Ossianic Poetry

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 28, March 15, 1862

IN the year 1760, James Macpherson published his "Fragments of Ancient Poetry," collected in the Highlands, and translated from the Gaelic, or Erse language--a work destined to exert a powerful and permanent influence upon British and European literature. The nature of this announcement implied, that the contents of the book were not to be found in any perfect state in an original form. They were merely fragments collected in the Highlands; the poems of "Fingal" and "Temora," which followed, were, however, given as proper epics, and other compositions were added with very suspicious regularity to the collection. The pretensions advanced on behalf of these poems were of the most ambitious kind. They were represented as the genuine compositions of a poet living in the third century of the Christian era, and narrating personal or contemporary events. The diversity of opinions which arose upon the publication is too well known to require notice here, and it would be tedious to go over its details. Dr. Hugh Blair, a rather credulous critic, wrote a dissertation, which, in the opinion of his friends, demonstrated "with the acuteness of Aristotle and the elegance of Longinus," that Macpherson's "Ossian" was as genuine as Homer, and as full of genius. Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was readily deceived by Lander's forgeries against Milton, but who would not have believed anything good of Scotland, though one had risen from the dead, denounced the publication of Macpherson as an impudent imposture. The controversy, as was natural, extended speedily to Ireland, where the same feelings of nationality which had in Scotland raised up defenders of the authenticity of the poems, were arrayed in a strong phalanx in opposition to them.

Irish antiquarians maintained that Fionn, or Fin, and Ossian, and Oscar were historically known, and had always been traditionally treated as natives of Ireland; and they regarded the attempt to kidnap and settle them in Scotland as downright robbery, or man-stealing. Another foe of Macpherson's, of no ordinary abilities, arose in the historian Malcolm Laing, who, in Lord Cockburn's "Memorials" is rather ludicrously and unfortunately described as having "a hard, peremptory Celtic manner and accent." Mr. Laing was an Orkney proprietor, with strong antipathies to everything Celtic, and, as a Norseman, he had a natural jealousy of the attempt to represent the Celts as rivalling or excelling the ancient poets of Scandinavia. In the course of the discussion many volunteer communications of Highland poetry were furnished, some of them not more free from question than Macpherson's own; while assertions were made and affidavits sworn, more remarkable for their energy and confidence than for their accuracy and precision. The Highland Society then took up the inquiry. But their report, in 1805, did not throw much light on the matter, and was about as unsatisfactory as reports in general are found to be. Neither was the question settled by the posthumous publication of the Gaelic Ossian from Macpherson's repositories, no ancient MS. having yet been forthcoming, and his opponents alleging confidently that his Gaelic was translated from the English, whenever it was not stolen or borrowed from Irish poems. After much waste of ink, anger, and acrimony, the agitation gradually subsided. The out-and-out defenders of Macpherson became few in number, and, strange to say, were more easily found among the critics of the continent than among those at home. The claims of the Irish were not satisfactorily answered, and, by a general feeling, elsewhere, bystanders came to adopt a sort of compromise between the extreme views of the original disputants. In the course of the investigations which took place under the auspices of the Highland Society, reference was made to the several Gaelic manuscripts as existing in the Highlands, or in the possession of parties connected with Scotland. Is is very probable, if not quite certain, that such MSS. existed, though it is difficult to place implicit confidence in the loose accounts that are given of their contents. But the most important manuscript which was actually seen by impartial persons was that referred to in the report of the Highland Society, who obtained it from one of Macpherson's executors. It has since been carefully examined by gentlemen of high attainments as Celtic scholars, and it is now certain that the Ossianic poems, as they stand in this manuscript, show that they were composed at least after the time of St. Patrick, and that, according to them, Fingal and his associates were Irish, and not Scotch. The following extract will serve as a specimen of the poem in this MS.:--

"Ossian, the son of Fingal, said--
'Tell me, Patrick, the honour which belongs to us,
Do the Fingalians of Ireland enjoy the happy heaven?'
'I tell thee, assuredly, Ossian, of bold deeds,
That neither thy father, nor Gaul, nor Ossian are blessed!'
'Sad is thy tale to me, O cleric,
I worshipping God, and that the Fingalians should
be excluded from heaven,'" etc.

There can be no doubt that some such lines as those we have now quoted were traditionally current in the Highlands; yet here the lines are found in a manuscript--the only Scotch one that has any bearing on the question. This poem, or dialogue between St. Patrick and Ossian, and some similar one has been long known in Ireland. A translation, nearly corresponding to it, was given in the late Lady Morgan's "Wild Irish Girl," in 1806; and a similar poern is to be found in a volume published by the Ossianic Society of Dublin. Miss Brooke's collection also contains similar colloquies, and the subject seems to have been a favourite one. Several of the Ossianic poems in the Dean of Lismore's MS. relate to events considered historical, and of which the scene occurs in Ireland. It is a singular, but, we believe, undoubted fact, that poems on the battle of Gabhra Aichle, which must be considered of Irish origin, were current in the Highlands until a very late period. They have probably been handed down partly by oral tradition, but possibly, also, by occasional recurrence to written copies.

Reviewing the whole subject, we think that the following propositions may be considered to contain correct results in reference to the subject of the controversy respecting the authenticity of Macpherson's Ossian. The Celtic language of Ireland, and that of the Scottish Highlands, is one and the same; and there is the strongest probability that, with various degrees of Scandinavian, Teutonic, or other foreign admixture, the two races are identical. Whatever may have been the early state of the Scottish Highlands, it is certain that, at least from the introduction of Christianity, Ireland possessed a high degree of learning and civilization. The Irish language, from the same early period was carefully cultivated, and continued to be preserved in purity and elaborate forms of poetry or versification were invented and extensively practised by Irish writers. Mythical persons and legends as well as historical characters and events, became from time to time the subjects of Irish poems, which were widely diffused and preserved, partly by tradition and partly likewise in a written form. While it is probable that from the earliest times much intercommunication passed between the adjoining coasts of the two countries, it is certain that, at later periods within the range of history, migrations took place from Ireland to Scotland, by which the learning and enlightenment of the former were conveyed to the Scottish shores, and in process of time the poetry also of Ireland became current in Scotland, and was diffused in the Scottish Highlands by recitation, and latterly were also preserved in manuscript. At an early period within the records of history, whether from native character or from Irish instruction, the resident ecclesiastics of Scotland attained to eminence in learning and piety, and, in all probability, a considerable degree both of genius and of taste pervaded the Scottish Celts, though the evidence of any Scottish compositions of an ancient date is extremely defective, nor does any body of the Celtic manuscripts exist in Scotland, while those that have been preserved in Ireland are very numerous, and reach, at least, to the twelfth century.

The poems published by Macpherson as the compositions of Ossian, whether in their English or Gaelic garb, are not genuine compositions as they stand, and are not entitled to any weight or authority in themselves, being partly fictitious, but partly, at the same time, and to a considerable extent, copies or adaptations of Ossianic poetry current in the Highlands, and which also are, for the most part, well known in Ireland, and are preserved there in ancient manuscripts. Upon fairly weighing the evidence, therefore, we are bound to express it as our opinion, that the Ossianic poems, so far as original, must be considered generally as Irish compositions, relating to Irish personages, real or imaginary, and to Irish events, historical or legendary; but they indicate also a free communication between the two countries, and may be legitimately regarded by the Scottish Celts as a literature in which they likewise have a direct interest, written in their native tongue, recording the common traditions of the Gaelic tribes, and having been long preserved and diffused in the Scottish Highlands; while, if the date or first commencement of those compositions is of great antiquity, they belong as much to the ancestors of the Scottish as of the Irish Celts. There is still room for inquiring whether in the Scottish manuscript already adverted to, or in other trustworthy sources, Ossianic poetry cannot be pointed out which may be peculiar to Scotland, and of which no trace may be found either in Irish manuscripts or Irish tradition.

With Lord Neaves, to whose interesting paper on the Ossianic question, read before the Archaeological Institute of Edinburgh, some years since, we are indebted for much information on the subject, we think that, with all his errors, a large debt of national and literary gratitude is due to James Macpherson. It is difficult now to estimate precisely the degree of blame imputable to his conduct. Literary forgery, or to give it a milder name, literary embezzlement, was then so frequent as to be almost fashionable. A faithful editor was scarcely to be found. While Chatterton, fabricated literary antiquities wholesale, Percy brushed up his ballads that he might suit them to public taste, and even the excellent Lord Hailes was found clipping the coin which he should have issued in its integrity. Celtic antiquities were little understood, and antiquarian or historical criticism was only in its infancy. Macpherson obviously admired the compositions which he met with in the Highlands; he saw their capabilities, and he put them forward in a captivating dress.

If he varied, garbled, or interpolated them, so as to exalt the country in which he found them, and to which he himself belonged, some indulgence is due to a feeling of patriotism, and a desire to raise the Highlands from the depressed condition to which they had been reduced. Perhaps he believed that Ossian was a Scotch hero and bard; that the Irish people were a mere Scotch colony, and that anything to the contrary was a modern corruption; and if his subsequent conduct was more seriously culpable, it may be traced as much to pride and pertinacity, as to want of principle. Certain it is that Macpherson was the first who saw and appreciated the merits of Gaelic poetry. Assuming these poems, so far as genuine, to be Irish compositions, they had certainly been neglected by the Irish, and allowed to remain unpublished and unknown, until Macpherson brought them to light from Scottish sources. Miss Brooke, Walker, Hardiman, Drummond, O'Reilly, and other more recent writers, have done justice to Ossianic poetry and the genius of Ireland, but it must not be forgotten that the initiative in bringing these compositions to the light of day was taken by James Macpherson.

See also Ossian The Bard by James Bonwick (1894)