Page images
PDF
EPUB

The winding Carun is that small river, retaining still the name of Carron, and runs in the neighbourhood of As gricola's wall, which Carausius repaired to obstruct the incursions of the Caledonians. Several other passages in the poems allude to the wars of the Romans; but the two just mentioned clearly fix the epoch of Fingal to the third century; and this account agrees exactly with the Irish histories, which place the death of Fingal, the son of Comhal, in the year 283, and that of Oscar and their own celebrated Cairbar, in the year 296.

Some people-may imagine, that the allusions to the Roman history might have been industriously inserted into the poems, to give them the appearance of antiquity. This fraud must then have been committed at least three ages ago, as the passages in which the allusions are made, are alluded to often in the compositions of those times.

Every one knows what a cloud of ignorance and barbarism overspread the north of Europe three hundred years ago. The minds of men, addicted to superstition, contracted a narrowness that destroyed genius. Accordingly we find the compositions of those times trivial and puerile to the last degree. But let it be allowed, that, amidst all the untoward circumstances of the age, a genius might arise, it is not easy to determine what could induce him to give the honour of his compositions to an age so remote. We find no fact that he has advanced to favour any designs which could be entertained by any man who lived in the fifteenth century. But should we suppose a poet, thro' humour, or for reasons which cannot be seen at this distance of time, would ascribe his own compositions to Ossian, it is next to impossible, that he could impose upon his countrymen, when all of them were so well acquainted with the traditional Poems of their ancestors.'

The strongest objection to the authenticity of the Poems now given to the public under the name of Os. sian, is the improbability of their being handed down by tradition through so many centuries. Ages of bar. barism, some will say. could not produce poems abound,

ng with the disinterested and generous sentiments so conspicuous in the compositions of Ossian: and could these ages produce them, it is impossible but they must be lost, or altogether corrupted, in a long succession of barbarous generations,

These objections naturally suggest themselves to men unacquainted with the ancient state of the northern parts of Britain. The bards, who were an inferior order of the druids, did not share their bad fortune. They were spared by the victorious king, as it was through their means only he could hope for immortality to his fame. They attended him in the camp, and contributed to establish his power by their songs. His great actions were magnified, and the populace, who had not ability to examine into his character narrowly, were dazzled with his fame in the rhymes of the bards, In the mean time, men assumed the sentiments that are rarely to be met with in an age of barbarism. The bards, who were originally the disciples of the druids, had their minds opened, and their ideas enlarged, by being initiated in the learning of that celebrated order. They could form a perfect hero in their own minds, and ascribe that character to their prince. The inferior chiefs made this ideal character the model of their conduct, and by degrees brought their minds to that generous spirit which breathes in all the poetry of the times. The prince, flattered by his bards, and rivalled by his own heroes, who imitated his character as described in the eulogies of his poets, endeavoured to excel his people in merit, as he was above them in station. This emulation continuing, formed at last the general character of the nation, happily compounded of what is noble in barbarity, and virtuous and generous in a polished

people.

When virtue in peace, and bravery in war, are the characteristics of a nation, their actions become interesting, and their fame worthy of immortality. A generous spirit is warmed with noble actions, and becomes ambitious of perpetuating them. This is the true source of that divine inspiration, to which the poets of all age:

pretended. When they found their themes inadequate to the warmth of their imaginations, they varnished them over with fables, supplied by their own fancy, or to furnished by absurd traditions. These fables, howeve ridiculous, had their abettors; postérity either implicitlyn believed them, or through a vanity natural to mankind, in pretended that they did. They loved to place the founders of their families in the days of fáble, when poetry, without the fear of contradiction, could give : what characters she pleased of hér heroes. It is to this vanity that we owe the preservation of what remain of the works of Ossian. His poetical merit made his heroes famous, in a country where heroism was most esteemed and admired. The posterity of these heroes, or those who pretended to be descended from them, heard with pleasure the eulogiums of their ancestors; bards were employed to repeat the poems, and to record the connection of their patrons with chiefs so renowned. Every chief in process of time had a bard in his family, and the office became at last hereditary. By the sucession of these bards, the poems concerning the ancestors of the family were handed down from generation to generation; they were repeated to the whole clan on solemn occasions, and always alluded tô in the new compositions of the bards. This custom came down near to our own times; and after the bards were discontinued, a great number in a clan retained by memory, or committed to writing, their compositions, and founded the antiquity of their families on the authority of their poëins.

The use of letters was not known in the north of Europe till long after the institution of the bards; the records of the families of their pations, their own, and more ancient poems, were handed down by tradition. Their poetical compositions were admirably contrived for that purpose. They were adapted to music; and the most perfect harmony observed. Each verse was o connected with those which preceded or followed it, hat if one line had been remembered in a stanza, it was Imost imnossible to forget the rest. The cadences

followed in so natural a gradation, and the words were so adapted to the common turn of the voice, after it is raised to a certain key, that it was almost impossible, from a similarity of sound, to substitute 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 clog the sense, or weaken the expression. The numerous flexions of consonants, and variation in declension, make the language very copious.

The descendants of the Celtæ, who inhabited Britain and its isles, were not singular 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 so fond of the custom, that they would never allow their laws to be committed to write ing. The actions of great men, and the eulogiums of kings and heroes, were preserved in the same manner. All the kistorical monuments of the old Germans were comprehended in their ancient songs; which were

ther hymns to their gods, or elegies in praise of their heroes, and were intended to perpetuate the great events in their nations which were carefully interwoven with them. This species of composition was not committed to writing, but delivered by oral tradition". une care they took to have the poems taught to their children, the uninterrupted custom of repeating them upon certain occasions, and the happy measure of the Verse, served to preserve them for a long time uncorfupted. This oral chronicle of the Germans was not of gor in the eighth century, and it probably would have

dalhed to this day, had not learning, which thinks very thing that is not committed to writing fabulous,

Atroduced. It was from poetical traditions that

SSO composed his account of the Yncas of Peru. reruvians had lost all other monuments of their "Y; and it was from ancient poems which his her, a princess of the blood of the Yncas, taught Tacitu do

been introduced. " Garcillasso compose The Peruvians history; an mother, a pr

him in his youth, that he collected the materials of his history. If other nations then, that had been often over-run by enemies, and had sent abroad and received colonies, could for many ages preserve, by oral tradition, their laws and histories uncorrupted, it is much more probable that the ancient Scots, a people so free of intermixture with foreigners, and so strongly attached to the memory of their ancestors, had the works of their bards handed down with great purity.

It will scem strange to some, that poems admired for many centuries in one part of this kingdom should be hitherto unknown in the other; and that the British, who have carefully traced out the works of genius in other nations, should so long remain strangers to their own. This, in a great measure, is to be imputed to those who understood 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 those compositions is so different from other poems, and the ideas so confined to the most early state of society, that it was thought they had not enough of variety to please a polished age.

This was long the opinion of the translator of the following collection ; and though he admired the poems in the original very early, and gathered part of them from tradition for his own amusement, yet he never had the smallest hopes of seeing them in an English dress. He was sensible that the strength and manner of both languages were very different, and that it was next to impossible to translate the Gaelic poetry in any thing of tolerable English verse; a prose translation he could never think of, as it must necessarily fall short of the majesty of an original. It was a gentleman, who has himself made a figure in the poetical world, that gave him the first hint concerning a literal rose translation. He tried it at his desire, and the

meriman wae annroved. Other gentlemen were par.

« PreviousContinue »