Page images

The method of constructing large biographical works out of an assemblage of letters, with here and there a page or paragraph between, for the purpose of connection and explanation, has plenty of plausible recommendations. There is an appearance of great modesty ; the compiler makes no claims to the honours of authorship; all he is anxious for, is to dis. play, in the simplest manner, the merits, talents, and pursuits of his friend. That friend is thus made to present himself to us in his own person, and his familiar correspondence will disclose to us the internal qualities of the man incomparably better, as it is so often repeated to us, than any formal develope. ment of a biographer. The series of such letters, continued through half the length of life or more, will shew the gradual progress and improvement of the mind. If some of them are trivial or common, in subject or style, even the smallest things said and written by eminent persons have their value ; it is pleasing to observe how great minds sometimes unbend; and consoling to see in how many respects they are like ourselves. These are recommendations proper to be mentioned to the public; but there are others of which the biographer can silently take the advantage to himself, beside that extreme facility of performance which we have binted already: One of these is impunity. There is little to be attacked in such a book, except what its author has not written; or if he is directly censured for introducing some of the things written by the person who is the subject of the book, the partiality of friendship is a plea always at hand, and a feeling always accounted amiable. Another is a fair opportunity for the biographer to introduce himself very often, and without the direct form of egotism; since the probability is, that not a few of the letters were written to him, and contain of course, many very handsome things. His modesty professes to hesitate about their insertion; but yet they must be inserted, because they shew in so striking a light, the kind disposition of his friend.

Such handsome things we have no doubt, were amply deserved by Sir W, Forbes, and even those more than handsome things, which he informs us he has omitted in printing the letters. The indications of a sincere affection for Dr. Beattie, are very conspicuous; and we attribute it to a real partiality of friendship, that he has made this work much larger than we think can be of service to the instruction of the public, or the memory of his friend. The memory of that friend was un. questionably loo dear to him to have permitted the insertion of one letter or line, which he did not sincerely believe would give the same impression of the writer, which Sir William hinself was happy to cherish. It is therefore unfortunate, that the reader should feel, at the close of the book, that he would have been more pleased with both Dr. Beattie and bis biographer, if it had come to a close much sooner. 4

The parts written by Sir W. Forbes, are in a style, perspicuous, correct, and classical; generally relating however to particulars, which require no great effort of thought. Many of these particulars are most unnecessarily introduced, and lead into details which are extremely tiresome, not excepting even the analyses of Dr. Beattie's writings. It bad surely been enough to have stated in a few sentences, the objects of his several performances, and then, if the reader deemed those objects of importance, he would take an opportunity of consulting the books themselves. The notes contain a large assemblage of biographical and genealogical records. When a new acquaintance of Dr. Beattie is mentioned, it is deemed proper for us to be informed of his parentage, his connections, his residence, bis offices, his accomplishments. In several instances a letter of little interest is preceded by a long history of still less, for the purpose of making that letter intelligible, by detailing some transaction to which it relates ; as in that part of the book referring to the union of two colleges in Aberdeen. Sir William is sufficiently a citizen of the world, we lave no doubt, to wish his book may be read in each part of the kingdom; why was he not enough a citizen of the world, to be aware how small a portion of the kingdom can feel any concern in this piece of history? If he thought all these matters would magnify the importance of his principal subject, he is so far mistaken, that the reader is tempted to quarrel with that subject, on account of this crowd of appendages. The reader feels in this case, just as Sir William would : do, if some one of his friends of high rank, whom he would be very glad to receive in an easy quiet way, would never come to visit him for a day or two, without bringing also a large troop of footmen, postillions, cooks, nursery maids, and other inhabitants of his house, kitchen, and stables. We will not suppose it was his formal purpose to make a very large book. Nor could it be his ainbition to display writing talents, as the subjects would have been unfortunately selected for such a purpose; and indeed we do not accuse him of ostentation as an author. Perhaps it is no great vice if he exbibits a little of it as a man. But we have felt a degree of surprize that he should not seem to be aware of the impression which wonld be made on the minds of his readers, by his adding, at the end of almost every note relating to one or another distinguished personage of Dr. Beattie's acquaintance, " And I also had the

[ocr errors]

honour of his friendship.” This occurs so often, that we have felt that kind of irritation, which is excited when a man, that we wish to respect, is for the tenth or twentieth time doing or repeating a foolish thing in order to intimate his importance. We persuade ourselves that this feeling arises from our right perception of what would have preserved Sir William's dignity ; perhaps however we deceive ourselves, and the feeling springs from envy of his high fortune, for we doubt if we were ever summoned to wait on a man of such extensive and illustrious connections before.

Previously to the insertion of any of Dr. Beattie's letters, a succinct account is given of his life, from his birth, of humble, but very respectable parents, till his twenty-fifth year, when he was appointed professor of moral philosophy and logic, in Marischal college, after having passed through the offices of parish-clerk and school-master in the neighbourhood of his native place, and assistant in a respectable school in Aberdeen. This rapid advancement, by means of merit alone, is in itself suíficient to evince both uncommon ability and industry. We are informed that the passion and the talent for poetry were very early awakened in his mind, and in one of his letters to a friend, in a later period of his life, be acknowledges that his Minstrel is substantially a description of what had been his own mental character in his youth. A prematurity of faculties appears conspicuous through the whole course of his earlier life, and when he was fised at Aberdeen, those faculties were extended to the utmost, in the society of a number of distinguished men, such as Campbell, Reid, Gerard, Gregory, and many others, with whom he familiarly associated, and from that time maintained an intimate friendship as long as the respective parties lived. An entertaining account is given of these literary friends forming themselves into a society for philosophical discussion, to which the common people gave the denomination of the Wise Club, in which the first ideas were started of some of those theories which were afterwards unfolded at large, in books that have obtained a high rank in the philosophic school. It is pleasing to observe, that the friendship among these scholars and philosophers was very cordial, and not withered by that envy and jealousy which the philosophic character has often enough failed to preclude, when rival talents have created a comparison and balance of reputation. Dr. Beattie retained his station at Aberdeen all the rest of his life, which was diversified only by his family connections and cares, his publications, his friendships, and his occasional visits to London. A piece of information is now and then interposed by the biographer ; but these cir

cumstances are chiefly unfolded in Dr. Beattie's correspondence with Dr. Blacklock, Sir W. Forbes, Mr. Arbuthnot, Mrs. Montague, the Bishop of London, the Dutchess of Gordon, and several other friends.

The doctor had many valuable, and no doubt affectionate friends, but in regard to that relation which constitutes, when happily contracted, the tenderest kind of friendship, he was an object for the deepest commiseration, from a cause which would have beclouded the sunshine of any man's life, even though possessed of less sensibility than Dr. Beattie.

• Throughout the whole course of his life, Dr. Beattie was most exemplary in the discharge of the relative duties of a son, a brother, a husband, à father, and a friend. Of his conduct towards his unhappy wife, it is impossible to speak in terms of too high commendation. It has already been mentioned, that Mrs. Beattie had the misfortune to inherit from her mother, that most dreadful of all human ills, a distempered imagination, which, in a very few years after their marriage, showed itself in caprices and folly, that embittered every hour of his life, while he strove at first to conceal her disorder from the world, and, as he has been heard to say, to conceal it even from himself; till at last, from whim, and caprice, and melancholy, it broke out into downright insanity, which rendered her seclusion from society absolutely necessary. During every stage of her illness, he watched and cherished her with the utmost tenderness and care ; using every means at first, that medicine could furnish, for her recovery, and afterwards, when her condition was found to be perfectly hope. less, procuring for her every accommodation and comfort that could tend to alleviate her sufferings. 'Of this last part of Dr. Beattie's conduct, I am fully able to speak from my own personal knowledge; as, during several years, I had the sole charge of her and her concerns, while she resided at no great distance from Edinburgh, She still survives him in the same melancholy condition. When I reflect on the many sleepless nights and anxious days, which he experienced from Mrs. Beattie's malady, and think of the unwearied and unremitted attention he paid to her, during so great a number of years, in that sad situation, his character is exalted in my mind to a degree which may be equalled, but I am sure never can be excelled, and makes the fame of the poet and the philosopher fade from my remembrance.' Vol. II. pp. 333. 334.

From the time of Beattie's establishment at Aberdeen, till within a few years of the end of his life, a period of forty years, he prosecuted study and the business of authorship with indefatigable industry and ardour. And in passing along the series of letters, our admiration is repeatedly excited by the variety of attainments, the extent of accurate reading, and the quantity of composition, for which he was able to rescue time enough from his professional employments, wide correspondence, intercourse with society, and domestic sorrows.

A more instructive example is not often displayed of what resolute

[ocr errors][merged small]
[ocr errors]

application may accomplish, when supported by a very warm interest in the business in which it is exerted. But at the same time a warm passion for literature, especially when a man writes, as well as reads, is apt to produce a species of extravagance, which, to people who are not in the same employment, appears excessively ludicrous. A cork-cutter, or a maker of nails, or pins, or pegs for shoes, who quietly betakes himself to his work every morning, and goes soberly through it as a matter of course, would be first surprized, and next diverted to laughter, to see the importance, and earnestness, and solemnity, put on by an author and a poet, while occupied about the making of a line, the adjusting of a syllable, the changing of an epithet, the measuring of dactyls, or the lengthening or shortening of a paragraph, and by the selfcomplacency, the air of high atchievement, and the congratulations of scholars, when he has performed this great duty well. Even the detail of the graver and more philosophic labours of writing cannot be listened to long, when the writers are to give the account of them, without the loss of gravity ; though it is true that the gravity which is lost in laughing, may be quickly resumed for censuring.

The letters of authors, from Pope's time, down to the present instance, betray them to this ridicule and this censure, There is no end of the amplifications and repetitions about my book, my poems, my ode, my epigram, my translations, my corrections, my new edition, my next production.-I have taken great pains to amend the harshness of the tenth or fifteenth line; I have excluded one stanza, and inserted two; I flatter myself that the objection which has been made to it by the public will now be obviated ; I have been particularly struck with a coincidence between a passage in my essay, and one in Mr. -'s treatise ; I can prove that mine was not borrowed ; I have written twenty pages of a dissertation on the subject we were lately conversing upon; you know I do not think highly of my own talents ; I am inclined to think this will be a decisive performance however; my last work is getting much into vogue as I am inforined.--I hear the critics are at work; I defy them; your approbation would sustain my self-complacency, if they were all to condemn me; Mr.

is very angry, but I think he will not attack; the work has produced a great sensation; I am told that Dr. E. and Bishop F., and Lord G. are delighted with it; I have just received a letter from Lady H., who pays me such compliments as I will not repeat to you ; she tells me that Mr. J. is wonderfully pleased and is very anxious to see me, &c. &c.

If authors may be allowed to expatjate on these matters,

« PreviousContinue »