Page images
PDF
EPUB

in particular the preparation for the appearance of Fingal, the previous expectations that are raised, and the extreme magnificence fully answering thefe expectations, with which the hero is at length prefented to us, are all worked up with fuch skillful conduct as would do honour to any poet of the moft refined times. Homer's art in magnifying the character of Achilles has been univerfally admired. Offian certainly fhows no lefs art in aggrandizing Fingal. Nothing could be more happily imagined for this purpose than the whole management of the last battle, wherein Gaul the fon of Morni, had befought Fingal to retire, and to leave to him and his other chiefs the honour of the day. The generosity of the King in agreeing to this propofal; the majefty with which he retreats to the hill, from whence he was to behold the engagement, attended by his Bards, and waving the lightning of his fword; his perceiving the chiefs overpowered by numbers, but from unwillingness to deprive them of the glory of victory by coming in person to their affistance, first sending Ullin, the Bard, to animate their courage; and at laft, when the danger becomes more preffing, his rifing in his might, and interpofing, like a divinity, to decide the doubtful fate of the day; are all circumstances contrived with fo much art as plainly discover the Celtic Bards to have been not unpractifed in Heroic poetry.

The story which is the foundation of the Iliad is in itself as fimple as that of Fingal. A quarrel arifes between Achilles and Agamemnon concerning a female flave; on which, Achilles, apprehend.

1

ing himself to be injured, withdraws his affistance from the rest of the Greeks. The Greeks fall into great distress, and befeech him to be reconciled to them. He refuses to fight for them in perfon, but fends his friend Patroclus; and upon his being flain, goes forth to revenge his death, and kills Hector. The fubject of Fingal is this: Swaran comes to invade Ireland: Cuchullin, the guardian of the young King, had applied for affiftance to Fingal, who reigned in the oppofite coaft of Scotland. But before Fingal's arrival, he is hurried by rafh counsel to encounter Swaran. He is defeated; he retreats; and defponds. Fingal arrives in this conjuncture. The battle is for fome time dubious; but in the end he conquers Swaran; and the remembrance of Swaran's being the brother of Agandecca, who had once faved his life, makes him dismiss him honourably. Homer it is true has filled up his story with a much greater variety of particulars than Offian; and in this has shown a compass of invention fuperior to that of the other poet. But it must not be forgotten, that though Homer be more circumftantial, his incidents however are lefs diverfified in kind than those of Offian. War and bloodfhed reign throughout the Iliad; and notwithstanding all the fertility of Homer's invention, there is fo much uniformity in his fubjects, that there are few readers, who before the clofe, are not tired of perpetual fighting. Whereas in Offian, the mind is relieved by a more agreeable diverfity. There is a finer mixture of war and heroifim, with love and friendship, of

[blocks in formation]

martial, with tender scenes, than is to be met with, perhaps, in any other poet. The Episodes too, have great propriety; as natural, and proper to that age and country: confifting of the songs of Bards, which are known to have been the great entertainment of the Celtic heroes in war, as well as in peace. These fongs are not introduced at random; if you except the Episode of Duchommar and Morna, in the first book, which though beautiful, is more unartful, than any of the reit; they have always fome particular relation to the actor who is interested, or to the events which are going on; and, whilft they vary the fcene, they preferve a fufficient connection with the main fubject, by the fitness and propriety of their introduction.

As Fingal's love to Agandecca, influences fome circumstances of the Poem, particularly the honourable difmiffion of Swaran at the end, it was neceffary that we should be let into this part of, the hero's story. But as it lay without the compass of the prefent action, it could be regularly introduced no where, except in an Episode. Accordingly the poet, with as much propriety, as if Ariftotle himself had directed the plan, has contrived an Episode for this purpose in the fong of Carril, at the beginning of the third book.

The conclufion of the poem is ftrictly according to rule; and is every way noble and pleasing. The reconciliation of the contending heroes, the confolation of Cuchullin, and the general felicity that crowns the action, footh the mind in a very agrecodle manner, and form that paffage from

agitation

66

66

agitation and trouble, to perfect quiet and repose, which critics require as the proper termination of the Epic work. "Thus they passed the night in "fong, and brought back the morning with joy. Fingal arofe on the heath; and fhook his glittering fpear in his hand. He moved first to"wards the plains of Lena; and we followed like a ridge of fire. Spread the fail, faid the King of "Morven, and catch the winds that pour from "Lena. We rofe on the wave with fongs; and "rushed with joy through the foam of the ocean." -So much for the unity and general conduct of the Epic action in Fingal.

66

With regard to that property of the fubject which Ariftotle requires that it should be feigned not hiftorical, he must not be understood fo ftrictly, as if he meant to exclude all fubjects which have any foundation in truth. For fuch exclufion would both be unreasonable in itself; and what is more, would be contrary to the practice of Homer, who is known to have founded his Iliad on hiftorical facts concerning the war of Troy, which was famous throughout all Greece. Ariftotle means no more than that it is the bufinefs of a poet not to be a mere annalist of Facts, but to embellish truth with beautiful, probable, and ufeful fictions; to copy nature, as he himself explains it, like painters, who preferve a likeness, but exhibit their objects more grand and beautiful than they are in reality. That Offian has followed this course, and building upon true history, has fufficiently adorned it with poetical fiction for aggrandizing his charac

ters

ters and facts, will not, I believe, be queftioned by moft readers. At the fame time, the foundation which thofe facts and characters had in truth, and the fhare which the poet himself had in the tranfactions which he records, must be confidered as no small advantage to his work. For truth makes an impreffion on the mind far beyond any fiction; and no man, let his imagination be ever so strong, relates any events fo feelingly as thofe in which he has been interefted; paints any fcene fo naturally as one which he has feen; or draws any characters in fuch strong colours as those which he has perfonally known. It is confidered as an advantage of the Epic fubject to be taken from a period fo diftant, as by being involved in the darkness of tradition, may give licence to fable. Though Offian's fubject may at first view appear unfavourable in this refpect, as being taken from his own times, yet when we reflect that he lived to an extreme old age; that he relates what had been tranfacted in another country, at the distance of many years, and after all that race of men who had been the actors were gone off the stage; we shall find the objection in a great measure obviated. In fo rude an age, when no written records were known, when tradition was loofe, and accuracy of any kind little attended to, what was great and heroic in one generation, eafily ripened into the marvellous in the next.

The natural reprefentation of human characters in an Epic Poem is highly effential to its merit: And in respect of this there can be no doubt of Homer's excelling all the heroic poets who have

« PreviousContinue »