Page images

the exploits of him and his associate heroes, were tho favorite lore of the natives of those districts. The general belief of the existence of such heroic personages, and the great poet Ossian, the son of Fingal, by whom their exploits were sung, is as universal in tho Highlands, as the belief of any ancient fact whatsoever. It is recorded in proverbs, which pass through all ranks and conditions of men, Ossian dall, blind Ossian,* is a person as well known as strong Sampson, or wise Solomon. The very boys in their sports cry out for fair play, Cothram na feine, the equal combat of the Fingalians. Ossian, an dcigh nam Jiann, Ossian, the last of his race, is proverbial, to signify a man who has had the misfortune to survive his kindred; and servants returning from a fair or wedding, were in use to describe the beauty of young women they had seen there, by the words, Tha i cho boidheach reh Agandecca, nigheanant sneachda, She is as beautiful as Agandecca. the daughter of the Snow.f

All this will be readily conceded, and Mr. Macpherson's being at one period an "indifFerent proficient in the Gaelic language," may seem an argument of some weight against his having himself composed these Ossianic Poems. Of his inaccuracy in the Gaelic, a ludicrous instance is related in the declaration of Mr. Evan Macpherson, at Knock, in Sleat, Sep. 11,1800. He dfrclares that he, "Colonel Macleod, of Talisker, and the late Mr. Maclean of Coll, embarked with Mr. Macpherson for Uist on the same pursuit: that they landed at Lochmaddy, and proceeded across the Muir to Benbecula, the seat of the younger Clanronald: that on their way thither they fell in with a man whom they afterwards ascertained to have been Mac Codrun>

[ocr errors]

the poet: that'Mr. Macpherson asked him the question, A bheil dad agad air an Fheinn ? by which he meant to inquire, whether or not he knew any of the poems of Ossian relative to the Fingalians: but that the term in which the question was asked, strictly imported whether or not the Fingalians owed him any thing; and that Mac Codrum, being a man of humour, took advantage of the incorrectness or inelegance of the Gaelic in which the question was put, and answered, that really if they had owed him any thing, the bonds and obligations were lost, and he believed any attempt to recover them at that time of day would be unavailing. Which sally of Mac Codrum's wit seemed to have hurt Mr. Macpherson, who cut short the conversation, and proceeded on towards Benbecula. And the declarant being asked whether or not the late Mr. James Macpherson was capable of composing such poems as those of Ossian, declares most explicitly and positively that he is certain Mr. Macpherson was as unequal to such compositions as the declarant himself, who could no more make them than take wings and fly.' P. 96.

We would here observe, that the sufficiency of a man's knowledge of such a language as the Gaelic, for all the purposes of composition, is not to be questioned, because he does not speak* it accurately or elegantly, much less is it to be quibbled into suspicion by the pleasantry of a double entendre. But we hold it prudent, and it shall be our endeavour in this place, to give

*We doubt not that Mr. Professor Porson cold, if he pleased, torge a short poem in Greek, and ascribing it, for instance, to Theocritus, maintain its authenticity with considerable force and probability; and yet were it possible for him to speak to the simplest shepherd of ancient Greece, he would quickly afford as good reason, as Mr. Macpherson, to be suspected of being on "indifferent proficient" in the language,

no decided opinion on the main subject of dispute. For us the contention shall still remain sub jiidice.

To the queries circulated through such parts of the Highlands as~the committee imagined most likely to afford information in reply to them, they reccived-mam answers, most of which were conceived in nearly similar terms; that the persons themselves had never doubted of the existence of such poems as Mr. Macpherson had translated; that they had heard many of (hem repeated in their youth: that listening to them was the favorite amusement of Highlanders, in the hours of leisure and idleness; but that since the rebel, lion in 1745, the manners of the people had undergone a change so unfavorable to the recitation of these poems, that it was now an amusement scarcely known, and that very few persons remained alive who were able to recite them. That many of the poems which they had formerly heard were similar in subject and story, as well as in the names of the heroes mentioned in them, to those translated by Mr. Macpherson: that his translation seemed, to such as had read it, a very able one; but that it did not by any means come up to the force or energy of the original to such as had read it; for his book was by no means universally possessed, or read among the Highlanders, even accustomed to reading, who conceived that his translation could add but little to their amusement, and not at all to their conviction, in a matter which they had never doubted. A few of the committee's correspondents sent them such ancient poems as they possessed in writing, from having formerly taken them down from the oral recitation of the old Highlanders who were in use to recite them, or as they now took them down from some person, whom a very advanced period of life, or a particular connection with some reciter of the old school, enabled still to retain them in his memory ;* but those, thecommittee'scorrespondents said, were generally less perfect, and more corrupted, than the poems which they had formerly heard, or which might have been obtained at an earlier period.f

Several collections came to them by presents, as well as by purchase, and in these are numerous 'shreds and patches,'"' that bear a strong resemblance to the materials of which "Ossian's Poems" are composed. These are of various degrees of consequence. One of them we are the more tempted to give, for the same reason as tho committee was the more solicitous to procure it, because it was one which some of the opposers of the authenticity of Ossian had quoted as evidently spurious, betraying the most convincing marks of its being a close imitation of the address to the Sun in Milton.

"I got," says Mr. Mac Diarmid, $ "the copy of these poems" (Ossian's address to the Sun in CartJwn, and a similar address in Carrickthura) "about thirty years ago, from an old man in Glenlyon. I took it, and several other fragments, now, I fear, irrecoverably lost, from the man's mouth. He had learnt them in his youth from people in the same glen, which must have been long before Macpherson was born."

* The Rev. Mr. Smith, who has published translations of many Gaelic poems, accompanied by the originals, assures us, that "near himself, in the parish of Klimnver, lived a person named M'Pheal, whom he has heard, for weeks together, from five till ten o'clock at night, rehearse ancient poems, and many of them Ossian's. Two others, called M'Dugal and M'Neil, could entertain their hearers in the same manner for a whole winter season. It was from persons of this description, undoubtedly, that Macpherson recovered a great part of the works of Ossian. A. Macdonald'i Prelim. Disc. p. 76.

f See Report.

jDate, April 9.1801, p. 71.


"()! thou who travellest above, round as the full-orbed iard shield of the mighty! whence is thy brightness without frown, thy light that is lasting, O sun? Thou comest forth in thy powerful beauty, and the stars hide their course; the moon, without strength, goes from the sky, hiding herself under a wave in the west. Thou art in thy journey alone; who is so bold as to come nigh thee? The oak falleth from the high mountain; the rock and the precipice fall under old age; the ocean ebbeth and floweth, the moon is lost above in the sky; but thou alone forever in victory, in the rejoicing of thy own light. When the storm darkeneth around the world, with fierce thunder, and piercing lightnings, thou lookest in thy beauty from the noise, smiling in the troubled sky! To me is thy light in vain, as I can never see thy countenance; though thy yellow golden locks are spread on the face of the clouds in the east; or when thou tremblest in the west, at thy dusky doors in the ocean. Perhaps thou and myself are at one time mighty, at another feeble, our years sliding down from the skies, quickly travelling together to their end. Rejoice then, O sun! while thou art strong, O king! in thy youth. Dark and unpleasant is old age, like the vain and feeble light of the moon, while she looks through a cloud on the field, and her gray mist on the sides of the rocks; a blast from the north on the plain, a traveller in distress, and he slow.'

The comparison may be made, by turning to the end of Mr. Macpherson's version of " Carihon," beginning " O thou that rollest above."

But it must not be concealed, that after all the exer


« PreviousContinue »