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James Beattie Biography | Poet

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James Beattie (bē´ti), a Scottish poet and writer on philosophy, was born at Laurencekirk, Kincardine, Scotland, on the 25th of October 1735. His father, a small farmer and shopkeeper, died when he was very young; but an elder brother sent him to Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he gained a bursary. In 1753 he was appointed schoolmaster of Fordoun in his native county. Here he had as neighbours the eccentric Francis Garden (afterwards Lord Gardenstone, judge of the supreme court of Scotland), and Lord Monboddo. In 1758 he became an usher in the grammar school of Aberdeen, and two years later he was made professor of moral philosophy at Marischal College. Here he became closely acquainted with Dr Thomas Reid, Dr George Campbell, Dr Alexander Gérard and others, who formed a kind of literary or philosophic society known as the “Wise Club.” They met once a fortnight to discuss speculative questions, David Hume’s philosophy being an especial object of criticism. In 1761 Beattie published a small volume of Original Poems and Translations, which contained little work of any value. Its author in later days destroyed all the copies he found. In 1770 Beattie published his Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth in opposition to sophistry and scepticism, the object of which, as explained by its author, was to “prove the universality and immutability of moral sentiment” (letter to Sir W. Forbes, 17th January 1765). It was in fact a direct attack on Hume, and part of its great popularity was due to the fact. Hume is said to have justly complained that Beattie “had not used him like a gentleman,” but made no answer to the book, which has no philosophical value. Beattie’s portrait, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, hangs at Marischal College, Aberdeen. The philosopher is painted with the Essay on Truth in his hand, while a figure of Truth thrusts down three figures representing, according to Sir W. Forbes, sophistry, scepticism and infidelity. Reynolds in a letter to Beattie (February 1774) intimates that he is well enough pleased that one of the figures is identified with Hume, and that he intended Voltaire to be one of the group. Beattie visited London in 1773, and was received with the greatest honour by George III., who conferred on him a pension of £200 a year. In 1771 and 1774 he published the first and second parts of The Minstrel, a poem which met with great and immediate success. The Spenserian stanza in which it is written is managed with smoothness and skill, and there are many fine descriptions of natural scenery. It is entirely on his poetry that Beattie’s reputation rests. The best known of his minor poems are “The Hermit” and “Retirement.”

In 1773 he was offered the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University, but did not accept it. Beattie made many friends, and lost none. “We all love Beattie,” said Dr Johnson. “Mrs Thrale says, if ever she has another husband she will have him.” He was in high favour too with Mrs Montagu and the other bas bleus. Beattie was unfortunate in his domestic life. Mary Dunn, whom he married in 1767, became insane, and his two sons died just as they were attaining manhood. The elder, James Hay Beattie, a young man of great promise, who at the age of nineteen had been associated with his father in his professorship, died in 1790. In 1794 the father published Essays and Fragments in Prose and Verse by James Hay Beattie with a 584touching memoir. The younger brother died in 1796. Beattie never recovered from this second bereavement. His mind was seriously affected, and, although he continued to lecture occasionally, he neither wrote nor studied. In April 1799 he had a stroke of paralysis, and died on the 18th of August 1803.

Beattie’s other poetical works include The Judgment of Paris (1765), and “Verses on the death of [Charles] Churchill,” a bitter attack which the poet afterwards suppressed. The best edition is the Poetical Works (1831, new ed. 1866) in the Aldine Edition of the British Poets, with an admirable memoir by Alexander Dyce.

See also An Account of the Life of James Beattie (1804), by A. Bower; and An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie (1807), by Sir William Forbes; a quantity of new material is to be found in Beattie and his Friends (1904), by the poet’s great-grand-niece, Margaret Forbes; andJames Beattie, the Minstrel. Some Unpublished Letters, edited by A. Mackie (Aberdeen, 1908).

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