Page images

hand. Be thou a stream of mighty tides against the foes of thy people ; but like the gale that moves the grass to those who ask thine aid. So Trenmor lived; such Trathal was ; and such has Fingal been. My arm was the support of the injured; the weak rested behind the lightning of my steel.” These were the maxims of true heroism, to which he formed his grand. son. His fame is represented as everywhere spread; the greatest heroes acknowledge his superiority; his enemies tremble at his name ; and the highest encomium that can be bestowed on one whom the poets would most exalt, is to say, that his soul was like the soul of Fingal. To do justice to the poet's merit, in supporting such a character as this, I must observe, what is not com monly attended to, that there is no part of poetical execution more difficult, than to draw a perfect character in such a manner as to render it distinct, and affecting to the mind. Some strokes of human imperfection and frailty, are what usually give us the most clear view, and the most sensible impression of a character; because they present to us a man, such as we have seen ; they recall known features of human nature. When poets attempt to go beyond this range, and describe a faultless hero, they for the most part set before us a sort of vague, undistinguishable character, such as the imagination cannot lay hold of, or realize to itself as the object of affection. We know how much Virgil has failed in this particular. His perfect hero, AEneas, is an unanimated, insipid personage, whom we may pretend to admire, but whom no one can heartily love. But what Virgil has failed in, Ossian, to our astonishment, has successfully executed. His Fingal, though exhibited without any of the com. mon human failings, is, nevertheless, a real man; a character which touches and interests every reader


To this it has much contributed that the poet has rep
resented him as an old man; and by this has gained
the advantage of throwing around him a great many
circumstances, peculiar to that age, which paint him to:
the fancy in a more distinct light. He is surrounder!
with his family; he instructs his children in the priil.
ciples of virtue ; he is narrative of his past exploits;
he is venerable with the gray locks of age ; he is fre
quently disposed to moralize, like an old man, on hu.
man vanity, and the prospect of death. There is in ore
art, at least more felicity, in this, than may at first be
imagined. For youth and old age are the two states
of human life, capable of being placed in the most pic-
turesque lights. Middle age is more general and
vague ; and has fewer circumstances peculiar to the
idea of it. And when any object is in a situation that
admits it to be rendered particular, and to be clothed
with a variety of circumstances, it always stands out
more clear and full of poetical description.
Besides human personages, divine or supernatural
agents are often introduced into epic poetry, forming
what is called the machinery of it; which most critics
hold to be an essential part. The marvellous, it must
be admitted, has always a great charm for the bulk of
readers. It gratifies the imagination, and affords room
for striking and sublime description. No wonder,
therefore, that all poets should have a strong propensity
towards it. But I must observe, that nothing is more
difficult than to adjust properly the marvellous with the
probable. If a poet sacrifice probability, and fill his
work with extravagant supernatural scenes, he spreads
over it an appearance of romance and childish fiction,
he transports his readers from this world into fantas.
tic visionary region; and loses that weight and dignity
which should reign in epic poetry. No work from
which probability is altogether banished, can make a

asting or deep impression. Human actions and manners are always the most interesting objects which can be presented to a human mind. All machinery, there. fore, is faulty, which withdraws these too much from view, or obscures them under a cloud of incredible fictions. Besides being temperately employed, machinery ought always to have some foundation in popular belief. A poet is by no means at liberty to invent what system of the marvellous he pleases; he must avail himself either of the religious faith, or the superstitious credulity of the country wherein he lives; so as to give an air of probability to events which are most contrary to the common course of nature. In these respects, Ossian appears to me to have oeen remarkably happy. He has, indeed, followed the same course with Homer. For it is perfectly absurd to ima. gine, as some critics have done, that Homer's mythology was invented by him “in consequence of profound reflection on the benefits it would yield to poetry.” Homer was no such refining genius. He found the traditionary stories, on which he built his Iliad, mingled with popular legends concerning the intervention of the gods; and he adopted these because they amused the fancy. Ossian, in like manner, found the tales of his country full of ghosts and spirits; it is likely he believed them himself; and he introduced them, because they gave his poems that solemn and marvellous cast which suited his genius. This was the only machinery he could employ with propriety; because it was the only intervention of supernatural beings which agreed with the common belief of the country. It was happy; because it did not interfere in the least with the proper display of human characters and actious; because it had less of the incredible than most other kinds of poetical machinery; and because it werved to diversify the scene, and to heighten the sub. •ect by an awful grandeur, which is the great design of machinery. As Ossian's mythology is peculiar to himself, and makes a considerable figure in his other poems, as well as in Fingal, it may be proper to make some observa. tions on it, independent of its subserviency to epic com. position. It turns, for the most part, on the appear. ances of departed spirits. These, consonantly to the notions of every rude age, are represented not as purely immaterial, but as thin airy forms, which can be visible or invisible at pleasure; their voice is feeble, their arm is weak; but they are endowed with knowledge more than human. In a separate state, they retain the same dispositions which animated them in this life. They ride on the wind; they bend their airy bows; and pursue deer formed of clouds. The ghosts of departed bards continue to sing. The ghosts of departed heroes frequent the fields of their former fame. “They rest together in their caves, and talk of mortal men. Their songs are of other worlds. They come sometimes to the ear of rest, and raise their feeble voice.” All this presents to us much the same set of ideas concerning spirits, as we find in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, where Ulysses visits the regions of the dead; and in the twenty-third book of the Juad, the ghost of Patroclus, after appearing to Achilles, vanishes precisely like one of Ossian's, emitting a shrill, feeble cry, and melting away like smoke. But though Homer's and Ossian's ideas concerning ghosts were of the same nature, we cannot but observe, that Ossian's ghosts are drawn with much stronger and livelier colors than those of Homer. Ossian describes ghosts with all the particularity of one who had seen and conversed with them, and whose imagination was full of the impression they had left upon it. He calls up those awful and tremendous ideas which the

[ocr errors]

—Simulacra modis pallentia miris

are fitted to raise in the human mind; and which, in Shakspeare's style, “harrow up the soul.” Crugal's ghost, in particular, in the beginning of the second book of Fingal, may vie with any appearance of this 'kind, described by any epic or tragic poet whatever. Most poets would have contented themselves with te. ing us, that he resembled, in every particular, the living Crugal; that his form and dress were the same, only his face more pale and sad; and that he bore the mark of the wound by which he fell. But Ossian sets before our eyes a spirit from the invisible world, distinguished by all those features which a strong, astonished imagination would give to a ghost. “A darkred stream of fire comes down from the hill. Crugal sat upon the beam; he that lately fell by the hand of Swaran, striving in the battle of heroes. His face is like the beam of the setting moon. His robes are of the cloud of the hill. His eyes are like two decaying flames. Dark is the wound of his breast.—The stars dim twinkled through his form; and his voice was like the sound of a distant stream.” The circumstance of the stars being beheld “dim twinkling hrough his form,” is wonderfully picturesque, and sonveys the most lively impression of his thin and shadowy substance. The attitude in which he is afterward placed, and the speech put into his mouth, are full of that solemn and awful sublimity, which suits the subject. “Dim, and in tears he stood, and he stretched his pale hand over the hero. Faintly he raised his feeble voice, like the gale of the reedy Lego.—My ghost, O Connals is on my native hills; but my corse is on the sands of Ulla. Thou shalt never talk with Crugal, or find his lone steps in the heath. I am lisht as the blast of Cromla ; and I move like the shadow of mist. Connal, son of Colgar ! I see the dark cloud

« PreviousContinue »