1805 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

Samuel Egerton Brydges, in Censura Literaria 1 (1805) 58-59, 384-85.



It seems a matter of deep regret, that Beattie neglected the exercise of that genius, with which Nature had so richly endowed him, for philosophical enquiries to which his powers were less adapted. Yet it adds to the glory of the Muses, that the most subtle and dangerous of modern philosophers should have been completely vanquished on his own ground by a poet! The Essay on Truth however raised a host of enemies against the bard; for he struck at the root of that species of literary merit, to which a large portion of his own countrymen had been lately addicted. Dull, and useless, if not dangerous, metaphysics, and a silly spirit of philosophizing on every occasion, had nearly infected the whole nation; and instead of the effusions of genius, and those moral discussions, which "come home to men's business and bosoms," had turned the general attention to abstruse and deceitful theories, which ended in scepticism, depressed the vigorous productions of natural talent, and fostered the offensive and overbearing conceit of heavy, plodding, and half-witted coxcombs. Yet let me not be understood to mean any reflection on the genius of Scotland, which, in the rarest department of intellectual excellence, produced in the same century, Thomson, and Beattie, and Burns! . . .

When Beattie gave up his ambition to metaphysical philosophy, he ceased to be a poet. The lyre of Edwin, which had breathed all the soul of poetry in his first canto, began to flag and grow dull in the second; and then lost its tones, and never vibrated for the last thirty years of the owner's life. I certainly am too prejudiced to give a candid opinion; but I would have preferred a few more stanzas, in the style of the first, from the Minstrel's harp, to all the bulky volumes of prose that Beattie wrote.