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centuries ago; as up to that period, both by manuscripts, and by the testimony of a multitude of living witnesses, concerning the uncontrovertible tradition of these poems, they can clearly be traced. To suppose
that two or three hundred years ago, when we well know the Highlands to have been in a state of gross ignorance and barbarity, there should have arisen in that country a poet, of such exquisite genius, and of such deep knowledge of mankind and of history, as to divest himself of the ideas and manners of his own age, and to give us a just and natural picture of a state of society ancienter by a thousand years; one, who could support this counterfeited antiquity through such a large collection of poems, without the least inconsistency; and who, possessed of all this genius and art, had, at the same time, the self-denial of concealing himself, and of ascribing his own works to an antiquated bard, without the imposture being detected; is a supposition that transcends all credibility.
“ Another circumstance of the greatest weight against this hypothesis is, the total absence of religious ideas from this work; for which the translator has, in his preface, given a very probable account, on the footing of its being the work of Ossian. The druidical superstition was, in the days of Ossian, on the point of its final extinction; and the Christian faith was not yet established in those climates. But had it been the work of one, to whom the ideas of Christianity were familiar from his infancy; and who had superadded to them also the bigotted superstition of a dark age and country; it is impossible, but in
some passage or other, the traces of them would have appeared."*
This sensible reasoning appears to be unanswerable. But although the argument, drawn from the ignorance and barbarity of the Highlanders in the fifteenth century, tends to prove that Ossian's poems, as ushered into the world, cannot be the production of a national poet of that era; it does not prove the impossibility of their being an ingenious forgery of a more modern writer; for instance, Mr. Macpherson, availing himself of the fabulous traditions of the vulgar, and the notion of some rude ballads anciently popular, unknown, and unworthy to be noticed by the civilized part of Great Britain, might have been pleased to exercise his genius in a new and fantastic style, by composing a collection of Caledonian poems, from the singular vanity and caprice of deceiving the public, by ascribing them to a chimerical bard, the son of a petty Highland prince equally chimerical.
Such is the opinion adopted by the opponents of the high antiquity and original character of those poems. But this opinion, if thoroughly examined, will appear still more improbable than the preceding one. What Dr. Blair says on the difficulty of supposing a poet capable of so totally divesting himself of the ideas and manners of his own age, as most perfectly to assume those of a very remote period, and at the same time to be possessed of so much self-denial as to renounce his own glory in favour of an unknown person, militates more strongly against the supposition of a modern impossure, inasmuch as an Englishman of our age is superior to a Caledonian of the third century, with respect to ideas, scientific knowledge, and social arts. Were he even supposed to be a Caledonian poet of the fifteenth century, the glory the same Englishman might acquire from such an exquisite production of his genius, would be more flattering to him than any applause which a bard of three or four centuries back could thereby gain among his tribes within the narrow precincts of his mountains. The omission of all religious ideas is still more incomprehensible in this hypothesis. Every one knows the wonderful effect of religious machinery in poetry, the imposing decorations that it bestows, and the various aids which it furnishes to the poets in works of the imagination. Homer himself, and Virgil, great masters as they were, could not have spun out their
* See Note B, at the end of the Dissertation.
the one to twenty-four cantos, and the other to twelve, if Jupiter, Juno, Venus, and the other deities, had not been summoned to their aid, in prolonging and diversifying the action :-how then could it have occurred to the mind of a modern poet to renounce gratuitously bis natural and legitimate right, and to deprive himself of those means which afford the most fertile source of variety, and of those wonderful aids which furnish the most brilliant ornaments of epic poetry? Besides, we ought to consider, that a people, without the appearance of religious worship, is a phenomenon repugnant to the generally received opinion; and that a poetical story, which delineates such a people, carries with it an air of improbability.
Would not then the composer of those poems by such omission, have been fearful of making his readers believe them the offspring of a capricious and disturbed imagination, wishing to sport with the credulity of the public, and to excite surprise by a singular extravagance of fancy? Whoever has for the first time heard of a Celtic poem, would surely expect the appearance of an Esso, a Thentatus, or such other divinity of the ancient Druids; and perhaps already fatigued with the eternal repetition of the Greek and Latin mythology, he might be prepared to receive with pleasure and curiosity the traditions of those romancers, their tales, theogonies, and allegories, probably like those of the ancient Edda, that he might reason upon and contrast them with those of the most renowned people. Wherefore then deceive the hopes and expectations of the public? Why should a mechanism, so interesting for its novelty, be rejected, in order to substitute another more aerial and fictitious ? No good reason can be assigned; and hence, if we examine the peculiar character of Ossian's poems, it will be found that their beauties, as well as deformities, are equally repugnant to the supposition of modern imposture.
With what delicacy of sentiment, with what heroism of noble humanity, is the family of Fingal distinguished from all other heroes of ancient poetry; so as to give the most interesting and wonderful effect to those poems, and to constitute in my opinion the strongest presumption of their authenticity!
The quality of this species of poetry, according to
the commonly received opinion, is incompatible with a rude and savage state of society. Be it reason or prejudice, we are not disposed to believe, that the most exquisite refinement of sentiment can be reconciled to a total want of cultivation in the understanding, and to a life constantly devoted to war and hunting. We might have expected from a Caledonian bard an Achilles, or a Diomedes ; but that a Fingal, or an Ossian, should have appeared, like two idols, conceived in the fancy of a philosophical poet, or of a virtuous and enlightened mind, who, desirous to realize the conception of his imagination, had given up his thoughts more to the beautiful and sublime than to the credible, is what we had no right to expect.
With what hope, therefore, of being believed could the fabricator of Ossian have thought of repairing to the rocky cliffs of Caledonia, and there, where eternal mists prevail, to fix the seat of virtue, creating a family of heroes, capable of putting to the blush, not only the heroes of Homer, but those even of the cultivated, learned, and refined Virgil ? But those heroes, it will be said, according to the hypothesis of the Ossianists, were real characters. I answer in the words of an ancient author, that nature in a moral, as well as in a physical sense, often produces truths very improbable; but he, who invents a story, and wishes it to be credited, does not scrupulously search after the real truth, but what is probable, or an approximation to the truth.
The principle, which indicates the defects of Ossian, is different, and induces us not to adopt the opinion, that he is only a fictitious name.