Page images

is obtained by that moderation and generosity which convert him into a friend.

The unity of the epic action, which, of all Aristotle's rules is the chief and most material, is so strictly preserved in Fingal, that it must be perceived by every reader. It is a more complete unity than what arises from relating the actions of one man, which the Greek critic justly censures as imperfect; it is the unity of one enterprise, the deliverance of Ireland from the invasion of Swaran : an enterprise; which has surely the full heroic dignity. All the incidents recorded bear a constant reference to one end ; no double plot is car. ried on; but the parts unite into a regular whole : And as the action is one and great, so it is an intire or complete action. For we find, as the critic farther requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end ; a nodus, or intrigue in the poem; difficulties occurring through Cuthullin's rashness and bad success; those difficulties gradually surmounted; and at last the work conducted to that happy conclusion which is held essential to epie poetry. Unity is indeed observed with greater exact. ness in Fingal, than in almost any other epic composition. For not only is unity of subject maintained, but that of time and place also. The autumn is clearly pointed out as the season of the action; and, from beginning to end, the scene is never shifted from the heath of Lena, along the sea-shore. The duration of the action in Fingal is much shorter than in the Iliad or Æneid. But sure, there may be shorter as well as longer heroic poems; and if the authority of Aristotle be also required for this, he says expressly, that the epic composition is indefinite as to the time of its duration, Accordingly the action of the Iliad lasts only fortyseven days, whilst that of the Æneid is continued for more than a year.

Throughout the whole of Fingal, there reigns that grandeur of sentiment, style, and imagery, which ought ever to distinguish this high species of poetry. The story is conducted with no small art. The poo goes not back to a tedio!is recital of the beginning

the war with Swaran ; but hastening to the main action, he falls in exactly, by a most happy coincidence of thought, with the rule of Horace.

Semper ad eventum festinat, & in medias res.
Non secus ac notas, auditorem rapit

Nec gemino bellum Trojanum orditur ab ovo. De Arte Poet. He invokes no muse, for he acknowledged none; but his occasional addresses to Malvina have a finer effect than the invocation of any muse. He sets out with no formal proposition of his subject; but the subject naturally and easily unfolds itself; the poem.opening in an animated manner, with the situation of Cuthullin, and the arrival of a scout, who informs him of Swaran's landing. Mention is presently made of Fingal, and the expected assistance from the ships of the lonely isle, in order to give further light to the subject. 1. For the poet often sbows his address in gradually preparing us for the events he is to introduce; and in particular, the preparation for the appearance of Fingal, the previous expectations that are raised, and the extreme magnificence fully answering these expectations, with which the hero is at length presented to us, are all worked up with such skilful conduct as would do honour to any poet of the most refined times. Homer's art in magnifying the character of Achilles has been universally admired. Ossian certainly shows no less art in aggrandizing Fingal. Nothing could be more happily imagined for this purpose than the whole management of the last battle, wherein Gaul, the son of Morni, had besought Fingal to retire, and to leave him and his other chiefs the honour of the day. The generosity of the king in agreeing to this proposal; the majesty with which he retreats to the hill, from whence he was to behold the engagement, attended by his bards, and waving the lightning of his sword; his perceiving the chiefs overpowered by numbers, but from unwil. lingness to deprive them of the glory of victory, by coming in person to 'heir assistance, first sending Ullin, the bard, to animate their courage ; and, at last, when the danger becomes more pressing, his rising in his


night, and interposing, like a divinity, to decide the doubtful fate of the day; are ail circumstances contrived with so much art as plainly discover the Celtic bards to have been not unpract:sed in heroic poetry.

The story which is the foundation of the Iliad, is in itself as simple as that of Fingal. A quarrel arises between Achilles and Agamemnon concerning a female slave; on which, Achilles, apprehending himself to be injured, withdraws his assistance from the rest of the Greeks. The Greeks fall into great distress, and beseech him to be reconciled to them. He refuses to fight for them in person, but sends his friend Patroclus; and upon his being slain, goes forth to revenge his death, and kills Hector. The subject of Fingal is this: Swaran comes to invade Ireland : Cuthullin, the guardian of the young king, had applied for assistance to Fingal, who reigned in the opposite coast of Scotland. But before Fingal's arrival, he is hurried by rash counsel to encounter Swaran. He is defeated; he retreats; and desponds. Fingal arrives in this conjuncture, The battle is for some time dubious; but in the end he conquers Swaran; and the remembrance of Swaran's being the brother of Agandecca, who had once saved his life, makes him dismiss him honourably. Homer, it is true, has filled up his story with a much greater variety of particulars than Ossian; and in this has shown a come pass of invention superior to that of the other poet. But it must not be forgotten, that though Homer be more circumstantial, his incidents, however, are less diversified in kind than those of Ossian. War and bloodshed reign throughout the Iliad : and notwithstanding all the fertility of Homer's invention, there is so much uniformity in his subjects, that there are few readers, who, before the close, are not tired of perpe. tual fighting. Whereas in Ossian, the mind is relieved by a more agreeable diversity. There is a finer mixture of war and heroism with love and friendship, of martial with tender scenes, than is so be met with, perhaps, in any other poet. The episodes too have great propriety; as natural, and proper to that age and country

consisting of the songs of bards, which are known to have been the great entertainment of the Celtic heroes in war, as well as in peace. These songs are not introduced at random; if you except the episode of Duchomar and Morna in the first book, which, though beautiful, is more unartful than any of the rest ; they have always some particular relation to the actor who is interested, or to the events which are going on; and, whilst they vary the scene, they preserve a sufficient connection with the main subject, by the fitness and propriety of their introduction.

As Fingal's love to Agandecca influences some circumstances of the poem, particularly the honourable dismission of Swaran at the end; it was necessary that we should be let into this part of the hero's story. But as it lay without the compass of the present action, it could be regularly introduced no where, except in an episode. Accordingly the poet, with as much propriety as if Aristotle himself had directed the plan, has contrived an episode, for this purpose, in the song of Carril, at the beginning of the third book.

The conclusion of the poem is strictly according to rule; and is every way noble and pleasing. The reconciliation of the contending heroes, the consolation of Cuthullin, and the general felicity that crowns the action, soothe the mind in a very agreeable manner, and form that passage from agitation and trnuble, to perfect quiet and repose, which critics require as the proper termination of the epic work. “Thus they “ passed the night in song, and brought back the more "s ning with joy. Fingal arose on the heath; and shook “ his glittering spear in his hand. He moved first to66 wards the plains of Lena ; and we followed like a “ ridge of fire. Spread the sail, said the king of Mor. 6 ven, and catch the winds that pour from Lena. We “ rose on the wave with songs; and rushed with joy " through the foam of the ocean." So much for the unitv and general conduct of the epic action in Fingal.

With regard to that property of the subject which ristotle requires, that it should be feigned, not his

torical, he must not be understood so strictly, as if he meant to exclude all subjects which have any founda. tion in truth. For such exclusion would both be unreasonable in itself, and what is more, would be contrary to the practice of Homer, who is known to have founded his Iliad on historical facts concerping the war of Troy, which was famous throughout all Greece. Aristotle means no more than that it is the business of a poet not to be a mere annalist of facts, but to embellish truth with beautiful, probable, and useful fictions; to copy nature, as he himself explains it, like painters, who preserve a likeness, but exhibit their objects more grand and beautiful than they are in reality. That Os. sian has followed this course, and building upon true history, has sufficiently adorned it with poetical fiction for aggrandizing his characters and facts, will not, I believe, be questioned by most readers. At the same time, the foundation which those facts and characters had in truth, and the share which the poet himself had in the transactions which he records, must be considered as no small advantage to his work. For truth makes an impression on the mind, far beyond any fiction; and no man, let his imagination be ever so strong, relates any events so feelingly as those in which he has been interested; paints any scene so naturally as cne which he has seen ; or draws any characters in such strong colours as those which he has personally known, It is considered as an advantage of the epic subject to be taken from a period so distant, as, by being involved in the darkness of tradition, may give licence to fable. Though Ossian's subject may at first view appear unfavourable in this respect, as being taken from his own times, yet when we reflect that he lived to an extreme old age; that he relates what had been transacted in another country, at the distance of many years, and after all that race of men who had been the actors were gone off the stage; we shall find the objection in a great measure obviated. In so rude an age, when no) written records were known, when tradition was loose, and accuracy of any kind little attended to, what was

« PreviousContinue »