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ANY one who wishes to have a favourable opinion of Beattie had better read the ninth, thirty-eighth, and thirtyninth stanzas in the first Book of The Minstrel, and the seventeenth and eighteenth in the second ; in The Hermit the first and fourth ; the fifty-third in the aptly-christened Triumph of Melancholy; and the seventh in Retirement. If it be not indiscreet to interfere between a parent and his literary offspring, I should further recommend the fifteenth to twentieth, describing the apparition of the three goddesses to the shepherd Prince, in The Judgement of Paris, which the decorous author discarded from later collected editions. Outside the domain of pure poetry there might be added a couple of fables, The Hares and The Wolf, sufficiently agreeable to excuse a regret that others in the same easy vein were not written; a pleasant translation from Addison's Greek of the Battle of the Pigmies and Cranes ; and, for tougher digestions, a spirited, if not very chivalrous, protest against a proposed monument to Churchill in Poets' Corner.1
My selection comprises, I sincerely believe, the whole flower of Beattie's poetical work. What then? The fragments may be admitted to possess merit adequate to the justification of their own existence as verse. The question is how far their worth stretches to establish their author's claim to inspiration. That they are, in quality, exceptions, not samples, is not conclusive against it. It is as immaterial
that, with the omission of the fables, and translation, the total, eighty-nine lines, bears an insignificant proportion to the residuary fifteen hundred and sixty-three. Had the eighty-nine evinced among them symptoms of greatness, lack of bulk would have been readily condoned. The narrowness of the margin by which they prove their own title is fatal to the writer's. It is an insuperable impediment to an individual's entrance into the poetical hierarchy that, with varieties in degree, good and indifferent among an aspirant’s verses belong essentially to the same class. From the one piece by which Beattie himself was prepared to stand or fall—the minstrel without a harp, the metre without the fairy Queen-down to The Triumph of Melancholy, all alike suffer from the incurable taint of mediocrity.
A true poet is liable to episodes of disastrous failure ; he will never rest complacently at a dead level of mere respectability. Mediocrity for poetry, if not for other things, means absence of the breath of life. For a poem to deserve the name it is indispensable that it should have a life of its own. It must be capable of doing and suffering, and of multiplying itself in thought and spirit. The marvel is that, when an age has provided store, never a superabundance, of genuine poetry fulfilling the conditions, counterfeits with no vitality, or none which outlasts a day, have continually been planted upon its patient public. Society in 1771 still was served by Gray, Goldsmith, Cowper. It was beginning to recollect that it might have had Collins. Nevertheless, as it had been deceived, or had deceived itself, when at the Restoration it admired Davenant and Denham, and, under George the Second, Akenside, so, in the following reign, it cheated itself more flagrantly into imagining inspiration, which had never been there, in the
most innocent of impostors, the virtuous, learned, intelligent, and sympathetic Beattie.
I think no lover of poetry can now read through the volume of Beattie's verse, and assert that the man able to produce no better than its best was, if a poet at all, more than a confirmed minor one.
Let him read, or re-read, the description in The Minstrel of opening day. It has always pleased me :
But who the melodies of morn can tell ?
The hum of bees, the linnet's lay of love,
The cottage curs at early pilgrim bark ;
Deep mourns the turtle in sequester'd bower,
And shrill lark carols clear from her aerial tour.2 A greater writer might easily have composed, without a permanent slur on his dignity, much less agreeable lines than these-much less melodious—less a succession of delightful scenes. Only when uninspired could he have compiled and shot out upon literature a miscellany of rustic facts for his readers to bind together, or not, without one illuminating thought.
Again, The Hermit-how soft the cadences ; how soothing it all is; and how absolutely unideaed! A philosopher,
a Wordsworthian Solitary—and with nothing to show for it but petty, painless musings, welling up from quite fathomable depths, and rippling across the surface, on Nature's unconcern at the mutability of all things human ! So valuable a being as a Sage need not have risked bronchitis by venting on his symphonious harp outside a cave soliloquies not in the least above ordinary drawing-room pitch:
At the close of the day, when the hamlet is still,
!' Once or twice, scarcely oftener, a fine image sets the sensibilities pulsating : for instance in The Triumph of Melancholy :
The traveller thus, that o'er the midnight waste
Through many a lonesome path is doom'd to roam,
For long the night, and distant far his home.4 Unfortunately it is the closing stanza of fifty-three, otherwise excruciatingly tedious. Similarly, but as disappointingly, a passing illustration will start a hope of power in reserve; as when, at the tread of human footsteps on the beetling cliff, with its solitary pine :
the scar'd owl on pinions gray Breaks from the rustling boughs, And down the lone vale sails away
To more profound repose. A casual, benevolent doubt will intermittently arise whether the frequent catalogues of scenic amenities and upholsteries, with their pretty prattle, may not, after all, have been compiled by an owner, instead of a house-agent; by a creative fancy, not out of reminiscences of school classics. All such kindly illusions speedily die, however, under an overwhelming sense of a dearth of spiritual emotion, of the rapture which poets feel. Reason and information, nothing else, have clearly been exerting their utmost energy.
We seem to surprise a smirk upon the versifier's face; an assurance to himself that his labours and lamp-oil have not been wasted, that the products are being wheeled fast up Parnassus. Somehow, I dare say, he had caught a distant view of the peak. He may have honestly supposed that he and his were scaling the giddy heights, when in reality an impassable abyss yawned between.
Not that he was alone in his misconception. Whether for good or ill, he appears not to have been blinder than his contemporaries. They accepted him at an estimate even more flattering than his own. Gray and Goldsmith had scarcely been more praised for the Elegy and the Deserted Village, and Collins far less for the Passions. Johnson's churlish correctness of literary instinct softened or slept in favour of a Scottish Presbyterian Professor! A supreme arbitress of taste courted him for her salon. A peer of intellect and refinement, Lyttelton, fell into ecstasies over strains which he described as angelic. How explain the general outburst of panegyric in consistency either with common sense, or with common conscience ?