Page images

that not only the horoes of Homer, but even those of C

the polite and refined Virgil, are left far behind by those of Ossian. After these general observations on the genius and spirit of our author, I now proceed to a nearer view and more accurate examination of his works; and as Fingal is the first great poem in this collection, it is proper to begin with it. To refuse the title of an epic poem to Fingal, because it is not, in every little particular, exactly conformable to the practice of Homer and Virgil, were the mere squeamishness and pedantry of criticism. Examined even according to Aristotle's rules, it will be found to have all the essential requisites of a true and regular epic; and to have several of them in so high a degree, as at first view to raise our astonishment on finding Ossian's composition so agreeable to rules of which he was entirely ignorant. But our astonishment will cease, when we consider from what source Aristotle drew those rules. Homer knew no more of the laws of criticism than Ossian. But, guided by nature, he composed in verse a regular story, founded on heroic actions, which all posterity admired. Aristotle, with great sagacity and penetration, traced the causes of this general admiration. He observed what it was in Homer's composition, and in the conduct of his story, which gave it such power to please; from this observation he deduced the rules which poets ought to follow, who would write and please like Homer; and to a composition formed according to such rules, he gave the name of an epic poem. Hence his whole system arose. Aristotle studied nature in Homer. Homer and Ossian both wrote from nature, No wonder that among all the three, there should be such agreement and conformity. The fundamental rules delivered by Aristotle concerning an epic poem, are these : that the action, which

is the groundwork of the poem, should be one, com plete, and great ; that it should be feigned, not merely historical ; that it should be enlivened with characters and manners, and heightened by the marvellous. But, before entering on any of these, it may perhaps be asked, what is the moral of Fingal For, according to M. Bossu, an epic poem is no other than an allegory contrived to illustrate some moral truth. The poet, says this critic, must begin with fixing on some maxim or instruction, which he intends to inculcate on mankind. He next forms a fable, like one of AEsop's, wholly with a view to the moral; and having thus settled and arranged his plan, he then looks into traditionary history for names and incidents, to give his fable some air of probability. Never did a more frigid, pedantic notion enter into the mind of a critic. We may safely pronounce, that he who should compose an epic poem after this manner, who should first lay down a moral and contrive a plan, before he had thought of his personages and actors, might deliver, indeed, very sound instruction, but would find very few readers. There cannot be the least doubt that the first object which strikes an epic poet, which fires his genius, and gives him any idea of his work, is the action or subject he is to celebrate. Hardly is there any tale, any subject, a poet can choose for such a work, but will afford some general moral instruction. An epic poem is, by its nature, one of the most moral of all poetical compositions: but its moral tendency is by no means to be imited to some commonplace maxim, which may be gathered from the story. }. arises from the admiration of heroic actions which such a composition is peculiarly calculated to produce ; from the virtuous emotions which the characters änd incidents raise, whilst we read it ; from the happy impressions which all the parts separately, as well as the whole together, leave upon the mind. However, if a general moral be still insisted on, Fingal obviously furnishes one, not inferior to that of any other poet, viz: that wisdom and bravery always triumph over brutal force: or another, nobler still: that the most complete victory over an enemy is obtained by that moderation and generosity which convert him into a friend. The unity of the epic action, which of all Aristotle's rules, is the chief and most material, is so strictly preserved in Fingal, that it must be perceived by every reader. It is a more complete unity than what arises from relating the actions of one man, which the Greek critic justly censures as imperfect: it is the unity of one enterprise—the deliverance of Ireland from the invasion of Swaran; an enterprise which has surely the full heroic dignity. All the incidents recorded bear a constant reference to one end; no double plot is car. ried on ; but the parts unite into a regular whole; and as the action is one and great, so it is an entire or complete action. For we find, as the critic farther requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; a nodus, or intrigue, in the poem; difficulties occurring through Cuthullin's rashness and bad success; those difficultics gradually surmounted; and at last, the work conducted to that happy conclusion which is held essential to epic poetry. Unity is, indeed, observed with greater exactness in Fingal, than in almost any other epic composition. For not only is unity of subject maintained, but that of time and place also. The autumn is clearly pointed out as the season of the action ; and from beginning to end the scene is rever shifted from the heath of Lena, along the seashore. The duration of the action in Fingal, is much shorter than in the Iliad or AEneid; but sure there may be shorter as well longer heroic poems; and if the authority of Aristotle be also required for this, he says expressly, that the

|--→ - --

epic composition is indefinite as to the time of its dura.
tion. Accordingly, the action of the Iliad lasts only
forty-seven days, whilst that of the AEneid is continued
for more than a year.
Throughout the whole of Fingal, there reigns that
grandeur of sentiment, style, and imagery, which ought
ever to distinguish this high species of poetry. The
story is conducted with no small art. The poet goes
not back to a tedious recital of the beginning of the war
with Swaran ; but hastening to the main action, he
falls in exactly, by a most happy coincidence of thought.
with the rule of Horace :
Semper ad eventum festinat, et in medias res,
Non secus ac, notas, auditorem rapit—

Nec gemino bellum Trojanum orditur ab ovo.
De Arte Poet.

He invokes no muse, for he acknowledged none but his occasional addresses to Malvina have a finer effect than the invocation of any muse. He sets out with no formal proposition of his subject; but the sub ject naturally and easily unfolds itself; the poem opening in an animated manner, with the situation of Cuthullin, and the arrival of a scout, who informs him of Swaran's landing. Mention is presently made of Fingal, and of the expected assis nee from the ships of the lonely isle, in order to give farther light to the sub. ject. For the poet often shows his address in gradually preparing us for the events he is to introduce; and, in particular, the preparation for the appearance of Fin. gal, the previous expectations that are raised, and the extreme magnificence, fully answering these expectations, with which the hero is at length presented .o us, are all worked up with such skilful conduct as would do honor to any poet of the most refined times. Homer's art in magnifying the character of Achilles, has been universaily admired. Ossian certainly shows no less

[ocr errors]

art in aggrandizing Fingal. Nothing could be more happily imagined for this purpose than the whole man. agement of the last battle, wherein Gaul, the son of Morni, had besought Fingal to retire, and to leave him and his other chiefs the honor of the day. The generosity of the king in agreeing to this proposal; the majesty 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 sword; his perceiving the chiefs overpowered by numbers, but, from unwillingness to deprive them of the glory of victory by coming in person to their assistance, first sending loss. the bard, to animate their courage; and at last when the danger becomes more pressing, his rising in his might, and interposing, like a divinity, to decide the doubtful fate of the day; are all circumstances contrived with so much art, as plainly discover the Celtic bards to have been not unpractised in heroic poetry. The story which is the foundation of the Iliad, is in itself as simple as that of Fingal. A quarrel arises between Achilles and Agamemnon concerning a female slave ; on which Achilles, apprehending himself to be injured, withdraws his assistance from the rest of the Greeks. The Greeks fall into great distress, and beseech him to be reconciled to them. He refuses to fight for them in person, but sends his friend Patroclus; and upon his being slain, goes forth to revenge his death, and kills Hector. The subject of Fingal is this: Swaran comes to invade Ireland; Cuthullin, the guar. dian of the young king, had applied for his assistance to Fingal, who reigned in the opposite coast of Scotland. But before Fingal’s arrival, he is hurried by rash counsel to encounter Swaran. He is defeated; he retreats and desponds. Fingal arrives in this conjuncture. The battle is for some time dubious; but in the end he conquers Swaran; and the remembrance of Swaran's

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »