1787 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

Frances Burney, 1787; Diary and Letters of the Author of Madam D'Arblay, ed. Austin Dobson (1904-05) 3:280-86.



I kept my appointment with Dr. Beattie, and was much gratified by so doing. I found him pleasant, unaffected, unassuming, and full of conversible intelligence; with a round, thick, clunch figure, that promises nothing either of his works or his discourse; yet his eye, at intervals, and when something breaks from him pointed and sudden, shoots forth a ray of genius that instantly lights up his whole countenance. His voice and his manners are particularly and pleasingly mild, and seem to announce an urbanity of character both inviting and edifying.

My very high admiration of his two principal productions, the Minstrel and the Immutability of Truth, made it a real satisfaction to me to see their author; and finding him such as I have described, I felt a desire to be acquainted with him that made me regret my little likelihood of meeting with him again. His present errand to Windsor was to see Mrs. Delany.

The Immutability of Truth is full of religious instruction, conveyed with such a rare mixture of precision and of wit as to carry amusement hand in hand with conviction: at least such it appeared to me when I read it, at the desire of Mrs. Chapone, who lent it me. Yet the opening, I remember, was so obscure and metaphysical, that I had nearly abandoned the book, in despair of comprehending it: Mrs. Chapone would not suffer me to give it up, and I have felt much obliged ever since to her persevering exhortations.

Once before, when I lived in the world, I had met with Dr. Beattie, but he then spoke very little, the company being large; and for myself, I spoke not at all. Our personal knowledge of each other therefore sunk not very deep. It was at the house of Miss Reynolds. My ever-honoured Dr. Johnson was there, and my poor Mrs. Thrale, her daughter, Mrs. Ord, Mrs. Horneck, Mrs. Gywnn, the Bishop of Dromore, and Mrs. Percy, and Mr. Boswell, and Mr. Seward, with some others.

Many things do I recollect of that evening, particularly one laughable circumstance. I was coming away at night, without having been seen by Dr. Johnson, but knowing he would reproach me afterwards, I begged my father to tell him I wished him good-night. He instantly called me up to him, took both my hands, which he extended as far asunder as they would go, and just as I was unfortunately curtseying to be gone, he let them loose and dropped both his own on the two sides of my hoop, with so ponderous a weight, that I could not for some time rise from the inclined posture into which I had put myself, and in which, though quite unconscious of what he was about, he seemed forcibly holding me.

I liked my little encounter so well, that the next day I not only repeated it, but as Dr. Beattie was so kind as to give up an appointment for the next day, that the same little party might again take place, I made my customary preparations, and went for the whole evening instead of my ordinary hour.

He was very pleasant, and in better spirits than the preceding day. He was gayer, as I found afterwards, with me, as a stranger, than with any of his old acquaintances, for his mind was sad and wounded by domestic misfortunes.

Mrs. Delany, in the course of the evening, was called out of the room: he then, in a low voice, and looking another way, very gently said — "I must now, ma'am, seize an opportunity for which I have long wished, to tell you of the equal amazement and pleasure I have received from you."

And then, without further preamble, he entered upon the old subject, and uttered such flattering things as were now, from a person such as him, become almost new to my ears, and I was really ready to run away.

When my dear Mrs. Delany returned, he was so kind and so delicate as to suffer her to change the subject, which she, with her never-failing indulgence to my every inclination, immediately attempted.

She asked him if there were any hopes of anything new from him. No, he said, he had been otherwise employed. I then ventured a wish for a conclusion to the Minstrel. He owned he had written another book, but that he had disapproved and burned it.

"Oh!" I exclaimed in parody from his Edwin, "then may we say of Dr. Beattie — 'Some thought him wondrous odd; and some believed him mad!'" He laughed heartily, and said to Mrs. Delany, "Miss Burney, ma'am, vanquishes me with my own weapons!" And then we went on to other subjects, till I was forced to decamp.

In coming away he told me he heard that Lady Pembroke was at the Queen's Lodge, and asked me to give him directions how he might see her. I offered to convey a note to her, for I could venture at nothing further; but I added, that when she had made her appointment, if he would call at my door I should think myself much honoured, though I could not have had the courage to solicit his coming to the house purposely to see me.

"Not purposely!" cried he, with the utmost good-humour and vivacity, "why, I would go to the Land's End!"

He then positively and undeniably insisted I should name my own time for seeing him, without any reference to Lady Pembroke, or any other lady, or any other thing whatsoever. I thanked him, and accepting his kindness, mentioned three o'clock for the next day.

I determined to acquaint the Queen with my assignation, but felt so certain of her indisputable approbation, that I could not be uneasy at not speaking to her first.

I like Dr. Beattie extremely. I am quite happy he made this visit. My dearest Mrs. Delany told me he had been formerly amongst the first of men in his social powers; but family calamities had greatly altered him. I was truly sorry to hear his sad fate, but as I had not known him in his happier days, I found him now all I could wish him.

Mrs. Delany, according to an almost general custom, came for me the next morning early, in her chaise, to air with her. She was met by the King, who rode up to her, and asked whither she was going. "Only to spend one quarter of an hour with Miss Burney, sir," was her answer. "But you may keep her two hours," cried he, "this morning — or as long as you will." And then he rode up to the Queen's carriage, and having spoken to her, returned again to Mrs. Delany, with a confirmation of the permission. They were going to Kew.

We made use of the licence, by driving to Mr. Bryant, at Cypenham. We found him in his garden, encompassed with his numerous family of dogs. His fondness for these good animals is quite diverting: he makes them his chief companions, and speaks to them as if they were upon terms of equality with him. He says they regularly breakfast with him, and he then gives them his principal lesson how to behave themselves.

After all, where is the philosopher wise enough to be all-sufficient to himself? A man had better arrange himself with a family of human beings, after the common mode, at once.

It was extremely amusing to see his anxiety that his children should not disgrace themselves. My dear Susan is not more solicitous for her Fanny and Nordia. "Come, now, be good! Be good, my little fellows! — don't be troublesome! Don't jump up on Mrs. Delany! Miss Burney, I'm afraid they are in your way. Come, my little fellows, keep back! — pray do. There! — there's good dogs! — keep back!" And then, when they persevered in surrounding Mrs. Delany — too kind and too easy to mind them — he addressed them quite with pathos: "My sweet dogs! — oh, my sweet dogs! — don't! — don't! — my sweet dogs!"

Well! — we are all born to have some recreation, and I should certainly do the same, had I nothing else alive about me.

We returned in very good time, and I was just dressed as Dr. Beattie arrived. I had taken all proper measures, and therefore received him very comfortably.

He was very cheerful and very charming. He seems made up of gentleness and benevolence, yet with a disposition to decent mirth, and an enjoyment of humour and sport, that give an animation to his wildness truly engaging. You would be surprised to find how soon you would forget that he is ugly and clumsy, for there is a sort of perfect good-will in his countenance and his smile, that is quite captivating.

I told him of my visit to Mr. Bryant and his dogs. He laughed very heartily, but outdid my account by another-of a gentleman who always partook a mess of hasty pudding with a favourite hound, which was the breakfast of both. "And when," said he, "the dog happened to infringe on his share, he only gave him a knock on the nose, to set him right, and then ate quietly on with him!"

This introduced many other little "contes a rire," which chiefly occupied the time he had to bestow upon me, or rather the time I had to solicit his stay, for he went not till that was over.

I longed to have spoken of his Immutability of Truth, which I truly think a glorious work, but I had not courage. I feared it might look like a return of compliment, which I could not bear. For, to be sure, I had it to return! I have heard nothing like what fell from him since under this roof I came; and I will not refrain, as his good opinion was equally gratifying and surprising to me, telling you what he most dwelt upon. "What, most," cried he, "has struck me, is all that concerns a species of distress the most common in life, yet most neglected in representation — that of people of high cultivation and elegance forced to associate with those of gross and inferior capacities and manners. 'Tis a most just and most feeling distress; yet you, as you have stated, have it now."

Whether he meant Evelina with the Branghtons, or Henrietta with her mother and Mr. Hobson, I know not. Will you say, Why could not you ask?

I saw no more of him, to my great regret. He left Windsor the next day.