A PRELIMINARY DISCOURSEAs Swift has, with some reason, affirmed that all sublunary happiness consists in being well deceived, it may possibly be the creed of many, that it had been wise, if after Dr. Blair's ingenious and elegant dissertation on "the venerable Ossian," all doubts respecting what we have been taught to call his works had forever ceased: since there appears cause to believe, that numbers who listened with delight to "the voice of Cona," would have been happy, if, seeing their own good, they had been content with these poems accompanied by Dr. Blair's judgment, and sought to know no more. There are men, however, whose ardent love of truth rises, on all occasions, paramount to every other consideration; and though the first step in search of it should dissolve the charm, and turn a fruitful Eden into a barren wild, they would pursue it. For those, and for the idly curious in literary problems, added to the wish of making this new edition of "The Poems of Ossian" as well-informed as the hour would allow, we have here thought it proper to insert some account of a renewal of the controversy relating to the genuineness of this rich treasure of poetical excellence.
Nearly half a century has elapsed since the Publication of the poems ascribed by Mr. Macpherson to Ossian, which poems he then professed to have collected in the original Gaelic, during a tour through the Western Highlands and Isles; but a doubt of their authenticity nevertheless obtained, and, from their first appearance to this day, has continued in various degrees to agitate the literary world. In the present year, "A Report," springing from an inquiry instituted for the purpose of leaving, with regard to this matter, "no hinge or loop to hang a doubt on," has been laid before the public. As the committee, in this investigation, followed, in a great measure, that line of conduct chalked out by David Hume to Dr. Blair, we shall, previously to stating their precise mode of proceeding, make several large and interesting extracts from the historian's two letters on this subject.
"I live in a place," he writes, "where I have the pleasure of frequently hearing justice done to your dissertation, but never heard it mentioned in a company, where some one person or other did not express his doubts with regard to the authenticity of the poems which are its subject; and I often hear them totally rejected with disdain and indignation, as a palpable and most impudent forgery. This opinion has, indeed, become very prevalent among the men of letters in London; and I can foresee, that in a few years, the poems, if they continue to stand on their present footing, will be thrown aside, and will fall into final oblivion.
"The absurd pride and caprice of Macpherson himself, who scorns, as he pretends, to satisfy anybody that doubts his veracity, has tended much to confirm this general skepticism; and I must own, for my part, that though I have had many particular reasons to believe these poems genuine, more than it is possible for any Englishman of letters to have, yet I am not entirely without my scruples on that head. You think, that the internal proofs in favor of the poems are very convincing; so they are; but there are also internal reasons against them, particularly from the manners, notwithstanding all the art with which you have endeavored to throw a vernish on that circumstance; and the preservation of such long and such connected poems, by oral tradition alone, during a course of fourteen centuries, is so much out of the ordinary course of human affairs, that it requires the strongest reasons to make us believe it. My present purpose, therefore, is to apply to you in the name of all the men of letters of this, and, I may say, of all other countries, to establish this capital point, and to give us proofs that these poems are, I do not say, so ancient as the age of Severus, but that they, were not forged within these five years by James Macpherson. These proofs must not be arguments, but testimonies; people's ears are fortified against the former; the latter may yet find their way, before the poems are consigned to total oblivion. Now the testimonies may, in my opinion, be of two kinds. Macpherson pretends there is an ancient manuscript of part of Fingal in the family, I think, of Clanronald. Get that fact ascertained by more than one person of credit; let these persons be acquainted with the Gaelic; let them compare the original and the translation; and let them testify the fidelity of the latter.
"But the chief point in which it will be necessary for you to exert yourself, will be, to get positive testimony from many different hands that such poems are vulgarly recited in the Highlands, and have there long been the entertainment of the people. This testimony must be as particular as it is positive. It will not be sufficient that a Highland gentleman or clergyman say or write to you that he has heard such poems; nobody questions that there are traditional poems of that part of the country, where the names of Ossian and Fingal, and Oscar and Gaul, are mentioned in every stanza. The only doubt is, whether these poems have any farther resemblance to the poems published by Macpherson. I was told by Bourke, a very ingenious Irish gentleman, the author of a tract on the sublime and beautiful, that on the first publication of Macpherson's book, all the Irish cried out, 'We know all those poems. We have always heard them from our infancy.' But when he asked more particular questions, he could never learn that any one ever heard or could repeat the original of any one paragraph of the pretended translation. This generality, then, must be carefully guarded against, as being of no authority.
"Your connections among your brethren of the clergy may be of great use to you. You may easily learn the names of all ministers of that country who understand the language of it. You may write to them, expressing the doubts that have arisen, and desiring them to send for such of the bards as remain, and make them rehearse their ancient poems. Let the clergymen then have the translation in their hands, and let them write back to you, and inform you, that they heard such a one, (naming him,) living in such a place, rehearse the original of such a passage, from such a page to such a page of the English translation, which appeared exact and faithful. If you give to the public a sufficient number of such testimonials, you may prevail. But I venture to foretel to you, that nothing less will serve the purpose; nothing less will so much as command the attention of the public.
"Becket tells me, that he is to give us a new edition of your dissertation, accompanied with some-remarks on Temora. Here is a favorable opportunity for you to execute this purpose. You have a just and laudable zeal for the credit of these poems. They are, if genuine, one of the greatest curiosities, in all respects, that ever was discovered in the commonwealth of letters; and the child is, in a manner, become yours by adoption, as Macpherson has totally abandoned all care of it. These motives call upon you to exert yourself: and I think it were suitable to your candor, and most satisfactory also to the reader, to publish all the answers to all the letters you write, even though some of those letters should make somewhat against your own opinion in this affair. We shall always be the more assured, that no arguments are strained beyond their proper force, and no contrary arguments suppressed, where such an entire communication is made to us. Becket joins me heartily in that application; and he owns to me, that the believers in the authenticity of the poems diminish every day among the men of sense and reflection. Nothing less than what I propose can throw the balance on the other side."
Lisle street, Leicester Fields,
19th Sept., 1763.
The second letter contains less matter of importance; but what there is that is relevant deserves not to be omitted.
"I am very glad," he writes on the 6th of October, 1763, "you have undertaken the task which I used the freedom to recommend to you. Nothing less than what you propose will serve the purpose. You must expect no assistance from Macpherson, who flew into a passion when I told him of the letter I had wrote to you. But you must not mind so strange and heteroclite a mortal, than whom I have scarce ever known a man more perverse and unamiable. He will probably depart for Florida with Governor Johnstone, and I would advise him to travel among the Chickasaws or Cherokees, in order to tame and civilize him.
* * * * * *
"Since writing the above, I have been in company with Mrs. Montague, a lady of great distinction in this place, and a zealous partisan of Ossian. I told her of your intention, and even used the freedom to read your letter to her. She was extremely pleased with your project; and the rather, as the Due de Nivernois, she said, had talked to her much on that subject last winter; and desired, if possible, to get collected some proofs of the authenticity of these poems, which he proposed to lay before the Academie de Belles Lettres at Paris. You see, then, that you are upon a great stage in this inquiry, and that many people have their eyes upon you. This is a new motive for rendering your proofs as complete as possible. I cannot conceive any objection which a man, even of the gravest character, could have to your publication of his letters, which will only attest a plain fact known to him. Such scruples, if they occur, you must endeavor to remove, for on this trial of yours will the judgment of the public finally depend."
Without being acquainted with Hume's advice to Dr. Blair, the committee, composed of chosen persons, and assisted by the best Celtic scholars, adopted, as it will he seen, a very similar manner of acting.
It conceived the purpose of its nomination to be, to employ the influence of the society, and the extensive communication which it possesses with every part of the Highlands, in collecting what materials or information it was still practicable to collect, regarding the authenticity and nature of the poems ascribed to Ossian, and particularly of that celebrated collection published by Mr. James Macpherson.
For the purpose above mentioned, the committee, soon after its appointment, circulated the following set of queries, through such parts of the Highlands and Islands, and among such persons resident there, as seemed most likely to afford the information required.
1. Have you ever heard repeated, or sung, any of the poems ascribed to Ossian, translated and published by Mr. Macpherson? By whom have you heard them so repeated, and at what time or times? Did you ever commit any of them to writing? or can you remember them so well as now to set them down? In either of these cases, be so good to send the Gaelic original to the committee.
2. The same answer is requested concerning any other ancient poems of the same kind, and relating to the same traditionary persons or stories with those in Mr. Macpherson's collection.
3. Are any of the persons from whom you heard any such poems now alive? or are there, in your part of the country, any persons who remember and can repeat or recite such poems? If there are, be so good as to examine them as to the manner of their getting or learning such compositions; and set down, as accurately as possible, such as they can now repeat or recite; and transmit such their account, and such compositions as they repeat, to the committee.
4. If there are, in your neighborhood, any persons from whom Mr. Macpherson received any poems, in. quire particularly what the poems were which he so received, the manner in which he received them, and how he wrote them down; show those persons, if you have an opportunity, his translation of such poems, and desire them to say, if the translation is exact and literal; or, if it differs, in what it differs from the poems, as they repeated them to Mr. Macpherson, and can now recollect them.
5. Be so good to procure every information you conveniently can, with regard to the traditionary belief, in the country in which you live, concerning, the history of Fingal and his followers, and that of Ossian and his poems; particularly those stories and poems published by Mr. Macpherson, and the heroes mentioned in them. Transmit any such account, and any proverbial or traditionary expression in the original Gaelic, relating to the subject, to the committee.
6. In all the above inquiries, or any that may occur to in elucidation of this subject, he is requested by the committee to make the inquiry, and to take down the answers, with as much impartiality and precision as possible, in the same manner as if it were a legal question, and the proof to be investigated with a legal strictness.--See the "Report."
It is presumed as undisputed, that a traditionary history of a great hero or chief, called Fion, Fion na Gael, or, as it is modernized, Fingal, exists, and has immemorially existed, in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and that certain poems or ballads containing the exploits of him and his associate heroes, were the favorite lore of the natives of those districts. The general belief of the existence of such heroic personages, and the great poet Ossian, the son of Fingal, by whom their exploits were sung, is as universal in the Highlands, as the belief of any ancient fact whatsoever. It is recorded in proverbs, which pass through all ranks and conditions of men, Ossian dall, blind Ossian, is a person as well known as strong Sampson, or wise Solomon. The very boys in their sports cry out for fair play, Cothram na feine, the equal combat o the Fingalians. Ossian, an deigh nam fiann, Ossian, the last of his race, is proverbial, to signify a man who has had the misfortune to survive his kindred; and servants returning from a fair or wedding, were in use to describe the beauty of young women they had seen there, by the words, Tha i cho boidheach reh Agandecca, nighean ant sneachda, She is as beautiful as Agandecca, the daughter of the Snow.
All this will be readily conceded, and Mr. Macpherson's being at one period an "indifferent proficient in the Gaelic language," may seem an argument of some weight against his having himself composed these Ossianic Poems. Of his inaccuracy in the Gaelic, a ludicrous instance is related in the declaration of Mr. Evan Macpherson, at Knock, in Sleat, Sept. 11, 1800. He declares that he, "Colonel Macleod, of Talisker, and the late Mr. Maclean of Coll, embarked with Mr. Macpherson for Uist on the same pursuit: that they landed at Lochmaddy, and proceeded across the Muir to Benbecula, the seat of the younger Clanronald: that on their way thither they fell in with a man whom they afterwards ascertained to have been Mac Codrum, the poet: that Mr. Macpherson asked him the question, A bheil dad agad air an Fheinn? by which he meant to inquire, whether or not he knew any of the poems of Ossian relative to the Fingalians: but that the term in which the question was asked, strictly imported whether or not the Fingalians owed him any thing; and that Mac Codrum, being a man of humor, took advantage of the incorrectness or inelegance of the Gaelic in which the question was put, and answered, that really if they had owed him any thing, the bonds and obligations were lost, and he believed any attempt to recover them at that time of day would be unavailing. Which sally of MacCodrum's wit seemed to have hurt Mr. Macpherson, who cut short the conversation, and proceeded on towards Benbecula. And the declarant being asked whether or not the late Mr. James Macpherson was capable of composing such poems as those of Ossian, declares most explicitly and positively that he is certain Mr. Macpherson was as unequal to such compositions as the declarant himself, who could no more make them than take wings and fly." p. 96.
We would here observe, that the sufficiency of a man's knowledge of such a language as the Gaelic, for all the purposes of composition, is not to be questioned, because he does not speak it accurately or elegantly, much less is it to be quibbled into suspicion by the pleasantry of a double entendre. But we hold it prudent, and it shall be our endeavor in this place, to give no decided opinion on the main subject of dispute. For us the contention shall still remain sub judice.
To the queries circulated through such parts of the Highlands as the committee imagined most likely to afford information in reply to them, they received many answers, most of which were conceived in nearly similar terms; that the persons themselves had never doubted of the existence of such poems as Mr. Macpherson had translated; that they had heard many of them repeated in their youth: that listening to them was the favorite amusement of Highlanders, in the hours of leisure and idleness; but that since the rebellion in 1745, the manners of the people had undergone a change so unfavorable to the recitation of these poems, that it was now an amusement scarcely known, and that very few persons remained alive who were able to recite them. That many of the poems which they had formerly heard were similar in subject and story, as well as in the names of the heroes mentioned in them, to those translated by Mr. Macpherson: that his translation seemed, to such as had read it, a very able one; but that it did not by any means come up to the force or energy of the original to such as had read it; for his book was by no means universally possessed, or read among the Highlanders, even accustomed to reading, who conceived that his translation could add but little to their amusement, and not at all to their conviction, in a matter which they had never doubted. A few of the committee's correspondents sent them such ancient poems as they possessed in writing, from having formerly taken them down from the oral recitation of the old Highlanders who were in use to recite them, or as they now took them down from some person, whom a very advanced period of life, or a particular connection with some reciter of the old school, enabled still to retain them in his memory; but those, the committee's correspondents said, were generally less perfect, and more corrupted, than the poems which they had, formerly heard, or which might have been obtained at an earlier period.
Several collections came to them by presents, as well as by purchase, and in these are numerous "shreds and patches," that bear a strong resemblance to the materials of which "Ossian's Poems" are composed. These are of various degrees of consequence. One of them we are the more tempted to give, for the same reason as the committee was the more solicitous to procure it, because it was one which some of the opposers of the authenticity of Ossian had quoted as evidently spurious, betraying the most convincing marks of its being a close imitation of the address to the sun in Milton.
"I got," says Mr. Mac Diarmid, "the copy of these poems" (Ossian's address to the sun in Carthon, and a similar address in Carrickthura) "about thirty years, ago, from an old man in Glenlyon. I took it, and several other fragments, now, I fear, irrecoverably lost, from the man's mouth. He had learnt them in his youth from people in the same glen, which must have been long before Macpherson was born."
LITERAL TRANSLATION OF OSSIAN'S ADDRESS TO THE SUN IN CARTHON.
"O! thou who travellest above, round as the full-orbed hard shield of the mighty! whence is thy brightness without frown, thy light that is lasting, O sun? Thou comest forth in thy powerful beauty, and the stars bide their course; the moon, without strength, goes from the sky, hiding herself under a wave in the west. Thou art in thy journey alone; who is so bold as to come nigh thee? The oak falleth from the high mountain; the rock and the precipice fall under old age; the ocean ebbeth and floweth, the moon is lost above in the sky; but thou alone forever in victory, in the rejoicing of thy own light. When the storm darkeneth around the world, with fierce thunder, and piercing lightnings, thou lookest in thy beauty from the noise, smiling in the troubled sky! To me is thy light in vain, as I can never see thy countenance; though thy yellow golden locks are spread on the face of the clouds in the east; or when thou tremblest in the west, at thy dusky doors in the ocean. Perhaps thou and myself are at one time mighty, at another feeble, our years sliding down from the skies, quickly travelling together to their end. Rejoice then, O sun! while thou art strong, O king! in thy youth. Dark and unpleasant is old age, like the vain and feeble light of the moon, while she looks through a cloud on the field, and her gray mist on the sides of the rocks; a blast from the north on the plain, a traveller in distress, and he slow."
The comparison may be made, by turning to the end of Mr. Macpherson's version of "Carthon," beginning "O thou that rollest above."
But it must not be concealed, that after all the exertions of the committee, it has not been able to obtain any one poem, the same in title and tenor with the poems published by him. We therefore feel that the reader of "Ossian's Poems," until grounds more relative be produced, will often, in the perusal of Mr. Macpherson's translations, be induced, with some show of justice. to exclaim with him, when he looked over the manuscript copies found in Clanronald's family, "D--n the scoundrel, it is he himself that now speaks, and not Ossian!'
To this sentiment the committee has the candor to incline, us it will appear by their summing up. After producing or pointing to a large body of mixed evidence, and taking for granted the existence, at some period, of an abundance of Ossianic poetry, it comes to the question, "How far that collection of such poetry, published by Mr. James Macpherson, is genuine?" To answer this query decisively, is, as they confess, difficult. This, however, is the ingenious manner in which they treat it.
"The committee is possessed of no documents, to show how much of his collection Mr. Macpherson obtained in the form in which he has given it to the world. The poems and fragments of poems which the committee has been able to procure, contain, as will appear from the article in the Appendix (No. 15) already mentioned, often the substance, and sometimes almost the literal expression (the ipsissima verba) of passages given by Mr. Macpherson, in the poems of which he has published the translations. But the committee has not been able to obtain any one poem the same in title or tenor with the poems published by him. It is inclined to believe, that he was in use to supply chasms, and to give connection, by inserting passages which he did not find, and to add what he conceived to be dignity and delicacy to the original Composition, by striking out passages, by softening incidents, by refining the language -- in short, by changing what he considered as too simple or too rude for modern ear, and elevating what, in his opinion, was below the standard of good poetry. To what degree, however, he exercised these liberties, it is impossible for the committee to determine. The advantages he possessed, which the committee began its inquiries too late to enjoy, of collecting from the oral recitation of a number of persons, now no more, a very great number of the same poems on the same subjects, and then collating those different copies, or editions, if they may be so called, rejecting what was spurious or corrupted in one copy, and adopting from another, something more genuine and excellent in its place, afforded him an opportunity of putting together what might fairly enough be called an original whole, of much more beauty, and with much fewer blemishes, than the committee believe it now possible for any person, or combination of persons, to obtain." P. 152-3.
Some Scotch critics, who should not be ignorant of the strongholds and fastnesses of the advocates for the authenticity of these poems, appear so convinced of their insufficiency, that they pronounce the question put to rest forever. But we greatly distrust that any literary question, possessing a single inch of debateable ground to stand upon, will be suffered to enjoy much rest in an age like the present. There are as many minds as men, and of wranglers there is no end. Behold another and "another yet," and in our imagination, he
"bears a glass,
Which shows us many more."
The first of these is Mr. Laing, who has recently published the "Poems of Ossian, &c., containing Poetical Works of James Macpherson, Esq., in Prose and Rhyme: with, notes and illustrations. In 2 vols. 8 vo. Edinburgh, 1805." In these "notes and illustrations," we foresee, that Ossian is likely to share the fate of Shakspeare, that is, ultimately to be loaded and oppressed by heavy commentators, until his immortal spirit groan beneath vast heaps of perishable matter. The object of Mr. Laing's commentary, after having elsewhere endeavored to show that the poems are spurious, and of no historical authority, "is," says he, it not merely to exhibit parallel passages, much less instances of a fortuitous resemblance of ideas, but to produce the precise originals from which the similes and images arc indisputably derived." And these he pretends to find in Holy Writ, and in the classical poets, both of ancient and modern times. Mr. Laing, however, is one of those detectors of plagiarisms, and discoverers of coincidences, whose exquisite penetration and acuteness can find any thing anywhere. Dr. Johnson, who was shut against conviction with respect to Ossian, even when he affected to seek the truth in the heart of the Hebrides, may yet be made useful to the Ossianites in canvassing the merits of this redoubted stickler on the side of opposition. "Among the innumerable practices," says the Rambler, "by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a now composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre. This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability."
How far this just sentence applies to Mr. Laing, it does not become us, nor is it our business, now to declare: but we must say, that nothing can be more disingenuous or groundless than his frequent charges of plagiarism of the following description; because, in the War of Caros, we meet with these words, "It is like the field, when darkness covers the hills around, and the shadow grows slowly on the plain of the sun," we are to believe, according to Mr. Laing, that the idea was stolen from Virgil's
Majoresque cadunt altis de montibus umbra.
For see, yon sunny hills the shade extend.--Dryden.
As well might we credit that no one ever beheld a natural phenomenon except the Mantuan bard. The book of nature is open to all, and in her pages there are no new readings. "Many subjects," it is were said by Johnson, "fall under the consideration of an author, which, being limited by nature, can admit only of slight and accidental diversities. And definitions of the same thing must be nearly the same; and descriptions, which are definitions of a more lax and fanciful kind, must always have, in some degree, that resemblance to each other, which they all have to their object." It is true, however, if we were fully able to admit that Macpherson could not have obtained these-ideas where he professes to have found them, Mr. Laing has produced many instances of such remarkable coincidence as would make it probable that Macpherson frequently translates, not the Gaelic, but the poetical lore of antiquity. Still this is a battery that can only be brought to play on particular points; and then with great uncertainty. The mode of attack used by Mr. Knight, could it have been carried on to any extent, 'would have proved much more effectual. We shall give the instance alluded to. In his "Analytical Enquiry into the Principles of Taste, 1805," he makes these remarks:
"The untutored, but uncorrupted feelings of all unpolished nations, have regulated their fictions upon the same principles, even when most rudely exhibited. In relating the actions of their gods and deceased heroes, they are licentiously extravagant: for their falsehood could amuse, because it could not be detected; but in describing the common appearances of nature, and all those objects and effects which are exposed to habitual observation, their bards are scrupulously exact; so that an extravagant hyperbole, in a matter of this kind, is sufficient to mark, as counterfeit any composition attributed to them. In the early stages of society, men are as acute and accurate in practical observation as they are limited and deficient in speculative science; and in proportion as, they, are ready to give up their imaginations to delusion, they are jealously tenacious of the evidence of their senses. James Macpherson, in the person of his blind bard, could say, with applause in the eighteenth century, 'Thus have I seen in Cona; but Cona I behold no more; thus have I seen two dark hills removed from their place by the strength of the mountain stream. They turn from side to side, and their tall oaks meet one another on high. Then they fall together with all their rocks and trees.'
"But had a blind bard, or any other bard, presumed to utter such a rhapsody of bombast in the hall of shells, amid the savage warriors to whom Ossian is supposed to have sung, he would have needed all the influence of royal birth, attributed to that fabulous personage, to restrain the audience from throwing their shells at his head, and hooting him out of their company as an impudent liar. They must have been sufficiently acquainted with the rivulets of Cona or Glen-Coe to know that he had seen nothing of the kind; and have known enough of mountain torrents in general to know that no such effects are ever produced by them, and would, therefore, have indignantly rejected such a barefaced attempt to impose on their credulity."
The best defence that can be set up in this case will, perhaps, be to repeat, "It is he himself that now speaks, and not Ossian."
Mr. Laing had scarcely thrown down the gauntlet, when Mr. Archibald M'Donald appeared
"Ready, aye, ready, for the field.
The opinion of the color of his opposition, whether it be that of truth or error, will depend on the eye that contemplates it. Those who delight to feast with Mr. Laing on the limbs of a mangled poet, will think the latter unanswered; while those who continue to indulge the animating thought, "that Fingal lived, and that Ossian sung," will entertain a different sentiment. After successfully combating several old positions, Mr. M'Donald terminates his discussion of the point at issue with these words:
"He (Mr. Laing) declares, 'if a single poem of Ossian in MS. of an older date than the present century (1700,) be procured and lodged in a public library, I (Laing) shall return among the first to our national creed.'
"This is reducing the point at issue to a narrow compass. Had the proposal been made at the outset, it would have saved both him and me a good deal of trouble: not that in regard to ancient Gaelic manuscripts I could give any more satisfactory account than has been done in the course of this discourse. There the reader will see, that though some of the poems are confessedly procured from oral tradition, yet several gentlemen of veracity attest to have seen, among Macpherson's papers, several MSS. of a much older date than Mr. Laing requires to be convinced. Though not more credulous than my neighbors, I cannot resist facts so well attested; there are no stronger for believing the best-established human transactions.
"I understand the originals are in the press, and expected daily to make their appearance. When they do, the public will not be carried away by conjectures, but be able to judge on solid grounds. Till then, let the discussion be at rest." P. 193-4. It is curious to remark, and, in this place, not unworthy of our notice, that whilst the controversy is imminent in the decision, whether these poems are to be ascribed to a Highland bard long since gone "to the halls of his fathers," or to a Lowland muse of the last century, it is in the serious meditation of some controversialist to step in and place the disputed wreath on the brows of Hibernia. There is no doubt that Ireland was, in ancient times, so much connected with the adjacent coast of Scotland, that they might almost be considered as one country, having a community of manners and of language, as well as the closest political connection. Their poetical language is nearly, or rather altogether the same. These coinciding circumstances, therefore, independent of all other ground, afford to ingenuity, in the present state of the question, a sufficient basis for the erection of an hypothetical superstructure of a very imposing nature.
In a small volume published at Dusseldorf in 1787, by Edmond, Baron de Harold, an Irishman, of endless titles, we are presented with what are called, "Poems of Ossian lately discovered."
"I am interested," says the baron in his preface, in no polemical dispute or party, and give these poems such as they are found in the mouths of the people; and do not pretend to ascertain what was the native country of Ossian. I honor and revere equally a bard of his exalted talents, were he born in Ireland or in Scotland. It is certain that the Scotch and Irish were united at some early period. That they proceed from the same origin is indisputable; nay, I believe that it is proved beyond any possibility of negating it, that the Scotch derive their origin from the Irish. This truth has been brought in question but of late days; and all ancient tradition, and the general con. sent of the Scotch nation, and of their oldest historians, agree to confirm the certitude of this assertion. If any man still doubts of it, he will find, in Macgeogehan's History of Ireland, an entire conviction, established by elaborate discussion, and most incontrovertible proofs:" pp. v. vi.
We shall not stay to quarrel about "Sir Archy's great grandmother," or to contend that Fingal, the Irish giant, did not one day go "over from Carrickfergus, and people all Scotland with his own hands," and make these sons of the north "illegitimate;" but we may observe, that from the inclination of the baron's opinion, added to the internal evidence of his poems, there appears at least as much reason to believe their author to have been a native of Ireland as of Scotland. The success with which Macpherson's endeavors had been rewarded, induced the baron to inquire whether any more of this kind of poetry could be obtained. His search, he confessed, would have proved fruitless, had he expected to find complete pieces; "for, certainly," says he, "none such exist. But," he adds, "in seeking with assiduity and care, I found, by the help of my friends, several fragments of old traditionary songs, which were very sublime, and particularly remarkable for their simplicity and elegance." P. iv.
"From these fragments," continues Baron de Harold, "I have composed the following poems. They are all founded on tradition; but the dress they now appear in is mine. It will appear singular to some, that Ossian, at times, especially in the songs of Comfort, seems rather to be an Hibernian than a Scotchman, and that some of these poems formally contradict passages of great importance in those handed to the public by Mr. Macpherson, especially that very remarkable one of Evir-allen, where the description of her marriage with Ossian, is essentially different in all its parts front that given in former poems." P. v.
We refer the reader to the opening of the fourth book of Fingal, which treats of Ossian's courtship of Evir-allen. The Evir-allen of Baron de Harold is in these words:
THOU fairest of the maids of Morven, young beam of streamy Lutha, come to the help of the aged, come to the help of the distressed. Thy soul is open to pity. Friendship glows in thy tender breast. Ah come and sooth away my wo. Thy words are music to my soul.
Bring me my once-loved harp. It hangs long neglected in my hall. The stream of years has borne me away in its course, and rolled away all my bliss. Dim and faded are my eyes; thin-strewed with hairs my head. Weak is that nervous arm, once the terror of foes. Scarce can I grasp my staff, the prop of my trembling limbs.
Lead me to yonder craggy steep. The murmur of the falling streams; the whistling winds rushing through the woods of my hills; the welcome rays of the bounteous sun, will soon awake the voice of song in my breast. The thoughts of former years glide over my soul like swift-shooting meteors o'er Ardven's gloomy vales.
Come, ye friends of my youth, ye soft-sounding voices of Cona, bend from your gold-tinged clouds, and join me in my song. A mighty blaze is kindled in my soul. I hear a powerful voice. It says, "Seize thy beam of glory, O bard! for thou shalt soon depart. Soon shall the light of song be faded. Soon thy tuneful voice forgotten."--"Yes, I obey, O Powerful voice, for thou art pleasing to mine ear."
O Evir-allen! thou boast of Erin's maids, thy thoughts come streaming on my soul. Hear, O Malvina! a tale of my youth, the actions of my former days.
Peace reigned over Morven's hills. The shell of joy resounded in our halls. Round the blaze of the oak sported in festive dance the maids of Morven. They shone like the radiant bow of heaven, when the fiery rays, of the setting sun brightens its varied sides. They wooed me to their love, but my heart was silent, cold. Indifference, like a brazen shield, covered my frozen heart.
Fingal saw, he smiled, and mildly spoke: My son, the down of youth grows on thy check. Thy arm has wielded the spear of war. Foes have felt thy force. Morven's maids are fair, but fairer are the daughters of Erin. Go to that happy isle; to Branno's grass-covered fields. The daughter of my friend deserves thy love. Majestic beauty flows around her as a robe, and innocence, as a precious veil, heightens her youthful charms. Go, take thy arms, and win the lovely fair.
Straight I obeyed. A chosen band followed my steps. O We mounted the dark-bosomed ship of the king, spread its white sails to the winds, and ploughed through the foam of ocean. Pleasant shone the fine-eyed Ull-Erin. 1 With joyal songs we cut the liquid way. The moon, regent of the silent night, gleamed majestic in the blue vault of heaven, and seemed pleased to bathe her side in the trembling wave. My soul was full of my father's words. A thousand thoughts divided my wavering mind,
Soon as the early beam of morn appeared we saw the green-skirted sides of Erin advancing in the bosom of the sea. White broke the tumbling surges on the Coast.
Deep in Larmor's woody bay we drove our keel to the shore, and gained the lofty beach. I inquired after the generous Branno. A son of Erin led us to his halls, to the banks of the Sounding Lego. He said, "Many warlike youths are assembled to gain the dark-haired maid, the beauteous Evir-allen. Branno will give her to the brave. The conqueror shall bear away the fair. Erin's chiefs dispute the maid, for she is destined for the strong in arms."
These words inflamed my breast, and roused courage in my heart. I clad my limbs in steel. I grasped a shining spear in my hand. Branno saw our approach. He sent the gray-haired Snivan to invite us to his feast, and know the intent of our course. He came with the solemn steps of age, and gravely spoke the words of the Chief.
"Whence are these arms of steel? If friends ye come, Branno invites you to his halls; for this day the lovely Evir-allen shall bless the warrior's arms whose lance shall shine victorious in the combat of valor."
"O venerable bard!" I said, "peace guides my steps to Branno. My arm is young, and few are my deeds in war, but valor inflames my soul; I am of the race of the brave."
The bard departed. We followed the steps of age, and soon arrived to Branno's halls.
The hero came to meet us. Manly serenity adorned his brow. His open front showed the kindness of his heart. "Welcome," he said, "ye sons of strangers; welcome to Branno's friendly halls; partake his shell of joy. Share, in the combat of spears. Not unworthy is the prize of valor, the lovely dark-haired maid of Erin; but strong must be that warrior's hand that conquers Erin's chiefs; matchless his strength in fight."
"Chief," I replied, "the light of my father's deeds blazes in my soul. Though young, I seek my beam of glory foremost in the ranks of foes. Warrior, I can fair, but I shall fill with renown."
"Happy is thy father, O generous youth! more happy the maid of thy love. Thy glory shall surround her with praise; thy valor raise her charms. O were my Evir-allen thy spouse, my years would pass away in . joy. Pleased I would descend into the grave: contented see the end of my days."
The feast was spread; stately and slow camp Evir-allen. A snow-white veil. covered her blushing face. Her large blue eyes were bent on earth. Dignity flowed round her graceful steps. A shining tear fell glittering on her cheek. She appeared lovely as the mountain flower when the ruddy beams of the rising sun gleam on its dew-covered aides. Decent she sate. High beat my fluttering heart. Swift through my veins flew my thrilling blood. An unusual weight oppressed my breast. I stood, darkened in my place. The image of the maid wandered over my troubled soul.
The sprightly harp's melodious voice arose from the string of the bards. My soul melted away in the sounds, for my heart, like a stream, flowed gently away in song. Murmurs soon broke upon our joy. Half-unsheathed daggers gleamed. Many a voice was heard abrupt. "Shall the son of the strangers be preferred? Soon shall he be rolled away, like mist by rushing breath of the tempest." Sedate I rose, for I despised the boaster's threats. The fair one's eye followed my departure. I heard a smothered sigh from her breast.
The horn's harsh sound summoned us to the doubtful strife of spears. Lothmar, fierce hunter of the woody Galmal, first opposed his might. He vainly insulted my youth, but my sword cleft his brazen shield, and cut his ashen lance in twain. Straight I withheld my descending blade. Lothmar retired confused.
Then rose the red-haired strength of Sulin. Fierce rolled his deep-sunk eye. His shaggy brows stood erect. His face was contracted with scorn. Thrice his spear pierced my buckler. Thrice his sword struck on my helm. Swift flashes gleamed from our circling blades. The pride of my rage arose. Furious I rushed on the chief, and stretched his bulk on the plain. Groaning he fell to earth. Lego's shores re-echoed from his fall.
Then advanced Cormac, graceful in glittering arms. No fairer youth was seen on Erin's grassy hills. His age was equal to mine; his port majestic; his stature tall and slender, like the young shooting poplar in Lutha's streamy vales; but sorrow sate upon his brow; languor reigned on his cheek. My heart inclined to the youth. My sword oft avoided to wound; often sought to save his days: but he rushed eager on death. He fell. Blood gushed from his panting breast. Tears flowed streaming from mine eyes. I stretched forth my hand to the chief. I proffered gentle words of peace. Faintly he seized my hand. "Stranger," he said, "I willingly die, for my days were oppressed with wo. Evir-allen rejected my love. She slighted my tender suit. Thou alone deservest the maid, for pity reigns in thy soul, and thou art generous and brave. Tell her, I forgive her scorn. Tell her, I descend with joy into the grave; but raise the stone of my praise. Let the maid throw a flower on my tomb, and mingle one tear with my dust; this is my sole request. This she can grant to my shade."
I would have spoken, but broken sighs issuing from my breast, interrupted my faltering words. I threw my spear aside. I clasped the youth in my arms: but, alas! his soul was already departed to the cloudy mansions of his; fathers.
Then thrice I raised my voice, and called the chiefs to combat. Thrice I brandished my spear, and wielded my glittering sword. No warrior appeared. They dreaded the force of my arm, and yielded the blue-eyed maid.
Three days I remained in Branno's halls. On the fourth he led me to the chambers of the fair. She came forth attended by her maids, graceful in lovely majesty, like the moon, when all the stars confess her sway, and retire respectful and abashed. I laid my sword at her feet. Words of love flowed faltering from my tongue. Gently she gave her hand. Joy seized my enraptured soul. Branno was touched at the sight. He closed me in his aged arms.
"O wert thou," said he, "the son of my friend, the son of the mighty Fingal, then were my happiness complete!"
"I am, I am the son of thy friend," I replied, "Ossian, the son of Fingal;" then sunk upon his aged breast. Our flowing tears mingled together. We remained long clasped in each other's arms.
Such was my youth, O Malvina! but alas! I am now forlorn. Darkness covers my soul. Yet the light of song beams at times on my mind. It solaces awhile my we. Bards, prepare my tomb. Lay me by the fair Evir-allen. When the revolving years bring back the mild season of spring to our hills, sing the praise of Cona's bard, of Ossian, the friend of the distressed.
The difference, in many material circumstances, between these two descriptions of, as it would seem, the same thing, must be very apparent. "I will submit," says the baron, "the solution of this problem to the public." We shall follow his example.
The Honorable Henry Grattan, to whom the baron dedicates his work, has said, that the poems: which it contains are calculated to inspire "valor, wisdom, and virtue." It is true, that they are adorned with numerous beauties both of poetry and morality. They are still farther distinguished and illumined by noble allusions to the Omnipotent, which cannot fail to strike the reader as a particular in which they remarkably vary from those of Mr. Macpherson. "In his," says our author," there is no mention of the Divinity. In these, the chief characteristic is the many solemn descriptions of the Almighty Being, which give a degree of elevation to them unattainable by any other method. It is worthy of observation how the bard gains in sublimity by his magnificent, display of the power, bounty, eternity, and justice of God: and every reader must rejoice to find the venerable old warrior occupied in descriptions so worthy his great and comprehensive genius, and to see him freed from the imputation of atheism, with which he had been branded by many sagacious and impartial men." P. vi.
We could willingly transcribe more of these. poems, but we have already quoted enough to show the style of them, and can spare space for no additions. "Lamor, a poem," is, the baron thinks, of a more ancient date than that of Ossian, and "the model, perhaps, of his compositions." Another, called "Sitric," king of Dublin, which throws some light on the history of those times, he places in the ninth century. What faith, however, is to be put in the genuineness of the "Fragments," which Baron de Harold assures us furnished him with the ground-work of these poems, we leave it to others to ascertain. Our investigation is confined within far narrower limits.
It has, without doubt, been observed that in noticing what has transpired on this subject since our last edition, we have carefully avoided any dogmatism on the question collectedly; and having simply displayed a torch to show the paths which lead to the labyrinth, those who wish to venture more deeply into its intricacies, may, when they please, pursue them.
We must acknowledge, before we depart, that we cannot see without indignation, or rather pity, the belief of some persons that these poems are the offspring of Macpherson's genius, so operating on their minds as to turn their admiration of the ancient poet into contempt of the modern. We ourselves love antiquity, not merely however, on account of its antiquity, but because it deserves to be loved. No: we honestly own with Quintilian, in quibusdam antiquorum, vix risum, in quibusdam autem vix somnum tenere. The songs of other times, when they are, as they frequently are, supremely beautiful, merit every praise, but we must not therefore despise all novelty. In the days of the Theban bard, it would seem to have been otherwise, for he appears to give the preference to old wine, but new songs--
αινει δε παλαιον
μεν oινον, ανθεα δ' υμνων
(ainei de palaion
men oinon, anthea d'ymnon
With respect to age in wine we are tolerably agreed, but we differ widely in regard to novelty in verse. Though warranted in some measure, yet all inordinate prepossessions should be moderated, and it would be well if we were occasionally to reflect on this question, if the ancients had been so inimicable to novelty as we are, what would now be old?
We shall not presume to affirm that these poems were originally produced by Macpherson, but admitting it, for the sake of argument, it would then, perhaps, be just to ascribe all the mystery that has hung about them to the often ungenerous dislike of novelty, or, it may be more truly, the efforts of contemporaries, which influences the present day. This might have stimulated him to seek in the garb of "th' olden time," that respect which is sometimes despitefully denied to drapery of a later date. Such a motive doubtlessly swayed the designs both of Chatterton and Ireland, whose names we cannot mention together without Dryden's comment on Spenser and Flecknoe, "that is, from the top to the bottom of all poetry." In ushering into the world the hapless, but beautiful muse of Chatterton, as well as the contemptible compositions of Ireland, it was alike thought necessary, to secure public attention, to have recourse to "quaint Inglis," or an antique dress. And to the eternal disgrace, of prejudice, the latter, merely in consequence of their disguise, found men blind enough to advocate their claims to that admiration which, on their eyes being opened, they could no longer see, and from the support of which they shrunk abashed.
But we desist. It is useless to draw conclusions, as it is vain to reason with certain people who act unreasonably, since, if they were, in these particular cases, capable of reason, they would need no reasoning with. By some, the poems here published will be esteemed in proportion as the argument for their antiquity prevails, but with regard to the general reader, and the unaffected lovers of "heaven-descended poesy," let the question take either way, still
The harp in Selma was not idly strung
And long shall last the themes our poet
Feb. 1 1806.