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Nearly half a century has elapsed since the publica.
- tion of the poems ascribed by Mr. Macpherson to
Ossian, which poems he then professed to have col lected in the original Gaelic, during a tour through the West :rn 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 foot. ing, will be thrown aside, and will fall into final obliv. Poll.
* “A Report of the committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the Poems of Ossian. Drawn up, according to the directions of the committee, by Henry Mackenzie, Esq., its convener, or chairman with a copious appendix, containing some of the principal docu vents on which the report is founded Edinburgh, 1805.” 8 vo -1
“The absurd pride and caprice of Macpherson him. self, 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 be. i.ve these poems genuine, more than it is possible for uny 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, notwith. standing all the art with which you have endeavored to throw a vernish” on that circumstance; and the preser. vation 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 Mac. pherson. 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. Mac. pherson 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; Wel them compare the original and the translation; and le" them testify the fidelity of the latter.
*So in Ms.
“But the chief point in which it will be necessary for you to exert yourself, will be, to get-positive testi. mony from many different hands that such poems are vulgarly recited in the Highlands, and have there long been the entertainment of 'he 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 oeautiful, 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.’ !3ut 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.
“Your connections among your brethren of the clergy may be of great use to you. You may easily learn the names of all ministers of that country who understand the language of it. You may write to them, expressing the doubts that have arisen, and desiring them to send for such of the bards as remain, and make them rehearse their ancient poems. Let the clergymen then have the translation in their hands, and let them write back to you, and inform you, that they heard such a one, (naming him,) living in such a place, rehearse the original of such a passage, srom such a page to such a page of the English translation, which appeared exact and faithful. If you give to the public a sufficient number of such testimonials, you may prevail. But I venture to foretel to you, that nothing less will serve the purpose ; nothing less wil so much as command the attention of the public. “Becket tells me, that he is to give us a new edition of your dissertation, accompanied with some remarks on Temora. Here is a favorable opportunity for you to execute this purpose. You have a just and laudable zeal for the credit of these poems. They are, if genu. ine, one of the greatest curiosities, in all respects, that ever was discovered in the commonwealth of letters; and the child is, in a manner, become yours by adoption, as Macpherson has totally abandoned all care of it. These motives call upon you to exert yourself: and I think it were suitable to your candor, and most satisfactory also to the reader, to publish all the answers to all the letters you write, even though some of those letters should make somewhat against your own opinion in this affair. We shall always be the more assured, that no arguments are strained beyond their proper force, and no contrary arguments suppressed, where such an entire communication is made to us. Becket joins me heartily in that application; and he owns to me, that ‘h, oelievers in the authenticity of the poems diminish every day among the men of sense and reflection. Nothing less than what I propose can ultrow the balance on the other side.”
* So in MS
Lisle street, Leicester Fields, 19th Sept., 1763.
The second letter contains less matter of impor. tance; but what there is that is relevant deserves not to be omitted.
“l aun very glad,” he writes on the oth of October,
1763, “you have undertaken the task which l used the freedom to recommend to you. Nothing less than what you propose will serve the purpose. You must expect no assistance from Macpherson, who flew into a passion when I told him of the letter I had wrote to you. But you must not mind so strange and heteroclite a mortal, than whom I have scarce ever known a man more perverse and unamiable. He will probably depart for Florida with Governor Johnstone, and 1 would advise him to travel among the Chickasaws or Cherokees, in order to tame and civilize him.
so * * * * *
“Since writing the above, I have been in company with Mrs. Montague, a lady of great distinction in this place, and a zealous partisan of Ossian. I told her of your intention, and even used the freedom to read your letter to her. She was extremely pleased with your project; and the rather, as the Duc de Nivernois, she said, had talked to her much on that subject last win. ter; and desired, if possible, to get collected some proofs of the authenticity of these poems, which he proposed to lay before the Academie de Belles Lettres at Paris. You see, then, that you are upon a great stage in this inquiry, and that many people have their eyes upon you. This is a new motive for rendering your proofs as complete as possible. I cannot conceive any objection which a man, even of the gravest char. acter, could have to your publication of his letters, which will only attest a plain fact known to him. Such scruples, if they occur, you must endeavor to re. move, for on this trial of yours will the judgment of the oublic finally depend.” sk sk sk
Without being acquainted with Hume's advice to