« ZurückWeiter »
stanza. And the twentieth stanza of the second book of the Minstrel describes a night-scene unquestionably drawn from nature, in which he probably had in view Homer's sublime description of the Moon, in the eighth book of the Iliad, so admirably translated by Pope, that an eminent critic has not scrupled to declare it to be superior to the original. He used himself to tell, that it was from the top of a high hill in the neighbourhood, that he first beheld the ocean, the sight of which, he declared, made the most lively im. pression on his mind.
" It is pleasing, I think, to contemplate these his carly habits, so congenial to the feelings of a poetical and warm imagination; and therefore, I trust, I shall be forgiven for having dwelt on them so long."
Sir William Forbes need have made no apology for the length of these passages. I would have said “O si sic omnia !” but that it would seem to imply some censure; and I well know that all could not be like this. We cannot always be watching the dawn of day “on the misty mountain's top;” nor be constantly wandering “ alone and pensive” by the “ pale beams” of the “Queen of Night.” But it will not be doubted, that in the occupations of “ young Edwin": the poet described many of his own early propensities and amusements. I do not agree therefore with an eminent critic, * who observing that Edwin “ is marked from his cradle with those dispositions and propensities, which were to be the foundation of his future destiny,” adds, “ I believe it would be difficult in real biography to trace any such early indications of a
* Dr. Aikin's Letters on English Poetry,
genius exclusively fitted for poetry; nor do I imagine that an exquisite sensibility to the sublime and beautiful of nature is ever to be found in minds, which have not been opened by a degree of culture.” The interposition indeed of the word “exclusively" a little qualifies the assertion; but the endowments attributed by the poet to Edwin, though they are not exclusively, are more peculiarly, adapted to poetical emi. nence.
If this assertion then, be true, that the delineation of the infant Minstrel was essentially that of the author, for which we have the authority of Sir W. Forbes, and even of Beattie himself, there is an end to the denial of particular genius, which Johnson was so fond of urging, and which so many, on his great, but surely far from infallible, judgment, are fond of repeating. Every one possessed of equal fancy and equal sensibility of heart with Beattie, would feel in childhood similar sentiments and similar pleasures; and I think it must not be questioned that the impression of those sentiments and those pleasures would lead a person of equal capacity more peculiarly, not only to the inclination, but, with the aid of a little industry, to the power, of composing poetry.
I assert again therefore that the hand of Nature impressed on Beattie's mind the character of a poet. He afterwards became a philosopher by the effect of accident, and study. All this indeed he appears to me to have confirmed by his own direct declarations.
Hear him in a Letter to Dr. Blacklock, dated 9 Jan. 1769.
**** “ Perhaps you are anxious to know what first induced me to write on this subject;” (Truth.) “I
will tell you as briefly as I can. In my younger days I read chiefly for the sake of amusement, and I found myself best amused with the classics, and what we call the Belles Lettres. Metaphysics I disliked; mathematics pleased me better; but I found my mind nuither improved, nor gratified by that study. When Providence allotted me my present station” (of Professor of Moral Philosophy) “it became incumbent on me to read what had been written on the subject of morals and human nature: the works of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, were celebrated as master-pieces in this way; to them therefore I had recourse. But as I began to study them with great prejudices in their favour, you will readily conceive, how strangely I was surprised to find them, as I thought, replete with absurdities: I pondered these absurditics; I weighed the arguments, with which I was sometimes not a little confounded; and the result was, that I began at last to suspect my own understanding, and to think that I had not capacity for such a study. For I could not conceive it possible that the absurdities of these authors were so great, as they seemed to me to be; otherwise, thought I, the world would never admire them so much. About this time, some excellent antisceptical works made their appearance, particularly Reid's “Inquiry into the Human Mind.” Then it was that I began to have a little more confidence in my own judgment, when I found it confirmed by those, of whose abilities I did not entertain the least distrust. I reviewed my authors again with a very different temper of mind. A very little truth will sometimes enlighten a vast extent of science. I found that the sceptical philosophy was not what the world imagined
it to be; but a frivolous, though dangerous, system of verbal subtlety, which it required neither genius, nor learning, nor taste, nor knowledge of mankind, to be able to put together; but only a captious temper, an irreligious spirit, a moderate command of words, and an extraordinary degree of vanity and presumption. You will easily perceive that I am speaking of this philosophy only in its most extravagant state, that is, as it appears in the works of Mr. Hume. The more I study it, the more am I confirmed in this opinion,” &c.
***** “ I am convinced that this metaphysical spirit is the bane of true learning, true taste, and true science; that to it we owe all this modern scepticism, and atheism; that it has a bad effect upon the human faculties, and tends not a little to sour the temper, to subvert good principles, and to disqualify men for the business of life. You will now see wherein
views differ from those of other answerers of Mr, Hume. I want to shew the world, that the sceptical philosophy is contradictory to itself, and destructive of genuine philosophy, as well as of religion and virtue; that it is in its own nature so paltry a thing, (however it may have been celebrated by some) that to be despised it needs only to be known; that no degree of genius is necessary to qualify a man for making a figure in this pretended science; but rather a certain minuteness and suspiciousness of mind and want of sensibility, the very reverse of true intellectual excellence; that metaphysics cannot possibly do any good, but may do, and actually have done, much harm; that sceptical philosophers, whatever they may pretend, are the core rupters.of science, the pests of society, and the ene. mies of mankind," &c. ****
In a Letter to Major Mercer, * dated 26 Nov. 1769,
***. “ I intend to bid adieu to metaphysics, and all your authors of profound speculation; for, of all the trades, to which that multifarious animal, man, can turn himself, I am now disposed to look upon intense study as the idlest, the most unsatisfying, and the most unprofitable. You cannot easily conceive with what greediness I now peruse the “ Arabian Nights Enterxainments," “Gulliver's Travels,” “Robinson Crusoe," ; &c. I am like a man, who has escaped from the mines, and is now drinking in the fresh air and light, on the top of some of the mountains of Dalecarlia, These books put me in mind of the days of former years, the romantic æra of fifteen, or the still more careless period of nine, or ten, the scenes of which, as they now stand pictured to my fancy, seem to be illuminated with a sort of purple light, formed with the softest, purest gales, and painted with a verdure, to which nothing similar is to be found in the degenerate summers of modern times. Here I would quote the second stanza of Gray's “Ode on Eton College,” but 'it would take up too much room, and you certainly have it by heart.”
The above extracis discover the origin of Beattie's philosophical works. Those which follow exbibit the first traces of his incomparable poem “ The Minstrel.”
Dr, Beattie to Dr. Blacklock, 22 Sept. 1766. ****, “ Not long ago I began a poem in the style and stanza of Spenser, in which I propose to give full Major Mereer was himself a poet. See Cens. LIT. Vol. II. p. 383.