1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Beattie

Anonymous, "On the Genius and Writings of James Beattie" European Magazine 86 (August 1824) 107-12.



It is difficult to determine whether Dr. Beattie belong to the classical or romantic school of poetry? He is too romantic for the former, too classical for the latter, taking these terms in their present acceptation. But in sooth, Dr. Beattie was a truly classical writer, for a romantic writer means neither more nor less than a writer who has something fantastic or whimsical in his style. It is a perfect abuse of terms to call a writer on romantic subjects a romantic writer, because romantic subjects may be treated classically, and have frequently become the theme of acknowledged classical poets. The term classical applies only to the style of a writer, the term romantic to his subject; or if applied to style, it either means, as we have already observed, a whimsical, fanciful, and consequently, ridiculous style, or it means nothing. In Beattie the language is always purely classical, the subject generally romantic — so that he is properly a classical poet on romantic subjects. He possessed a quick, lively, creative, and luxuriant imagination, but in his language he followed the purest and chastest models. He had none of those studied irregularities, those discords and falsettos, those tricks and shiftings, so much in vogue, or rather, so much in practice, at present — we must not therefore call him a romantic writer, because his genius inclined him to romantic subjects. Does he then, it will be asked, belong to the classical school of Pope? We reply he does, unless it be maintained that there is only one description of subjects that can be termed classical. Butler is a classical poet, though his subject and manner differs more from Pope, than Pope does from Beattie. The subject neither determines a poem to be classical or otherwise; for if it does, pray what is that subject which alone is classical? This is a poser — at least we think so; and in saying we think so, we should rather say, we are certain of it; for we challenge all the writers and critics on classical and romantic poetry, to point out a subject, to which alone the term classical can be applied. Who differ more in their style and manner than Virgil and Horace? Yet were they not both classical writers? Classical then applies neither to the ludicrous the satyrical, the epic, the romantic, the lyric, the sublime, or any other species of subject. It applies to the language alone, not to the subject. Whatever is elegantly and correctly written is classical, be the subject what it may. Beattie, therefore, differs from Pope, not in kind, but in degree. Both are classical, but the one is more classical than the other. In the character of their minds, however, and consequently, in the character of their subjects, they were totally opposite. Beattie delighted in the romantic and imaginative alone. He loved the softer and more retiring features of nature. In his opinion, poetry consisted in imagination alone; his minstrel has nothing of passion, nothing of ardour, energy, or heroic enthusiasm about him. He lives and feeds upon fancy — he is fonder of fairies and of elfish forms, than of the daughter of men. His feelings are exquisitely fine and delicate, but they rest not for a moment. Their very tenuity keeps them, like the winds of heaven, in eternal motion. They cannot endure to dwell long upon one object, or rather, to be long affected by its influence. A slight emotion immediately passes away to make room for another, but the strong emotion resists the influence of every new impression, and has therefore, more of solidity, intensity, and fixedness about it. Of this intensity the minstrel has not a particle. He is the light and airy creature of fancy blessed or cursed, as we may happen to deem it, with a mind too restless to stop quiet for a moment, for

Oft he traced the uplands, to survey,
When o'er the sky advanced the kindling dawn,
The crimson cloud, blue main, and mountain grey,
And lake, dim-gleaming on the smoky lawn;
Far to the west the long long vale withdrawn,
Where twilight loves to linger for a while;
And now he faintly kens the bounding fawn,
And villager abroad at early toil.—
But, lo! the sun appears! and heaven, earth, ocean, smile.

And oft the craggy cliff he loved to climb,
When all in mist the world below was lost.
What dreadful pleasure! there to stand sublime,
Like shipwreck'd mariner on desert coast,
And view th' enormous waste of vapour, tost
In billows, lengthening to th' horizon round,
Now scoop'd in gulfs, with mountains now emboss'd!
And hear the voice of mirth and song rebound,
Flocks, herds, and waterfalls, along the hoar profound!

In truth he was a strange and wayward wight,
Fond of each gentle, and each dreadful scene.
In darkness, and in storm, he found delight:
Nor less, than when on ocean-wave serene
The southern sun diffused his dazzling shene.
Even sad vicissitude amused his soul:
And if a sigh would sometimes intervene,
And down his cheek a tear of pity roll,
A sigh, a tear, so sweet, he wish'd not to control.

These stanzas are eminently beautiful, but they do not prove the minstrel a poet of the first character. Too much of imagination cannot dwell with the pathetic, and can therefore never rise to the highest order of poetry; for the pathetic dwells upon one object, and will not suffer us to alienate its affections; but fancy is always on the wing, always shifting from one scene to another. It has no fixed object — all nature is before it, and it delights to revel amidst its infinite luxuriance.

In describing the minstrel, Beattie has described his own mind, and the character of his poetical genius. He excels in his way, that is, he excels in pure fancy, but he wants strength, nerve, energy, ardour, passion, fire, and enthusiasm. Perhaps no poets can be more nearly allied than he and Warton. To excel in fancy, however, is to excel in the lighter department of poetry. It is not fancy that has rendered Homer immortal — it was a passion rising to the highest degree of intensity — a species of mental madness. But who would wish Dr. Beattie to have written otherwise than he did? Had he attempted the pathetic he would never have excelled. In what he has attempted who can be happier? Nature herself is not uniform in her works — and why should man? Were all poets of the same order — were all poets equal to Homer and Virgil, neither Homer or Virgil would be esteemed as much as they are: and even those who equalled them would fall into equal oblivion. It is then happily ordained by nature, that different poets should possess different talent?

It is this diversity of talent that renders men of a different genius so agreeable to us, that we are at some loss which most to admire. If every hill were like another — if plain resembled plain — and valley, valley, — if all objects of the same species were exactly of the same cast and character, they would all become insipid. The genius of Beattie then consists in dwelling on the softer and milder objects and attributes of nature — and in this he excels. What can be more delightful? What can bring before us more fantastic, more romantic, more pleasing, more enchanting scenes, than is described in the following stanzas.

See, in the rear of the warm sunny shower,
The visionary boy from shelter fly!
For now the storm of summer-rain is o'er,
And cool, and fresh, and fragrant, is the sky.
And, lo! in the dark east, expanded high,
The rainbow brightens to the setting sun!
Fond fool, that deem'st the streaming glory nigh,
How vain the chace thine ardour has begun!
'Tis fled afar, ere half thy purposed race be run.

Yet couldst thou learn, that thus it fares with age,
When pleasure, wealth, or power, the bosom warm,
This baffled hope might tame thy manhood's rage,
And Disappointment of her sting disarm.
But why should foresight thy fond heart alarm?
Perish the lore that deadens young desire!
Pursue, poor imp, th' imaginary charm,
Indulge gay Hope, and Fancy's pleasing fire:
Fancy and Hope too soon shall of themselves expire.

When the long-sounding curfew from afar
Loaded with loud lament the lonely gale,
Young Edwin, lighted by the evening star,
Lingering and listening, wander'd down the vale.
There would he dream of graves, and corses pale;
And ghosts, that to the charnel-dungeon throng,
And drag a length of clanking chain, and wail,
Till silenced by the owl's terrific song,
Or blast that shrieks by fits the shuddering isles along.

Or, when the setting moon, in crimson dyed,
Hung o'er the dark and melancholy deep,
To haunted stream, remote from man, he hied,
Where Fays of yore their revels wont to keep;
And there let Fancy roam at large, till sleep
A vision brought to his intranced sight.
And first, a wildly-murmuring wind 'gan creep
Shrill to his ringing ear; then tapers bright,
With instantaneous gleam, illumed the vault of Night.

Anon in view a portal's blazon'd arch
Arose; the trumpet bids the valves unfold
And forth an host of little warriors march,
Grasping the diamond lance, and targe of gold.
Their look was gentle, their demeanour bold,
And green their helms, and green their silk attire;
And here and there, right venerably old,
The long-robed minstrels wake the warbling wire,
And some with mellow breath the martial pipe inspire.

With merriment, and song, and timbrels clear,
A troop of dames from myrtle bowers advance;
The little warriors doff the targe and spear,
And loud enlivening strains provoke the dance.
They meet, they dart away, they wheel askance;
To right, to left, they thrid the flying maze;
Now bound aloft with vigorous spring, then glance
Rapid along: with many-colour'd rays
Of tapers, gems, and gold, the echoing forests blaze.

The dream is fled. Proud harbinger of day,
Who scaredst the vision with thy clarion shrill,
Fell chanticleer! who oft hast reft away
My fancied good, and brought substantial ill!
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.

Forbear, my Muse. Let Love attune thy line.
Revoke the spell. Thine Edwin frets not so.
For how should he at wicked chance repine,
Who feels from every change amusement flow?
Even now his eyes with smiles of rapture glow,
As on he wanders through the scenes of morn,
Where the fresh flowers in living lustre blow,
Where thousand pearls the dewy lawns adorn,
A thousand notes of joy in every breeze are born.

But who the melodies of morn can tell?
The wild brook babbling down the mountain-side;
The lowing herd; the sheepfold's simple bell;
The pipe of early shepherd dim descried
In the lone valley; echoing far and wide
The clamorous horn along the cliffs above;
The hollow murmur of the ocean-tide;
The hum of bees, and linnet's lay of love,
And the full choir that wakes the universal grove,

The cottage-curs at early pilgrim bark;
Crown'd with her pail the tripping milkmaid sings;
The whistling plowman stalks afield; and, hark!
Down the rough slope the ponderous waggon rings;
Through rustling corn the hare astonish'd springs;
Slow tolls the village-clock the drowsy hour;
The partridge bursts away on whirring wings;
Deep mourns the turtle in sequester'd bower,
And shrill lark carols clear from her aereal tour.

Of all poets, Beattie excels in the natural romantic. We cannot discover in all his works, a single trace of of modern idealisms, or far-fetched images. He seeks not to wander beyond the neighbouring field to discover all he wants to discover, and yet in this little spot, he finds more ample subject for his muse, than other poets can, after traversing the universe, admitting that term to embrace the real and ideal world. In the minstrel there is not an image, a scene, a portrait, a simile, a feature, that is not taken from real life, but what poet has ever stolen from the ideal world sweeter images, softer scenes, more faithful portraits, happier similes, or more expressive features. Perhaps Beattie was the only poet who discovered the secret of being always romantic, and yet always natural. What can be more romantic than the scenes described in the following stanzas, and yet what more simple and natural.

And now the downy cheek and deepen'd voice
Gave dignity to Edwin's blooming prime;
And walks of wider circuit were his choice;
And vales more wild, and mountains more sublime.
One evening, as he framed the careless rhyme,
It was his chance to wander far abroad,
And o'er a lonely eminence to climb,
Which heretofore his foot had never trode;
A vale appear'd below, a deep retired abode.

Thither he hied, enamour'd of the scene:
For rocks on rocks piled, as by a magic spell,
Here scorch'd with lightning, there with ivy green,
Fenced from the north and east this savage dell;
Southward a mountain rose with easy swell,
Whose long long groves eternal murmur made;
And toward the western sun a streamlet fell,
Where, through the cliffs, the eye, remote, survey'd
Blue hills, and glittering waves, and skies in gold array'd.

Along this narrow valley you might see
The wild deer sporting on the meadow ground,
And, here and there, a solitary tree,
Or mossy stone, or rock with woodbine crown'd,
Oft did the cliffs reverberate the sound
Of parted fragments tumbling from on high;
And from the summit of that craggy mound
The perching eagle oft was heard to cry,
Or on resounding wings to shoot athwart the sky.

One cultivated spot there was, that spread
Its flowery bosom to the noonday beam,
Where many a rose-bud rears its blushing head,
And herbs for food with future plenty teem.
Sooth'd by the lulling sound of grove and stream
Romantick visions swarm on Edwin's soul:
He minded not the sun's last trembling gleam,
Nor heard from far the twilight curfew toll;—
When slowly an his ear these moving accents stole.

Some poets have imagined that all poetic excellence consists in obscurity, or rather, that the highest order of poetry consists in the sublime, and the sublime in obscurity. Beattie thought otherwise — and Beattie was right. He places his scenes and images so distinctly before us, that we cannot help imagining ourselves actual spectators. Who does not think himself wandering with the minstrel and enjoying the surrounding scene, when he reads the following stanza—

He said, and turn'd away; nor did the Sage
O'erhear, in silent orisons employ'd.
The youth, his rising sorrow to assuage,
Home as he hied, the evening scene enjoy'd:
For now no cloud obscures the starry void;
The yellow moonlight sleeps on all the hills;
Nor is the mind with starting sounds annoy'd,
A soothing murmur the lone region fills
Of groves, and dying gales, and melancholy rills.

Beattie was more the votary of fancy than the creature of feeling, but yet his good sense taught him that fancy ought to be subjected to reason, and that when left totally to itself, it serves only to bewilder and mislead. Of this we have a beautiful instance in the conversation that takes place between the minstrel and the hermit. The minstrel speaks first.

"This praise, O Cheronean Sage, is thine.
(Why should this praise to thee alone belong!)
All else from Nature's moral path decline,
Lured by the toys that captivate the throng;
To herd in cabinets and camps, among
Spoil, carnage, and the cruel pomp of pride;
Or chaunt of heraldry the drowsy song,
How tyrant blood, o'er many a region wide,
Rolls to a thousand thrones its execrable tide.

"O who of man the story will unfold,
Ere victory and empire wrought annoy,
In that elysian age (misnamed of gold)
The age of love, and innocence, and joy,
When all were great and free! man's sole employ
To deck the bosom of his parent earth;
Or toward his bower the murmuring stream decoy,
To aid the floweret's long-expected birth,
And lull the bed of peace, and crown the board of mirth.

"Sweet were your shades, O ye primeval grove,
Whose boughs to man his food and shelter lent,
Pure in his pleasures, happy in his loves,
His eye still smiling and his heart content.
Then, hand in hand, Health, Sport, and Labour went.
Nature supply'd the wish she taught to crave.
None prowl'd for prey, none watch'd to circumvent.
To all an equal lot heaven's bounty gave:
No vassal fear'd his lord, no tyrant fear'd his slave.

"But ah! th' Historic Muse has never dared
To pierce those hallow'd bowers: 'tis Fancy's beam
Pour'd on the vision of th' enraptured Bard,
That paints the charms of that delicious theme.
Then hail sweet Fancy's ray! and hail the dream
That weans the weary soul from guilt and woe!
Careless what others of my choice may deem,
I long where Love and Fancy lead to go,
And meditate on heaven; enough of earth I know."

"I cannot blame thy choice (the Sage replied)
For soft and smooth are fancy's flowery ways.
And yet even there, if left without a guide,
The young adventurer unsafely plays.
Eyes dazzled long by Fiction's gaudy rays
In modest Truth no light nor beauty find.
And who, my child, would trust the meteor-blaze,
That soon must fail, and leave the wanderer blind,
More dark and helpless far, than if it ne'er had shined?

"Fancy enervates, while it sooths, the heart,
And, while it dazzles, wounds the mental sight:
To joy each heightening charm it can impart,
But wraps the hour of woe in tenfold night.
And often, where no real ills affright,
Its visionary fiends, an endless train,
Assail with equal or superior might,
And through the throbbing heart, and dizzy brain,
And shivering nerves, shoot stings of more than mortal pain."

Even in describing reason Beattie is romantic, so that he may be truly said to have the genius of philosophy and romance always at his side. There cannot be a happier or truer description of reason, than we have in the following stanzas, and yet what can be dressed out in more romantic colouring.

"And Reason now thro' Number, Time, and Space,
Darts the keen lustre of her serious eye,
And learns, from facts compared, the laws to trace,
Whose long progression leads to Deity.
Can mortal strength presume to boast so high!
Can mortal sight, so oft bedim'd with tears,
Such glory bear! — for lo, the shadows fly
From nature's face; Confusion disappears,
And order charms the eyes, and harmony the ears.

"In the deep windings of the grave, no more
The hag obscene, and grisly phantom dwell;
Nor in the fall of mountain-stream, or roar
Of winds, is heard the angry spirit's yell;
No wizard mutters the tremendous spell,
Nor sinks convulsive in prophetic swoon;
Nor bids the noise of drums and trumpets swell,
To ease of fancied pangs the labouring moon,
Or chace the shade that blots the blazing orb of noon.

"Many a long-lingering year, in lonely isle,
Stun'd with th' eternal turbulence of waves,
Lo, with dim eyes, that never learn'd to smile,
And trembling hands, the famish'd native craves
Of heaven his wretched fare: shivering in caves,
Or scorch'd on rocks, he pines from day to day
But Science gives the word; and lo, he braves
The surge and tempest, lighted by her ray,
And to a happier land wafts merrily away.

As a metaphysical writer, Dr. Beattie stands very high. His essay on truth, however, is far from being a complete refutation of Hume. His poetical criticisms, or rather, his critical observations on poetry, are entitled to great credit. He is a greater admirer of Dryden than of Pope, but here we certainly cannot become his disciples. Dryden was inimitable in some respects, but taking him "all in all," we think we shall be able to prove in some ensuing number or numbers, that Pope was the greater poet.