1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Hume

Alexander Chalmers, in Life of Beattie; Works of the English Poets (1810) 18:529-30.



It may not be amiss in this place to take some notice of a slander which the friends, at least the injudicious ones, of Hume have been industrious to propagate, because, if true, it would have proved a littleness of mind of which none who knew Dr. Beattie could accuse him. It has been said that he submitted his juvenile poems to Mr. Hume, at that time considered as the arbiter of taste, who either returned them with severe censure, or spoke of them with contempt, and that this was the real motive which prompted Dr. Beattie to write the Essay on Truth. Such is the story; and whoever compares the provocation with the revenue, will not think it very probable. It is the part of malignity itself to search painfully for one bad motive where so many good ones are at hand. Nothing surely can be more false or absurd than this piece of slander. If Mr. Hume criticised Dr. Beattie's poetry with severity, which may be admitted, he certainly could not have been a more rigid censor than the author himself. Dr. Beattie, almost as soon as his volume of early poems was published, and while the praises of every friend and of many strangers were yet sounding in his ears, suppressed the farther publication, and endeavoured to recover the copies that had been circulated; and for many years refused all applications to reprint the few articles in our present volume, and that with the utmost pertinacity. The presumption therefore must be, either that he originally thought as slightingly of those poems as Mr. Hume, or that Mr. Hume had brought him over to his opinion. In either case there could be no such breach of friendship, and surely no such indignant recollection as to provoke the Essay on Truth. The fact will be acknowledged by all who had personal intimacy with Dr. Beattie, and they only can be the proper judges of his feelings, that it was not the severity of criticism that he at any time dreaded or avoided. In Gray, who was his intimate friend and correspondent, he found a critic whose opinions might have mortified the vanity of the least conceited of youthful poets. On one occasion, indeed, Gray placed the dangers of poetry before his eyes in such a striking light that he appeared willing to renounce the Muses altogether. Such was our author's diffidence in all his productions, that he ventured nothing without consulting his friends, and received very few proposals of correction in which he did not acquiesce. If with this humble and respectful disposition Mr. Hume insulted his feelings, or wished to discourage the early attempts of genius, although his conduct might not provoke the Essay on Truth, it forms apart of his character on which his friends ought to be silent, unless they can explain it in a more satisfactory manner.