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First, he frankly declares that he has not the least knowledge of the Erse language, or Caledonian VOL. in. x 306 TRANSLATION OF THE dialect,* and that he can only speak of it by what he has heard; which confession is by no means favourable to impress the readers with a predilection on his side, or to induce them to acquiesce implicitly in his judgment. Nevertheless, he takes upon himself to assert, “that this language is but a rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood; that the Erse never was a written language ; and that the sounds of the Highlanders were never expressed by letters, till some little books of piety were translated, and a metrical version of the Psalms was made by the synod of Argyle.” It is worth while to attend to his reflections. “ When a language,” says he, “ begins to teem with books, it is tending to refinement; as those, who undertake to teach others, must have undergone some labour in improving themselves, they set a proportionate value on their own thoughts, and wish to enforce them by efticacious expressions; speech becomes embodied and permanent; different modes and phrases are compared, and the best obtains an establishment. By degrees, one age improves upon another. Exactness is first obtained, and afterwards elegance. But diction, merely vocal, is always in its childhood. As no man leaves his eloquence behind him, the new generations have all to learn.

There may possibly be books Arithout a polished * For the instruction of our readers we may observe, that the idiom or dialect of the Highlanders, by various ancient and modern writers, is promiscuously called Caledonian, Celtic, Earse, Erse, Galic, Gaelic, and Caelic. Cesarqtti.

abbe' cesarotti’s dissertation, 307

language, but there can be no polished language without books.

“ That the bards could not read more than the rest of their countrymen, it is reasonable to suppose;

because, if they had read, they could probably have written ; and how high their compositions may reasonably be rated, an inquirer may best judge by considering what stores of imagery, what principles of ratiocination, what comprehension of knowledge, and what delicacy of elocution he has known any man attain who cannot read. The bard was a barbarian among barbarians, who, knowing nothing himself, lived with others that knew no more. All that has been done for the instruction of the Highlanders, the antipathy between their language and literature still continues; and no man that has learned only Erse, is at this time able to read.

“The Erse has manv dialects, and the words used «/ in some islands are not always known in others.

Where the whole language is colloquial, he, that has only one part, never gets the rest, as he cannot get it but by change of residence. In a written speech nothing, that is not very short, is transmitted from one generation to another. Few have opportunities of hearing a long composition often enough to learn it, or have inclination to repeat it so often as is necessary to retain it; and what is once forgotten is lost for ever.” These general reflections shew the sagacity of the English critic, and have some appearance of truth.

But there is an answer of fact that weakens, if not destroys, their strength. The Greek language, before 308 TRANSLATION OF THE Homer, was not written more than the Erse; nevertheless, every one knows how regular, elegant, rich, harmonious, and flexible Homer’s works are. The learned and ingenious Merian carried the opinion of Woord so far, as clearly to demonstrate, that Homer himself was ignorant of letters. If so, the Iliad and the Odyssey were neither written nor copied, but learned by heart; nor were they collected from MSS. but from the mouth of the poet. Notwithstanding their enormous length, there was some one, or perhaps there were many, who loaded their memory with this heavy deposit, and, by the aids of their retentive faculties, transmitted them to posterity. It is well known, that this faculty was highly cultivated by the druids, and by the bards their ministers, and was subject to a long and methodical discipline. By these means the ancient poems were grafted on the mind deeper than by reading. The head of a studious bard became a portable poetical library, and every one of them had before his eyes the expressions and manners of the most celebrated bards, and was in this manner possessed of the means of imitating, rectifying, and increasing their poems ; rendering more regular and perfect their poetical language, which, although spoken, was not the same as that used by the rabble.# But be this as it may, Johnson boldly affirms, that “ there cannot be recovered in the Erse language, five hundred lines of which there is any evidence to prove them a hundred years old.” Nor seems he disposed to rely at all on any * See Note E, at the end of the Dissertation.

abbe' cesarotti’s DISSERTATION. 309

thing to be derived from inquiries and investigations made in those regions. “ They are not,” says he, “ much accustomed to be interrogated by others; and seem never to have thought upon interrogating themselves ; so that if they do not know what they tell to be true, they likewise do not distinctly perceive it to be false. Therefore, their answer to the second question was commonly such as nullified the answer to the first. We heard of manuscripts that were, or had been, in the hands of somebody’s father or grandfather, but at last we had no reason to believe they were other than Irish, but never any Erse manuscripts were to be found in the Highlands.” From general propositions the critic descends to particular assertions, and by directly attacking Macpherson, maintains that the original of Ossian’s poems cannot be shown by him, nor any one else; and treats the editor as a barefaced impostor, who dares to insult the public with unexampled impudence and falsehood. “The editor, or author,” says he, “ never could shew the original, nor can it be shewn by any other; to revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence with which the world is not yet acquainted ; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt. It would be easy to show it, if he had it; hut whence could it he had ?

It is too long to he remembered, and the language formerly had nothing written. He has doubtless inserted names that circulate in popular stories, and may have translated some wandering ballads, if any can be found; and the names and some of the 310 TRANSLATION Of THE images being recollected, make an inaccurate author imagine, by the help of Caledonian bigotry, that he has formerly heard the whole.” He adds, “I asked a very learned minister in Sky, who had used all arts to make me believe the genuineness of the book, whether at last he believed it himself? but he would not answer. He wished me to be deceived, for the honour of his country ; but would not directly and formally deceive me.

“ It is said, that some men of integrity profess to have heard parts of it, but they all heard them when they were boys; and it was never said that any of them could recite six lines. They remember names, and perhaps some proverbial sentiments; and having no distinct ideas, coin a resemblance without an original. The persuasion of the Scots, how'ever, is far from universal; and in a question so capable of proof, why should doubt be suffered to continue ?” The rude and vigorous attack of Johnson, drew upon this celebrated author, from more than one zealous Caledonian, some acrimonious answers; which manifested rather a violent irritability of patriotism, than clear and sober reasoning. Macpherson on his part, in order to put an end to the question, replied in the most simple and proper manner. He advertised in the papers, that the original manuscript of Ossian was deposited at Becket’s the bookseller, and would be left there for some months, to satisfy the curiosity of the public. It is proper, however, to notice, that either the advertisement was not very


widely circulated, or that but few cared to see a manuscript, without having a knowledge of the language in which it was written. Besides, most people being prepossessed with the contrary opinion, and relying entirely on the authority of Johnson, thought it was useless to examine it any farther, since it seems that some doubts were still remaining, whether the original had been really deposited, and in what language it was written.

In spite, however, of the sentence of death pronounced by Johnson against all Gaelic or Erse manuscripts, a publication made its appearance in the year 1778, entitled The Works of the Caledonian Bards, containing various epic, elegiac, and pastoral compositions of other Highland bards different from those of Ossian, and translated into English prose by an author who did not then choose to put his name to them, but who afterwards was known to be a young Highlander, possessed of genius and understanding, and also thoroughly acquainted with the Gaelic, which was his vernacular language.* The name of the author here alluded to was John Clark.


The poems that he translated, although ancient, are however, by his confession, far inferior to those previously published by Macpherson, and there are some pieces even to be found among them, which would not degrade Ossian himself.f Clark added to his translation a copious series of annotations, concerning the manners of the Caledonians, the Celtic language, and above all the disputes on the * See Note F, at the end of Dissertation, t See Note G, at the end of the Dissertation.

312 TRANSLATION OF THE authenticity of Ossian’s poems, which he strenuously supported ; we shall have occasion hereafter to speak more fully concerning this author, and the arguments he so tenaciously urged in the cause. Macpherson found a more respectable colleague, and Ossian a more ponderous advocate for his legitimacy, in the person of John Smith, Minister of Killrandon.* In the year 1780, he published a work entitled Gaelic Antiquities, consisting of a history of the Druids, particularly of those of Caledonia; a dissertation on the authenticity of the poems of Ossian, and a collection of ancient poems translated from the Gaelic of Ullin, Ossian, Oran, &c. In addition to the arguments] in favour of the authenticity of Ossian, formerly advanced by Lord Kaims, Dr. Blair, and Mr. Macpherson,he gives the explicit declaration of several respectable persons, who had repeatedly heard the songs of Ossian recited, and who hear testimony to have seen the originals of them; but the most convincing proof is, that, which forms the third part of his work. It consists of a collection of no less than fourteen Gaelic poems, translated by him into English, and far superior to those published by Clark, eleven of which are ascribed to Ossian himself, and the other three are said to be the composition of three of the most celebrated bards, coeval with Ossian, and who, united with him, formed, as may be termed, the golden age of the Caledonians.'!' Although ail these poems have the same foundation and character of ideas and style, yet

–  –  –

To imitate Ossian to that degree, one must be another Ossian.* It might have been expected, that this new collection would have established, beyond the possibility of doubt, the authenticity of Ossian;

but party disputes among learned men are neither less acrimonious, nor less obstinate, than those among politicians. Johnson had given a severe blow to the originality of the poems ascribed to the Scottish bard.

William Shaw, his countryman, undertook to overturn the whole from its very foundation, in a little work published in 1781, entitled sJn Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Ossian. f Conversant in the Gaelic language, of which he published a dictionary, he seemed to be well qualilied to decide such a controversy. Johnson had formerly asserted, that there was no possibility of finding a Scotchman, who did not love his country better than truth. Shaw pretends to belie the assertion ; for the honour, says he, of his Caledonian vanity, he would have heartily wished Ossian to be a real being; but that the love of truth compelled him to confess, that Ossian is but a phantom. He undertakes to prove it with arguments of fact, and to confute point by point, all the arguments that were alleged in favour of the authenticity of Ossian. It had been said, obSte Note I, at the end of the Dissertationt See Note K, at the end of the Dissertation.

314 TRANSLATION OF THE serves Shaw, that the original manuscript would be exhibited in the shop of Mr. Becket, the bookseller;

very well; no person has ever seen it. If with a view of imposing- on the credulity of the public, it had been left, as announced, at Becket’s, it could only be an Irish manuscript, but never that of Ossian, because the Erse dialect was never written, nor printed.

Macpherson, adds Shaw, instead of turning Gaelic into English, translated his own English into Gaelic;

and such is the poem of Temora, which he gave as a specimen of the original, at the end of the second volume; in this he even shewed his ignorance of the orthography of that language. Ossian’s mythology is an accumulation of those superstitions that prevailed in the Highlands in the fifteenth century, and which Macpherson affects to despise, although he acknowledged himself greatly indebted to them : for the spirits that swarm in his poems, are nothing less nor more than the common Highland idea of devils, that even now are thought the authors of storms.

According to the opinion of Mr. Shaw, it is very easy to pack together a variety of poetical ingredients as Mr. Clark has done, in order to deceive ignorant credulity. Clark himself is said to have owned afterwards to Shaw, that his work was imaginary and counterfeited. Smith asserts, that Macpherson was very ready to shew the originals to the best judges; Shaw absolutely denies this, and says, that whenever Macpherson was asked to do it, he always gave an evasive answer. Sometimes he said the manuscript was at his country-house, sometimes it

abbe' cesarotti’s dissertation. 315

was in other people’s hands, and at another time the kev was lost, or that he would shew it the first opportunity.

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