«* National Library of Scotland ■■jin B000157358*. V POEMS OF OSSIAN, IN THE ORIGINAL GAELIC, WITH A LITERAL TRANSLATION INTO LATIN, BY THE LATE ...»
Shaw undertook a journey to the Highlands of Scotland and to the Hebrides in 1778, on purpose to collect materials for his dictionary : he declares having made researches with the greatest assiduity, with a view to trace the poems of Ossian, but that all his labours proved unsuccessful: thus, while he was flattering himself with the hopes of being able to. convert Johnson, he became himself a sceptic. He afterwards undertakes to examine minutely the arguments urged by Smith and Blair, in favour of the authenticity of Ossian, and endeavours to prove them weak and groundless. Among those Highlanders he questioned on the subject, some denied the fact, others equivocated; no one openly and fairly confirmed the fact. He freely challenged all those persons he named, to contradict him if they could.
In a signal and triumphant manner, he asserts he had silenced Mr. Macleod, Professor of the University of Glasgow, quoted by Smith, as a very proper person to examine and compare the original of Ossian, with Macpherson’s translation. In a conversation that Shaw mentions to have had with him, Shaw challenged him, or any man, to point out only six lines of Ossian’s original, offering to pay at the rate of two shillings and sixpence for each word. Macleod, he says, could neither repeat a single syllable, nor undertake to procure from Mr. Macpherson, although then in London, a single line. Another | important evidence was, that Mr. Macnicol also, in 316 TRANSLATION OF THE his remarks on Johnson’s journey, vapouringly invited that critic to see a copious collection of MS.
volumes, all in the Gaelic language and ancient characters, in the possession of Mr. Mackenzie, secj'etary to the Highland Society of London. Shaw, on his first receiving the intelligence, ran with eagerness to see them ; hut to his utmost surprise, he perceived them to be manuscripts written in the Irish dialect and character, containing nothing else but Irish or national genealogies. There is every reason, observes Shaw, to believe that these are the very manuscripts, which Mackenzie deposited at Becket’s, to prop the imposture, and delude the public.
If we can believe Shaw, there was among the Scotch a conspiracy to defend Ossian’s reputation, almost at the expense of every virtue. In proof of this, he did not hesitate to assert, that both Blair and Ferguson, those two celebrated Scotch authors, conspired together to deceive Doctor Percy regarding the subject of their idolized authenticity ; and having, for this purpose, translated from Macpherson’s English, a short poem, or fragment, into the Gaelic language, they caused it to be recited by a young Highlander, in the presence of Doctor Percy himself, as an original piece of Ossian. He also adds, that if we were not to suppose (which seems to be the opinion of a judicious and impartial journalist) this to be contrived for a mockery, it would prove that the Scottish enthusiasm was highly ridiculous, and carried to the extreme, in attempting to maintain what was known to be chimerical, and that
abbe' cesarotti s dissertation. 317their disposition to any pious fraud is evident, in propagating the Ossianic belief.* After this publication, Ossian appeared utterly undone. But why ?
Mulciber in Trojam, pro Troja stabat Apollo.
Shaw, with all his boldness, had no great cause to triumph. It seems, that Macpherson did not trouble himself to answer so insolent and impudent an attack.
A valiant champion, however, undertook to fight the battle for him, and returned Shaw, as they say, tit jor tat. This was Clark himself, who, two years before, had published the JVorks of the Caledonian Bards. He represents Ossian’s enemy in the most odious light, as a man unprincipled, selfish, revengeful, ungrateful towards his best friends, a flatterer of Johnson ;
and above all, an impostor, a barefaced slanderer, who was in perpetual contradiction with himself and truth. He evidently proves all this by facts, by authentic testimonies, by letters of the persons introduced in this learned controversy, and by comparing Shaw’s own writings, and contrasting his former sentiments with those delivered in his inquiry.
Clark mentions, that Shaw had some years before proposed to him to print a general collection of all the Caledonian poems, and to publish them in fragments, or as popular ballads; giving in separate volumes the Gaelic text, and the English translation. He was angry with Macpherson, not because he had published the supposed poems, but because he * See Note L, at the end of the Dissertation.
318 TRANSLATION OF THE had mutilated them, or connected them together, in a M ay that appeared to him better than the originals, so as to give them an epic and regular form.* As to their authenticity, Clark confesses he never heard the poems of Fingal or Temora recited by any Highlander in the same arrangement in which Mr. Macpherson has published them; but he declares solemnly, that he frequently heard almost every passage in those two poems, recited by various persons with no more difference from the translation, than what the genius of the language required, and not near so much as there is between the different editions of those poems in the different parts of the Highlands.
All the facts quoted by Shaw are, in Clark’s opinion, an accumulation of falsehood. He maintains, it is false, that the manuscripts, inspected by Shaw at Mackenzie’s, were all Irish. He saw them many times, though always he only carelessly read a few words here and there ; and on being asked by Mr.
Mackenzie what he thought of them, he answered, that he believed they were the composition of the fifteenth century. It is false, continues Clark, that the manuscripts deposited at Becket’s were Irish;
still more false, that Macpherson refused to shew him the originals of Ossian. Shaw never asked him to shew them ; for even if he had done it, Macpherson would not have been anxious to satisfy him, being well convinced of the ignorance and motives of the man.')' He maintains also, that the collusion * See Note M. at the end of the Dissertation.
f See Note N, at the end of the Dissertation.
ABBE' CESAROTTl’s DISSERTATION’. 319between Ferguson and Blair to deceive Percy, as represented by Shaw, had no foundation in fact, as Ferguson complained highly of the calumny, and Shaw was compelled to retract it. And lastly, that the offer made to Professor Macleod, to pay on producing six original lines of Ossian at the rate of two shillings and sixpence for each word, was equally false. Macleod, in one of his letters to Clark, contradicts it flatly. In the same letter, he affirms that before Macpherson published his translation, he read to him and other friends the greatest part of those # poems in Gaelic. Clark, in the conclusion of his work, subdues his antagonist with his own weapons, by making comparisons between the sentiments contained in his first publication, called Analysis of the Gaelic Language, and those contained in his Inquiry into the Authenticity of Ossian. Clark calls this part of his answer Shaw against Shaw,” and convicts him of a perpetual contradiction and incoherence, f The whole of Clark’s work, though written with some bitterness, (excusable in a man accused of imposture by an impostor,) breathes an air of veracity and candour. But what gave validity to the cause of Ossian more than any other proof, was the publication, by John Smith, in 1787, of the Gaelic originals of those very poems, of which he had formerly published the translation in his Gaelic Antiquities. J “ He preserves in his notes,” says the author of an English * See Note O, at the end of the Dissertation.
+ See Note P, at the end of the Dissertation.
J See Note H, at the end of the Dissertation, also referred to page 320 TRANSLATION OF THE journal, “ the decency of his character, and scorns to meddle with those debates, that were so furiously agitated by his countrymen. He offers to the public the original poems, and allows them to speak for themselves.” He is right; no proof could have been more demonstrative than this. The cause of Smith and Macpherson is perfectly identified. If the poems of the former are legitimate, there is no reason to brand those of the latter with suspicions of being spurious. Besides, Smith in his notes exhibited several passages in the Gaelic original of the identical poems translated by Macpherson, quoting afterwards a passage from a poem written by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, who wrote the life of King Robert Bruce in 1375.* He shews, that about four hundred years before Macpherson was born, the name of Fingal, and the poems of Ossian, were well known in Scotland. He proves also, that the same poems were familiar to Giraldus Cambrensis, who lived in the twelfth century. “We must allow,” remarks the same journalist, “ that Smith’s conduct had a great appearance of candour, and that this was more apt to banish from our minds those doubts, which were excited by the mysterious behaviour of Macpherson, than all the arguments adduced by many other writers.” But, although Macpherson had offered to presfeht to the public the original poems of Ossian, he was, perhaps, provoked by the offensive observations and doubts of some critics, and thought, that the groundless charge of * See Note Q, at the end of the Dissertation.
abbe' cesarotti’s dissertation.
imposture, brought against a man of honour, deserved no answer but silent contempt:
La raison s’avilit en sejnstifiant.
Moreover, previously to the publication of Smith’s edition of the Gaelic poems, an English writer had thrown a clear and distinct light on the question, by a production calculated to settle the dispute concerning the poems and their real author. In 1783, Thomas Hill, the English gentleman alluded to, published a small work containing several Gaelic songs and poems, which he had collected, during a tour through the Highlands of Scotland, in 1780, accompanied with various interesting reflections relating to the great Helen of British combats.* These poems are not indeed calculated to remove all doubts, being mostly of that class, which both Macpherson and Smith would have rejected as spurious. Two of them only belong to the subjects of Ossian ; one is the death of Dermid, slain by a venomous boar, on which there is a poem in Smith’s collection; and the other is on the death of Oscar, which forms the first part of the poem of Temora. Among other poems, one contains a dialoo-ue between Ossian and Saint Patrick;
another is a curious dispute betweeen the same parties respecting the evidence and excellence of Christianity, which dispute is also mentioned by Macpherson, and by him considered a fictitious production.
It may be interesting to lay before our readers the result of the editor’s observations, because it is the * See Note R, at the end of the Dissertation.
VOL. III. Y 325 TRANSLATION OF THE bes*t (calculated to reconcile the jarring opinions of parties, to tix the fluctuating ideas relative to the dispute, and to confine the argument to precise terms.
In this controversy, according to Mr Hill’s opinion, there is on both sides confusion and ambiguity.
Macpherson and his supporters, either would not, or could not, produce the wished for manuscripts without equivocation: but his adversaries, who were so anxious in their demands, had not the least notion of the Caledonian poems ; none of them understood the Gaelic language in which they were written, not even excepting the great Johnson.
The question is naturally divided into three parts:
1. Is Ossian quite an imaginary being of Macpherson’s creation ? or a traditional hero of the Caledonians ?
There can be no doubt, that Fingal and all his family were, ‘among the Caledonians and Irish, a race of ancient heroes, who were the rulers of those countries; and that the two nations look upon Ossian as the most famous of all their bards. The history of Fingal is recited in the Highlands with admiration and delight: and upon this the traditional novels and tales are chiefly founded. And here I beg leave to assert, that this medley of fables cannot be a stronger evidence against the reality of Ossian’s heroes, than the romances of Turpin and Ariosto may be proofs whereon to deny the existence of Charlemagne and his barons.
2. Are the ancient songs and poems, ascribed to Ossian, respecting the history of his family, really existing among the Caledonians ? Did Macpherson
ABBE'CESAROTTl’s DISSERTATION. 323translate from the originals the poems which he published under his name ?
It is undeniable that there is in Scotland a great number of songs and poems, which for many centuries have been ascribed to this bard. Hill had copies of the originals he published. In various parts of Scotland, and especially in the shire of Argyle, and district of Lochaber, and other places on the western coast, he was acquainted with several traditional possessors, some of one part some of another, of the collections of those poems. These are more or less copious, and have many considerable variations. It is certain that the facts, the adventures, and many fragments of the poems of Smith and Macpherson, are to be found in them. There is not sufficient ground therefore to doubt, that some of the same orignals might have been procured in various parts, and their transcripts so obtained may be deemed authentic.*
3. But are these poems exactly corresponding to those of Macpherson’s Ossian ?
This cannot absolutely be affirmed, and it might even be denied without injuring in the least their authenticity. Ossian’s poems, whether recited or in manuscript, are subject, as we have mentioned before, to great variations in the different districts of the Highlands of Scotland ; not only from the difference of dialects, but from the disunion, alterations, curtailments, additions, and miscellaneous matter introduced into them by reciters or transcribers, in various places, and at different times. The poems of that * See Note S, at the end of the Dissertation.