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AB BÉ CESAROTTI'S
HISTORICAL AND CRITICAL DISSERTATION.*
The appearance of Ossian's poems was a phenomenon so unexpected and extraordinary, that it is not surprising, they should have excited, during even a period of enthusiasm, doubts and astonishment. In a country scarcely known to history, mountainous, difficult of access, and almost constantly shaded with mists; in a state of society the most unpolished, wretched, and barbarous; without trade, without learning, without arts and sciences; how could such a transcendent genius arise, who may be said to dispute the palm with the most celebrated poets of the most civilized nations; and with those even, who for so many ages have been considered the models of the art? This novelty was too much at variance with the generally received opinion to be implicity believed without controversy.
Was there truly an Ossian ? Was he really the author of the poems which have been published under his name? Can this be a spurious work? But when?— How ?-By whom ?— These are questions that for a length of time have agitated and divided public
* See Note A, at the end of the Dissertation.
opinion in England; while Europe regarded with veneration this surprising phenomenon. These are doubts too which have existed among the literati and critics; doubts which, although they may appear to be considerably diminished, still exist in the minds of many learned persons.
Whatever may be the opinion adopted, it is certain, that either side present various embarrassing difficulties, and may cause the most strenuous advocates to waver.
Doctor BLAIR, a celebrated professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres in the University of Edinburgh, in his excellent Dissertation, published at the end of the second volume of Ossian, examining the character of the poems, entertains not the smallest doubt of their authenticity. “The compositions of Ossian,” Dr. Blair observes, “are so strongly marked with characters of antiquity, that, although there were no external proof to support that antiquity, hardly any reader of judgment and taste could hesitate in referring them to a very remote æra. There are four stages through which men successively pass in the progress of society. The first and earliest is the life of hunters ; pasturage succeeds to this, as the ideas of property begin to take root; next, agriculture; and lastly, commerce. Throughout Ossian's
poeins, we plainly find ourselves in the first of those periods of society; during which hunting was the chief employmeut of men, and the principal method of their procuring subsistence. Pasturage was not indeed wholly unknown, for we hear of dividing the herd in the case of a divorce: but the allusions to
herds and cattle are not many; and of agriculture we find no traces. No cities appear to have been built, in the territories of Fingal. No arts are mentioned, except those of navigation and of working in iron. Every thing presents to us the most simple and unimproved manners. At their feasts, the heroes prepared their own repast; they sat round the light of the burning oak; the wind lifted their locks, and whistled through their open halls. Whatever was beyond the necessaries of life was known to them only as the spoil of the Roman province! The picture of the social state of this people is consistent from the beginning to the end, in all the poems of Ossian.”—No modern allusion ever drops from the poet; but every where the same aspect of rude and savage nature appears; a country wholly uncultivated, thinly inhabited, and recently peopled.
“ The circle of ideas and transactions,” continues Dr. Blair, “is no wider than suits such an age. Valour and bodily strength are the admired qualities, The heroes show refinement of sentiment indeed on several occasions, but none of manners. They speak of their past actions with freedom, and sing their own praise. A rape, a private insult, was the cause of war among their tribes. They had no expedient for giving the military alarms, but striking a shield, or raising a loud cry. Of military discipline or skill they appear to have been entirely destitute.
“ The manner of poetical composition bears all the marks of the greatest antiquity. No artful transitions, por full and extended connection of parts, such as we find among the poets of later times, when
order and regularity of composition were studied and known; but a style always rapid and vehement, in narration concise even to abruptness, and leaving several circumstances to be supplied by the reader's imagination. The language has all the figurative cast, which, partly a glowing and undisciplined imagination, partly the sterility of language, and the want of proper terms, have always introduced into the early speech of nations; and, in several respects, it carries a reniarkable resemblance to the style of the Old Testament. It deserves particular notice, as one of the most genuine and decisive characters of antiquity, that very few general terms, or abstract ideas, are to be met with in the whole collection of Ossian's poems. The ideas of men, at first, were all particular. They had not words to express general conceptions. These were the consequence of more profound reflection, and longer acquaintance with the arts of thought and of speech: Ossian accordingly never expresses himself in the abstract. His ideas extended little farther than the objects he saw round him. Even a mountain, a sea, or a lake, which he has occasion to mention, though only in a simile, are for the most part particularized; it is the hill of Cromla, the storm of the sea of Malmor, or the reeds of the lake of Lego.—All these are marks so undoubted, and some of them too so nice and delicate, of the most early times, as to put the high antiquity of these poems out of question. Especially when we consider, that if there had been any imposture in this case, it must have been contrived and executed in the Highlands of Scotland, two or three