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records of the families of their patrons, their own, and more ancient poems were handed down by tradition,
Their poetical compofitions were admirably contrived
for that purpose. They were adapted to mufic; and the
most perfect harmony was obferved. Each verse was fo connested with those which preceded or followed it, that, if one line had been remembered in a stanza, it was almost impoffible to forget the rest. The cadences followed in fo natural a gradation, and the words were fo adapted to the common turn of the voice, after it is raised to a certain key, that it was almost impossible, from a fimilarity of found, to fubstitute one word for another. This excellence is peculiar to the Celtic tongue, and is perhaps to be met with in no other language. Nor does this choice of words des the , fenfe or weaken the expression, The numerous flestions of confonants, and variation in declenfiou, make the langua
ge very copious. - - - -
The defendants of the Celtæ, who inhabited Bri
tain and its ifles, were not fingular in this method of preserving the most precious monuments of their nation. The ancient laws of the Greeks were couched in verse, and handed down by tradition. The Spartans, through
a long habit, became fo fond of this custom, that they
would never allow their laws to be committed to writ-
(*) Tacitus de mor. Germ.
that is not committed to writing, fabulous, been
cefs of the blood of the Yncas, taught him in his youth, that he collested the materials of his history. If other nations then, that had been often overrun by enemies, and had fent abroad and received colonies, , could, for many ages, preferve, by oral tradition, their laws and histories uncorrupted : it is much more probable, that the ancient Scots , a people fo free of intermixture with foreigners, and fo strongly attached to the memory of their ancestors, had the works of their bards handed down with great purity.
It will feem strange to fome, that poems, adinired for many centuries in one part of this kingdom, fhould be hitherto unknown in the other; and that the Britifh, who have carefully traced out the works of genius in other nations, should fo fong remain ftrangers to their own. This, in a great meafure, is to be imputed te those who underftood both languages and never attempted a translation. They, from being acquainted but with detached pieces, or from a modesty, which perhaps the present translator ought, in prudence, to have followed, despaired of making the compositions of their bards agreeable to an English reader. The manner of thofe compositions is fo different from other poems, and the ideas fo confined to the most early state of foeiety, that it was thought they had not enough of va
This was long the opinion of the translator of the following collestion; and though he admired the poems, in the original, very early, and gathered part of them from tradition, for his own annement, yet he never
ç> drefs. He was fenfible, that the strength and manner of
had the finalleft hopes of feeing them in an English
both languages were very different, and that it was next to impossible to translate the Galic poetry into any thing of tolerable English verfe; a profe translation he could never think of , as it must necessarily fall fort of
the majesty of an original,
It is therefore highly probable, that the compofitions of offian would have still remained in the obscurity of a loft language, had not a gentleman, who has himfelf made a figure in the poetical world, infifted with the prefeņt editor, for a literal prose translation of fome detached piece. He approved of the specinen, and , through him, copies came to the hands of feveral peo.
ple of tafte in Scotland, |
Frequent transfcription, and the correstions of thofe, who thought they mended the poems by modernizing the (b) 4 ideas
ideas, corrupted them to fuch a degree, that the translator was induced to hearken to the folicitations of a gentleınan deservedly efteemed in Scotland, for his tąfte and knowledge in polite literature, and published the genuine copies under the title of Fragments of Ancient Poetry. The fragments, upon their first appearance , were fo much approved of, that feveral people of rank, as well as taste, prevailed with the translator to make a journey to the Highlands and western ifles, in order to recover what remained of the works of Offian the fon of Fingal, the best, as well as most ancient of those who are celebrated in tradition for their poetical genius. A detail of this journey would be both tedious and unentertaining; let it fuffice therefore, that, after a peregrination of fix months, the translator collested from tradition, and fome manuscripts, all the poems in the following collestion, and fome inore ftill in his hands,
though rendered lefs complete by the ravages of time.
The astion of the poem that ftands the first, was not the greatest or most celebrated of the exploits of Fingal. His wars were very numerous, and each of them afforded a theme which employed the genius of his fon. But, excepting the present poem , those pieces are in a great measure loft , and there only remain a