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POEMS OF OSSIAN,
SON OF FINGAL.
MONG the monuments remaining of the ancient ftate of nations, few are more valuable than their poems or fongs. Hiftory, when it treats of remote and dark ages, is feldom very inftructive. The beginnings of society, in every country, are involved in fabulous confufion and though they were not, they would furnish few events worth recording. But, in every period of fociety, human manners are a curious fpectacle; and the moft natural' pictures of ancient manners are exhibited in the ancient poems of nations. Thefe prefent to us, what is much more valuable than the hiftory of fuch tranfactions as a rude age can afford, The hiftory of human imagination and paffion. They make us acquainted with the notions and feelings of our fellow-creatures in the most artless ages; difcovering what objects they admired,
admired, and what pleasures they pursued, before those refinements of society had taken place, which enlarge indeed, and diverfify the tranfactions, but difguife the manners of mankind.
Befides this merit, which ancient poems have with philofophical obfervers of human nature, they have another with perfons of taste. They promife fome of the highest beauties of poetical writing. Irregular and unpolished we may expect the productions of uncultivated ages to be; but abounding, at the fame time, with that enthusiasm, that vehemence and 'fire, which are the foul of poetry. For many circumftances of thofe times which we call barbarous, are favourable to the poetical spirit. That ftate, in which human nature fhoots wild and free, though unfit for other improvements, certainly encourages the high exertions of fancy and paffion.
In the infancy of focieties, men live scattered and difperfed, in the midst of solitary rural scenes, where the beauties of nature are their chief entertainment. They meet with many objects, to them new and ftrange; their wonder and furprize are frequently excited; and by the fudden changes of fortune occurring in their unfettled ftate of life, their paffions are raised to the utmost. Their paffions have nothing to reftrain them: their imagination has nothing to check it. They difplay themselves to one another without disguise: and converse and act in the uncovered fimplicity of nature. As their feelings are ftrong, fo their language, of itfelf, affumes a poetical turn, Prone to exaggerate,
they describe every thing in the strongest colours; which of courfe renders their fpeech picturesque and figurative. Figurative language owes its rife chiefly to two causes; to the want of proper names for objects, and to the influence of imagination and paffion over the form of expreffion. Both thefe caufes concur in the infancy of fociety. Figures are commonly confidered as artificial modes of speech, devised by orators and poets, after the world had advanced to a refined ftate. The contrary of this is the truth. Men never have used fo many figures of ftyle, as in thofe rude ages, when, besides the power of a warm imagination to fuggeft lively images, the want of proper and precife terms for the ideas they would exprefs, obliged them to have recourfe to circumlocution, metaphor, comparison, and all those substituted forms of expreffion, which give a poetical air to language. An American chief, at this day, harangues at the head of his tribe, in a more bold metaphorical style, than a modern European would adventure to use in an Epic poem.
In the progress of fociety, the genius and manners of men undergo a change more favourable to accuracy than to sprightlinefs and fublimity. As the world advances, the understanding gains ground upon the imagination; the understanding is more exercised; the imagination, less. Fewer objects occur that are new or furprizing. Men apply themselves to trace the causes of things; they correct and refine one another; they fubdue or difguise their paffions; they form their exterior man
ners upon one uniform standard of politenefs and civility. - Human nature is pruned according tó method and rule. Language advances from fterility to copioufnefs, and at the fame time, from fervour and enthusiasm, to correctness and precifion. Style becomes more chafte; but lefs animated. The progrefs of the world in this refpect resembles the progress of age in man. The powers of imagination are most vigorous and predominant in youth; thofe of the understanding 'ripen more flowly, and often attain not their maturity, till the imagination begin to flag. Hence, poetry, which is the child of imagination, is frequently most glowing and animated in the first ages of fociety. As the ideas of our youth are remembered with a peculiar pleasure on account of their Hveliness and vivacity; fo the moft ancient poems have often proved the greatest favour
ites of nations
Poetry has been faid to be more ancient than profe and however paradoxical fuch an affertion may feem, yet, in a qualified fenfe, it is true. Men certainly never, converfed with one another in regular numbers; but even their ordinary language would, in ancient times, for the reafons-before" affigned, approach to a poetical ftyle; and the first compofitions tranfmitted to posterity, beyond doubt,- were, in a literal fenfe, poems; that is, compeitions in which imagination had the chief hand, formed into Tome kind of numbers, and pronounced with a mufical modulation or tone. Mulick or fong has been found coval
with fociety among the most barbarous nations. The only fubjects which could prompt men, in their first rude ftate, to utter their thoughts in compofitions of any length, were fuch as naturally affumed the tone of poetry; praifes of their gods, or of their ancestors; commemorations of their own warlike exploits; or lamentations over their misfortunes. And before writing was invented, no other compofitions, except fongs. or poems, could take fuch hold of the imagination and memory, as to be preferved by oral tradition, and handed down from one race to another.'
Hence we may expect to find poems among the antiquities of all nations. It is probable too, that an extenfive fearch would difcover a certain degree of refemblance among all the most ancient poetical productions, from whatever country they have proceeded. In a fimilar ftate of manners, fimilar objects and paffions operating upon the imaginations of men, will stamp their productions with the fame general character. Some diverfity will, no doubt, be occafioned by climate and genius. But mankind never bear such resembling features, as they do in the beginnings of fociety. Its fubfequent revolutions give rife to the principal diftinctions among nations; and divert, into channels widely feparated, that current of human genius and manners, which defcends originally from one fpring. What we have been long accustomed to call the oriental vein of poetry, becaufe fome of the earliest poetical productions have come to us from the Eaft, is probably no more oriental