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A prejudice for verse by the author of the Essay on Truth, now also forgotten, may have contributed to its popularity with the orthodox. A public, too, a little weary of the school of Pope, probably was beguiled by the assumption of familiarity with unsophisticated nature, which a born and bred countryman, as was Beattie, might have had, but does not show. At any rate, not the most timorous instructress of youth could doubt the absolute innocence of such an exercise of the gift of fancy. That, indeed, must be the real clue to the oddity of a mere versifier's acceptance as à classic. The Minstrel and The Hermit kept favour for half a century or longer through their negative, rather than their positive, characteristics. It was something, while a Churchill, and soon a Burns, were running rampant in metre, to have at call this self-satisfied, moral minstrel of the North Countrie, who chases rainbows as if they were butterflies. The Twa Corbies would have picked little marrow from the poetic cells of his brain, but also not a particle of indecorum.
My copy of the Aldine Beattie seems to have been presented to a boarding-school young lady for 'uniform good conduct' fifty years ago. No more eloquent testimony could be found to the docility in modern antiquity of the juvenile feminine intelligence, or, at all events, of its professional guides. Yet their literary standard itself was merely a survival from that of the average well-conducted family circle in the early days of George the Third. As my imagination recalls the period, I am disposed to temper my judgement of this its typical poet both for good and for ill. While I have been deriding his verse I have admired the valour of the man in proclaiming himself inspired on credentials so equivocal. When I conjure up his period before my mind the lustre of heroic audacity fades from off his
enterprise. I can hear Miss Burney's Princesses reading aloud The Minstrel, and their Royal parents in full faith applauding its respectable bald platitudes.
Its ready acceptance is pitiable in the land of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope. At the same time, in view of the tendency of the age, I cease to be surprised. The period was one of a meeting of the ways. Below a surface of decorum and system, an underworld was murmuring, sneering, questioning, growling, dreaming. Poetical passion alarmed the classes in possession. If people must feel thirst, they could not take a milder draught than was supplied by Beattie's blend of douce Presbyterianism with a dash of tempered Scottish metaphysics. His enthusiasm never exceeded the modest level to which the important middle-class sentiment of his public, whether behind a counter, or in a Palace, could attain. It flowed in a stream clear, if thin. The entire beverage he provided could be warranted absolutely unalcoholic !
The Poetical Works of James Beattie (Aldine Edition of the British Poets). William Pickering, 1831.
1 On the Report of a Monument to be erected in Westminster Abbey, to the memory of a late Author.
2 The Minstrel ; or, The Progress of Genius, Canto i, stanzas 38-39. 3 The Hermit, stanzas 1 and 4. • The Triumph of Melancholy, st. 53. 5 Retirement, st. 7.
Put it how you will ; either, one year and a half spent on fair Plantagenet imaginings, and four months on grimy Georgian actualities; then a draught of poison, and a pauper's grave in Shoe Lane; or, a whole life of brief babyhood, hard studying, musing, writing, forging, and heart-gnawing—comprised in seventeen years and threequarters. Other poets have known grinding poverty, but not a poverty which denied them all sympathy, all recognition. Others have died before old or middle age, but not in boyhood. Where there has been youth, though not green as his, literature can point to promise, scarcely to performance. Chatterton was formed to be great, and executed greatly; writings of his are monumental. The mere vehicle of his thoughts is a wonder. Spenser was remarkable for reverting in language, not very learnedly, a century or less. Chatterton handled a diction three centuries old, if not accurately, or consistently, as fluently as if it had been his birthright. Altogether history may suggest comparisons; it can offer no adequate parallel.
Admirers of precocious genius are not always as jealous as they ought to be of allusions to age. I am, on Chatterton's behalf. I do not deny that the works imputed by him to Thomas Rowley, priest, and William Canynge's friend, vary in merit, and, it may be, with the years of their author. The difference is in degree, not in spirit. All are interesting; and few are wanting in formed poetic feeling. The Moral of Our Ladies Chyrche can never grow old. The Balade of Charitie could fitly have been recited
to the Pilgrims by Chaucer's Parson, though the Samaritan's part would not have been assigned to a Limitoure :
We are Goddes stewards all, nete of oure owne we bare.1 There would, with allowance, as always, made for occasional anachronisms, have been no glaring incongruity in the production by a real Rowley of The Parlyamente of Sprytes for the glorifying of a real Canynge and his grand new Church of St. Mary of Redcliffe. The Tournament is rich throughout in mediaeval colour and picturesqueness; and it contains fine poetic passages; for instance, the minstrel's song of the royal hunt. The whole conception of the dialogue between Elinoure and Juga, awaiting the issue of the bloody Battle of St. Albans—sure, each, that one or other, Yorkist or Lancastrian, would be a mourner for her knight and lover-is full of pathos, with its heart-breaking climax :
Theie moved gentle oere the dewie mees
In Goddwyn, the noble prelude to the two spirited but youthfully gory versions of the Battle of Hastings, a lad's imagination has succeeded in voicing the accumulated indignation of a couple of centuries against Norman usurpation. At the close it bursts into a cry of Freedom-alas ! a torso-such as no contemporary of his but Gray could have surpassed. I have ventured to brush off, except here and there, the imputed rust, or patina, -for the most part, mere spelling—of antiquity :
When Freedom, dressed in blood-stained vest,
To every knight her war-song sung,
She danced on the heath;
Pale-eyed Affright, his heart of silver hue,
She shook the pointed spear,
And flee along the field.
She sits upon a rock,
Wielding her own in air.
He falls, and falling rolleth thousands down.4
Vearse maie be goode, botte poesie wantes more." Had we received nothing more from him than Freedom's battle-cry, he would have been entitled to rank above mere versifiers. But, over and above all else, there is Ælla, drama and epic in one; and by that he may claim to be finally judged.
Many keys are touched in it, and all with the hand of a master. There is the love of Bristowe's lord for Birtha, with their marriage. On their wedding night an entreaty comes from Wedecesterre for succour from a Danish foray led by Magnus and Hurra. The Chief tears himself from his bride, and fights, and conquers, at the cost of a wound. Celmonde, an old lover of Birtha, brings false news that he is dying, and would bid her adieu. Telling none of