works of Beattie."
His health impaired, and his peace of mind destroyed by the melancholy condition of his wife (who, labouring under confirmed insanity, was now removed from her family), we need not wonder that Beattie should endeavour to forget his domestic griefs in the society of his English friends, to whom he was ever welcome. During the year 1784, after passing some time in London, he spent a month with Dr. Porteus (who had now attained the rank of Bishop of Chester), at the beautiful parsonage of Hunton, near Maidstone, which he characterizes as "the mansion of peace, piety, and cheerfulness." He also visited Mrs. Montagu at her seat, called Sandleford, in Berks.
In 1786, his Evidences of the Christian Religion were published. A remark which he makes in a letter, while engaged in the composition of this judicious summary, is worth quoting: "Whether this work shall ever be of use to others, I know not; but this I know, that it has been of considerable benefit to myself. For though, when I entered upon it, I understood my subject well enough to entertain no doubt of the goodness of my cause, yet I find, as I advance, new light continually breaking in upon me."
The receipt of the following letter could hardly fail to gratify our author:
"Philadelphia, 1st August, 1756.
"The American revolution, which divided the British empire, made no breach in the republic of letters. As a proof of this, a stranger to your person, and a citizen of a country lately hostile to yours, has expressed his obligations to you for the knowledge and pleasure he has derived from your excellent writings, by procuring your admission into the American Philosophical Society; a certificate of which, subscribed by our illustrious president, Dr. Franklin, and the other officers of the society, you will receive by the next vessel that sails to any port in North Britain from this city.
"The stranger alluded to finished his studies in medicine in Edinburgh in the year 1769, and has ever since taught chemistry and medicine in the college of Philadelphia. His name (with the greatest respect for yours) is,
The next year, with his eldest son for his companion, he repaired again to London. While there, he writes thus to his niece, Miss Valentine, afterwards Mrs. Glennie:
"London, 20th July, 1787.
I am just returned from Windsor, where I passed three days. I went thither, partly to see some friends, but chiefly that I might pay my respects to the King and Queen. They both received me in the most gracious manner. I saw the King first on the terrace, where he knew me at first sight, and did me the honour to converse with me a considerable time. Next morning I saw him again at prayers in his chapel, where he was pleased to introduce me to the Queen, who inquired very kindly after my health; observed, that many years had passed since she saw me last; regretted the bad weather which I had met with at Windsor (for it rained incessantly), which, said she, has made your friends see less of you than they wished; and, after some other conversation, her Majesty and the Princess Elizabeth, who attended her, made a slight curtsey, and stepped into the carriage that waited for them at the chapel door. The King remained with its for some time longer, and talked of various matters."
Our author then proceeded to visit Dr. Porteus at Hunton, and Mrs. Montagu at Sandleford, but was obliged to quit the latter place sooner than he had intended, on account of the illness of his son, who showed symptoms of that consumptive complaint to which he afterwards fell a victim. For the sake of medical advice Beattie carried him back to the metropolis, and from thence, by very easy stages, to Aberdeen. Soon after his return to Scotland, the invalid improved so much in health, that he was able to take upon him part of the management of the class of Moral Philosophy in the Marischal College, having been appointed in June of this year (when he was not quite nineteen) assistant professor to his father.
In 1790, Beattie put forth the first volume of his Elements of Moral Science; and superintended an edition of Addison's Periodical Papers, adding a few notes to Tickell's Life of that author, and to Johnson's Remarks on his Prose Writings. The second volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, published during this year, contains 'Remarks on some Passages of the Sixth Book of the Aeneid, from Beattie's pen.
He had now to stiffer the dire bereavement which he had long foreseen, the loss of his eldest son, the object of his fondest affection. He thus informs the Duchess of Garden of the melancholy event:
"Aberdeen, 1st December, 1790.
"Knowing with what kindness and condescension your Grace takes an interest in every thing that concerns me and my little family, I take the liberty to inform you, that my son James is dead; that the last duties to him are now paid; and that I am endeavouring to return, with the little ability that is left me, and with entire submission to the will of Providence, to the ordinary business of life. I have lost one who was always a pleasing companion; but who, for the last five or six years, was one of the most entertaining and instructive companions that ever man was blest with: for his mind comprehended almost every science; he was a most attentive observer of life and manners; a master of classical learning; and he possessed an exuberance of wit and humour, a force of understanding, and a correctness and delicacy of taste, beyond any other person of his age I have ever known.
"He was taken ill in the night of the 30th of November, 1789; and from that time his decline commenced. It was long what physicians call a nervous atrophy; but towards the end of June, symptoms began to appear of the lungs being affected. Goats' milk, and afterwards asses' milk, were procured for him in abundance; and such exercise as he could bear, he regularly took: these means lengthened his days, no doubt, and alleviated his sufferings, which indeed were not often severe but, in spite of all that could be done, he grew weaker and weaker, and died the 19th of November, 1790. without complaint or pain, without even a groan or a sigh; retaining to the last moment the use of his rational faculties: indeed, from first to last, not one delirious word ever escaped him. He lived twenty-two years and thirteen days. Many weeks before it came, he saw death approaching, and he met it with such composure and pious resignation, as may no doubt be equalled, but cannot be surpassed.
"He has left many things in writing, serious and humorous, scientific and miscellaneous, prose and verse, Latin and English; but it will be a long time before I shall be able to harden my heart so far as to revise them."
In April of the following year, Beattie again travelled southwards, accompanied by Montagu, his second son, and only surviving child. They remained some weeks in Edinburgh, and then journeyed slowly to London, which, after a short stay, they quitted for the summer residence of Dr. Porteus, who was now elevated to the see of the metropolis. The tranquillity of Fulham Palace, and the kind attentions of its inhabitants, contributed greatly to amend the health and raise the spirits of our author; and he seems to have enjoyed the company of the distinguished persons with whom he had an opportunity of associating. "Last week," he writes to Sir William Forbes, 30th June, 1791, "I made a morning visit to Mr. Pitt. I had heard him spoken of as a grave and reserved man; but saw nothing of it. He gave me a very frank, and indeed affectionate reception; and was so cheerful, and in his conversation so easy, that I almost thought myself in the company rather of an old acquaintance, than of a great statesman. He was pleased to pay me some very obliging compliments, asked about my health, and how I meant to pass the summer; spoke of the Duchess of Gordon, the improvements of Edinburgh, and various other matters: and when I told him, I knew not what apology to make for intruding upon him, said, that no apology was necessary, for that he was very glad to see me, and desired to see me again." Before returning to Scotland, the travellers went to Bath, and from thence to Sandleford, the seat of Mrs. Montagu.
The second volume of the Elements of Moral Science appeared in 1793. During the same year, the sudden death of his favourite sister, Mrs. Valentine, increased the domestic sorrows of Beattie. His health was at this period so greatly impaired, that being unable to attend to his duties of Professor in the Marischal College, he engaged his old pupil, Mr. Glennie, as an assistant: occasionally, however, he continued to lecture to his class till the commencement of the winter session of 1797.
For some time past he had occupied himself in the melancholy yet pleasing task of editing a volume of the compositions of his eldest son. From a pardonable partiality for the writings of a beloved child, and from his not very accurate attainments in classical scholarship, he admitted into the collection several pieces, both English and Latin, which fall considerably below mediocrity. A few copies of the work were privately printed in 1794, under the title of Essays and Fragments in Prose and Verse, by James Hay Beattie, and were "offered as presents to those friends with whom the author was particularly acquainted, or connected." Though it undoubtedly shows that the deceased was a young man of uncommon quickness of talent, and the most indefatigable application, it exhibits nothing which has a claim to be considered as the offspring of genius. The most interesting portion of the volume is the biographical sketch prefixed to it by the afflicted father, a memoir of exquisite simplicity and pathos. The account given by Beattie of the method which he adopted in imparting to his son the first idea of a Supreme Being is too striking to be omitted here:
"The doctrines of religion I wished to impress on his mind, as soon as it might be prepared to receive them; but I did not see the propriety of making him commit to memory theological sentences, or any sentences, which it was not possible for him to understand. And I was desirous to make a trial how far his own reason could go in tracing out, with a little direction, the great and first principle of all religion, the being of GOD. The following fact is mentioned, not as a proof of superior sagacity in him (for I have no doubt that most children would in like circumstances think as he did), but merely as a moral or logical experiment. He had reached his fifth (or sixth) year, knew the alphabet, and could read a little; but had received no particular information with respect to the Author of his being: because I thought he could not yet understand such information; and because I had learned, from my own experience, that to be made to repeat words not understood, is extremely detrimental to the faculties of a young mind. In a corner of a little garden, without informing any person of the circumstance, I wrote in the mould, with my finger, the three initial letters of his name; and sowing garden-cresses in the furrows, covered up the seed, and smoothed the ground. Ten days after, he came running to me, and with astonishment in his countenance, told me that his name was growing in the garden. I smiled at the report, and seemed inclined to disregard it; but he insisted on my going to see what had happened. Yes, said I carelessly, on coming to the place, I see it is so; but there is nothing in this worth notice; it is mere chance: and I went away. He followed me, and, taking hold of my coat, said, with some earnestness, It could not be mere chance; for that somebody must have contrived matters so as to produce it. — I pretend not to give his words, or my own, for I have forgotten both; but I give the substance of what passed between us in such language as we both understood — So you think, I said, that what appears so regular as the letters of your name cannot be by chance. Yes, said he, with firmness, I think so. Look at yourself, I replied, and consider your hands and fingers, your legs and feet, and other limbs; are they not regular in their appearance, and useful to you? He said, they were. Came you then hi her, said I, by chance? No, he answered, that cannot be; something must have made me. And who is that something? I asked. He said he did not know. (I took particular notice, that he did not say, as Rousseau fancies a child in like circumstances would say, that his parents made him.) I had now gained the point I aimed at; and saw, that his reason taught him (though he could not so express it) that what begins to be must have a cause, and that what is formed with regularity must have an intelligent cause. I therefore told him the name of the Great Being who made him and all the world; concerning whose adorable nature I gave him such information as I thought he could in some measure comprehend. The lesson affected him greatly, and he never forgot either it, or the circumstance that introduced it."
After the less of this highly-gifted youth, the only tie which bound Beattie to the world was his second son, who, though far inferior to the deceased in learning, was endowed with no ordinary talents. Just as our author was anxiously forming plans for his future establishment in life, Montagu was unexpectedly carried off by a fever of only a few days continuance, in the eighteenth year of his age. Beattie thus communicates to Sir William Forbes the intelligence of his death:
"Aberdeen, 14th March, 1796.
"Our plans relating to Montagu are all at an end. I am sorry to give you the pain of being informed, that he died this morning at five. His disorder was a fever, from which at first we had little apprehension; but it cut him off in five days. He himself thought from the beginning that it would be fatal; and, before the delirium came on, spoke with great composure and Christian piety of his approaching dissolution: he even gave some directions about his funeral. The delirium was very violent, and continued till within a few minutes of his death, when he was heard to repeat in a whisper the Lord's prayer, and began an unfinished sentence, of which nothing could be heard but the words "incorruptible glory." Pious sentiments prevailed in his mind through life, and did not leave him till death; nor then I trust did they leave him. Notwithstanding the extreme violence of his fever, he seemed to suffer little pain either in body or in mind, and as his end drew near, a smile settled upon his countenance. I need not tell you that he had every attention that skilful and affectionate physicians could bestow. I give you the trouble to notify this event to Mr. Arbuthnot. I would have written to him, but have many things to mind, and but indifferent health. However, I heartily acquiesce in the dispensations of Providence, which are all good and wise. God bless you and your family.
"He will he much regretted; for wherever he went he was a very popular character."
Such an effect had this fresh calamity on the intellectual powers of Beattie, that a few days after Montagu's death, he experienced a temporary but almost utter loss of memory respecting him. Having searched every room in the house, he would say to his niece, Mrs. Glennie, "You may think it strange, but I must ask you if I have a son, and where he is?" she then felt herself under the painful necessity of calling to his recollection the sufferings of Montagu, the mention of which never failed to restore him to reason. Often with tears he would declare himself thankful that his children were in the grave, exclaiming, in allusion to their mother's malady, "How could I have borne to see their elegant minds mangled with madness?" On viewing the dead body of Montagu for the last time, he said, "I have now done with the world."
The following passages from two of his letters, written about this period, are deeply affecting. He tells the Rev. Dr. Laing, 10th April, 1796:
"I hope I am resigned, as my duty requires, and as I wish to be; but I have passed many a bitter hour, though on those occasions nobody sees me. I fear my reason is a little disordered, for I have sometimes thought of late, especially in a morning, that Montagu is not dead, though I seem to have a remembrance of a dream that he is. This you will say what I myself believe, is a symptom not uncommon in cases similar to mine, and that I ought by all means to go from home as soon as I can. I will do so when the weather becomes tolerable."
To Sir William Forbes he says, 17th of the same month:
"I have been these many days resolving to write to you and Mr. Arbuthnot, to thank you for your very kind and sympathetic letters, but various things have come in my way to prevent it. I need not pretend a hurry of business, for every body knows I am not capable of any. A deep gloom hangs upon me, and disables all my faculties; and thoughts so strange sometimes occur to me, as to make me 'fear that I am not,' as Lear says, 'in my perfect mind.' But I thank God I am entirely resigned to the Divine Will; and, though I am now childless, I have friends whose goodness to me, and other virtues, I find great comfort in recollecting. The physicians not only advise but intreat, and indeed command me, to go from home, and that without further delay: and I do seriously resolve to set out for Edinburgh to-morrow."
Though Beattie never from henceforth engaged in any kind of study, he still found some enjoyment in books, and still derived some pleasure from the society of a very few of his oldest friends. He almost entirely ceased to correspond even with those whom he most valued yet when he happened to receive a letter from any of them, his spirits were always excited for the rest of the day. Music, in which he had once delighted, had become disagreeable to him since the loss of his eldest son. A few months, however, before Montagu's death, he had occasionally played an accompaniment while Montagu sung: but now, when prevailed on to resume his favourite violincello, he was always dissatisfied with his own performance; "my fingers," he writes to the Rev. Dr. Laing, 5th June, 1798, "have not strength to press down the strings."
In this state he continued till the beginning of April, 1799, when he was struck with palsy, which for eight days rendered him nearly incapable of utterance. At different times the disease repeated its attacks, the last of which, on the 5th of October, 1802, deprived him entirely of the power of motion. On the morning of the 18th of August, 1803, he expired without a struggle, in the sixty-eighth year of his age.
His remains were laid, according to his own desire, beside those of his children, in the churchyard of St. Nicholas at Aberdeen; and a Latin inscription, from the pen of the late Dr. James Gregory, of Edinburgh, marks the spot of his interment.
In person he was of the middle size, of a broad, square make, which seemed to indicate a more robust constitution than he really possessed. In his gait there was something of a slouch. During his later years he grew corpulent and unwieldy; but a few months before his death his bulk was greatly diminished. His features were very regular; his complexion somewhat dark. His eyes were black, brilliant, full of a tender and melancholy expression, and, in the course of conversation with his friends, became extremely animated.
Though I am of opinion with Gilbert Wakefield, that the maxim "De mortuis nil nisi VERUM" is better than "De mortuis nil nisi BONUM," it is with pain that I touch on the reported failing of so truly good a man as Beattie. It has been asserted that towards the close of life he indulged to excess in the use of wine. In a letter to Mr. Arbuthnot he says, "With the present pressure upon my mind, I should not be able to sleep, if I did not use wine as an opiate; it is less hurtful than laudanum, but not so effectual." He may, perhaps, have had too frequent recourse to so palatable a medicine, in the hope of banishing for a while the recollection of his sorrows: and if, under any circumstances, such a fault is to be regarded as venial, it may be excused in one who was a more than widowed husband and a childless father.
The prose writings of Beattie appear of late years to have fallen into disrepute; and the once celebrated Essay on Truth is at present as much undervalued as it was formerly overrated.
His fame now rests upon The Minstrel alone. Since its first publication, many poems of a far loftier and more original character have been produced in England; yet still does it maintain its popularity; and still in Edwin, that happy personification of the poetic temperament, do young and enthusiastic readers delight to recognize a picture of themselves. Though we cannot fail to regret that Beattie should have left it incomplete, yet we do not long for the concluding books from any interest which we take in the story, such as is excited by some other unfinished works of genius, the tale of Cambuscan, for instance, or the legend of Christabel. In The Minstrel, indeed, there is but little invention: it is a poem of sentiment and description, conveying to us lessons of true philosophy in language of surpassing beauty, and displaying pictures of nature, in her romantic solitudes, painted by a master's hand. "On my once asking Dr. Beattie," says Sir William Forbes, "in what manner he had intended to employ his Minstrel, had he completed his original design of extending the poem to a third canto, he said, he proposed to have introduced a foreign enemy as invading his country, in consequence of which the Minstrel was to employ himself in rousing his countrymen to arms." But surely such a conclusion would have formed too violent a contrast to the repose of the earlier books; and the charm which attaches us to the meditative Edwin, while a wanderer among the lonely hills and groves, would have been broken, or at least weakened, by placing him amid the throng of warriors and the din of arms.
With the exception of The Hermit and the following exquisite stanza of Retirement, there is little worthy of particular notice in the minor poems of Beattie:
Thy shades, thy silence now be mine,
Thy charms my only theme;
My haunt the hollow cliff, whose pine
Waves o'er the gloomy stream:
Whence the scared owl on pinions gray
Breaks from the rustling boughs,
And down the lone vale sails away
To more profound repose.