Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge/Imleabhar 1/Uimhir 1/The Ossianic Poems

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Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, Imleabhar I, Uimh. 1 by John James O'Carroll
The Ossianic Poems
[ 7 ]


By Rev. John James O’Carroll, S.J.


The works selected by the Intermediate Education Commissioners for examination in Celtic, in the first year of their Board’s existence, were all prose tales, and were discussed in several articles in the earlier numbers of the third and latest series of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record. But the volumes of the Ossianic Society from which those tales were taken contained poems too, and the poems seem to have a still greater claim upon attention than the tales in prose. They are poems of the kind which the reader would most naturally expect, and which, so far as extrinsic considerations go, would certainly have the greatest attraction for him—poems in which Ossian himself appears as the principal narrator. The Irish poems of this kind must not be supposed to have been unknown to James Macpherson. He even went so far as to pronounce literary criticism upon them; and our neglected Irish literature has been so little favoured with notice of any kind, that we are only too glad to have even Macpherson’s unfavourable judgment to lay before the reader, as an introduction to the Irish Ossianic poems. It is important from the outset to have a clear idea of the position which this famous man took up. He did not deny the existence in Ireland of many Ossianic poems, that is (to repeat once more what ought to be the definition of this term) poems in which Ossian, the son of Fionn, appears as the principal narrator. When David Hume, in his interesting and amusing letter to Dr. Blair proposing a test[1] to try Macpherson’s poetry, relates that “Bourke (sic), a very ingenious Irish gentleman,” “the author of a tract on the Sublime and Beautiful,” has told him how Mr. Bourke’s Irish country-men, on becoming acquainted with Mr. Macpherson’s publication of “Ossian,” exclaimed that “Ossian” was theirs, and that “Ossian” was old, and that they had known “Ossian” a long time; poor James Macpherson might have fairly answered that his “Ossian” was not exactly their old acquaintance, but in his opinion a far superior person. Neither did Macpherson maintain that his “Ossian” was commonly known in the Highlands of Scotland, in contradistinction to the more vulgar “Ossian” of the neighbouring island. When Shaw bore the remarkable testimony which we find quoted by our Ossianic Society—

[ 8 ]“Fionn is not known in the Highlands by the name of Fingal; he is universally supposed to be an Irishman. When I asked some of the Highlanders who Fionn was, they answered, an Irishman, if a man, for they sometimes thought him a giant; and that he lived in Ireland, and sometimes came over to hunt in the Highlands:”—Macpherson might have said he had fully admitted that Irish Ossianic literature was current in the Scottish Highlands. His real point was that the Irish Ossianic literature, well known to Irishmen and to Highlanders, was recent and debased, and that he had been so fortunate as to discover ancient Scottish poems, similar in subject, undebased and wholly beautiful in form.[2]

Those who take an unfavourable view of his veracity will probably be inclined to say, that in the current Irish literature he had been charmed by the sentiment, and shocked by the pictures of manners and Druidic quaint mythology; they will remind us that he closes his preface to “Temora” with the following passage:

“The bards of Ireland have displayed a genius worthy of any age or nation. It was alone in matters of antiquity that they were monstrous in their fables. Their love sonnets and their elegies on the death of persons worthy or renowned, abound with such beautiful simplicity of sentiment and wild harmony of numbers, that they become more than an atonement for their errors in every other species of poetry. But the beauty of these pieces depend (sic[3]) so much on a certain curiosa felicitas of expression in the original, that they must appear much to disadvantage in another language.”

It will, in fine, be suggested that Macpherson conceived and executed the idea of eliminating all that displeased his taste in the Irish ballads or tales, rejecting monstrous fables, making the marvellous suited to the age in which he lived—the age that welcomed the Henriade as an epic poem, allowing nothing more supernatural than such things as noble ghosts: not vulgar, hideous apparitions that terrify children, but shadowy manes that reveal themselves in visions or in dreams; even in the case of his living characters, obliging people to speak for ever in the style of those love sonnets or elegies in which he so much admired the genius which the bards of Ireland displayed; removing all variety from conversation as well as from his landscape; crowding into the poem endlessly renewed declarations of generous and tender emotions after the most brilliant and touching Celtic models, with simple councils and courtships, very simple battles, and still more simple drinking-feasts; throwing the whole into the recognised forms of classic poetry, and introducing the disguised lovesick Amazon of mediæval times. Whether it be true that Macpherson formed his poems in this way, by elimination,[4] combination, and imitation, or really found them already composed in a manner so suited to his taste, is a matter with which here we have no close concern. We have really only to do with literary not with historical criticism, and what we are now to examine is, whether Macpherson’s taste was correct or not with regard to Irish Ossianic poetry; whether he was right in thinking that the variety of life and character therein, embracing the vulgar and the marvellous, is a disorder and a taint; whether [ 9 ]the less varied and more continuously sentimental form of poetry that commended itself to his taste is really an improvement, we do not mean in course of time, but simply in comparison.

We venture to think there are two principles with regard to Macpherson’s Ossianic poetry that cannot well be contested. The first is that much of the sentimentality in it is fine. This seems sufficiently proved by the welcome given to it in Europe generally. The second is that along with this fine sentimentality there is too much monotony. Blair himself, Macpherson’s great defender, admits the want of variety of events and the sameness of character in Macpherson’s Ossian. He claims for it great excellence only with regard to sentiment. We are following most closely the criticism of Dr. Blair in the principles we have laid down. In his critical Dissertation on Ossian, he compares Ossian with Homer, but says: “The Greek has in several points a manifest superiority: he introduces a greater variety of incidents, he possesses a larger compass of ideas, has more diversity in his characters, and a much deeper knowledge of human nature.” Later on he declares, on the other hand, that “with regard to dignity of sentiment, the preeminence must clearly be given to Ossian.”

In the Irish ballads the sentimentality that occurs is of the same kind as that of Macpherson’s Ossian. We have seen how Macpherson himself praised the Irish bards when they dealt with sentiment in odes and elegies. The sentimentality in the Ossianic ballads is, as the reader will shortly see, of a kind that must be recognised as akin to what Macpherson brought forward in his own Ossian; and no doubt also to what he tells us he admired in the short Irish poems. Now if what is brought in to diversify this is contemptible, as Macpherson maintains, no doubt it is merely a debasement—we do not mean in the historical, but in the literary sense. If, on the contrary, it is something that possesses considerable literary merit, the Irish ballads are all the better for containing it.

We need scarcely say that we, who have defended the episode of the hydra against Dr. Joyce, are going to defend the varied life-pictures of our Ossianic poems against Macpherson. And now we rejoice to say we shall have Dr. Joyce on our side, or to speak properly—we have spoken very improperly indeed, and we ask pardon—we shall be contending under the standard that has been set up by Dr. Joyce. It is he, no other, that has truly brought forward the claims of Irish literature to possess not only poetry, but compositions that as complete works have real literary merit. This is the second and crowning step in the vindication of that literature. The first step was effectually taken—whether we like to acknowledge it or not—by Macpherson himself; he with his Ossian—which even according to him was only the undebased model of Irish poems—made the world generally admit that there were no doubt snatches of poetry to be found in the old lays of Ireland.

Farther than this, up to the present day, people had not advanced. Lord Macaulay is a most curious instance of the work really done by Macpherson’s Ossian. He overflowed with contempt for Macpherson; he loved to hold him up to ridicule. But when, at the commencement of his history, he undertakes to tell of Spenser’s views with regard to Irish poetry, it really seems to be Macpherson’s objections that he puts forward, though not applied exactly as Macpherson would have wished. Spenser takes great trouble to explain at length the beauty of an Irish poem. He then makes his stupid Eudoxus ask the clever Irenæus whether the Irish “have any art in their compositions,” and makes Irenæus answer, “Yea, truly,” at once, and then goes on to explain, first, that Irish poems “savoured of sweet wit and good invention;” secondly, that they “skilled not of the goodly ornaments of poetry;” and thirdly, that nevertheless they had “good grace and comeliness” for they were “sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural device, which gave good grace and comeliness to them.” The goodly ornaments of poetry, as contradistinguished from natural device, means, doubtless, the artificial style of the Spenserian age in England. We cannot seriously maintain [ 10 ]that Spenser found the poems wild and rugged which, without those “goodly ornaments,” had yet good grace and comeliness, and which savoured of sweet wit and good invention. Yet Lord Macaulay simply tells us that the Irish ballads, “wild and rugged as they were, seemed to the judging eye of Spenser to contain a portion of the pure gold of poetry.” This scarcely gives an idea of how Spenser judged.

Macaulay had drunk in without knowing it the debasement theory of the Scotchman he despised, so far as it related to the value of any Irish poems, and he could not see that Spenser did not hold it. Macaulay could not believe his own eyes that an ancient witness, like Spenser, had nothing about the corruptions and the dross, mixed with portions of pure gold, in the works of Irish bards. He was thoroughly, though unconsciously, imbued with the Macpherson theory of Irish curiosa felicitas.

Mr. Matthew Arnold, too, in his studies of Celtic literature, seems after all to find not much more than this curiosa felicitas. M. Rénan, indeed, appears more favourable. He tells us that Irish imagination has grouped round the legend of a monk a whole cycle of physical and maritime myths, and that the poem of the Voyage of St. Brendan is one of the most astonishing creations of the human mind. But who really attends to M. Renan’s views on Celtic?

We shall find what people generally think, in a plain but carefully-written paper on “The Celt of Wales and the Celt of Ireland,” that appeared four or five years ago in the Cornhill Magazine. The author has had good experience of both countries, and evidently studied the inhabitants from many points of view. He appears quite free from every kind of prejudice against them. He bears freely testimony to the good qualities of Irishmen. In regard of pure morality, he tells us “the peasantry of Ireland are at the very summit of the scale of the whole world.” He tells us that one can perceive “the different pace of Celtic minds” from that of Anglo-Teutons, “by a comparison of the really delightful intelligence of a school of Irish children, with the heaviness and slowness of a similar and much better fed and clothed class, in any part of England, even in the great towns.” He adds:—

I have often tested the ability of young Irish boys and girls, either to understand a piece of humour or to appreciate an act of heroism, or, generally, to take in any idea quite new to them; and never yet failed of success. But the very same joke or story or new idea presented to very “sharp” English town boys, has been utterly misunderstood.

But when this clearly painstaking and unprejudiced observer comes to speak of Celtic Literature, we find ourselves simply face to face once more with the curiosa felicitas of Macpherson.

Immediately after the paragraph quoted above, we read the following:—

Imagination is a quality which I suppose will on all hands be conceded pre-eminently to the Celtic race; and yet perhaps it would be more proper to credit it with the poetical temperament, than with the actual power of imagination in its higher walks. . . . . . One point at all events is patent, that the merits of Erse and Cymric poetry is (sic) not of that solid kind which can bear translation.

A little farther on the writer gives us his ideas as to what our Irish imaginative productions are. He writes:—

Irish imagination, though it has called up the banshee and an abundance of hereditary curses, revels chiefly in more riante dreams—the Leprachaun and Phuca (Puck); the beautiful invisible island of St. Brandan in the far Atlantic; the towers of the submerged city beneath Lough Neagh; and the endless droll legends of the giant Fin McCool.

This utterly “crass” ignorance as to what Irish literature is, this supposing the numerous myths about Fionn to be “endless droll legends,” this it is which allows Macpherson’s theory of curiosa felicitas to continue prevalent. The great blow against it has been struck by Dr. Joyce. He has ventured to translate for the ordinary cultivated reader a considerable portion of that Erse poetry which it is said cannot bear translation; and he has translated in such a manner as to show that what he least cares for is any curiosa felicitas that may happen to occur.[5] He has taken prose tales and tales in verse together, without [ 11 ]distinction, and presented them to the English reader as fully worthy of his attention, precisely for their merits as complete and integral compositions, as old Celtic romances, really poetic stories told in the old Irish way.

(To be continued.)

  1. Hume has a reputation for logic, but he seems to have reasoned curiously about Macpherson. He represents him as certainly wrongheaded, and almost next-door to insane, for not choosing to submit to careful investigation when his veracity was impeached. And at the same time, to put the matter very mildly, Hume seems to think it at least quite possible that the impeachment was only too well-founded. Surely if that hypothesis was really the case, Macpherson would have had to be wrong-headed and next-door to insane, indeed, to be willing to consent to a careful investigation of his statements. To affect passion and indignation would then have been to follow the dictates of a cool and calculating temper.
  2. We think one simple quotation will here throw vivid light upon the state of things in Scotland with regard to Ossianic poetry. In his letter of the 23rd January, 1764, published by the “Highland Committee” which was formed to examine into the authenticity of Macpherson’s Ossian. Mr. Neil MacLeod, minister of Ross, writes as follows: “I examined all the persons in this or the other parishes in Mull who have any poems in Gaelic of Fingal or his heroes. There are still a great many of them handed down by tradition, but they are of that kind that Mr. Macpherson, I think judiciously, rejects as Irish imitations of the works of Ossian.”
  3. At least in Leathley and Wilson’s edition, Dame-treet, Dublin, 1763.
  4. After all, this view does not differ so very much from that of the Highland Committee, from whose book we have already quoted. They say, in summing up their report with regard to Macpherson: “The Committee has not been able to obtain any one poem the same in title and tenor with the poems published by him. It is inclined to believe that he was in use (sic) to supply charms, and to give connect on by inserting passages which he did not find, and to add what he conceived to be dignity and delicacy to the original composition by striking out passages, by softening incidents, by refining the language—in short, by changing what he considered as too simple or too rude for a modern ear, and elevating what in his opinion was below the standard of good poetry.”
  5. Old Celtic Romances: C. Kegan, Paul and Co., London, 1879.