Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
James Beattie (17351803)
[James Beattie was born at Laurencekirk in 1735, and died at Aberdeen in 1803. He published his first volume of poems in 1761, The Judgment of Paris in 1765, and Some Lines on the Proposed Monument to Churchill in 1766. The first part of The Minstrel appeared in 1770, the second in 1774.]
BEATTIE is perhaps the most difficult poet of the eighteenth century for a nineteenth-century reader to criticise sympathetically. His original poetical power was almost nil. But he had a delicate and sensitive taste, and was a diligent student of the works of Gray and Collins on the one hand, and of the ballads which Percy had just published on the other. His earlier poems are merely so many variations on the Elegy and the Ode on the Passions. His Judgment of Paris and his Lines on Churchill are perhaps those of his works in which he was least indebted to others, and they are almost worthless intrinsically, besides being (at least the Churchill lines) in the worst possible taste. As for The Minstrel, it is certainly a most remarkable poem. The author has shown his judgment in prefixing no argument to either book, for in truth neither admits of one. The poem has neither head nor tail, and the central figure of the youthful Edwin is a mere peg on which to hang descriptive passages, moral disquisitions, and digressions of every kind. The general effect upon the modern reader is exactly that of a sham ruin or a Gothic edifice of the Wyatt period. Yet the poem was, and long continued to be, extremely popular; and it gave the impulse in many cases to the production of much better work than itself. In fact it exactly reflected the vague and ill-instructed craving of the age for the dismissal of artificial poetry and for a return to nature, and at the same time to the romantic style. This fact must always give it an interest which its elegant second-hand imagery, its feeble Werterisms, and above all its extraordinary incoherence, may on closer acquaintance fail to sustain.
Beattie would have been a poet if he could, and his sedulous efforts and gentle sensibility sometimes bring him within sight, though at a long distance, of the promised land. But he never reaches it, and his best work is only made up of reminiscences of others visits and of far-off echoes of the heavenly music.