JAMES BEATTIE (1734–1803)

The Scottish poet and philosopher James Beattie occupied the chair of moral philosophy and logic at Marischal College, Aberdeen (and later taught in Edinburgh). He was a friend of many Scottish worthies, and in the 1770s became a good friend of John Gray, Dr Johnson, Garrick, Mrs Montagu and her circle of Bluestockings. He wrote a famous Essay on Truth (1770) attacking the rational scepticism of Hume and Voltaire, and later added essays on Poetry and Music, Laughter and Ludicrous Composition, and related subjects. Beattie would sit up all night under the open sky admiring the romantic scenery. His poem The Minstrel (see under Poetry) uses the Spenserian stanza and develops the theme of the romantic enthusiast.

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. . . the Sublime, in order to give pleasing astonishment, must be either imaginary, or not immediately pernicious.
          There is a kind of horror, which may be infused into the mind both by natural appearances, and by verbal description; and which, though it make the blood seem to run cold, and produce a momentary fear, is not unpleasing, but may be even agreeable: and therefore, the objects that produce it are justly denominated sublime. Of natural appearances that affect the mind in this manner, are vast caverns, deep and dark woods, overhanging precipices, and agitation of the sea in a storm: and some of the sounds above-mentioned have the same effect, as those of cannon and thunder. Verbal descriptions infusing sublime horror are such as convey lively ideas, of the objects of superstition, as ghosts and enchantments; or of the thoughts that haunt the imaginations of the guilty; or of those external things, which are pleasingly terrible, as storms, conflagrations, and the like.
          It may seem strange, that horror of any kind should give pleasure. But the fact is certain. Why do people run to see battles, executions, and shipwrecks? Is it, as an Epicurean would say, to compare themselves with others, and exult in their own security while they see the distress of those who suffer? No, surely: good minds are swayed by different motives. Is it, that they may be at hand, to give every assistance in their power to their unhappy brethren? This would draw the benevolent, and even the tender-hearted, to a shipwreck; but to a battle, or to an execution, could not bring spectators, because there the humanity of individuals is of no use. – It must be, because a sort of gloomy satisfaction, or terrifick pleasure, accompanies the gratification of that curiosity which events of this nature are apt to raise in minds of a certain frame.
          No parts of Tasso are read with greater relish, than where he describes the darkness, silence, and other horrors, of the enchanted forest: and the poet himself is so sensible of the captivating influence of such ideas over the human imagination, that he makes the catastrophe of the poem in some measure depend upon them. Milton is not less enamoured ‘of forests and enchantments drear;’ as appears from the use to which he applies them in Comus: the scenery whereof charms us the more, because it affects our minds, as it did the bewildered lady, and causes ‘a thousand fantasies’ –

– to throng into the memory,
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire,
And aery tongues, that syllable mens names
On sands, and shoes, and desert wildernesses.

Forests in every age must have had attractive horrors: otherwise so many nations would not have resorted thither, to celebrate the rites of superstition. And the inventors of what is called the Gothick, but perhaps should rather be called the Saracen, architecture, must have been enraptured with the same imagery, when, in forming and arranging the pillars and ai[s]les of their churches, they were so careful to imitate the rows of lofty trees in a deep grove.
          Observe a few children assembled about a fire, and listening to tales of apparitions and witchcraft. You may see them grow pale, and croud [sic] closer through fear: while he who is snug in the chimney corner, and at the greatest distance from the door, considers himself as peculiarly fortunate; because he thinks that, if the ghost should enter, he has a better chance to escape, than if he were in a more exposed situation. And yet, notwithstanding their present, and their apprehension of future, fears, you could not perhaps propose any amusement that would at this time be more acceptable. The same love of such horrors as are not attended with sensible inconvenience continues with us through life: and Aristotle has affirmed, that the end of tragedy is to purify the soul by the operations of pity and terror.

[SOURCE: James Beattie, Dissertations Moral and Critical (London: S. Strahan; T. Cadell; Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1783), pp. 615–16]

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