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Ch. 9: Ossian

In 1760 appeared the first installment of MacPherson's "Ossian."[1] Among those who received it with the greatest curiosity and delight was Gray, who had recently been helping Mason with criticisms on his "Caractacus," published in 1759. From a letter to Walpole (June 1760) it would seem that the latter had sent Gray two manuscript bits of the as yet unprinted "Fragments," communicated to Walpole by Sir David Dalrymple, who furnished Scotch ballads to Percy. "I am so charmed," wrote Gray, "with the two specimens of Erse poetry, that I cannot help giving you the trouble to inquire a little farther about them; and should wish to see a few lines of the original, that I may form some slight idea of the language, the measures and the rhythm. Is there anything known of the author or authors; and of what antiquity are they supposed to be? Is there any more to be had of equal beauty, or at all approaching it?"

In a letter to Shonehewer (June 29,) he writes: "I have received another Scotch packet with a third specimen . . . full of nature and noble wild imagination."[2] And in the month following he writes to Wharton: "If you have seen Stonehewer, he has probably told you of my old Scotch (rather Irish) poetry. I am gone mad about them. They are said to be translations (literal and in prose) from the Erse tongue, done by one MacPherson, a young clergyman in the Highlands. He means to publish a collection he has of these specimens of antiquity, if it be antiquity; but what plagues me, is, I cannot come at any certainty on that head. I was so struck, so extasié with their infinite beauty, that I writ into Scotland to make a thousand enquiries." This is strong language for a man of Gray's coolly critical temper; but all his correspondence of about this date is filled with references to Ossian which enable the modern reader to understand in part the excitement that the book created among Gray's contemporaries. The letters that he got from MacPherson were unconvincing, "ill-wrote, ill-reasoned, calculated to deceive, and yet not cunning enough to do it cleverly." The external evidence disposed him to believe the poems counterfeit; but the impression which they made was such that he was "resolved to believe them genuine, spite of the Devil and the Kirk. It is impossible to convince me that they were invented by the same man that writes me these letters. On the other hand, it is almost as hard to suppose, if they are original, that he should be able to translate them so admirably."

On August 7 he writes to Mason that the Erse fragments have been published five weeks ago in Scotland, though he had not received his copy till the last week. "I continue to think them genuine, though my reasons for believing the contrary are rather stronger than ever." David Hume, who afterward became skeptical as to their authenticity, wrote to Gray, assuring him that these poems were in everybody's mouth in the Highlands, and had been handed down from father to son, from an age beyond all memory and tradition. Gray's final conclusion is very much the same with that of the general public, to which the Ossianic question is even yet a puzzle. "I remain still in doubt about the authenticity of these poems, tho' inclining rather to believe them genuine in spite of the world. Whether they are the inventions of antiquity, or of a modern Scotchman, either case is to me alike unaccountable. Je m'y perds."

We are more concerned here with the impression which MacPherson's books, taking them just as they stand, made upon their contemporary Europe, than with the history of the controversy to which they gave rise, and which is still unsettled after more than a century and a quarter of discussion. Nevertheless, as this controversy began immediately upon their publication, and had reference not only to the authenticity of the Ossianic poems, but also to their literary value; it cannot be altogether ignored in this account. The principal facts upon which it turned may be given in a nut-shell. In 1759 Mr. John Home, author of the tragedy of "Douglas," who had become interested in the subject of Gaelic poetry, met in Dumfriesshire a young Scotchman, named James MacPherson, who was traveling as private tutor to Mr. Graham of Balgowan. MacPherson had in his possession a number of manuscripts which, he said, were transcripts of Gaelic poems taken down from the recital of old people in the Highlands. He translated two of these for Home, who was so much struck with them that he sent or showed copies to Dr. Hugh Blair, Professor of Rhetoric in the University of Edinburgh. At the solicitation of Dr. Blair and Mr. Home, MacPherson was prevailed upon to make further translations from the materials in his hands; and these, to the number of sixteen, were published in the "Fragments" already mentioned, with a preface of eight pages by Blair. They attracted so much attention in Edinburgh that a subscription was started, to send the compiler through the Highlands in search of more Gaelic poetry.

The result of the researches was "Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books: Together with several other poems, composed by Ossian the son of Fingal. Translated from the Gaelic language by James MacPherson," London, 1762; together with "Temora, an Ancient Epic Poem in Eight Books," etc., etc., London, 1763. MacPherson asserted that he had made his versions from Gaelic poems ascribed to Ossian or Oisin, the son of Fingal or Finn MacCumhail, a chief renowned in Irish and Scottish song and popular legend. Fingal was the king of Morven, a district of the western Highlands, and head of the ancient warlike clan or race of the Feinne or Fenians. Tradition placed him in the third century and connected him with the battle of Gabhra, fought in 281. His son, Ossian, the warrior-bard, survived all his kindred. Blind and old, seated in his empty hall, or the cave of the rock; alone save for the white-armed Malvina, bride of his dead son, Oscar, he struck the harp and sang the memories of his youth: "a tale of the times of old."

MacPherson translated—or composed—his "Ossian" in an exclamatory, abrupt, rhapsodical prose, resembling somewhat the English of Isaiah and others of the books of the prophets. The manners described were heroic, the state of society primitive. The properties were few and simple; the cars of the heroes, their spears, helmets, and blue shields; the harp, the shells from which they drank in the hall, etc. Conventional compound epithets abound, as in Homer: the "dark-bosomed" ships, the "car-borne" heroes, the "white-armed" maids, the "long-bounding" dogs of the chase. The scenery is that of the western Highlands; and the solemn monotonous rhythm of MacPherson's style accorded well with the tone of his descriptions, filling the mind with images of vague sublimity and desolation: the mountain torrent, the dark rock in the ocean, the mist on the hills, the ghosts of heroes half seen by the setting moon, the thistle in the ruined courts of chieftains, the grass whistling on the windy heath, the blue stream of Lutha, and the cliffs of sea-surrounded Gormal. It was noticed that there was no mention of the wolf, common in ancient Caledonia; nor of the thrush or lark or any singing bird; nor of the salmon of the sealochs, so often referred to in modern Gaelic poetry. But the deer, the swan, the boar, eagle, and raven occur repeatedly.

But a passage or two will exhibit the language and imagery of the whole better than pages of description. "I have seen the walls of Balclutha, but they were desolate. The fire had resounded in the halls, and the voice of the people is heard no more. The stream of Clutha was removed from its place by the fall of the walls. The thistle shook there its lonely head; the moss whistled to the wind. The fox looked out from the windows, the rank grass of the wall waved round its head. Desolate is the dwelling of Moina, silence is in the house of her fathers. Raise the song of mourning, O bards, over the land of strangers. They have but fallen before us; for, one day, we must fall. Why dost thou build the hall, son of the winged days? Thou lookest from thy towers to-day; yet a few years, and the blast of the desert comes; it howls in thy empty court, and whistles round thy half-worn shield."[3] "They rose rustling like a flock of sea-fowl when the waves expel them from the shore. Their sound was like a thousand streams that meet in Cona's vale, when, after a stormy night, they turn their dark eddies beneath the pale light of the morn. As the dark shades of autumn fly over hills of grass; so, gloomy, dark, successive came the chiefs of Lochlin's[4] echoing woods. Tall as the stag of Morven, moved stately before them the King.[5] His shining shield is on his side, like a flame on the heath at night; when the world is silent and dark, and the traveler sees some ghost sporting in the beam. Dimly gleam the hills around, and show indistinctly their oaks. A blast from the troubled ocean removed the settled mist. The sons of Erin appear, like a ridge of rocks on the coast; when mariners, on shores unknown are trembling at veering winds."[6]

The authenticity of the "Fragments" of 1760 had not passed without question; but MacPherson brought forward entire epics which, he asserted, were composed by a Highland bard of the third century, handed down through ages by oral tradition, and finally committed—at least in part—to writing and now extant in manuscripts in his possession, there ensued at once a very emphatic expression of incredulity. Among the most truculent of the disbelievers was Dr. Johnson. He had little liking for Scotland, still less for the poetry of barbarism. In his tour of the Western Islands with Boswell in 1773, he showed an insensibility, and even a kind of hostility, to the wild beauties of Highland scenery, which gradually affects the reader with a sense of the ludicrous as he watches his sturdy figure rolling along on a small Highland pony by sequestered Loch Ness, with its fringe of birch trees, or between the prodigious mountains that frown above Glensheal; or seated in a boat off the Mull of Cantyre, listening to the Erse songs of the rowers:

"Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides."

"Dr. Johnson," says Boswell, "owned he was now in a scene of as wild nature as he could see; but he corrected me sometimes in my inaccurate observations. 'There,' said I, 'is a mountain like a cone.' Johnson: 'No, sir. It would be called so in a book, but when a man comes to look at it, he sees it is not so. It is indeed pointed at the top, but one side of it is larger than the other.' Another mountain I called immense. Johnson: 'No; it is no more than a considerable protuberance.'"

Johnson not only disputed the antiquity of MacPherson's "Ossian," but he denied it any poetic merit. Dr. Blair having asked him whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems, he answered: "Yes, sir: many men, many women and many children." "Sir," he exclaimed to Reynolds, "a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it." To Mr. MacQueen, one of his Highland hosts, he said: "I look upon MacPherson's 'Fingal' to be as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with." Johnson's arguments were mostly a priori. He asserted that the ancient Gael were a barbarous people, incapable of producing poetry of the kind. Long epics, such as "Fingal" and "Temora," could not be preserved in memory and handed down by word of mouth. As to ancient manuscripts which MacPherson pretended to have, there was not a Gaelic manuscript in existence a hundred years old.

It is now quite well established that Dr. Johnson was wrong on all these points. To say nothing of the Homeric poems, the ancient Finns, Scandinavians, and Germans were as barbarous as the Gael; yet they produced the Kalewala, the Edda, and the Nibelungen Lied. The Kalewala, a poem of 22, 793 lines—as long as the Iliad—was transmitted orally from a remote antiquity and first printed in 1849. As to Gaelic manuscripts, there are over sixty in the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh, varying in age from three hundred to five hundred years.[7] There is, e.g., the "Glenmasan Manuscript" of the year 1238, containing the story of "Darthula,"[8] which is the groundwork of the same story in MacPherson's "Ossian." There is the important "Dean of Lismore's Book," a manuscript collection made by Dean MacGregory of Lismore, Argyleshire, between 1512 and 1529, containing 11,000 lines of Gaelic poetry, some of which is attributed to Ossian or Oisin. One of the poems is identical in substance with the first book of MacPherson's "Temora;" although Mr. Campbell says, "There is not one line in the Dean's book that I can identify with any line in MacPherson's Gaelic."[9]

Other objections to the authenticity of MacPherson's translations rested upon internal evidence, upon their characteristics of thought and style. It was alleged that the "peculiar tone of sentimental grandeur and melancholy" which distinguishes them, is false to the spirit of all known early poetry, and is a modern note. In particular, it was argued, MacPherson's heroes are too sensitive to the wild and sublime in nature. Professor William R. Sullivan, a high authority on Celtic literature, says that in the genuine and undoubted remains of old Irish poetry belonging to the Leinster or Finnian Cycle and ascribed to Oisin, there is much detail in descriptions of arms, accouterments, and articles of indoor use and ornament, but very little in descriptions of outward nature.[10] On the other hand, the late Principal Shairp regards this "sadness of tone in describing nature" as a strong proof of authenticity. "Two facts," he says, "are enough to convince me of the genuineness of the ancient Gaelic poetry. The truthfulness with which it reflects the melancholy aspects of Highland scenery, the equal truthfulness with which it expresses the prevailing sentiment of the Gael, and his sad sense of his people's destiny. I need no other proofs that the Ossianic poetry is a native formation, and comes from the primeval heart of the Gaelic race."[11] And he quotes, in support of his view, a well-known passage from Matthew Arnold's "Study of Celtic Literature": "The Celts are the prime authors of this vein of piercing regret and passion, of this Titanism in poetry. A famous book, MacPherson's 'Ossian,' carried, in the last century, this vein like a flood of lava through Europe. I am not going to criticise MacPherson's 'Ossian' here. Make the part of what is forged, modern, tawdry, spurious in the book as large as you please; strip Scotland, if you like, of every feather of borrowed plumes which, on the strength of MacPherson's 'Ossian,' she may have stolen from that vetus et major Scotia—Ireland; I make no objection. But there will still be left in the book a residue with the very soul of the Celtic genius in it; and which has the proud distinction of having brought this soul of the Celtic genius into contact with the nations of modern Europe, and enriched all our poetry by it. Woody Morven, and echoing Lora, and Selma with its silent halls! We all owe them a debt of gratitude, and when we are unjust enough to forget it, may the Muse forget us! Choose any one of the better passages in MacPherson's 'Ossian,' and you can see, even at this time of day, what an apparition of newness and of power such a strain must have been in the eighteenth century."

But from this same kind of internal evidence, Wordsworth draws just the opposite conclusion. "The phantom was begotten by the snug embrace of an impudent Highlander upon a cloud of tradition. It traveled southward, where it was greeted with acclamation, and the thin consistence took its course through Europe upon the breath of popular applause.[12]. . . Open this far-famed book! I have done so at random, and the beginning of the epic poem 'Temora,' in eight books, presents itself. 'The blue waves of Ullin roll in light. The green hills are covered with day. Trees shake their dusky heads in the breeze. Gray torrents pour their noisy streams. Two green hills with aged oaks surround a narrow plain. The blue course of a stream is there. On its banks stood Cairbar of Atha. His spear supports the king: the red eyes of his fear are sad. Cormac rises on his soul with all his ghastly wounds. . .' Having had the good fortune to be born and reared in a mountainous country, from my very childhood I have felt the falsehood that pervades the volumes imposed upon the world under the name of Ossian. From what I saw with my own eyes, I knew that the imagery was spurious. In nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute, independent singleness. In MacPherson's work it is exactly the reverse: everything (that is not stolen) is in this manner defined, insulated, dislocated, deadened, yet nothing distinct. It will always be so when words are substituted for things. To say that the characters never could exist; that the manners are impossible; and that a dream has more substance than the whole state of society, as there depicted, is doing nothing more than pronouncing a censure which MacPherson defied. . . Yet, much as these pretended treasures of antiquity have been admired, they have been wholly uninfluential upon the literature of the country. No succeeding writer appears to have caught from them a ray of inspiration; no author in the least distinguished has ventured formally to imitate them, except the boy Chatterton, on their first appearance. . . This incapability to amalgamate with the literature of the Island is, in my estimation, a decisive proof that the book is essentially unnatural; nor should I require any other to demonstrate it to be a forgery, audacious as worthless. Contrast, in this respect, the effect of MacPherson's publication with the 'Reliques' of Percy, so unassuming, so modest in their pretensions."

Other critics have pointed out a similar indistinctness in the human actors, no less than in the landscape features of "Fingal" and "Temora." They have no dramatic individuality, but are all alike, and all extremely shadowy. "Poor, moaning, monotonous MacPherson" is Carlyle's alliterative description of the translator of "Ossian"; and it must be confessed that, in spite of the deep poetic feeling which pervades these writings, and the undeniable beauty of single passages, they have damnable iteration. The burden of their song is a burden in every sense. Mr. Malcolm Laing, one of MacPherson's most persistent adversaries, who published "Notes and Illustrations to Ossian" in 1805, essayed to show, by a minute analysis of the language, that the whole thing was a fabrication, made up from Homer, Milton, the English Bible, and other sources. Thus he compared MacPherson's "Like the darkened moon when she moves, a dim circle, through heaven, and dreadful change is expected by men," with Milton's

"Or from behind the moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs."

Laing's method proves too much and might be applied with like results to almost any literary work. And, in general, it is hazardous to draw hard and fast conclusions from internal evidence of the sort just reviewed. Taken altogether, these objections do leave a strong bias upon the mind, and were one to pronounce upon the genuineness of MacPherson's "Ossian," as a whole, from impressions of tone and style, it might be guessed that whatever element of true ancient poetry it contains, it had been thoroughly steeped in modern sentiment before it was put before the public. But remembering Beowulf and the Norse mythology, one might hesitate to say that the songs of primitive, heroic ages are always insensible to the sublime in nature; or to admit that melancholy is a Celtic monopoly.

The most damaging feature of MacPherson's case was his refusal or neglect to produce his originals. The testimony of those who helped him in collecting and translating leaves little doubt that he had materials of some kind; and that these consisted partly of old Gaelic manuscripts, and partly of transcriptions taken down in Gaelic from the recitation of aged persons in the Highlands. These testimonies may be read in the "Report of the Committee of the Highland Society," Edinburgh, 1805.[13] It is too voluminous to examine here, and it leaves unsettled the point as to the precise use which MacPherson made of his materials, whether, i.e., he gave literal renderings of them, as he professed to do; or whether he manipulated them—and to what extent—by piecing fragments together, lopping, dove-tailing, smoothing, interpolating, modernizing, as Percy did with his ballads. He was challenged to show his Gaelic manuscripts, and Mr. Clerk says that he accepted the challenge. "He deposited the manuscripts at his publishers', Beckett and De Hondt, Strand, London. He advertised in the newspapers that he had done so; offered to publish them if a sufficient number of subscribers came forward; and in the Literary Journal of the year 1784, Beckett certifies that the manuscripts had lain in his shop for the space of a whole year."[14]

But this was more than twenty years after. Mr. Clerk does not show that Johnson or Laing or Shaw or Pinkerton, or any of MacPherson's numerous critics, ever saw any such advertisement, or knew where the manuscripts were to be seen; or that—being ignorant of Gaelic—it would have helped them if they had known; and he admits that "MacPherson's subsequent conduct, in postponing from time to time the publication, when urged to it by friends who had liberally furnished him with means for the purpose . . . is indefensible." In 1773 and 1775, e.g., Dr. Johnson was calling loudly for the production of the manuscripts. "The state of the question," he wrote to Boswell, February 7, 1775, "is this. He and Dr. Blair, whom I consider as deceived, say that he copied the poem from old manuscripts. His copies, if he had them—and I believe him to have none—are nothing. Where are thee manuscripts? They can be shown if they exist, but they were never shown. De non existentibus et non apparentibus eadem est ratio." And during his Scotch trip in 1773, at a dinner at Sir Alexander Gordon's, Johnson said: "If the poems were really translated, they were certainly first written down. Let Mr. MacPherson deposit the manuscripts in one of the colleges at Aberdeen, where there are people who can judge; and if the professors certify their authenticity, then there will be an end of the controversy. If he does not take this obvious and easy method, he gives the best reason to doubt."

Indeed the subsequent history of these alleged manuscripts casts the gravest suspicion on MacPherson's good faith. A thousand pounds were finally subscribed to pay for the publication of the Gaelic texts. But these MacPherson never published. He sent the manuscripts which were ultimately published in 1807 to his executor, Mr. John Mackenzie; and he left one thousand pounds by his will to defray the expense of printing them. After MacPherson's death in 1796, Mr. Mackenzie "delayed the publication from day to day, and at last handed over the manuscripts to the Highland Society,"[15] which had them printed in 1807, nearly a half century after the first appearance of the English Ossian.[16] These, however, were not the identical manuscripts which MacPherson had found, or said that he had found, in his tour of exploration through the Highlands. They were all in his own handwriting or in that of his amanuenses. Moreover the Rev. Thomas Ross was employed by the society to transcribe them and conform the spelling to that of the Gaelic Bible, which is modern. The printed text of 1807, therefore, does not represent accurately even MacPherson's Gaelic. Whether the transcriber took any further liberties than simply modernizing the spelling cannot be known, for the same mysterious fate that overtook MacPherson's original collections followed his own manuscript. This, after being at one time in the Advocates' Library, has now utterly disappeared. Mr. Campbell thinks that under this double process of distillation—a copy by MacPherson and then a copy by Ross—"the ancient form of the language, if it was ancient, could hardly survive."[17] "What would become of Chaucer," he asks, "so maltreated and finally spelt according to modern rules of grammar and orthography? I have found by experience that an alteration in 'spelling' may mean an entire change of construction and meaning, and a substitution of whole words."

But the Gaelic text of 1807 was attacked in more vital points than its spelling. It was freely charged with being an out-and-out fabrication, a translation of MacPherson's English prose into modern Gaelic. This question is one which must be settled by Gaelic scholars, and these still disagree. In 1862 Mr. Campbell wrote: "When the Gaelic 'Fingal,' published in 1807, is compared with any one of the translations which purport to have been made from it, it seems to me incomparably superior. It is far simpler in diction. It has a peculiar rhythm and assonance which seem to repel the notion of a mere translation from English, as something almost absurd. It is impossible that it can be a translation from MacPherson's English, unless there was some clever Gaelic poet[18] then alive, able and willing to write what Eton schoolboys call 'full-sense verses.'" The general testimony is that MacPherson's own knowledge of Gaelic was imperfect. Mr. Campbell's summary of the whole matter—in 1862—is as follows: "My theory then is, that about the beginning of the eighteenth century, or the end of the seventeenth, or earlier, Highland bards may have fused floating popular traditions into more complete forms, engrafting their own ideas on what they found; and that MacPherson found their works, translated and altered them; published the translation in 1760;[19] made the Gaelic ready for the press; published some of it in 1763,[20] and made away with the evidence of what he had done, when he found that his conduct was blamed. I can see no other way out of the maze of testimony." But by 1872 Mr. Campbell had come to a conclusion much less favorable to the claims of the Gaelic text. He now considers that the English was first composed by MacPherson and that "he and other translators afterward worked at it and made a Gaelic equivalent whose merit varies according to the translator's skill and knowledge of Gaelic."[21] On the other hand, Mr. W. F. Skene and Mr. Archibald Clerk, are confident that the Gaelic is the original and the English the translation. Mr. Clerk, who reprinted the Highland Society's text in 1870,[22] with a literal translation of his own on alternate pages and MacPherson's English at the foot of the page, believes implicitly in the antiquity and genuineness of the Gaelic originals. "MacPherson," he writes, "got much from manuscripts and much from oral recitation. It is most probable that he has given the minor poems exactly as he found them. He may have made considerable changes in the larger ones in giving them their present form; although I do not believe that he, or any of his assistants, added much even in the way of connecting links between the various episodes."

To a reader unacquainted with Gaelic, comparing MacPherson's English with Mr. Clerk's, it certainly looks unlikely that the Gaelic can be merely a translation from the former. The reflection in a mirror cannot be more distinct than the object it reflects; and if Mr. Clerk's version can be trusted (it appears to be more literal though less rhetorical than MacPherson's) the Gaelic is often concrete and sharp where MacPherson is general; often plain where he is figurative or ornate; and sometimes of a meaning quite different from his rendering. Take, e.g., the closing passage of the second "Duan," or book, of "Fingal."

"An arrow found his manly breast. He sleeps with his loved Galbina at the noise of the sounding surge. Their green tombs are seen by the mariner, when he bounds on the waves of the north."—MacPherson.

"A ruthless arrow found his breast.
His sleep is by thy side, Galbina,
Where wrestles the wind with ocean.
The sailor sees their graves as one,
When rising on the ridge of the waves."
Clerk

But again Mr. Archibald Sinclair, a Glasgow publisher, a letter from whom is given by Mr. Campbell in his "Tales of the West Highlands," has "no hesitation in affirming that a considerable portion of the Gaelic which is published as the original of his [MacPherson's] translation, is actually translated back from the English." And Professor Sullivan says: "The so-called originals are a very curious kind of mosaic, constructed evidently with great labor afterward, in which sentences or parts of sentences of genuine poems are cemented together in a very inferior word-paste of MacPherson's own."[23]

It is of course no longer possible to maintain what Mr. Campbell says is the commonest English opinion, viz., that MacPherson invented the characters and incidents of his "Ossian," and that the poems had no previous existence in any shape. The evidence is overwhelming that there existed, both in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands traditions, tales, and poems popularly attributed to Oisin, the son of Finn MacCumhail. But no poem has been found which corresponds exactly to any single piece in MacPherson; and Sullivan cites, as one proof of the modern and spurious character of these versions, the fact that they mingle names from the ancient hero-cycle, like Darthula, Cuthullin, and Conlach, with names belonging to the Finnian cycle, as is never the case in the authentic and undoubted remains of Celtic poetry. Between 1760, the date of MacPherson's "Fragments," and 1807, the date of the Highland Society's text, there had been published independently nine hundred lines of Ossianic verse in Gaelic in Gillie's collection, 1786, and Stewart's, 1804. In 1780 Dr. Smith had published his "Ancient Lays," a free translation from Gaelic fragments, which he subsequently printed (1787) under the title "Sean Dàna," Smith frankly took liberties with his originals, such as we may suppose that MacPherson took with his; but he made no secret of this and, by giving the Gaelic on which his paraphrase rested, he enabled the public to see how far his "Ancient Lays," were really ancient, and how far they were built up into poetic wholes by his own editorial labors.[24]

Wordsworth's assertion of the failure of MacPherson's "Ossian" to "amalgamate with the literature of this island" needs some qualifications. That it did not enter into English literature in a formative way, as Percy's ballads did, is true enough, and is easy of explanation. In the first place, it was professedly a prose translation from poetry in another tongue, and could hardly, therefore, influence the verse and diction of English poetry directly. It could not even work upon them as directly as many foreign literatures have worked; as the ancient classical literatures, e.g., have always worked; or as Italian and French and German have at various times worked; for the Gaelic was practically inaccessible to all but a few special scholars. Whatever its beauty or expressiveness, it was in worse case than a dead language, for it was marked with the stigma of barbarism. In its palmiest days it had never been what the Germans called a Kultursprache; and now it was the idiom of a few thousand peasants and mountaineers, and was rapidly becoming extinct even in its native fastnesses.

Whatever effect was to be wrought by the Ossianic poems upon the English mind, was to be wrought in the dress which MacPherson had given them. And perhaps, after all, the tumid and rhetorical cast of MacPherson's prose had a great deal to do with producing the extraordinary enthusiasm with which his "wild paraphrases," as Mr. Campbell calls them, were received by the public. The age was tired of polish, of wit, of over-civilization; it was groping toward the rude, the primitive, the heroic; had begun to steep itself in melancholy sentiment and to feel a dawning admiration of mountain solitudes and the hoary past. Suddenly here was what it had been waiting for—"a tale of the times of old"; and the solemn, dirge-like chant of MacPherson's sentences, with the peculiar manner of his narrative, its repetitions, its want of transitions, suited well with his matter. "Men had been talking under their breath, and in a mincing dialect so long," says Leslie Stephen, "that they were easily gratified and easily imposed upon by an affectation of vigorous and natural sentiment."

The impression was temporary, but it was immediate and powerful. Wordsworth was wrong when he said that no author of distinction except Chatterton had ventured formally to imitate Ossian. A generation after the appearance of the "Fragments" we find the youthful Coleridge alluding to "Ossian" in the preface[25] to his first collection of poems (1793), which contains two verse imitations of the same, as ecce signum:

"How long will ye round me be swelling,
O ye blue-tumbling waves of the sea?
Not always in caves was my dwelling,
Nor beneath the cold blast of the tree," etc., etc.[26]

In Byron's "House of Idleness" (1807), published when he was a Cambridge undergraduate, is a piece of prose founded on the episode of Nisus and Euryalus in the "Aeneid" and entitled "The Death of Calmar and Orla—An Imitation of MacPherson's Ossian." "What form rises on the roar of clouds? Whose dark ghost gleams in the red stream of tempests? His voice rolls on the thunder. 'Tis Orla, the brown chief of Orthona. . . Lovely wast thou, son of blue-eyed Morla," etc. After reading several pages of such stuff, one comes to feel that Byron could do this sort of thing about as well as MacPherson himself; and indeed, that Johnson was not so very far wrong when he said that anyone could do it if he would abandon his mind to it. Chatterton applied the Ossianic verbiage in a number of pieces which he pretended to have translated from the Saxon: "Ethelgar," "Kenrick," "Cerdick," and "Gorthmund"; as well as in a composition which he called "Godred Crovan," from the Manx dialect, and one from the ancient British, which he entitled "The Heilas." He did not catch the trick quite so successfully as Byron, as a passage or two from "Kenrick" will show: "Awake, son of Eldulph! Thou that sleepest on the white mountain, with the fairest of women; no more pursue the dark brown wolf: arise from the mossy bank of the falling waters: let thy garments be stained in blood, and the streams of life discolor thy girdle. . . Cealwulf of the high mountain, who viewed the first rays of the morning star, swift as the flying deer, strong as a young oak, fiery as an evening wolf, drew his sword; glittering like the blue vapors in the valley of Horso; terrible as the red lightning bursting from the dark-brown clouds, his swift bark rode over the foaming waves like the wind in the tempest."

In a note on his Ossianic imitation, Byron said that Mr. Laing had proved Ossian an impostor, but that the merit of MacPherson's work remained, although in parts his diction was turgid and bombastic.[27] A poem in the "Hours of Idleness," upon the Scotch mountain "Lachin Y Gair," has two Ossianic lines in quotation points—

"Shades of the dead! have I not heard your voices
Rise on the night-rolling breath of the gale?"

Byron attributed much importance to his early recollections of Highland scenery, which he said had prepared him to love the Alps and "blue Friuli's mountains," and "the Acroceraunian mountains of old name." But the influence of Ossian upon Byron and his older contemporaries was manifested in subtler ways than in formal imitations. It fell in with that current of feeling which Carlyle called "Wertherism," and helped to swell it. It chimed with the tone that sounds through the German Sturm und Drang period; that impatience of restraint, that longing to give full swing to the claims of the elementary passions, and that desperation when these are checked by the arrangements of modern society, which we encounter in Rousseau and the young Goethe. Hence the romantic gloom, the Byronic Zerrissenheit, to use Heine's word, which drove the poet from the rubs of social life to waste places of nature and sometimes to suicide. In such a mood the mind recurred to the language of Ossian, as the fit expression of its own indefinite and stormy griefs.

"Homer," writes Werther, "has been superseded in my heart by the divine Ossian. Through what a world does this angelic bard carry me! With him I wander over barren wastes and frightful wilds; surrounded by whirlwinds and hurricanes, trace by the feeble light of the moon the shades of our noble ancestors; hear from the mountainous heights, intermingled with the roaring of waves and cataracts, their plaintive tones stealing from cavernous recesses; while the pensive monody of some love-stricken maiden, who heaves her departing sighs over the moss-clad grave of the warrior by whom she was adored, makes up the inarticulate concert. I trace this bard, with his silver locks, as he wanders in the valley and explores the footsteps of his fathers. Alas! no vestige remains but their tombs. His thought then hangs on the silver moon, as her sinking beams play upon the rippling main; and the remembrance of deeds past and gone recurs to the hero's mind—deeds of times when he gloried in the approach of danger, and emulation nerved his whole frame; when the pale orb shone upon his bark, laden with the spoils of his enemy, and illuminated his triumphant return. When I see depicted on his countenance a bosom full of woe; when I behold his heroic greatness sinking into the grave, and he exclaims, as he throws a glance at the cold sod which is to lie upon him: 'Hither will the traveler who is sensible of my worth bend his weary steps, and seek the soul-enlivening bard, the illustrious son of Fingal; his foot will tread upon my tomb, but his eyes shall never behold me'; at this time it is, my dear friend, that, like some renowned and chivalrous knight, I could instantly draw my sword; rescue my prince from a long, irksome existence of languor and pain; and then finish by plunging the weapon into my own breast, that I might accompany the demi-god whom my hand had emancipated."[28]

In his last interview with Charlotte, Werther, who had already determined upon suicide, reads aloud to her, from "The Songs of Selma," "that tender passage wherein Armin deplores the loss of his beloved daughter. 'Alone on the sea-beat rocks, my daughter was heard to complain. Frequent and loud were her cries. What could her father do? All night I stood on the shore. I saw her by the faint beam of the moon,'" etc. The reading is interrupted by a mutual flood of tears. "They traced the similitude of their own misfortune in this unhappy tale. . . The pointed allusion of those words to the situation of Werther rushed with all the electric rapidity of lightning to the inmost recesses of his soul."

It is significant that one of Ossian's most fervent admirers was Chateaubriand, who has been called the inventor of modern melancholy and of the primeval forest. Here is a passage from his "Génie du Christianisme":[29] "Under a cloudy sky, on the coast of that sea whose tempests were sung by Ossian, their Gothic architecture has something grand and somber. Seated on a shattered altar in the Orkneys, the traveler is astonished at the dreariness of those places: sudden fogs, vales where rises the sepulchral stone, streams flowing through wild heaths, a few reddish pine trees, scattered over a naked desert studded with patches of snow; such are the only objects which present themselves to his view. The wind circulates among the ruins, and their innumerable crevices become so many tubes, which heave a thousand sighs. Long grasses wave in the apertures of the domes, and beyond these apertures you behold the flitting clouds and the soaring sea-eagle. . . Long will those four stones which mark the tombs of heroes on the moors of Caledonia, long will they continue to attract the contemplative traveler. Oscar and Malvina are gone, but nothing is changed in their solitary country. 'Tis no longer the hand of the bard himself that sweeps the harp; the tones we hear are the slight trembling of the strings, produced by the touch of a spirit, when announcing at night, in a lonely chamber, the death of a hero. . . So when he sits in the silence of noon in the valley of his breezes is the murmur of the mountain to Ossian's ear: the gale drowns it often in its course, but the pleasant sound returns again."

In Byron's passion for night and tempest, for the wilderness, the mountains, and the sea, it is of course impossible to say how large a share is attributable directly to MacPherson's "Ossian," or more remotely, through Chateaubriand and other inheritors of the Ossianic mood. The influence of any particular book becomes dispersed and blended with a hundred currents that are in the air. But I think one has often a consciousness of Ossian in reading such passages as the famous apostrophe to the ocean in "Childe Harold"—

"Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!"—

Which recalls the address to the sun in Carthous—"O thou that rollest above, round as the shield of my fathers,"—perhaps the most hackneyed locus classicus in the entire work; or as the lines beginning,

"O that the desert were my dwelling place;"[30]

or the description of the storm in the Jura:

"And this is in the night: Most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber. Let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight
A portion of the tempest and of thee."[30]

Walter Scott, while yet a lad, made acquaintance with Ossian through Dr. Blacklock, and was at first delighted; but "the tawdry repetitions of the Ossianic phraseology," he confesses, "disgusted me rather sooner than might have been expected from my age." He afterward contributed an essay on the authenticity of the poems to the proceedings of the Speculative Club of Edinburgh. In one sense of the word Scott was the most romantic of romanticists; but in another sense he was very little romantic, and there was not much in his sane, cheerful, and robust nature upon which such poetry as Ossian could fasten.[31] It is just at this point, indeed, that definitions diverge and the two streams of romantic tendency part company. These Carlyle has called "Wertherism" and "Götzism"[32] i.e. sentimentalism and mediaevalism, though so mild a word as sentimentalism fails to express adequately the morbid despair to which "Werther" gave utterance, and has associations with works of a very different kind, such as the fictions of Richardson and Sterne. In England, Scott became the foremost representative of "Götzism," and Byron of "Wertherism." The pessimistic, sardonic heroes of "Manfred," "Childe Harold," and "The Corsair" were the latest results of the "Il Penseroso" literature, and their melodramatic excesses already foretokened a reaction.

Among other testimonies to Ossian's popularity in England are the numerous experiments at versifying MacPherson's prose. These were not over-successful and only a few of them require mention here. The Rev. John Wodrow, a Scotch minister, "attempted" "Carthon," "The Death of Cuthullin" and "Darthula" in heroic couplets, in 1769; and "Fingal" in 1771. In the preface to his "Fingal," he maintained that there was no reasonable doubt of the antiquity and authenticity of MacPherson's "Ossian." "Fingal"—which seems to have been the favorite—was again turned into heroic couplets by Ewen Cameron, in 1776, prefaced by the attestations of a number of Highland gentlemen to the genuineness of the originals; and by an argumentative introduction, in which the author quotes Dr. Blair's dictum that Ossian was the equal of Homer and Vergil "in strength of imagination, in grandeur of sentiment, and in native majesty of passion." National pride enlisted most of the Scotch scholars on the affirmative side of the question, and made the authenticity of Ossian almost an article of belief. Wodrow's heroics were merely respectable. The quality of Cameron's may be guessed from a half dozen lines:

"When Moran, one commissioned to explore
The distant seas, came running from the shore
And thus exclaimed—'Cuthullin, rise! The ships
Of snowy Lochlin hide the rolling deeps.
Innumerable foes the land invade,
And Swaran seems determined to succeed.'"

Whatever impressiveness belonged to MacPherson's cadenced prose was lost in these metrical versions, which furnish a perfect reductio ad absurdum of the critical folly that compared Ossian with Homer. Homer could not be put in any dress through which the beauty and interest of the original would not appear. Still again, in 1786, "Fingal" was done into heroics by a Mr. R. Hole, who varied his measures with occasional ballad stanzas, thus:

"But many a fair shall melt with woe
At thy soft strain in future days,
And many a manly bosom glow,
Congenial to thy lofty lays."

These versions were all emitted in Scotland. But as late as 1814 "Fingal" appeared once more in verse, this time in London, and in a variety of meters by Mr. George Harvey; who, in his preface, expressed the hope that Walter Scott would feel moved to cast "Ossian" into the form of a metrical romance, like "Marmion" or "The Lay of the Last Minstrel." The best English poem constructed from MacPherson is "The Six Bards of Ossian Versified," by Sir Egerton Brydges (dated in 1784).[33] The passage selected was the one which Gray so greatly admired,[34] from a note to "Croma," in the original "Fragments." Six bards who have met at the hall of a chieftain, on an October night, go out one after another to observe the weather, and return to report their observations, each ending with the refrain "Receive me from the night, my friends." The whole episode is singularly arresting, and carries a conviction of reality too often wanting in the epic portions of MacPherson's collection.

Walpole, at first, was nearly as much charmed by the "Fragments" as Gray had been. He wrote to Dalrymple that they were real poetry, natural poetry, like the poetry of the East. He liked particularly the synonym for an echo—"son of the rock"; and in a later letter he said that all doubts which he might once have entertained as to their genuineness had disappeared. But Walpole's literary judgments were notoriously capricious. In his subsequent correspondence with Mason and others, he became very contemptuous of MacPherson's "cold skeleton of an epic poem, that is more insipid than 'Leonidas.'" "Ossian," he tells Mason, in a letter dated March, 1783, has become quite incredible to him; but Mrs. Montagu—the founder of the Blue Stocking Club—still "holds her feast of shells in her feather dressing-room."

The Celtic Homer met with an even warmer welcome abroad than at home. He was rendered into French,[35] German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish, and possibly other languages. Bonaparte was a great lover of Ossian, and carried about with him a copy of Cesarotti's Italian version. A resemblance has been fancied between MacPherson's manner and the grandiloquent style of Bonaparte's bulletins and dispatches.[36] In Germany Ossian naturally took most strongly. He was translated into hexameters by a Vienna Jesuit named Michael Denis[37] and produced many imitations. Herder gave three translations from "Ossian" in his "Stimmen der Völker" (1778-79) and prefixed to the whole collection an essay "Ueber Ossian und die Lieder alter Völker" written in 1773. Schiller was one of the converts; Klopstock and his circle called themselves "bards"; and an exclamatory and violent mannerism came into vogue, known in German literary history as Bardengebrüll. MacPherson's personal history need not be followed here in detail. In 1764 he went to Pensacola as secretary to Governor Johnston. He was afterward a government pamphleteer, writing against Junius and in favor of taxing the American colonies. He was appointed agent to the Nabob of Arcot; sat in Parliament for the borough of Camelford, and built a handsome Italian villa in his native parish; died in 1796, leaving a large fortune, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In 1773 he was ill-advised enough to render the "Iliad" into Ossianic prose. The translation was overwhelmed with ridicule, and probably did much to increase the growing disbelief in the genuineness of "Fingal" and "Temora."


Footnotes:


[1] "Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language." Edinburgh, MDCCLX. 70 pp.

[2] This was sent him by MacPherson and was a passage not given in the "Fragments."

[3] From "Carthon."

[4] Scandinavia

[5] An unconscious hexameter.

[6] From "Fingal" book ii.

[7] See the dissertation by Rev. Archibald Clerk in his "Poems of Ossian in the Original Gaelic, with a literal translation into English." 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1870.

[8] This story as been retold, from Irish sources, in Dr. R. D. Joyce's poem of "Deirdrè," Boston, 1876.

[9] See "Leabhar na Feinne, Heroic Gaelic Ballads, Collected in Scotland, chiefly from 1512 to 1871. Arranged by J. F. Campbell," London, 1872. Selections from "The Dean of Lismore's Book" were edited and published at Edinburgh in 1862, by Rev. Thomas MacLauchlan, with a learned introduction by Mr. W. F. Skene.

[10] Article on "Celtic Literature" in the "Encyclopedia Britannica."

[11] "Aspects of Poetry," by J. C. Shairp, 1872, pp. 244-45 (American Edition).

[12] Appendix to the Preface to the Second Edition of "Lyrical Ballads." Taine says that Ossian "with Oscar, Malvina, and his whole troop, made the tour of Europe; and, about 1830, ended by furnishing baptismal names for French grisettes and perruquiers."—English Literature, Vol. II. p. 220 (American Edition).

[13] The Committee found that Gaelic poems, and fragments of poems, which they had been able to obtain, contained often the substance, and sometimes the "literal expression (the ipsissima verba)" of passages given by MacPherson. "But," continues the "Report," "the Committee has not been able to obtain any one poem the same in title and tenor with the poems published by him. It is inclined to believe that he was in use to supply chasms and to give connection, by inserting passages which he did not find; and to add what he conceived to be dignity and delicacy to the original composition, by striking out passages, by softening incidents, by refining the language: in short, by changing what he considered as too simple or too rude for a modern ear."

[14] "Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Poems." See ante, p. 313.

[15] Clerk.

[16] "The Poems of Ossian in the Original Gaelic, with a Literal Translation into Latin by the late Robert Macfarland, etc., Published under the Sanction of the Highland Society of London," 3 vols., London, 1807. The work included dissertations on the authenticity of the poems by Sir Jno. Sinclair, and the Abbé Cesarotti (translated). Four hundred and twenty-three lines of Gaelic, being the alleged original of the seventh book of "Temora," had been published with that epic in 1763.

[17] "Popular Tales of the West Highlands," J. F. Campbell, Edinburgh, 1862. Vol. IV. P. 156.

[18] He suggests Lachlan MacPherson of Strathmashie, one of MacPherson's helpers. "Popular Tales of the West Highlands."

[19] "Fragments," etc.

[20] Seventh book of "Temora." See ante, p. 321.

[21] "Leabhar Na Feinne," p. xii.

[22] See ante, p. 313, note.

[23] "Encyclopaedia Britannica": "Celtic Literature."

[24] For a further account of the state of the "authenticity" question, see Archibald McNeil's "Notes on the Authenticity of Ossian's Poems," 1868; and an article on "Ossian" in Macmillan's Magazine, XXIV. 113-25.

[25] "The sweet voice of Cona never sounds so sweetly as when it speaks of itself."

[26] "The Complaint of Ninathoma."

[27] For some MS. Notes of Byron in a copy of "Ossian," see Phelps' "English Romantic Movement," pp. 153-54.

[28] "Sorrows of Werther," Letter lxviii.

[29] "Caledonia, or Ancient Scotland," book ii. chapter vii. part iv.

[30] "Childe Harold," canto iii.

[31] The same is true of Burns, though references to Cuthullin's dog Luath, in "The Twa Dogs"; to "Caric-thura" in "The Whistle"; and to "Cath-Loda" in the notes on "The Vision," show that Burns knew his Ossian.

[32] From Goethe's "Götz von Berlichingen."

[33] See "Poems by Saml. Egerton Brydges," 4th ed., London, 1807. pp. 87-96.

[34] See ante, p. 117.

[35] There were French translations by Letourneur in 1777 and 1810: by Lacaussade in 1842; and an imitation by Baour-Lormian in 1801.

[36] See Perry's "Eighteenth Century Literature," p. 417.

[37] One suspects this translator to have been of Irish descent. He was born at Schärding, Bavaria, in 1729.

Henry Augustin Beers

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