Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 04.djvu/27

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

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 through-