1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

Francis Jeffrey, in Review of Forbes's Beattie; Edinburgh Review 10 (April 1807) 197-99.



Mr. Hume's theory of morals, which, when rightly understood, we conceive to be both salutary and true, certainly has no connexion with his doctrine of ideas and impressions; and the great question of liberty and necessity, which Dr. Beattie has settled, by mistaking, throughout, the power of doing what we will, for the power of willing without motives, evidently depends upon considerations altogether separate from the nature and immutability of truth. It has always appeared to us, indeed, that too much importance has been attached to theories of morals, and to speculations on the sources of approbation. Our feelings of approbation and disapprobation, and the moral distinctions which are raised upon them, are facts which no theory can alter, although it may fail to explain. While these facts remain, they must regulate the conduct, and affect the happiness of mankind, whether they are well or ill accounted for by the theories of philosophers. It is the same nearly with regard to the controversy about cause and effect. It does not appear to us that Mr. Hume ever meant to deny the existence of such a relation, or of the relative idea of power. He has merely given a new theory as to its genealogy or descent; and detected some very gross inaccuracies in the opinions and reasonings which were formerly prevalent on that subject.

If Dr. Beattie had been able to refute these doctrines, we cannot help thinking that he would have done it with more temper and moderation; and disdained to court popularity by so much fulsome cant about common sense; virtue and religion, and his contempt and abhorrence for infidels, sophists, and metaphysicians; by such babyish interjections, as "fy on it! fy on it!" — such triumphant exclamations, as, "say, ye candid and intelligent!" — or such terrific addresses, as, "ye traitors to human kind! ye murderers of the human soul!" — "vain hypocrites! perfidious profligates!" and a variety of other embellishments, as dignified as original in a philosophical and argumentative treatise. The truth is, that the Essay acquired its popularity, partly from the indifference and dislike which has long prevailed in England, as to metaphysical inquiries; partly from the perpetual appeal which it affects to make from philosophical subtlety to common sense; and partly from the accidental circumstances of the author. It was a great matter for the orthodox scholars of the south, who knew little of metaphysics themselves, to get a Scotch professor of philosophy to take up the gauntlet in their behalf. The contempt with which he chose to speak of his antagonists was the very tone which they wished to be adopted and, some of them, imposed on by the confidence of his manner, and some resolved to give it all chances of imposing on others, they joined in one clamour of approbation, and proclaimed a triumph for a mere rash skirmisher, while the leader of the battle was still doubtful of the victory. The book, thus dandled into popularity by bishops and good ladies, contained many pieces of nursery eloquence, and much innocent pleasantry: it was not fatiguing to the understanding; and read less heavily, on the whole, than most of the Sunday library. In consequence of all these recommendations, it ran through various editions, and found its way into most well regulated families; and, though made up of such stuff as we really believe no grown man who had ever thought of the subject could possibly go through without nausea and compassion, still retains its place among the meritorious performances, by which youthful minds are to be purified and invigorated. We shall hear no more of it, however, among those who have left college.

We turn with pleasure from Dr. Beattie's philosophy to his poetry; though this is by no means of he highest order. There is a degree of tenderness and solemnity in some passages of the Minstrel, that recommend it irresistibly to all good minds; and some specimens of large and animated description, which belong to the higher order of poetry: but there is, in general, an air of feebleness and constraint, both in the diction and conception, that continually destroys the illusion of inspiration, and, instead of the fine enchantments of fancy, shows us the laborious artist, with all his scholastic tools about him, exhausting himself in vain efforts of imitation. There is throughout a miserable barrenness of invention, much disjointed and misplaced composition, and innumerable patches of silliness, pedantry, and vulgarity. His other poems are scarcely deserving of notice. The Battle of the Pigmies and Cranes is by far the best versified; and shows a freer use of poetical language than any of his other compositions. The Hermit is also very smooth and mellifluous; the odes and elegies are laborious reading; and the pieces in which he has aimed at pleasantry, are beyond all endurance abominable. The later editions of his poems are improved by the omission of much trash; but a reader of any nerves must still look with horror on a volume, which may assail him on its opening with such verses as these.

A Spaniard reach'd the moon, upborne by geese;
(Then first 'twas known that she was made of cheese.)
A fiddler, on a fish, thro' waves advanc'd;
He twang'd his catgut, and the dolphin danc'd.
Hags ride on broomsticks; — heathen gods on clouds:
Ladies, on rams and bulls, have dar'd the floods.
Much fam'd the shoe Jack Giant-killer wore;
And Fortunatus' hat is fam'd much more.
Such vehicles were common ones no doubt;
But modern versemen must e'en trudge on foot.

It is as a writer of essays, critical and philosophical, that we think Dr. Beattie most uniformly excellent. There is much acuteness, neatness, and delicacy in many of these performances. They are written in a very pleasing and popular style; generally elegant, and always perspicuous and flowing. His judgment of authors is commonly correct and candid; his illustrations lively and amusing; and his praises bestowed with considerable elegance and felicity of expression. There is much more originality in those works, than in any of his other productions; and though occasionally feeble and affected, they entitle him, we think, to the praise of the most pleasing and ingenious writer on the Belles Lettres of his day. By an extraordinary fatality, they are less heard of than any of his other writings; and his reputation is commonly rested, we must think very injudiciously, upon performances, which must ultimately take their station in the third and fourth ranks of literary excellence.