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James Beattie to Thomas Gray, 16 February 1768

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To Thomas Gray Esquire
Pembroke Hall

Dear Sir

I received Your most agreable packet a week ago, and have carefully followed all Your instructions. I have written out all the Poems, in the order, and with the titles and mottos and notes, You desired. I never saw but one copy of Bentley's Edition, and that was a great many years ago: I was therefore obliged to transcribe the first second third and fourth Odes and the Elegy in a Country church yard from Dodsley's Collection. Such of the typographical errors as were obvious I have avoided; and I flatter myself that my Manuscript is pretty correct, for Your poems have been deeply imprinted on my memory for many years: however I shall recommend it to Foulis to compare the Manuscript with the folio Edition, if it can be got. The two Pindarick Odes I have taken from the Strawberry hill Edition.

I have wrote out some Directions to the Printer concerning the size of the paper, page, and type; I have made choice of a fair and thick writing paper, and have proposed the Strawberry hill Edition as a pattern for the page and type. I have left it to Mr Foulis to determine, whether the notes shall stand at the foot of each page, or at the end of the book; recommending however the latter, as being most consistent with elegance. In a word, I shall spare no pains to render our Scotch Edition in some measure worthy of the work, and of the Author.

I think You have condescended to Your Readers inattention even more than was necessary: for my own part, I never found any difficulty in understanding Your poetry. The first of the Pindaric odes is so perspicuous, that I could hardly conceive it possible for any person of Common sense to misunderstand it. If there be any obscurity in the Bard, it is only in the allusions; for the style and imagery are clear distinct and strong. But readers now-a-days have nothing in view but amusement; and have little relish for a book that requires any degree of attention.

Your new pieces have given me much pleasure: I could expatiate at great length on their beauties. The Fatal Sisters exhibits a collection of the most frightful images that ever occupied human imagination: some of them in the hands of an ordinary Poet would have sunk into burlesque (particularly the circumstance of the warriors heads) but You have made every thing magical and dreadful; Your choice of words on this, as on every other occasion, is the happiest that can be. It will (I am persuaded) give very high satisfaction to every Reader of taste, to observe with what exquisite art You have improved this fiction in Your Bard: the Norwegian witches excite horror; but the Welch bards do much more—they transport, enrapture, alarm, astonish and confound us.—The descent of Odin is not so interesting throughout, as the Sisters, but it abounds in exquisite images. The picture of the Dog of Darkness has no paralell in antient or modern poetry; I am convinced it owes more to the Imitator than to the Inventor. There are many other fine passages in the same poem, such as 'When long of yore to sleep &c.'—It is a pity we have no more of the Welch fragment; what You have given us is excellent, and has, I think, more method and perspicuity, than any other of the poems of that age.

The Public will regret with me, that You have drop'd your design of writing a history of English poetry. Percy in his Dissertations on Antient Ballads has thrown out some hints on this subject; but much remains to be done; and I shall expect, from what you tell us, that a greater work will make its appearance in due time.

I am much obliged to You for ordering a Copy of Your poems to be sent me when published: I will value it much for its own sake, but more for the sake of the Giver. But you owe me no thanks for what I have done in preparing this Edition; it was a most agreable amusement to me; and I think I have done my country a service and even an honour in being the first projector of so good a work.

I write by this Post to Mr Foulis to let him know that the Manuscript is ready and will be sent by the first sure hand. None of Your instructions will be forgotten.

Believe me to be with the truest affection and esteem Dear Sir
Your most faithful humble servant
J Beattie.

I can give You no certain information about Miss Hepburn, but I am much mistaken if I did not hear some years ago that she is dead.

Letter ID: letters.0525 (Source: TEI/XML)


Writer: Beattie, James, 1735-1803
Writer's age: 32
Addressee: Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771
Addressee's age: 51


Date of composition: 16 February 1768
Date (on letter): 16 February 1768
Calendar: Gregorian


Place of composition: Aberdeen, United Kingdom
Address (on letter): Aberdeen
Place of addressee: [Cambridge, United Kingdom]

Physical description

Addressed: To Thomas Gray Esquire / Pembroke Hall / Cambridge (postmark: FE 19 DUNDEE)


Language: English
Incipit: I received Your most agreable packet a week ago, and have carefully...
Mentioned: Poems by Mr. Gray (1768)

Holding Institution

AU MS 30/24/7/2, AU MS 30, Papers of James Beattie (1735-1803), Historic Collections, Special Libraries and Archives, King's College, University of Aberdeen Library , Aberdeen, UK <>
Availability: The original letter is extant and usually available for academic research purposes; a photostat is in MS. Toynbee d.32, Bodleian Library, Oxford

Print Versions

  • Correspondence of Thomas Gray, 3 vols. Ed. by the late Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, with corrections and additions by H. W. Starr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 [1st ed. 1935], letter no. 469, vol. iii, 1010-1012