Poems of Ossian
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Pages (PDF): 388
Publication Date: 1851
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Ossian purports to be a translation of an epic cycle of Scottish poems from the early dark ages. Macpherson claimed that Ossian was based on an ancient Gaelic manuscript. There was just one problem. The existence of this manuscript was never established. In fact, unlike Ireland and Wales, there are no dark-age manuscripts of epic poems, tales, and chronicles and so on from Scotland. Macpherson is today considered the author of this work. The language of composition was probably English: As Campbell determined, Macpherson wasn't even particularly fluent in Gaelic. The work has literary merits, and historical importance. It resembles other Romantic era attempts at national epic-building such as the Finnish Kalevala; however the Kalevala is acknowledged to be based on years of ethnographic fieldwork by Elias Lönnrot. Lönnrot is now believed to have composed a few bridge portions of the Kalevala; but he didn't pull a great deal of the work out of thin air, as did Macpherson.
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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 Eden into a barren wild, they would pursue it. For those, and for the idly curious in literary problems, added to the wish of making this new edition of "The Poems 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 excellence.
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 collected in the original Gaelic, during a tour through the Western Highlands and Isles; but a doubt of their authenticity nevertheless obtained, and, from their first appearance to this day, has continued in various degrees to agitate the literary world. In the present year, "A Report," springing from an inquiry instituted 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 company, 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 oblivion.
"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 testimonies may, in my opinion, be of two kinds. Macpherson pretends there is an ancient manuscript of part of Fingal in the family, I think, of 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 let them testify the fidelity of the latter.
"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 farther resemblance to the poems published by Macpherson. I was told by Bourke, a very ingenious Irish gentleman, the author of a tract on the sublime and beautiful, 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.
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