Page:Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge vol 1 no 1.djvu/18

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“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.[1]

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[2]) 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,[3] 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

  1. 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.”
  2. At least in Leathley and Wilson’s edition, Dame-treet, Dublin, 1763.
  3. 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.”