James Beattie

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:103-05.

JAMES BEATTIE was the son of a small farmer and shopkeeper at Laurencekirk, county of Kincardine, where he was born October 25, 1735. His father died while he was a child, but an elder brother, seeing signs of talent in the boy, assisted him in procuring a good education; and in his fourteenth year he obtained a bursary or exhibition (always indicating some proficiency in Latin) in Marischal college, Aberdeen. His habits and views were scholastic, and four years afterwards, Beattie was appointed schoolmaster of the parish of Fordoun. He was now situated amidst interesting and romantic scenery, which increased his passion for nature and poetry. The scenes which he afterwards delineated in his "Minstrel" were (as Mr. Southey has justly remarked) those in which he had grown up, and the feelings and aspirations therein expressed, were those of his own boyhood and youth. He became a poet at Fordoun; and, strange to say, his poetry, poor as it was, procured his appointment as usher of Aberdeen grammar school, and subsequently that of professor of natural philosophy in Marischal college. This distinction he obtained in his twenty-fifth year. At the same time, he published in London a collection of his poems, with some translations. One piece, "Retirement," displays poetical feeling and taste; but the collection, as a whole, gave little indication of "The Minstrel." The poems, without the translations, were reprinted in 1766, and a copy of verses on the Death of Churchill were added. The latter are mean and reprehensible in spirit, as Churchill had expiated his early follies by an untimely death. Beattie was a sincere lover of truth and virtue, but his ardour led him at times into intolerance, and he was too fond of courting the notice and approbation of the great. In 1770 the poet appeared as a metaphysician, by his "Essay on Truth," in which good principles were advanced, though with an unphilosophical spirit, and in language which suffered greatly from comparison with that of his illustrious opponent, David Hume. Next year Beattie appeared in his true character as a poet. The first part of "The Minstrel" was published, and was received with universal approbation. Honours flowed in on the fortunate author. He visited London, and was admitted to all its brilliant and distinguished circles. Goldsmith, Johnson, Garrick, and Reynolds, were numbered among his friends. On a second visit in 1773, he had an interview with the king and queen, which resulted in a pension of £200 per annum. The university of Oxford conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. and Reynolds painted his portrait in an allegorical picture, in which Beattie was seen by the side of an angel pushing down Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly! Need we wonder that poor Goldsmith was envious of his brother poet? To the honour of Beattie, it must be recorded, that he declined entering the church of England, in which preferment was promised him, and no doubt would have been readily granted. The second part of the "Minstrel" was published in 1774. Domestic circumstances marred the felicity of Beattie's otherwise happy and prosperous lot. His wife (the daughter of Dr Dun, Aberdeen) became insane, and was obliged to be confined in an asylum. He had two sons, both amiable and accomplished youths. The eldest lived till he was twenty-two, and was associated with his father in the professorship: he died in 1790, and the afflicted parent soothed his grief by writing his life, and publishing some specimens of his composition in prose and verse. The second son died in 1796, aged eighteen; and the only consolation of the now lonely poet was, that he could not have borne to see their "elegant minds mangled with madness" — an allusion to the hereditary insanity of their mother. By nature, Beattie was a man of quick and tender sensibilities. A fine landscape or music (in which he was a proficient), affected him even to tears. He had a sort of hysterical dread of meeting with his metaphysical opponents, which was an unmanly weakness. When he saw Garrick perform Macbeth, he had almost thrown himself, from nervous excitement, over the front of the two-shilling gallery; and he seriously contended for the grotesque mixture of tragedy and comedy in Shakspeare, as introduced by the great dramatist to save the auditors from "a disordered head or a broken heart!" This is "parmaceti for an inward bruise" with a vengeance! He had, among his other idiosyncrasies, a morbid aversion to that cheerful household and rural sound — the crowing of a cock; and in his "Minstrel," he anathematises "fell chanticleer" with burlesque fury—

O to thy cursed scream, discordant still,
Let harmony aye shut her gentle ear:
Thy boastful mirth let jealous rivals spill,
Insult thy crest, and glossy pinions tear,
And ever in thy dreams the ruthless fox appear.

Such an organisation, physical and moral, was ill fitted to insure happiness or fortitude in adversity. When his second son died, he said he had done with the world. He ceased to correspond with his friends, or to continue his studies. Shattered by a long train of nervous complaints, in April 1799 the poet had a stroke of palsy, and after different returns of the same malady, which excluded him from all society, he died on the 18th of August 1803.

In the early training of his eldest and beloved son, Dr. Beattie adopted an expedient of a romantic and interesting description. His object was to give him the first idea of a Supreme Being; and his method, as Dr. Porteous, bishop of London, remarked, "had all the imagination of Rousseau, without his folly and extravagance."

"He had," says Beattie, "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 use 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 hither,' 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 deeply, and he never forgot either it or the circumstance that introduced it."

"The Minstrel," on which Beattie's fame now rests, is a didactic poem, in the Spenserian stanza, designed to "trace the progress of a poetical genius, born in a rude age, from the first dawning of fancy and reason till that period at which he may be supposed capable of appearing in the world as a minstrel." The idea was suggested by Percy's preliminary Dissertation to his Reliques — one other benefit which that collection has conferred upon the lovers of poetry. The character of Edwin, the minstrel (in which Beattie embodied his own early feelings and poetical aspirations), is very finely drawn. The romantic seclusion of his youth, and his ardour for knowledge, find a response in all young and generous minds; while the calm philosophy and reflection of the poet., interest the more mature and experienced reader. The poem was left unfinished, and this is scarcely to be regretted. Beattie had not strength of pinion to keep long on the wing in the same lofty region; and Edwin would have contracted some earthly taint in his descent. Gray thought there was too much description in the first part of the "Minstrel," but who would exchange it for the philosophy of the second part? The poet intended to have carried his hero into a life of variety and action, but he certainly would not have succeeded. As it is, when he finds it necessary to continue Edwin beyond the "flowery path" of childhood, and to explore the shades of life, he calls in the aid of a hermit, who schools the young enthusiast on virtue, knowledge, and the dignity of man. The appearance of this sage is happily described—

At early dawn the youth his journey took,
And many a mountain passed and valley wide,
Then reached the wild where, in a flowery nook,
And seated on a mossy stone, he spied
An ancient man; his harp lay him beside.
A stag sprung from the pasture at his call,
And, kneeling, licked the withered hand that tied
A wreath of woodbine round his antlers tall,
And hung his lofty neck with many a floweret small.