James Beattie, Scottish poet, scholar, writer, essayist, philosopher, moralist and theologian, died on the 18th of August, 1803.
James Beattie dabbled in poetry and philosophy and achieved high marks from his contemporaries in both disciplines. He was considered to be an important poetic and philosophical contributor, however, he has been neglected by modern scholarship to some large extent. His poetic career culminated in ‘The Minstrel; Or, the Progress of Genius’, which was an epic poem that influenced the early ‘Romantic’ poets. That was published in two books between 1771 and 1774 and won him the praise of Samuel Johnson; praise indeed, for it contains a lot of wonderfuly descriptive writing, albeit very old fashioned to modern lugs. Our man Beattie was more than just a Rhymer; he was also Professor of Moral Philosophy at Marischal College, in Aberdeen, and was one of David Hume's most persistent and virulent critics. Hume called him “that silly, bigoted fellow Beattie.” Beattie was part of the ‘common sense’ school centred on Aberdeen and whose most distinguished member was Thomas Reid. At the age of twenty-five, he published ‘Original Poems and Translations’, but his principle philosophical work was his ‘Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism’, which was a vigorous defence of orthodoxy against the rationalism of Hume. Beattie was also prominent advocate of the abolition of slavery and criticised Hume for his derogatory description of Africans as an inferior people who had been enslaved because they lacked civilisation and ingenuity. His ‘Essay’ made Beattie a famous man and the subject of a flattering portrait – defeating the ‘enemies of Truth’ – by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
James Beattie was born in Laurencekirk, in the Mearns, on the 25th of October, 1735. He was the youngest child of a local shopkeeper or a farmer, depending on which biographies you read. What chance the historican. The fact is that his father ran a small shop in Laurencekirk and rented a wee bit farm up the road. After attending the local Parish School, Beattie won a bursary to Marischal College, in Aberdeen, when he was fourteen – there you go; the source of his muse. Actually, he gained a liking for versification from Ogilvy’s ‘Virgil’ and other works he got access to from the local Minister’s library before going on to Aberdeen and at school, he was already known as ‘the Poet’. In Aberdeen, he studied philosophy and divinity and was destined for the Kirk, but after graduating, he became instead a schoolmaster in the Parish of Fordoun. He was able to continue studying, practicing his hand at a bit poetry in the by goin’ and, in 1758, he got a job as Usher at Aberdeen Grammar School. That brought him into contact with some literary and professional characters and, in 1760, he was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy at Marischal College. He got the post through a chance conversation and good fortune, but it enabled his talents to flourish and he remained there for the rest of his life.
Beattie’s ‘Essay on Truth’ appeared after it occurred to him that there was a need for an aggressively written work in opposition to Hume, who was seen as a bit of a ‘Prince of Darkness’ by the religious fraternity. Beattie provided a powerful defence of religion in responding to Hume with counter-argument and ridicule, but the ‘Essay’ may never have seen the light of day for it found no willing publisher. In the end, his friends put up the money in order to get the unfashionable viewpoint published. It appeared in 1770 and was met with immediate success. In its day, it was received as a complete and triumphant refutation of all that had been advanced by the other side – in the opinion of its ‘side’. His defence of religion earned him an honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Oxford and a pension of £200 pounds a year from King George III. However, when it was suggested to the King that Beattie be given a position in the English Church, Geordie is reputed to have suggested that as Scotland abounds most in infidels, “it would be best for the general interests of religion that he [Beattie] should be kept there.”
In terms of his poetry; as early as 1756, Beattie had sent the odd poetical contribution to the ‘Scots Magazine’ and some of those were published in London, in 1760, as ‘Original Poems and Translations’. Those efforts received favourable attention and he was encouraged to write his ‘Essay on Poetry’ in 1762 and, in 1765, ‘The Judgment of Paris’. That latter piece “threatened to be as fatal to his poetical career as its subject had been to the Trojan state” – it was a bit too metaphysical for the public of the day. Some time in 1766, Beattie commenced his poetical masterpiece, which was to be a poem after the style of Spenser. Its subject was suggested to him by a dissertation on the old minstrels, but it took him until 1771 before the first part of ‘The Minstrel’ was published. Its success led to a second part, which appeared in 1774, but it was never completed. Maybe it’s the longest unfinished poem in the world, but it was the first of any length, in pure English, that had been published by a Scottish writer in his own country. Of it, his biographer, Forbes, wrote, “Of all [Beattie’s] poetical works, ‘the Minstrel’ is, beyond all question, the best… The language is extremely elegant, the versification harmonious, it exhibits the richest poetic imagery with a delightful flow of the most sublime, delicate, and pathetic sentiment. …In a word, it is at once highly conceived and admirably finished.”
Here’s a taster from ‘The Minstrel’ by James Beattie:
“How forth The Minstrel far'd in days of yore,
Right glad of heart, though homely in array;
His waving locks and beard all hoary grey:
And, from his bending shoulder, decent hung
His harp, the sole companion of his way,
Which to the whistling wind responsive rung:
And ever as he went some merry lay he sung.”
Professor James Beattie died in Aberdeen on the 18th of August, 1803, after lingering for almost a year after a stroke of palsy. He was buried close to his two sons in the ancient cemetery of St Nicholas.