Page images
PDF
EPUB

PRELIMINARY DISCOURSE.

As 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 Ejen into a barren wild, they would pursue it. For these, and for the idly curious in literary problems, added to the wish of making this new edition of “ The Pot ms 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 excel. ence.

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 col. lected in the original Gaelir, during a tour through the Western Highlands and ssles; but a doubt of their authenticity nevertheless obtained, and, from their first appearance to this day, has continued in various de. grees to agitate the literary world. In the present year, "A Report,"* springing from an inquiry insti. tuted 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 com. pany, 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 obliv. ion.

*"A Report of the committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the Porms of Ossian. Drawn up, according to the directions of the committee, by Henry Mackenzie, Esq., its convener, or charman With a copious appendix, containing some of the principal docu pints on which the report is founded Edinburgh, 1805.” 8 vo

343

“ 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 testi. monies may, in my opinion, be of two kinds. Macpherson pretends there is an ancient manuscript of part of Fingal in the family, I think, or 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 le them testify the fidelity of the latter.

So in MS.

“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 far. ther resemblance to the poems published Macpherson. I was told by Bourke,* a very ingenious Irish gentleman, the author of a tract on the sublime and veautiful, 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 de. siring 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 wil so much as command the attention of the public.

* So in MS

“ Becket tells me, that he is to give us a new editior 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 impor. tance; but what there is that is relevant deserves not to be ornitted.

“I am very glad,” he writes on the 6th of October,

« PreviousContinue »