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ROBERT ARBUTHNOT, ESQ.
THE AFFECTIONATE FRIEND,-CANDID CRITIC,
AND BENEVOLENT PATRON
QF THE AUTHOR,
The poems here translated from the Gaelic, though they do not pretend to any remote antiquity, are well known to have existed before the translations, and even the Translator of Ossian. Thinking it may afford you some amusement, I take up the pen to make a few observations on those celebrated productions of the Celtic Muse. The time is fast approaching when it will be impossible to throw new light on this question. The most conclusive evidence which the nature of the subject will admit of is fast fading away. It consists of traditions co-relative to the poems,-a kind of poetical phrascology derived from them,—and a resembling strain of sentiment in other compositions of great though not equal antiquity, which no one could ever have had
any motive to falsify or alter. There is another clear, though now decaying evidence. Old people can very well remember, before Mr MACPHERSON ever thought of translating these remains, when many comparisons and allusions to be found in them, were as current as Scripture quotations in the last age among the peasants of the west. " She is beautiful as AGANDECCA the daughter of s the snow-She is musical as MALVINA—He is as “ forlorn as Ossian after the departure of the FINGALIANS " -Such a one is alert and nimble as CUCHULLIN”were phrases in common use. Whatever embellishments, or whatever anachronisms the injudicious vanity of a translator may have grafted on these poems, no person who lived in the country of their reputed author, ever doubted their existence or antiquity; there, every stream and mountain, every tale, song, or adage, retained some traces of the generous hero, or the mournful bard : But there was little chance of getting at the truth of this question, while the contention lay betwixt learned pride on the one hand, and national vanity on the other. The former was accus.. tomed to consider letters, not as the vehicle, but the essence of knowledge, accounting all unlearned people utterly savage and barbarous, and unable to conceive how any one could entertain noble or generous sentiments without deriving them from classical models. The latter was unwilling to confess how little the Gaelic had been used in writing, and to what a narrow district of the kingdom it had been, even in remote ages, confined, which was the real
eause why no connected series of these poems had beon written down, and why they had been so long hid in obscurity. To the same motive may be attributed the silent acquiescence of the Highlanders in the alterations and embellishments added to these poems, by a translator more ambitious of adapting them to modern taste, than of adhering strictly to the sense of the originals; more studious of his own advantage, than of the addition to be made to the science of human nature, by developing truly and closely the manners of the Heroic Age; by which I understand that intervening betwixt rude barbarity, and the regular establishment of law, property, and agriculture.
It is obvious that the greatest literary attainments do not enable a man to judge whether a work, written in a language he does not understand, differing in its form and construction from every other with which he is acquainted, be faithfully translated or not. It was highly absurd in the opponents of Ossian ta cry out for written evidence, i. e. original manuscripts, of a work composed long before the signs of words were heard of in the country where they were composed. It is no shame for a man of learning and taste to be ignorant of the rude unwritten language of a savage peo- , ple: Certainly not; but he ought to be ashamed to decide upon facts without obtaining the necessary previous information. We have no right to strip the laurels off the tombs even of savages, until we clearly ascertain that they ought not to have been planted there : Let FINGAL continue to be a hero, and OSSIAN a poet, were it but by the old rule
of prescription, till those who challenge their right acquire their language, and are thus enabled to decide upon the question.
But it has been asked, why were the poems not committed to writing when the knowledge of letters was introduced, being so much admired by the people, and cherished as sacred vestiges of their heroic age, and venerated memorials of their ancestors ? Here the ignorant defenders of Ossian erred; their national vanity would not allow them to confess, that except the monks of Icolmkill, who held the heathen poems of Ossian in abhorrence, and laboured to eradicate the prevailing passion for works of fancy, there were very few who did write Gaelic, and the writings of these few were merely confined to theology and to family archives, unless in some rare instances, where a young chief, before he became entirely engrossed by war and hunting, might have wrote down some favourite passagc, composed or recited by a bard, or some old chief preserved on parchment a genealogy delivered by a Sennachie.
Though the imagination may be delighted with fiction, when the pictures drawn by the flowing pencil of Fancy resemble something that we know, or believe to exist; yet the love of truth is happily so fixed in the human mind, that we revolt from a mixture of truth and falsehood, especially where the boundaries are undistinguished. The quick disgust we feel on a discovery of this kind, is apt to lead us into an opposite mistake; wherever we are re
quired to believe more than what is probable, we generally end in believing less, or in entire scepticism. The alterations and embellishments that have been made on these ancient poems, have contributed more than any thing else to shake their credit. But let us examine the circumstanees which have been chiefly insisted on by the unbelievers.
First, It is said to be impossible that a people so savage and barbarous as the ancient CelTÆ, should either entertain generous and tender sentiments,' or possess expressive and emphatic language to delineate their feelings, and record their exploits. I believe it is generally allowed that the inhabitants of the North of Britain were a branch of the ancient CÈLTÆ, whom the very Romans, who called them barbarians, (in common with all others who were strangers to the arts conducive to luxury, and the worship of their deities) allowed to possess exalted notions of liberty, friendship, and generosity, and a sense of probity in their dealings with each other. The clearest way to ascertain the possibility of heroic sentiments being delivered in eloquent language by wandering savages, who subsist by hunting, is to trace the manners of people who still exist in a similar state of society. The banks of the Mohawk very lately did, and the borders of the Huron and Oneida lakes still do, afford an apt illustration : There, heroic friendship, exalted notions of probity and honour, the fondest filial and fraternal affection, and the most enthusiastic patriotism, prevail : There every chief is an orator, and every orator a poet; if language, enriched with glowing imagery, ex