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the world (or like poor misguided Chatterton indignantly* rushed out of it), leaving posterity to settle the matter among themselves, and assign them their proper place at their leisure.
This however has not always been done in a manner perfectly convincing. Attempts have lately been made to shew that even the forgeries of Lauder were not wholly without foundation. There are still persons who are not entirely convinced that the youth of Chatterton was able to produce those noble poems, which he chose to ascribe to the maturer age of Rowley; and there are many more, who find it difficult to believe that Macpherson was the sole author of the poems published under the name of Ossian.t
Concerning these last, the investigation seems not to have been very fairly and impartially conducted. On the one hand, there was great national, and perhaps personal, pride, which would not deign to give such information as the public had a right to expect; on the other, a captious unwillingness to give way to pretensions to such remote antiquity, which must of course be very little capable of being supported by external proof.
It seems to be allowed by all, that the Erse, as it is commonly called, has not been a written language till within, comparatively, a very few years; and it is contended, that the changes which take place in
* Vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras. Virg. L. XII. 952. + I have not read the report of the Committee of the Highland Society upon this subject, nor have learnt what has been the result of their inquiries.
language, and the well-known inaccuracy of oral tradition, must have prevented such long and regular poems as Temora and Fingal, from being thus handed down during so many centuries. But to this it may be replied that, in a country so remote as the Highlands of Scotland, and so little visited by strangers as they were during the dark ages, their language, like their local superstitions, probably remained nearly the same. And with respect to tradition, in countries where there are no written records, it is more likely to be preserved in tolerable purity and correctness than where there are. It may also be urged, that till the time when they were collected by Pisistratus, even the works of Homer were recited only in detached parts; and the acts of Diomede, the parting of Hector and Andromache, the death of Patroclus, &c. &c. were known by the people in general, only as so many detached ballads, or rhapsodies, and not as parts of the noblest whole ever produced by human genius. The art of book-making does not then seem to have been known; and there is no reason to suppose that after the parts had been arranged in their proper order, any doubts arose in Athens as to the genuineness of the work. Yet even then the history of the author was so obscure, that it could not be determined whether he was born in Asia or Europe, in one of the Grecian islands or on the Continent; and it is thought doubtful at this day, by very eminent scholars, as it was also in different periods of antiquity, whether the whole subject of his narrative be or be not fabulous, and whether, if founded on truth, the event was as he has represented it.
This seems therefore to be an argument on which Dr. Johnson, and other writers on that side of the question, have dwelt too strongly. The prejudices of that distinguished scholar certainly operated upon this, as well as many other occasions, and his Tour in Scotland did not tend to lessen them.. He had no taste for the rude, wild, and naked scenery of the Western Isles, and the absence of written documents seemed to him convincing proof against the alleged antiquity of the lays of Ossian; and he refused to receive the testimony of those inhabitants who were most competent to give it, because he chose illiberally to fancy that they would prefer the credit of their country to truth. Yet I have been told, by a lady, now deceased, of high literary reputation, that the late Sir James Macdonald, elder brother of the Chief Baron, assured her, that he could repeat, when a lad, many of the poems translated by Macpherson in their original Erse. A similar assurance I received also myself from a surgeon in the navy, a native of the isle of Mull, who told me not only that he could repeat many of those poems, but that Macpherson had not selected, or perhaps met with, some of the finest of them; in particular one which is a dialogue between Ossian and a missionary, who was preaching the Christian religion in the Highlands, which he said was the noblest poem he had ever known.*
* Possibly this may be the poem mentioned by Miss Owenson in her novel of "The Wild Irish Girl;" and the missionary prove to be St. Patrick. It must be owned that there is a great weight in that lady's arguments to prove that Ossian was a native of Ireland, and that Morven is to be found in that country.
When I was in Scotland, about fourteen years since, I was in the boat of a highland fisherman, upon Loch Lomond, who appeared so intelligent that I was induced to ask him some questions upon this subject. He told me that he could sing a great many of the songs of Ossian, but added, that they were old fashioned things, and he would sing me a modern Erse song upon the present Duke of Montrose's patriotism in being the means of restoring to them the ancient highland dress. He said that he had never heard that the poems of Ossian had been translated into English, and seemed much surprised that I should know any thing about them.
With respect to the internal evidence which these celebrated poems afford, neither party seem to have considered it with sufficient accuracy. Young persons are struck with the wild and romantic splendour of the imagery, with the bravery of the heroes, and the beauty of the women. Those of a more advanced age are tired with the perpetual recurrence of the same images: Bran bounding over the heath, the gray rock, the thin and shadowy forms of departed Valour appearing in a cloud, and even the white arms and bosoms of female loveliness, are so little varied and so generally prominent, that neither the young nor the old are tempted to penetrate deeper than the language, to discover the real merits of the composition. If they did, a discrimination of character, a strength of colouring, even a variety of incident might be observed, which escape the notice of inattentive readers. In proof of this, let the affecting intercourse of Ossian and Malvina, of which there is no parallel in any ancient writer,
be observed; let the nervous and original character of Oscar, and the striking circumstances of his death, be considered.* Add to these the contrast between the generous Cairbar and his ferocious brother, and that between the two Irish warriors Foldath and Malthos, both in the field and ouncil; the beautiful episode of Sulmalla; the awful introduction of the venerable and unconquered Fingal to the war (though that seems less original than most other parts of the poems), and the distinction between the characters of his sons, as well as of the manner of their deaths.
If these poems be impartially considered therefore, with no reference to the beauty or singularity of the language, surely it will hardly be supposed that the whole of them can be due to Macpherson's invention; or indeed, that he, or any well-educated man, could so totally unlearn all his classical acquirements, as to produce a work betraying so little, if any, imitation of those great exemplaria Græca, with which the mind of every scholar must be filled. Probably in this, as in most things, the truth may lie in the middle. He found these songs volitantes per ora virum, defective and imperfect. He supplied those parts which were wanting, added, omitted, and filled up as he thought necessary, and has thus given a work to the world, of the merit of which no greater proof can be required, than that it has been translated into every modern language, and is admired and beautiful in them all.
I am, Sir, &c. &c.
*What reader of taste and feeling but must shudder when redhaired Olla raises the song of death on the distant heath!