«* National Library of Scotland ■■jin B000157358*. V POEMS OF OSSIAN, IN THE ORIGINAL GAELIC, WITH A LITERAL TRANSLATION INTO LATIN, BY THE LATE ...»
“ Another circumstance of the greatest weight against this hypothesis is, the total absence of religious ideas from this work; for which the translator has, in his preface, given a very probable account, on the footing of its being the work of Ossian. The druidical superstition was, in the. days of Ossian, on the point of its final extinction; and the Christian faith was not yet established in those climates. But had it been the work of one, to whom the ideas of Christianity were familiar from his infancy; and who had superadded to them also the bigotted superstition of a dark age and country; it is impossible, but in 298 TRANSLATION OF THE some passage or other, the traces of them would have appeared.”* This sensible reasoning appears to be unanswerable.
But although the argument, drawn from the ignorance and barbarity of the Highlanders in the fifteenth century, tends to prove that Ossian’s poems, as ushered into the world, cannot be the production of a national poet of that era; it does not prove the impossibility of their being an ingenious forgery of a more modern writer; for instance, Mr. Macpherson, availing himself of the fabulous traditions of the vulgar, and the notion of some rude ballads anciently popular, unknown, and unworthy to be noticed by the civilized part of Great Britain, might have been pleased to exercise his genius in a new and fantastic style, by composing a collection of Caledonian poems, from the singular vanity and caprice of deceiving the public, by ascribing them to a chimerical bard, the son of a petty Highland prince equally chimerical.
Such is the opinion adopted by the opponents of the high antiquity and original character of those poems. But this opinion, if thoroughly examined, will appear still more improbable than the preceding one. What Dr. Blair says on the difficulty of supposing a poet capable of so totally divesting himself of the ideas and manners of his own age, as most perfectly to assume those of a very remote period, and at the same time to be possessed of so much self-denial as to renounce his own glory in favour of an unknown person, militates more strongly
• See Note B, at the end of the Dissertation.
ABBE' CESAROTTl’s DISSERTATION. 2Q9against the supposition of a modern imposture, inasmuch as an Englishman of our age is superior to a Caledonian of the third century, with respect to ideas, scientific knowledge, and social arts. Were he even supposed to be a Caledonian poet of the fifteenth century, the glory the same Englishman might acquire from such an exquisite production of his genius, would be more flattering to him than any applause which a bard of three or four centuries back could thereby gain among his tribes within the narrow precincts of his mountains. The omission of all religious ideas is still more incomprehensible in this hypothesis. Every one knows the wonderful effect of religious machinery in poetry, the imposing decorations that it bestows, and the various aids which it furnishes to the poets in works of the imagination. Homer himself, and Virgil, great masters as they were, could not have spun out their poems, the one to twenty-four cantos, and the other to twelve, if Jupiter, Juno, Venus, and the other deities, had not been summoned to their aid, in prolonging and diversifying the action:—how then could it have occurred to the mind of a modern poet to renounce gratuitously his natural and legitimate right, and to deprive himself of those means which afford the most fertile source of variety, and of those wonderful aids which furnish the most brilliant ornaments of epic poetry? Besides, we ought to consider, that a people, without the appearance of religious worship, is a phenomenon repugnant to the generally received opinion; and that a poetical story, which delineates such a people, carries with it an air of improbability.
300 TRANSLATION OF THE Would not then the composer of those poems by such omission, have been fearful of making his readers believe them the offspring of a capricious and disturbed imagination, wishing to sport with the credulity of the public, and to excite surprise by a singular extravagance of fancy ? Whoever has for the first time heard of a Celtic poem, would surely expect the appearance of an Esso, a Thtntatus, or such other divinity of the ancient Druids;
and perhaps already fatigued with the eternal repetition of the Greek and Latin mythology, he might be prepared to receive with pleasure and curiosity the traditions of those romancers, their tales, theogonies, and allegories, probably like those of the ancient Edda, that he might reason upon and contrast them with those of the most renowned people.
Wherefore then deceive the hopes and expectations of the public ? Why should a mechanism, so interesting for its novelty, be rejected, in order to substitute another more aerial and fictitious? No good reason can be assigned; and hence, if we examine the peculiar character of Ossian’s poems, it will be found that their beauties, as well as deformities, are equally repugnant to the supposition of modern imposture.
With what delicacy of sentiment, with what heroism of noble humanity, is the family of Fingal distinguished from all other heroes of ancient poetry;
so as to give the most interesting and wonderful effect to those poems, and to constitute in my opinion the strongest presumption of their authenticity !
The quality of this species of poetry, according to
abbe' cesarotti’s dissertation. 301the commonly received opinion, is incompatible with a rude and savage state of society. Be it reason or prejudice, we are not disposed to believe, that the most exquisite refinement of sentiment can be reconciled to a total want of cultivation in the understanding, and to a life constantly devoted to war and hunting. We might have expected from a Caledonian bard an Achilles, or a Diomedes ; but that a Fingal, or an Ossian, should have appeared, like two idols, conceived in the fancy of a philosophical poet, or of a virtuous and enlightened mind, who, desirous to realize the conception of his imagination, had given up his thoughts more to the beautiful and sublime than to the credible, is what we had no right to expect.
With what hope, therefore, of being believed could the fabricator of Ossian have thought of repairing to the rocky cliffs of Caledonia, and there, where eternal mists prevail, to fix the seat of virtue, creating a family of heroes, capable of putting to the blush, not only the heroes of Homer, but those even of the cultivated, learned, and refined Virgil? But those heroes, it will be said, according to the hypothesis of the Ossianists, were real characters. I answer in the words of an ancient author, that nature in a moral, as well as in a physical sense, often produces truths very improbable ; but he, who invents a story, and wishes it to be credited, does not scrupulously search after the real truth, but what is probable, or an approximation to the truth.
The principle, which indicates the defects of Ossian, is different, and induces us not to adopt the opinion, that he is only a fictitious name.
302 TRANSLATION OF THE That a modern author, wishing to counterfeit an ancient, may mingle his style with those whimsical singularities, which characterize the supposed age, is an artifice not at all extraordinary ; and, if an author did not avail himself of such aid, his aim would be lost. But to carry such an idea beyond all reasonable bounds, and that idly too, and without compulsion, is not to be easily believed by those who have any knowledge of the nature of self-love.
Had the supposed author, in his tragical narrations, used a style less concise and abrupt, and divested it of those accessories, which might have rendered the narrations more natural and probable; had his adventures been somewhat less romantic and uniform ; the old men not all blind; the sudden deaths not so frequent and common : had the number of his comparisons been reduced to one third : had, in fine, the winds, mists, and torrents, not been resorted to so often to embarrass his subject, overwhelming it with useless, and sometimes with unseasonable circumstances : had the author been more moderate in all those points, Ossian, I say, with the essential colouring of his style, would have appeared neither less original nor less ancient. It was extremely easy for a modern poet to.guard himself against the excess of these modes, which indeed he ought to have done, to avoid incurring the animadversions of many fastidious readers of the present age, distracting their attention by a perusal of them, opening a field to derisions and parodies, and bringing on the author, that worst of enemies to all books, ridicule. It is certain, that Ossian’s virtues are so
ABBE'CESAROTTl’s DISSERTATION. 305eminent and sublime, that they more than compensate for all his foibles. It is also true, that to be alive to those virtues, it is necessary to have an energetic mind: but to feel his defects, it is sufficient to have our ears open; and it is easier to find a hundred hearers than one great energetic soul. It may be said, that the author, mindful only to obtain his end, was indifferent about the risk, because, in every way, the censure would be solely directed against his bard. But let the wish of obtaining credit, for his imposture be what it may, there can be no doubt that he was eager to enjoy in secret the pleasure of hearing himself praised, under the borrowed name of Ossian. For there is no author of an anonymous book, who would willingly and freely risk the censure and contempt of the public, were he even positively certain of remaining unknown.
In this place, I may be permitted to ask a question, which appears to me of some importance. Would a poet, who, under the mask of Ossian, and in a style apparently exotic, conscious of bis powers to make himself admired as a genius, have not in the first instance produced, in his natural language, some luminous specimens of his superior talents in poetry? Would not fame then have praised him throughout all civilized Europe, as one of the most melodious swans of the Thames, the rival of Pope and Milton ? Were Mr. Macpherson’s abilities of the cast alluded to?
Could he be compared to either of those great poets ?
I know not. But supposing, that he or any other person were ambitious of trying the strength of his own genius in this extraordinary manner, and that to 304- translation OF THE ascertain the nature and extent of his own abilities, he should give himself out for Ossian, would it not have been wise to try the opinion of the public with one or two essays, without exhausting the whole store of h is poetical talents, by so long a series of Gaelic poems, thus causing a perpetual violence to his genius and self-love by not letting himself be known;
as if he had been desirous to renew spontaneously the example of the man in the iron mask?* Let us moreover remark, that, in admitting, for argument’s sake, the supposition of a modern imposture, the impostors are two instead of one: namely, Macplierson and Smith. We must then persuade ourselves, that in our time two wonderful men have arisen, similar in ideas, in poetical merit, in skill of disguising themselves so perfectly under a borrowed name, and another age; who, in the heroism of an extravagant modesty, had the obstinacy of sustaining to the last moments of their lives their imposture.
Mr. Macpherson died quite impenitent, and without any confession respecting this matter; and Mr. Smith, although a minister, does not seem disposed to confess his sin. f Let us consider all this, and then we can decide, whether it be more difficult to conceive the existence of Ossian, or the reality of a moral phoenomenon so prodigious and unexampled. With all this reasoning, however, I do not pretend to decide that Ossian was a poet of the third century, but only to prove the improbability of his being an author of our age.
• See Note C, at the end of the Dissertation.
f Sec Noie D, at the end of the Dissertation.
abbe' cesarotti’s dissertation. 305But all we have hitherto said is nothing but argument; questions of fact ought to be decided by proofs of fact. On this head, therefore, the controversy concerning the Gaelic poems exclusively belongs to the jurisdiction of the British critics. And, with a view that the Italian readers may be enabled to form a just judgment, it is proper they should be made acquainted with all the most important allegations advanced by the supporters of either party. It would take up too much of the reader’s time to enumerate all the writings which have appeared in England concerning this famous controversy, agitated on both sides with warmth and acrimony. It will therefore suffice to give an account of those writers, who more steadily, and with greater precision, have reasoned on this subject.
The most respectable among the critics of Great Britain, who declared himself against the authenticity of Ossian’s poems, and who for a while had the scale of public opinion balanced in his favour, was Johnson, a learned writer of high and deserved celebrity. Residing in London, but of Scotch extraction, he undertook a tour to the Western Islands of Scotland, which in the year 1775 he published. His subject led him naturally to speak of the dispute concerning the authenticity of Ossian, which had already kindled party discussions. The result of his researches induced him to deny positively the originality of those poems. He began to oppose the possibility of the fact, before he opposed the fact itself.