« PreviousContinue »
is to their uncommon zeal that the world owes the Gaelic Poems, if they have any merit.
It was at first intended to make a general collection of all the ancient pieces of genius to be found in the Gaelic language; but the translator had his reasons for confining himself to the remains of the works of Ossian. The action of the poem that stands the first was not the greatest or most celebrated of the exploits of Fingal. His wars were very numerous, and each of them. afforded a theme which employed the genius of his son. But, excepting the present poems, those pieces are irrecoverably lost, and there only remain a few fragments in the hands of the translator. Tradition has still preserved, in many places, the story of the poems, and many now living have heard them in their youth repeated.
The complete work now printed, would, in a short time, have shared the fate of the rest. The genius of the Highlandets has suffered a great change within these few years. The communication with the rest of the island is open, and the introduction of trade and manufactures has distroyed that leisure which was formerly dedicated to hearing and repeating the poems of ancient times. Many have now learned to leave their mountains, and seek their fortunes in a milder climate; and though a certain amor patriie may sometimes bring them back, they have, during their absence, imbibed enough of foreign manners to dispise the customs of their ancestors. Bards have been long disused, and the spirit of genealogy has greatly subsided. Men hegin to be less devoted to their chiefs, and consangumity is not so much regarded. When property is established, the human mind confines its views to the pleasure it procures. It does not go back to antiquity, or look forward to succeeding ages. The cares of life increase, and the actions of other times no longer amuse. Hence it is, that the taste for ancient poetry u at a low ebb among the Highlanders. They have not, however, thrown off the good qual ities of the ir ancestors. Hospitalitv still subsists,_and an uncommon civilit" to strangers. Friendship is inviolable, and revenge less blindly followed than formerly.
To say any thing concerning the poetical merit of the poems, would be an inticipation of the judgment of the public. The poem which staods first in the collection is truly epic. The characters are strongly marked, and the sentiments breathe heroism. The subject of it is an invasion of Ireland by Swaran king of Lochlin, which is the name of Scandinavia in the Gaelic language. Cuthullin, general of the Irish tribes, in the minority of Cormic king of Ireland, upon intelligence of the invasion, assembled his forces near Tura, a castle on the coast of Uist,er. The poem opens with the landing of Swaran; councils are held, battles fought, and Cuthullin is at last totally defeated. In the mean time, Fingal, king of Scotland, whose aid was solicited before the enemy landed, arrived and expelled them from the country. This war, which continued but six days and as many nights, is, including the episodes, the whole storv of the poem. The scene is the heath of Lena, near a mountain called Cromleach, in Ulster.
All thatsean be said of the translation is, that it is literal, and that simplicity is studied. The arrangement of the words in the original is imitated, and the inversions of the style observed. As the translator claims no merit from his version, he hopes for the indulgence of the public where be fails. He wishes that the imperfect semblance he draws, may not prejudise the world against an original, which contains what is beautiful in simplicity, and grand in the sublime.
A DISSERTATION CONCERNING THE
POEMS OF OSSIAN.
THE history of those nations which originally possessed the north of Europe, is little known. Destitute of the use of letters, they themselves had not the means of transmitting theii great actions to remote posterity. Foreign writers saw them only at a disrance, and therefore their accounts are partial and indistinct. The vanity of the Romans induced them to consider the nations beyond the pale of their empire as barbarians; and, consequently, their history unworthy of being investigated. Some men, otherwise of great merit among ourselves, give into this confined opinion. Having c-irly imbibed their idea of exalted manners from the Greek and Roman writers, they scarcely ever afterwards have the fortitude to allow any dignity of character to any other ancient people.
Without derogating from the fame of Greece and Rome, we may consider antiquity beyond the pale of their empire worthy of some attention. The nobler passions of the mind never shoot forth more free and unrestrained than in these times we call barbarous. That irregular manner of life, and those manly pursuits from which barbarity takes its name, are highly favourable to a strength of mind unknown in polished times. In advanced society the characters of men are more uniform and disguised. The human passions lie, in some degree, concealed behind forms and artificial manners; and the powers of the soul, without an opportonity of exerting them, lose their vigour. The times of regular government and polished manners are therefore to be wished for by the feeble and weak in mind. An unsettled state, and those convulsion* which attend it, is the proper field for an exalted cnaracter, and the exertion of great parts. Merit there rises always superior; no fortuitous event can raise the timid and mean into power. To those who look upon antiquity in this light, it is an agreeable prospect; and they alone can have real pleasure in tracing nations to their source.
The establishment of the Celtic states in the north of Europe, is beyond the reach of their written annals. The traditions and songs to which they trusted their history, were lost, or altogether corrupted in their revolutions and migrations, which were so frequent and universal, that no kingdom in Europe is now possessed by its original inhabitants. Societies were formed, and kingdoms erected, from a mixture of nations, who, in process of time, lost all knowledge of their own origin
If tradition could be depended upon, it is only among a people, from all time free of intermixture with foreigners. We'are to look for these among the moontains and inaccessible parts of a country; places, on account of their barrenness, uninviting to an enemy, or .whose natural strength enabled the natives to repel invasions. Such are the inhabitants of the mountains of Scotland. We accordingly find, that they differ materially from those who possess the low and more fertile part of the kingdom. Their language is pure and original, and their manners are those of an ancient and unmixed race of men. Conscious of their own antiquity, they long dispised others, as a new and mixed people. As they lived in a country only fit for pastore, they were free of that toil and husiness which engross the attention of a commercial people. Their amusement consisted in hearing or repeating their songs and traditions, and these entirely torned on the antiquity of their nation, and the exploits of their forefathers. It is no wonder, therefore, that there are more remains of antiquity among them, than among any other people in Europe. Traditions, however, concerning remote periods, are only to be regarded, in so far as they coincide with cotemporary writers of undoubted credit and veracity.
No writers began their accounts from a more early period than the historians of the Scots nation. Without records, or even tradition itself, they give a long list of ancient kings, and a detail of their transactions, with a scrupulous exactness. One might naturally sup. pose, that when they had no authentic annals, they should, at least, have recourse to the traditions of their country, and have reduced them into a regular system of history. Of both they seem to have been equally destitute. Born in the low country, and strangers to the ancient language of their nation, they contented themselves with copying from one another, and retailing the same fictions in a new colour and dress.
John Fordun was the first who collected those fragments of the Scots history, which had escaped the brutal policy of Edward I. and reduced them into order. His accounts, in so far as they concerned recent transactions, deserved credit: beyond a certain period, they were fabulous and unsatisfactory. Some t,ime before Fordun wrote, the king of England, in a letter to the Pope, had ron up the antiquity of his nation to a very remote era. Fordun, possessed of all the national prejudice of the age, was unwilling that his country should yield, in point of antiquity, to a people;then its rivals and enemies. Distitute of annals in Scotland, he had recourse to Ireland, which, according to the vulgar errors of the times, was reckoned the first habitation of the Scots. He found there,. that the Irish bards had carried their pretensions to antiquity as high, if not beyond, any nation in Europe. It was from them he took those improbable fictions which form the first part of his history.
The writers that succeeded Fordun implicitly followed his system, though they sometimes varied from him in their relations of particular transactions, and the order of succession of their kings. As they had no new lights, and were, equally with him, unacquainted with the traditions of their country, their histories con