Beattie, James (1735-1803) (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


BEATTIE, JAMES (1735–1803), poet, essayist, and moral philosopher, was born at Laurencekirk, Kincardine, Scotland, on 25 Oct. 1735. His father, a shopkeeper and small farmer, dying in 1742, the boy was supported by his eldest brother, David, who sent him in 1749 to the Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he soon obtained a bursary. At Aberdeen he studied Greek under Thomas Blackwell, author of 'An Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer,' but showed no aptitude for mathematics. In 1753, having taken the degree of M.A., and being anxious to obtain immediate employment in order to relieve his brother from further expense, he accepted the post of schoolmaster and parish clerk to the parish of Fardoun, near Laurencekirk. Here he made the acquaintance of Lord Gardenstown and Lord Monboddo, and began to come into notice by his contributions to the 'Scots Magazine.' He had always been fond of music, and now cultivated it zealously in his retirement. We are assured by his biographers that, in his admiration for the romantic scenery, he would often stay whole nights under the open sky, returning home at sunrise. The impressions gained during his residence at Faraoun are apparent in the descriptive passages of his best and most celebrated poem, written many years afterwards, the 'Minstrel.' With a view to entering the church he returned during the winter to the Marischal College, in order to attend some divinity lectures. In 1758 he was appointed to a vacant mastership at the grammar school of Aberdeen; and two years afterwards, much to his own surprise, was raised, by the influence of a powerful friend, to the chair of moral philosophy and logic in the Marischal College. He began to lecture in the winter session of 1760-1, and for upwards of thirty years continued to discharge his duties with industry and ability. There existed at Aberdeen a literary and convivial club, known as the 'Wise Club,' consisting chiefly of professors who used to meet once a fortnight at a tavern to read essays. Beattie was admitted to membership, and enjoyed the society of Dr. Reid, Dr. Campbell, Dr. Gregory, and other worthies.

In 1761 he published his first volume, 'Original Poems and Translations,' dedicated to the Earl of Erroll, consisting of pieces contributed to the 'Scots Magazine and verses recently composed. This collection,' says his biographer, Sir William Forbes, 'was very favourably received, and stamped Dr. Beattie with the character of a poet of great and original genius.' The poet, too sensible to form such an astoundmg judgment, used in later years to destroy all the copies that he could and, and only four pieces from the collection were allowed to accompany the 'Minstrel.'

Beattie's first visit to London was paid in the summer of 1763, on which occasion he made a pilgrimage to Pope's villa at Twickenham. In 1765 he published a smoothly written but inanimate poem, the 'Judgement of Paris,' and later in the same year 'Verses on the Death of Churchill,' a most abusive performance which he afterwards suppressed. In the autumn of 1765 Beattie addressed a letter in terms of extravagant flattery to the poet Gray, who was on a visit to the Earl of Strathmore at Glammis Castle. 'Will you permit us,' he wrote, 'to hope that we shall have an opportunity at Aberdeen of thanking you in person for the honour you have done to Britain and to the poetic art by your inestimable compositions?' In response arrived a letter of invitation to Glammis; a very cordial meeting followed, and a lasting friendship sprang up between the poets. A new edition of Beattie's poems appeared in 1766. Writing to Dr. Blacklock on 22 Sept. of that year, he announced that he was engaged on a poem in the Spenserian stanza, wherein he proposed to be either 'droll or pathetic, descriptive or sentimental, tender or satirical, as the humour strikes.' In May of the following year he recurred to the subject; 'My performance in Spenser's stanza has not advanced a single line these many months. It is called the "Minstrel." The subject was suggested by a dissertation on the old minstrels which is prefixed to a collection of ballads lately published by Dodsley in three volumes.' In 1768 he wrote (in the 'Aberdeen Journal') a poetical address in broad Scotch to Alexander Ross, author of a poem in that dialect, 'The Fortunate Shepherdess.'

On 28 June 1767 Beattie married Mary Dunn, daughter of the rector of the grammar school, Aberdeen. This lady became some years afterwards afflicted with insanity, a malady inherited from her mother. At first it showed itself in strange follies, as when she took some china jars from the mantelpiece and arranged them on the top of the parlour-door so that they might fall on her husband's head when he entered (Dyce's Prefatory Memoir to Beattie's Poems in the Aldine Series). Finally she became so violent that she had to be separated from the family. Two sons were the issue of the marriage.

Hitherto Beattie had been known only as a poet; he now aspired to make his mark as a philosopher. In his professorial capacity he had been compelled to make some acquaintance with the writings of Hume, and he now announced his intention of exposing the absurdity of that philosopher's system. 'Our sceptics,' he writes to Dr. Blacklock, 'either believe the doctrines they publish, or they do not believe them; if they believe them they are fools, if not they are something worse.' The result of Beattie's inquiries was given to the world in 1770 under the title of an 'Essay on Truth.' Being anxious to sell the manuscript to a publisher, Beattie had asked his friends Sir William Forbesand Mr. Arbuthnot to conduct negotiations. These gentlemen, finding a difficulty in disposing of the manuscript, determined to publish the book on their own account, wrote to the author that the manuscript was sold, and sent him fifty guineas. The book was received very favourably, passed through five large editions in four years, and was translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian. In the history of philosophy it has not the slightest importance. The loose, commonplace character of the professor's reasoning made the essay popular among such readers as wish to be thought acquainted with the philosophy of the day, while they have neither the ability nor inclination to grapple with metaphysical problems. Attacks on Hume in singularly bad taste abound throughout the book. Hume is said to have complained that he 'had not been used like a gentleman;' and this probably is the only notice that he deigned to take of the professor's labours.

In 1771 appeared anonymously the first book of the 'Minstrel,' which passed through four editions before the publication (in 1774) of the second book. The harmony of versification and the beauty of the descriptive passages have preserved this poem from the oblivion which has overtaken Beattie's other writings. Immediately after the publication of the first book Gray wrote to congratulate the author and offer some minute criticism. In a letter to the Dowager Lady Forbes, dated 12 Oct. 1772, Beattie confessed that he intended to paint himself under the character of Edwin.

His health having been impaired by the the labour bestowed on the composition of the 'Essay on Truth,' Beattie went for a change to London in the autumn of 1771. Here he made the acquaintance of Mrs. Montagu, Hawkesworth, Armstrong, Garrick, and Dr. Johnson. In one of his letters he writes: 'Johnson has been greatly misrepresented. I have passed several days with him and found him extremely agreeable.' He returned to Aberdeen in December. Partly for the sake of his health and partly in the hope improving his prospects, he came again to London in April 1773, accompanied by his wife. Having called on Lord Dartmouth with a letter of introduction, he was shortly afterwards invited to wait on Lord North, who assured him that the king should be made acquainted with his arrival. At the same time he became familiar with Dr, Porteus, afterwards bishop of London. By Lord Dartmouth he was presented, at the first levée after his arrival, to the king, and a few days later he received the honorary degree of doctor of laws at Oxford. On 20 Aug. an official letter arrived from Lord North's secretary announcing that the king had conferred upon him 200l. a year. Shortly afterwards Beattie paid his respects to the king and queen at Kew, and was received very affably. 'I never stole a book but one,' said his majesty, 'and that was yours. I stole it from the queen to give it to Lord Hertford to read.' They conversed on the state of moral philosophy and deplored the progress of infidelity, the king remarking that he 'could hardily believe that any thinking man could really be an atheist, unless he could bring himself to believe that he made himself; a thought which pleased the king exceedingly, and he repeated it several times to the queen.' About this time his portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who generously made him a present of it. In the picture Beattie is represented in his doctor's gown, with the 'Essay on Truth' under his arm; beside him stands Truth, holding in one hand a pair of scales, and with the other thrusting down three figures (two of which are meant to represent Hume and Voltaire) emblematic of Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly. After five months' stay in London Beattie returned to Aberdeen.

In 1773 Beattie declined the offer of the vacant chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh; nor could he be persuaded to accept a living in the Anglican church. Three years afterwards appeared a new edition, published by subscription, in quarto, of the 'Essay on Truth,' to which were appended three essays, 'On Poetry and Music as they affect the Mind,' 'On Laughter and Ludicrous Composition,' and ' On the Utility of Classical Learning.' A new edition of the 'Minstrel,' together with such other poems as the author wished to preserve, was published in 1777. A letter to Dr. Blair, 'On the Improvement of Psalmody in Scotland,' was printed for private circulation in 1778, which was followed (in 1779) by a 'List of Scotticisms,' published for the use of those who attended his lectures. In 1780 he contributed a paper 'On Dreaming' to the 'Mirror;' and in 1783 he published 'Dissertations Moral and Critical,' a book which met with the most enthusiastic praise from Cowper, who declared, in a letter to Hayley, that Beattie was the only author he had seen 'whose critical and philosophical researches are diversified and embellished by a poetical imagination that makes even the driest subject and the leanest a feast for epicures.'

To seek relief from domestic troubles (his wife's insanity being now confirmed), Beattie paid a visit to London in 1784, and afterwards spent some time with Dr. Porteus (now bishop of Chester) at Hunton near Maidstone. In 1786 he published his 'Evidences of the Christian Religion,' and in the following year he came again to London, on which occasion he visited the king and queen at Windsor. The first volume of his 'Elements of Moral Science' appeared in 1790, and about this time he superintended an edition of Addison's 'Periodical Papers,' adding a few notes to Tickell's Life and Johnson's Remarks. Vol. ii. of the 'Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh ' contains some remarks by Beattie 'On Passages of the Sixth Book of the Æneid.' On 19 Nov. he suffered a severe affliction by the loss of his eldest son (aged 22), James Hay Beattie, a young man of considerable promise.

In the following April he went with his second son to London, and spent some time at Fulham with Dr. Porteus, now bishop of London. The second volume of 'Elements of Moral Science,' which contained a strong attack on the slave trade, appeared in 1793; and in the same year his favourite sister, Mrs. Valentine, died. His health became now so impaired that he was unable to attend to his duties and was obliged to engage an assistant. He continued, however, to deliver occasional lectures until 1797. In 1794 he issued for private circulation 'Essays and Fragments in Prose and Verse, by James Hay Beattie' (published afterwards for sale in 1799), to which he prefixed an affecting biographical sketch. Meanwhile his second son, Montagu, became seriously ill, grew from bad to worse, and died in 1796. As he looked for the last time on the body, the father exclaimed, 'I have now done with the world.' He was quite stupefied with grief, and for a time his memory forsook him. In April 1799 he was struck with palsy, which kept him almost speechless for eight days. From this attack he recovered, but the malady frequently returned, and he eventually succumbed to it, after great suffering, on 18 Aug. 1803. He was buried next to his sons in St. Nicholas's churchyard, Aberdeen, and Dr. James Gregory wrote a Latin inscription for his tomb. In his later years he had grown somewhat corpulent, but it was noticed that he grew thinner a few months before his death.

A life of Beattie by Sir William Forbes, who had much enthusiasm but little judgment, appeared in 1806. Beattie's letters, of which there is a profusion in these volumes, are for the most part dull and cumbersome.

[Bower's Account of the Life of James Beattie, 1804; Sir W. Forbes's Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie,' 1806; Edinburgh Review, No. xix. The best edition of Beattie's 'Poems' is in the Aldine Series, edited by Rev. Alexander Dyce. In the British Museum there is a copy of the second edition of Forbes's book, containing manuscript annotations by Mrs. Piozzi, formerly Mrs. Thrale, who (as we loarn from Boswell's Johnson) once declared that 'if she had another husband she would have Beattie.']

A. H. B.