Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



The name of Beattie, [note] like an Italian landscape, requires only to be mentioned, to fill the mind, at once, with ideas of beauty, gentleness, and repose:—“Beattie,” as Cowper [note] has charmingly described him, “the most agreeable and amiable writer I ever met with; the only author I have seen whose critical and philosophical researches are diversified and embellished by a poetical imagination, that makes even the driest subject, and the leanest, a feast for an epicure in books; one so much at his ease too, that his own character appears in every page, and, which is very rare, not only the writer but the man; and the man, so gentle, so well tempered, so happy in his religion, and so humane in his philosophy, that it is necessary to love him, if one has any sense of what is lovely.”


James Beattie was the youngest son of a small farmer at Laurencekirk, in the county of Kincardine, and born on the 25th of October, 1755.


He received at the school of his native village an education to fit him for the university, and, even at this early period, is said to have given such indications of the future “Minstrel,” that he went among his school-fellows by the name of the Poet; that name by which he is most likely to live for future ages. Not only was his taste for poetry thus early evinced,
but even the purity of that taste. His master preferred Ovid
[note] as a school-book for youth; young Beattie gave up all his soul to Virgil. [note]


In 1749, when but in his fourteenth year, he commenced his academical career at the Marischal college, Aberdeen; and as his finances were slender, his friends made interest to obtain for him one of those bursaries or exhibitions, which have been left by benevolent individuals to be annually bestowed on students whose relatives are unable to defray the entire expenses of an university education. Small in amount as these exhibitions are, seldom more than 5 l. and rarely 10 l. per annum, they are of immense importance in a country like Scotland, where living is cheap, and the habits of the people singularly frugal; and many are the instances, besides that of Beattie, of humble talent, which, but for such aid, would never have been lifted into the road to preferment and fame. Were the obligations to this source oftener acknowledged, we might expect to see the number of liberal benefactions to it increased; but, from an excess of that pride so characteristic of our countrymen, and, in a general sense, so laudable, which makes them shrink ashamed from the idea of owing any thing to charity, the possession of a bursary is the last thing which a Scottish student is fond of avowing.*


The church being, at that time, the chief field of

* Let the undersigned, for one, make the amende honorable. He owes to an exhibition of this sort the foundation of all the little learning which he possesses. A. S.
promise for the well-educated suns of poverty in Scotland the studies of young Beattie received, almost as a matter of course, that direction. He first studied Greek under Principal Blackwell,
[note] well known to the erudite for his “Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer;” a man of austere manners, but paternally kind to those who sought, by doing well, to deserve his esteem. In Beattie, the worthy professor thought he perceived a germ worthy of cultivation, and encouraged his progress by several strong marks of approbation. The memory of his goodness remained indelibly impressed on Beattie through the whole course of his after life; and he often declared, that Dr. Blackwell was the first person who ever gave him reason to believe that he possessed any genius. From the study of Greek he passed to that of philosophy, in which he had the benefit of the prelections of another eminent scholar, Dr. Alexander Gerard, [note] author of “Essays on Genius and Taste.” The interesting field into which he had now entered appears to have fixed the inclinations of Beattie. Agreeably to his original destination, he joined the divinity class; but, after a constrained attendance for three sessions, gave up pursuing that branch of knowledge.


In 1753, he took the degree of M.A. and soon after accepted the appointment of school-master to the parish of Fordoun, distant about six miles from the place of his nativity. It is a sequestered spot, but of a scenic character, admirably suited to a mind of a poetic cast. It has wood, and water, and mountain; deep and silent glens; and heathery braes, on which the setting sun delights to linger. When not occupied by his scholastic duties, he used to wander
forth to contemplate the romantic scenery which everywhere surrounded him; and, from what he saw, drew, as from the life, some of the finest descriptions and most striking pictures of nature to be found in his poetical compositions. Many short pieces which he wrote at this period, he sent to the
Scot's Magazine; sometimes dated from Fordoun; at others, from Kincardineshire generally; or from Aberdeen. Among these fugitive pieces, which were not republished by Dr. Beattie, there was one composed on his reading the Declaration of War, made on the 17th of May, 1756. It will remind the reader of the Campaign of Addison; [note] and it has been said, that, for vigor and fullness, it will not suffer greatly by a comparison with it. The following are the concluding lines:

O, thou Supreme! whose hand the thunder forms,
Wings the red lightning and awakes the storms;
Whose word, or lays the peaceful waves asleep,
Or in wild mountains heaves the roaring deep;
At whose command the kingdoms rise and fall;
Whose awful nod o'erturns the trembling ball,
Makes horrid war and boist'rous tumult cease,
And glads the nations with the sweets of peace!
With joyful success crown our just design,
And let thy face upon our armies shine;
In the dread day of danger and dismay,
Propitious, point to victory the way;
Still war's alarms once more! and let thy smile
With peace and plenty crown Britannia's isle.

Beattie appears to have judged better of the merits of this piece than his eulogists; and it may serve as
a specimen to satisfy us, that we have little reason to find fault with the discrimination which he exercised in selecting from his pieces those which he thought fit to live. Hexameters may have both “vigor and fullness” in them, without having one ray of poetry, and of this no one who reads these lines twice will probably have any doubt. The same thing, indeed, may be discovered from
“The Campaign,” one half of which is nothing but versified prose.


After he had passed four years in the solitude of Fordoun, a vacancy occurring in one of the masterships of the grammar school at Aberdeen, he became a candidate for the situation. He did not however succeed, but acquitted himself so well on the competition, that on a second vacancy happening about a year afterwards, he was requested by the magistrates, who are the electors, to accept the office without any new trial of his qualifications.


The removal to the grammar school of Aberdeen, was quickly succeeded by his advancement to a still more important dignity. In 1760, a chair in the Marischal College having become vacant, Mr. Arbuthnot, [note] a gentleman with whom Beattie had contracted strong habits of intimacy, suggested to him the possibility of procuring the appointment for himself. Beattie heard the proposal with some amazement, it never having entered into his imagination to conceive that such a situation could be within his reach; it was, indeed, an immense stride of ambition, for a young man, of only twenty-five years of age, to think of leaping all at once from an under master's place in a grammar school to an university chair. Mr. Arbuthnot, however, willing to try what could be done,
prevailed on the Earl of Errol to apply on behalf of Beattie to the Duke of Argyle, [note] who was, at that time, supposed to have the chief sway in the disposal of vacant places in Scotland. The application, almost contrary to every expectation, was successful. In September, 1760, Beattie was appointed, by royal patent. Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic, in the Marischal College.


Mr. Beattie's first care was to prepare a course of lectures on the subjects within his department, which he began to deliver in the session of 1760 and 1761. He continued, session after session, diligently to improve them, and soon acquired great popularity for the elegance and soundness of his disquisitions. He afterwards published a compendium of these lectures, under the title of Elements of Moral Science.


A society or club subsisted at this period in Aberdeen, consisting chiefly of Professors of King's and Marischal Colleges, with the addition of several gentlemen of the place, possessed of a taste for literary pursuits. It included among its members a Reid, [note] a Campbell, [note] a Gerard, [note] and a Gregory, [note] all celebrated names in our literary history; and, as may readily be supposed, it was not long before that of Beattie was added to the number. The purpose of its meetings was the discussion of literary and philosophical subjects; but there was nothing of that freezing formality in them which so often characterizes associations of this description. The club used to meet at a tavern, and finish its lucubrations with a supper; learning and conviviality joined hand in hand to make them slow to part and happy to meet again. The people of the town called it not inappropriately the Wise Club.


The productions which have rendered the names of the leading members of this club so celebrated in philosophy and criticism, or at least the outlines of them, are said to have been first discussed at its meetings in the shape of essays or questions for familiar debate. It was impossible, indeed, that men engaged in literary inquiries could meet for literary discussion without bringing their particular views and discoveries into the field; and no doubt can be entertained that this association must have had the happiest effects in awakening and directing that spirit of philosophic research which, some years ago, reflected so much lustre on the north of Scotland.


Mr. Beattie, as already mentioned, had given many early indications of poetic genius; and the first object to which his literary leisure was now devoted, was to gain a name in the world as a poet. In the spring of 1761, he published, at London and Edinburgh, a small collection, entitled “Original Poems and Translations,” with his name affixed. It consisted partly of originals and partly of the pieces formerly printed in the Scots Magazine, but very considerably altered and amended.


The reception given to this volume was singularly flattering. The critical works in greatest repute were pleased to consider it as an acquisition to English poetry, and declared that since Gray [note] was last before them, they had not met with a poet of more harmonious numbers, more pleasing imagination, or more spirited expression.


The warmth of this commendation did not fail to give general currency to the poems; among the very few persons whom it did not deceive was Beattie him-
self. When the poetic fervor, which had presided at their production, had abated; when he could dispassionately bring to the examination of their merits that critical taste which he possessed in as high a degree as most men; he felt so little satisfied with what the trading critics deemed “an acquisition to English poetry,” that he actually destroyed every copy he could procure, and some years after would only permit four of the pieces which it contained, and these in a greatly amended state, to be printed along with his masterpiece The Minstrel.
[note] These four pieces were Retirement, Ode to Hope, Elegy on a Lady, and the Hares.


Mr. Beattie's next poetical production was the “Judgment of Paris,” published in 4to., in 1765. Its fate was, in all respects, the reverse of that of his first volume. The critics did not praise it; the public did not like it; and the author was the last to believe that it was not deserving immortality. Ten years afterwards he reprinted it in a new edition of his poems; ultimately, however, he yielded to the popular voice, and the Judgment of Paris was no longer to be found in the wallet of the Minstrel. The fault of the piece lay not in the choice of subject, but in the manner of treating it; he put the wig of his friend, Dr. Reid, [note] on the gallant Paris, and made the “Judgment” to rest on an elaborate metaphysical distinction between the pleasures of sense and of soul.


About the same period he wrote a poem “On the talk of erecting a Monument to Churchill, in Westminster Hall.” It was printed at first anonymously, and had a rapid sale. He is said to have been instigated to the task by his friends in Scotland, where
[note] had the misfortune to be very heartily detested, not only on account of the licentiousness of his productions, but of his connection with Wilkes, [note] that arch-reviler of the Scottish name. In the following year he gave the verses a place in a new edition of his poems, but rather absurdly omitted the name of Churchill, while, in a prose address prefixed, he endeavoured to vindicate the keenness of his satire. In the subsequent editions of his poetical works he omitted the lines altogether. He seems happily to have lived to repent them. It was certainly very foreign to his general nature, which was amiable and indulgent, to pour contumely on the tomb of genius and to the injudicious importunity of friends we may safely impute the blame of this solitary speck on his fair fame.


In the autumn of 1765, Mr. Gray, [note] whose Elegy in a Country Church Yard had raised him to the first rank among British poets, paid a visit to the Earl of Strathmore, at Glammis Castle. Dr. Beattie, who was an enthusiastic admirer, and, in some respects, imitator of Gray, as soon as he heard of his arrival, addressed a letter to him, which led to a friendship which continued without interruption till the death of Gray.


In June, 1767, Mr. Beattie married Miss Mary Dun, daughter of Dr. James Dun, Rector of the Grammar School of Aberdeen.


Mr. Beattie had now reached a high station of respect in the literary world, but the great æra of his life was yet to come. It was reserved for his “Essay on Truth” to carry his fame far beyond all local bounds and local partialities. In the year 1769 he
had completed the MS. of his Essay, but so many difficulties occurred in procuring a bookseller to undertake the risk of its publication, that his friends, Mr. Arbuthnot
[note] and Sir William Forbes, [note] were obliged to become, unknown to him, the purchasers of the first edition at the sum of fifty guineas. This celebrated work which, but for this generous art of friendship, might never have seen the light, made its appearance in May, 1770. It excited immediate notice. No work of the kind ever before published had so speedy and extensive a circulation. In less than four years five large editions were sold, and it was translated into the French and several other foreign languages. The extreme eagerness with which it was bought up and read may doubtless be attributed, in a great measure, to temporary causes; to the earnestness with which it was recommended by all the most distinguished friends of religion in Great Britain, who had been anxiously looking around for a champion to the cause of truth, against the attacks of Mr. Hume [note] and other infidel writers; and to an honorable wish in the public in general to grace the triumph of sound reasoning over pernicious sophistry: but in no small degree also to the popular style in which the author had contrived to convey his sentiments, and to the genuine force of these sentiments themselves. With many individuals of the highest rank in the church and state the author had the pleasing satisfaction of dating his acquaintance from the publication of this work; among whom were Lord Mansfield; [note] Lord Lyttleton; [note] Dr. Porteus, [note] Bishop of London; Dr. Hurd, [note] Bishop of Winchester; and Mr. Burke. [note]


Although such eminent success had attended him
in this philosophic excursion, he was far from forgetting his early favorites, the Muses. A few months after the publication of the
“Essay on Truth,” Mr. Beattie published the first book of “The Minstrel” [note] in 4to., but without his name. By this concealment he ensured a more impartial and rigid judgment on its merits, than in the high state of his reputation at the time he could have otherwise hoped for; and never, perhaps, was an experiment of this kind attended with a result more calculated to give to the pleasure of approbation its highest zest. The best judges of poetical composition in the island loaded the unknown author with their commendations, praising him for having adopted the elevated, yet difficult, measure of Spenser, [note] and for having the rare enthusiasm of that writer to support and render it agreeable. The public, discovering in it the genuine poetry of nature and feeling, read it with such avidity, that before the author had the second part ready, four editions of the first were disposed of.


In 1774 he published the “Second Book,” with a new and amended edition of the first; and now avowed himself as the author. The work in this enlarged state suffered no diminution of its popularity: edition after edition has ever since continued to be called for, and it may now be regarded as among the standard poems of the language. The opinion which Lord Lyttelton [note] expressed of the Minstrel might of itself serve to carry it down through many an age. The whole field of criticism cannot boast of a more enchanting encomium. Its a letter to Mrs. Montagu [note] he says, “I read your Minstrel last night with as much rapture as poetry in her noblest, sweetest charms, ever raised in my soul.
It seemed to me that my once most beloved minstrel Thomson was come down from heaven, refined by the converse of purer spirits than those he lived with here, to let me hear him sing again the beauties of nature, and the finest feelings of virtue, not with human, but with angelic strains.”


Mrs. Montagu's friendship for Beattie commenced in 1771, on a visit which he then paid to London. At her house, he had the good fortune of meeting and becoming personally acquainted with Dr. Johnson, [note] and several other of the most eminent writers of that period; with the whole of the literary society, indeed, whose conversations have been so pleasantly related by Boswell. In May, 1773, Mr. Beattie paid a second visit to London, and, on this occasion, was honored by several very flattering marks of distinction. The University of Oxford conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws; his majesty not only placed him on the civil list for a pension of 200 l. but admitted him to the honor of a private interview at Kew; and Sir Joshua Reynolds [note] made him a present of the admirable picture, in which he has given a portrait of Dr. Beattie, with an allegorical representation of the triumph which his “Truth” had achieved over sophistry, scepticism, and infidelity.


Soon after this visit to England, he received several flattering proposals to enter into the English church; but very prudently declined them. It could not but have derogated greatly from his character, to have seen the advocate of truth changing his religion for the sake of worldly advancement.


In October, 1773, the chair of natural and experimental philosophy in the University of Edinburgh
becoming vacant, an offer of it was made to Dr. Beattie, but this also he declined. In this, as in every step of his life, he seems to have weighed the probable consequences to his character with great accuracy. He had already acquired an enviable eminence as a poet, a critic, and moral philosopher; but experimental philosophy was all a new field to him, in which even an ordinary reputation was not to be sustained without a course of laborious and unintermitting study, and new laurels were scarcely to he hoped for by one beginning the study at so late a period in life. Dr. Beattie besides, though his knowledge was extensive, confessedly knew little or nothing of the branches of mathematics, geometry, and mechanics; he used to say, indeed, that he not only had no turn for them, but that every application to them brought on headaches. It is not without its importance to notice these facts; for, strange as it may seem, his biographers,
[note] instead of having recourse to them for the must natural explanation in the world, of his conduct in declining the chair of experimental philosophy in Edinburgh, have been pleased to describe the Scottish capital as such a literary bear-garden at this period, that the amiable Beattie was deterred from removing thither from an apprehension that “the formation of a new society of friends might not be so easy or agreeable, in a place where the enemies of his principles were numerous”!! Necessity had undoubtedly as great a share as inclination in determining Dr. Beattie's choice on this occasion; and, to a mind so well regulated as his, it must have afforded a source of approving reflection, that by declining the chair, he left it open to one for
whom nature had more truly designed it, the celebrated Professor Robertson. [note]


In 1776, Dr. Beattie published a series of Essays on Poetry and Music, on Laughable and Ludicrous Composition, and on the Utility of Classical Learning; in 1783, “Dissertations, Moral and Critical;” in 1786, “the Evidences of the Christian Religion, briefly and plainly stated;” and in 1790 and 1793, “Elements of Moral Science.” Most of these productions formed originally part of the course of prelections which he read from his chair in the university; and his aim, as he declared, in all of them, was “to inure young minds to habits of attentive observation; to guard them against the influence of bad principles; and to set before them such views of nature, and such plain and practical truths, as may, at once, improve the heart and the understanding, and amuse and elevate the fancy.”


While thus delighting the world with the quick succession and variety of his productions, Dr. Beattie was himself, unhappily, nearly all the while a prey to the severest private sufferings. A hereditary tendency in Mrs. Beattie to that most dreadful of all human maladies, insanity, began, in a few years after their marriage, to exhibit itself in caprices which embittered every hour of his life; and ended, at last, in a state of such confirmed alienation, as required that she should be secluded from the society of her family. The only offspring of their connection were two sons, James Hay Beattie and Montagu Beattie. Both grew up to be every thing a father's heart could wish; distinguished for rising genius, sweetness of temper, and filial affection; but both it was his melancholy lot to
see consigned to an early grave, the eldest in his twenty-second, and the youngest in his eighteenth year. On the death of his son, James Hay Beattie he sought to alleviate his grief by writing an account of his “Life and Character,” which was afterwards published along with some of his literary remains, and is perhaps one of the most interesting and pathetic narratives in the language. It was the sorrowing “Minstrel's” parting effort; when he had discharged this last sad duty to the memory of his son, he laid aside his pen, and never resumed it more. For a few years, however, he still continued, although with intervals of depression and sickness, to deliver his public lectures as usual; but, when his only surviving child was also snatched from him, the blow was more than his fortitude could sustain; taking a last look of the dead body of his son, he said, “I have now done with the world.” From this period he began to withdraw from society, and brooded in silence over the havoc which affliction had made in his family, until his mind seemed lost to all that was passing around him. Many times, he could not recollect what had become of his son Montagu; and, after searching in every room of the house, he would say to his niece, Mrs. Glennie, “You may think it strange, but I must ask you if I have a son, and where he is?” When Mrs. G. on these occasions, felt herself under the painful necessity of bringing to his recollection his son Montagu's sufferings, the mention of them always restored him to reason. He would then, with many tears, express his thankfulness that he had no child, saying, in allusion to their mother's hereditary malady, “How could I have borne
to see their elegant minds mangled with madness!” After three years passed in this melancholy state, during which he dropt all correspondence even with the dearest of his friends, he breathed his last on the 18th of August, 1803, in the sixty-eighth year of his age. His remains were deposited, according to his own desire, close to those of his two sons, in the church-yard of St. Nicholas, at Aberdeen. The spot is marked by an elegant and classical description, written by his friend, Dr. James Gregory
[note] of Edinburgh.*


The character of Dr. Beattie is one not easily to he mistaken. It is a character, as Cowper [note] has said, which “appears in every page of his writings,” and never, perhaps, was there a writer whose life and writings were in stricter harmony. Purity in word and deed; great zeal for moral and religions truth; a thirst for fame through good done to society; were the grand features which marked his path in life. Among the minor or rather subordinate traits may be ranked his freedom from all self conceit; the generally perfect knowledge which he possessed of his own powers and attainments; and the skill and prudence by which, amid the numerous literary adventures which he made, he encountered only one instance of decisive failure.


The Essay on Truth, notwithstanding the great share which it had in contributing to his fame, may, with safety, be pronounced as among the least durable of his productions. The work was polemical, and there never yet was any thing polemical designed for immortality. As a piece of reasoning, it was more

* Lately deceased.
confounding than persuasive; difficult to answer, yet abounding in incongruities; right in most of its fundamental positions, but often ambiguous and incorrect in their application. It had neither the precision of expression nor clearness of idea necessary to give it a lasting place among philosophical compositions. Beattie aimed, on a large view, at the same theory of common sense which Reid,
[note] with greater subtlety and penetration, traced correctly through all its ramifications; and to Reid the task of establishing that theory remained.


The miscellaneous “Essays” and “Dissertations,” though of less pretension than the work on Truth, are probably possessed of quite as much real merit. There is something singularly pleasing in the style of remark which pervades them. The author has, in a supreme degree, the art of carrying his reader along with him; rarely perplexing or offending by any nice distinctions or bold paradoxes; and, at every step, making the fancy in love with some precious truth, by the elegance of dress with which it is adorned.


It is by the poem of the Minstrel, [note] however, that the name of Beattie is most certain of continuing to be admired through future ages. The favour in which it is universally held speaks more than volumes of criticism can do in its praise. To give specimens of what is in every one's hands would, indeed, be idle labour; but one quotation, at least, may be permitted for the sake of the criticism which it has called forth from one of the first of English bards.

O, how can thou renounce the boundless store
Of charms which Nature to her votary yields!
The warbling woodland, the resounding shore,
The pomp of groves, the garniture of fields.
All that the general ray of morning gilds,
And all that echoes to the song of even,
All that the mountain's sheltering bosom shields,
And all the dread magnificence of heaven;
O, how can'st thou renounce, and hope to be forgiven!

In a criticism on the Minstrel, which Gray [note] communicated to the author, he says of this passage, “This is true poetry; this is inspiration!”


Among the minor pieces in the first edition of Dr. Beattie's poems there is an Epitaph, which evidently appears to have been designed for himself. It cannot be said to be very characteristic; all the lines, except the last, being adapted to general nature; but it is a curiosity of its kind, and distinguished by no inconsiderable share of epigrammatic excellence.

Escap'd the gloom of mortal life, a soul
Here leaves its mould'ring tenement of clay;
Safe, where no cares their 'whelming billows roll,
No doubts bewilder, and no hopes betray.
Like thee I once have stemm'd the sea of life,
Like thee have languish'd after empty joys,
Like thee have labour'd in the stormy strife,
Been griev'd for trifles and amus'd with toys.
Yet for a while 'gainst passion's threatful blast
Let steady reason urge the struggling oar;
Till thro' the murky gloom the morn, at last,
Gives to the longing eye the blissful shore.
Forget my frailties, thou art also frail;
Forgive my lapses, for thyself may'st fall:
Nor read, unmov'd, my artless tender tale:
I was a friend, O Man! to thee and all.