« PreviousContinue »
A STATEMENT OF THE EVIDENCE ADDUCED IN BE
HALF OF THE AUTHENTICITY OF OSSIAN'S POEMS,
INDEPENDENTLY OF THE GAELIC ORIGINAL BEING NOW PUBLISHED, WITH SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE OBJECTIONS WHICH HAVE BEEN URGED AGAINST THEIR AUTHENTICITY.
HERE is no literary question that has been more keenly controverted, than whether the poems ascribed to Ossian, are to be considered as authentic ancient poetry, or as wholly, if not in a great measure, fabricated by Macpherson. Among the various circumstances, which led to the existence, and to the continuance of such a controversy, the following principally contributed.
It was natural in a country like England, that for
many years had enjoyed all the advantages of printing, and where for centuries the art of writing had been practised, to be rather incredulous, when it was asserted, that such long and connected poems, had been preserved by oral tradition, from periods of great antiquity. That circumstance alone scemed so much out of the ordinary course of human affairs, that it required the strongest
evidence to confirm it.* The doubts, however, which were entertained upon that subject, were, in the minds of the impartial, satisfactorily removed, when it was urged, that the remote and inaccessible nature of the country where these poems were preserved; the peculiar character and language of the inhabitants, who were seldom visited by strangers; their turn for poetry; their veneration for the traditions and customs of their ancestors; their total ignorance of letters in the more remote periods of their history; and other particulars, which will be afterwards explained, accounted for their preservation: and above all, when the most convincing evidence was adduced, that many individuals then living, could repeat. great numbers of those poems, and that even some manuscripts, in which part of them were to be found, could then be produced.
When the poems of Ossian first appeared, there existed, in a considerable portion of the English nation, very strong political, as well as literary prejudices against the Scots; + in so much, that every person connected with that country, as well as every work produced from it, were sure to en
* See David Hume's Letter, Report of the Highland Society, p. 6.
+ At the head of the literary foes of Scotland, was the celebrated Dr. Samuel Johnson, who would hardly allow merit to any Scotch author, ancient or modern.
counter the keenest possible opposition. It is not desirable to recall to the memory these distracted times. It is sufficient to remark, that at such a period, when every thing belonging to Scotland was obnoxious, (more especially if likely to do any credit to that country), the discovery of ancient poems, which exhibited in a pleasing light the ancient manners of the Scottish nation, which gave a favourable view of the talents of the old Caledonians, and which were justly to be accounted, in all respects, one of the greatest curiosities ever discovered in the commonwealth of letters, could not fail to be the object of determined acrimony and virulence to a very formidable party.*
Even among the Scots themselves, there were some who affected to entertain a very unfavourable opinion of the Celtic character and genius, and who seemed to take a pleasure in reprobating every thing connected with the Gaelic part of
* It will hardly be credited in these days, but in the year 1762, when the poem of Fingal was published, there existed in many, both in England and Scotland, a great spirit of hostility to every thing connected with the Gaelic language, and those by whom it was spoken, on account of the zeal with which the Highlanders, in the year 1745, had supported the claims of the house of Stuart. Hence many were induced to decry the beauties of Ossian, because they were brought to light by those who were considered as attached to an exiled and obnoxious