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«* National Library of Scotland ■■jin B000157358*. V POEMS OF OSSIAN, IN THE ORIGINAL GAELIC, WITH A LITERAL TRANSLATION INTO LATIN, BY THE LATE ...»

-- [ Page 30 ] --

A reference to four letters from the Rev. Mr. Smith to Henry Mackenzie, Esq. lately published in the Appendix to the Report of the Highland Society of Scotland, joined to the other proofs adduced, leaves little or no scope for further controversy respecting the genuineness of Ossian’s poems. In Mr. Smith’s last letter, dated the 21st June, 1802, he emphatically, and with his usual candour, observes towards the conclusion, « That Fingal fought, and that Ossian sung, cannot be doubted. That the poems of Ossian extended their fame for ages over Britain and

OF CESAROTTI’S DISSERTATION. 339

Ireland, is also clear from Barbour, Cambden, Colgan, and many other old writers of the three kingdoms. That at least the stamina, the bones, sinews, and strength of a great part of the poems, now ascribed to him, are ancient, may, I think, be maintained on many good grounds. But that some things modern may have been superinduced, will, if not allowed, be at least believed on grounds of much probability; and to separate the one from the other, is more than the translator himself, were he alive, could now do, if he had not begun to do so from the beginning.” Note E, referred to p, 308.

The learned Sir William Jones, in his fourth discourse, published in the Asiatic Researches," has given additional strength to the arguments of the Abbe Cesarotti. At the close of his inquiry respecting the history and language of the Arabs, he justly observes, that “ when the King of Denmark’s ministers instructed the Danish travellers to collect historical books in Arabic, but not to busy themselves with procuring Arabian poems, they certainly were ignorant that the only monuments of old Arabian history are collections of poetical pieces, and the commentaries on them ; that all memorable transactions in Arabia were recorded in verse ; and that more certain facts may be known by reading the Hamdsah, the Diwan of Hudhail, and the valuable work of Obaidullah, than by turning over an hundred volumes in prose, unless indeed those poems are cited by the historians as their authorities.

“ That we have none of the Arabian compositions in prose before the Koran, may be ascribed, perhaps, to the little skill, which they seem to have had in writing, to their predilection in favour of poetical measure, and to the facility with which verses are committed to memory ; but all their stories prove that they were eloquent in a high degree, and possessed wonderful powers of speaking without preparation, in flowing and forcible periods. Writing was so little practised among them that their old poems, which are now acceptable to us, may almost be considered as originally unwritten: and I am inclined to think, that Samuel Johnson's reasoning on the extreme imperfection of unwritten languages was too general; since a language that is only spoken may nevertheless be highly polished by a people, who, like the ancient Arabs, make the improvement of their idiom a national concern, appoint solemn assemblies

• Vol. II. p. 14, 15.

NOTES BY THE TRANSLATOR

for the purpose of displaying their poetical talents, and hold it a duty to exercise their children in getting by heart their most approved compositions.” Dr. Johnson’s reasoning, on the extreme imperfection of unwritten languages, was not only too general, as noticed by Sir William Jones in the above quotation, but his arguments were not borne out by facts, so far as they were founded on the hasty assertions, “ that the Gaelic or Erse language (of which he confessed having no knowledge) is but a rude speech of a barbarous people, that it never was a written language, and that the sounds of the Highlanders were never expressed by letters till some books of piety were translated, and a metrical version of the Psalms was made by the Synod of Argyle.” That the Gaelic language is adapted to convey the most heroic actions and refined sentiments, that it^is rich in pure and simple primitives, and valuable to the antiquary in his researches into the affinity and philosophy of languages, no person having a competent knowledge of the Gaelic can deny. That it was a written language, from a very remote period, down to the beginning of the 17th century, has been proved by fac-simile specimens of writings exhibited in the Appendix to the Report of the Highland Society of Scotland, and by a collection of curious Gaelic MSS. in the possession of that Society. In comparing some of these fac similes with specimens of writings exhibited by Mr.

Mabillon, in his Re Diplomaticd, and by the late Mr. Astle in his Origin and Progress of Writing, they are ascertained to be writings of the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. A poem, in the said collection, ascribed to Ossian, of which a fac simile of the writing is given in the said Report, is ascertained to be a writing of the ninth, or tenth century. All the Gaelic MSS. alluded to, in the possession of the Highland Society of Scotland, with the single exception of the Dean of Lismore’s volume, are written in the very ancient form of character, which was common of old to Britain and Ireland.

Proofs are also given, that so late as the middle of the 17th century the Gaelic language had not ceased to be used in legal deeds or writings in some parts of Scotland ; and the Highland Society’s Report (Appendix, p. 312) mentions there being in their collection of Gaelic MSS.





a deed of fosterage between Sir Norman Macleod and John Mackenzie dated in the year l645.»

* See Notices of Gaelic MSS. in possession of the Highland Society, at the end.

OF CESAROTTI’s DISSERTATION. 341

Had such incontrovertible evidence been adduced, at the time Dr.

Johnson affirmed that the Gaelic never was a written language, and that there could not be recovered in that language five hundred lines, of which there is any evidence to prove them a hundred years old, he would not have so expressed himself. What would have been the Doctor’s opinion had there been laid before him 11,000 MS. verses of Gaelic poems, composing a small part of the collection of the Highland Society of Scotland, ascertained, on the authority of the late Mr. Astle, to be writings of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries; besides, a variety of other authentic MSS. proved to have been written at different periods very remote, and long before the art of printing was known in Europe ?

There is no doubt that his capacious qtjd enlightened mind would have been open to conviction; and he would^ave acquired substantial glory in retracting the errors of his former opinions, founded upon prejudice and fallacious principles.

Note F, referred to p. 311.

The poems in the collection of the Caledonian bards, translated by John Clark, are, 1. Morduth, an ancient heroic poem in three parts.

2. The Chief of Scarlaw. 3. The Chief of Feyglen. 4. The Cave of Creyla. 5. Colmala and Orwi. 6. The old Bard’s Wish. 7. Duchoil's Elegy. 8. Sulvina’s Elegy. 9. Oran-molla. 10. The Words of Woe. 11.

The Approach of Summer. 12. The ancient Chief.

A fragment of Morduth is published in the original Gaelic by Mr.

Gillies in his Collection of ancient Gaelic Poems, and the original of the old Bard’s Wish is given in Macdonald’s Collection of Gaelic Poems.

See further notices of these two last poems in the subsequent note.

Note G, referred to p. 311.

The ancient heroic poem, called Morduth, of which Mr. Clark, has, in his Collection of the Caledonian Bards, given a prose version in English, has been lately translated by the ingenious Mrs. Grant of Lagan into verse, and published in her Collection of Poems. This poem consists of three books or divisions, and is ascribed to Douthal, who was bard to Morduth, King of the Caledonians. A beautiful fragment of the original was published at Perth, in 1786, in Gillies’s Collection of ancient Gaelic Poems.

NOTES BY THE TRANSLATOR

The address to the sun setting among the clouds after the check that the Caledonian chieftain had received in battle with Swaran, King of Lochlin, is equal in sublimity to any apostrophe of a similar nature in Ossian. The following are the two first lines in the original published by Gillies ; but the Gaelic reader is recommended to peruse the whole.

‘c C’uime tha thu gruamach san iar “ A Ghrian a luinn ag astar nan nial” ?

The following is the whole address to the sun, as translated by Mr.

Clark, a gentleman, who has given evident proofs of his classical taste and knowledge of the Gaelic language.

“ Why dost thou frown in the west, fair-haired traveller of the sky ?

Our foes were not of the feeble. Often have the dark clouds concealed thy own beauty in the day of the storm.

“ But, when thou drives! the wind from thy lands, and pursuest the tempest from thy fields; when the clouds vanish at thy nod, and the whirlwind lies still at thy desire; when thou lookest down in triumph on our land, and shakest the white locks of thy awful majesty in pride above our hills; when we behold thee clothed in all thy loveliness, we rejoice in the conquest thou hast made in heaven, and bless thy friendly beams, O Sun!

“ But retire to thy heathy bed with smiles, bright monarch of the sky, for we will yet be renowned.” The reader may compare the above address to the sun with that of Ossian, as translated by Macpherson, in Caricthura and in Carthon. In the Gaelic Antiquities published by Mr. Smith, there are also two beautiful

addresses of Ossian to the sun, but in different strains of composition:

the one, at the beginning of Gaul, on Ossian’s having retired in the night to the ruins of Fingal’s palace, and there lamented his reverse of fortune.

The other, a very long address, at the opening of the poem of Trathal.

Ossian feeling the sun warm on the tomb of Trathal, who was grandfather to Fingal, and generalissimo of the Caledonian army in their wars with the Romans, addresses that luminary in the most sublime and energetic style ! The address to the sun in Carthon, as translated by Macpherson, was said by his opposers to be a close imitation of Satan’s address to the sun in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the Report of the Highland Society of Scotland, there is given a new and more faithful translation of the address to the sun in Carthon, as well as of that in

OF CESAROTTl's DISSERTATION. 343

Caricthura; to which are annexed, in the Appendix of the Report, the Gaelic originals. It was natural for Ossian, as well as Milton, who were both blind, to make frequent addresses to the sun; hence, it need not surprise us, that Ossian, in his address to that luminary in Carthon, should have made the following allusion to his loss of sight: “ To me is the light in vain, as I can never see thy countenance; whether thy yellow golden locks are spread on the face of the clouds in the east; or thou tremblest at thy dusky doors in the ocean.’' In the Old Bard’s Wish, translated by Mr. Clark, the author of that poem also alludes thus to his blindness: “ Tell me, for my sight is failed, O Wind ! Where does the reed of the mournful sound raise its waving head ? On what fertile mead is the gathering of its strength ? Whistle along its locks as thou passest, friendly blast, and direct me to its dwelling.

Send me thy aid, arm of strength ! place me before the kindness of the sun, when his darting favours are from the centre of the azure arch.

Spread forth thy broad wing, green-robed branch, and be the shield of my dim eyes from the fervour of the mid-day blaze.” The original of the Bard’s Wish will be found in Macdonald’s collection of Gaelic poems. Although tradition does not pretend to give us the name of the author of this poem, yet let him be an ancient or a modern bard, it must be admitted, by those competent to judge of its beauties in the original Gaelic, that it is a most elegant and spirited composition, and would not disgrace even Ossian or his cotemporary bards.

Note W, ref erred top. 313.

The Collection of ancient poems, translated and published by the Rev. Mr. Smith, in a quarto volurne'in 1780, and of which he afterw'ards

published the Gaelic originals in 1787, consists of the following poems :

1. Dargo. 2. Gaul. 3. Duthona. 4. Dermid. 5. Finan and Lorma.

6. Cathluina. 7. Cathula. 8. Manos. 9. Trathal. 10. Dargo, the son of Druival. 11. Cuthon. 12. The Fall of Tura. 13. Cathlava. 14.

The Death of Artho.

There is prefixed to Mr. Smith’s translation a history of the Druids, particularly of those of Caledonia; and a Dissertation on the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems. The poems are also interspersed with a variety of notes and observations respecting the Gaelic language, cus.

toms, and manners of the Highlanders.

NOTES BY THE TRANSLATOR

344*

Note I, referred to page 313.

The Baron Edmund de Harold, colonel in the service of the Elector Palatine, &c. published, at Dusseldorf, in the year 1787, an English version of seventeen little Caledonian poems, which he had discovered, with the following titles.—The Songs of Tara ; The Song of Phelim;

Evir-al/cn; Sulmora; Ri/no’s Song on the Death of Oscar; Malvina, a dramatic poem ; Kinfena and Sira; A Song bp Ossian, after the defeat of the Romans; Bosmina; The Songs of Comfort; The last Song of Ossian; Sulima; Sitric; Lamor; Larnul, or The Song of Despair ; The Death of Asala ; The Morning Song of the Bard Dlorah.



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