THE POEMS OF OSSIAN,
THE SON OF FINGAL.
BY HUGH BLAIR, D. D.
One of the Ministers of the High Church and Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Edinburgh.
AMONG the monuments remaining of the ancient state of nations, few are more valuable than their poems or songs. History, when it treats of remote or dark ages, is seldom very instructive. The beginnings of society, in every country, are involved in fabulous confusion; and though they were not, they would furnish few events worth recording. But, in every period of society, human manners are a curious spectacle; and the most natural pictures of ancient manners are exhibited in the ancient poems of nations. These present to us what is much more valuable than the history of such transactions as a rude age can afford--the history of human imagination and passion. They make us acquainted with the notions and feelings of our fellow creatures in the most artless ages; Discovering what objects they admired, and what pleasures they pursued, before those refinements of society had taken place, which enlarge, indeed, and diversify the transactions, but disguise the manners of mankind.
Besides this merit which ancient poems have with philosophical observers of human nature, they have another with persons of taste. They promise some of the highest beauties of poetical writing. Irregular and unpolished we may expect the production of uncultivated ages to be; but abounding, at the same time, with that enthusiasm, that vehemence and fire, which are the soul of poetry: for many circumstances of those times which we call barbarous, are favorable to the poetical spirit. That state, in which human nature shoots wild and free, though unfit for other improvements, certainly encourages the high exertions of fancy and passion.
In the infancy of societies, men live scattered and dispersed in the midst of solitary rural scenes, where the beauties of nature are their chief entertainment. They meet with many objects to them new and strange; their wonder and surprise are frequently excited; and by the sudden changes of fortune occurring in their unsettled state of life, their passions are raised to the utmost; their passions have nothing to restrain them, their imagination has nothing to check it. They display themselves to one another without disguise, and converse and act in the uncovered simplicity of nature. As their feelings are strong, so their language, of itself, assumes a poetical turn. Prone to exaggerate, they describe everything in the strongest colors; which of course renders their speech picturesque and figurative. Figurative language owes its rise chiefly to two causes; to the want of proper names for objects, and to the influence of imagination and passion over the form of expression. Both these causes concur in the infancy of society. Figures are commonly considered as artificial modes of speech, devised by orators and poets, after the world had advanced to a refined state. The contrary of this is the truth. Men never have
used so many figures of style as in those rude ages, when, besides the power of a warm imagination to suggest lively images, the want of proper and precise terms for the ideas they would express, obliged them to have recourse to circumlocution, metaphor, comparison, and all those substituted forms of expression, which give a poetical air to language. An American chief, at this day, harangues at the head of his tribe in a more bold and metaphorical style than a modern European would adventure to use in an epic poem.
In the progress of society, the genius and manners of men undergo a change more favorable to accuracy than to sprightliness and sublimity. As the world advances, the understanding gains ground upon the imagination; the understanding is more exercised; the imagination, less. Fewer objects occur that are new or surprising. Men apply themselves to trace the causes of things; they correct and refine one another; they subdue or disguise their passions; they form their exterior manners upon one uniform standard of politeness and civility. Human nature is pruned according to method and rule. Language advances from sterility to copiousness, and at the same time from fervor and enthusiasm, to correctness and precision. Style becomes more chaste, but less animated. The progress of the world in this respect resembles the progress of age in man. The powers of imagination are most vigorous and predominant in youth; those of the understanding ripen more slowly, and often attain not to their maturity till the imagination begins to flag. Hence poetry, which is the child of imagination, is frequently most glowing and animated in the first ages of society As the ideas of our youth are remembered with a peculiar pleasure, on account of their liveliness and vivacity, so the most ancient poems have often proved the greatest favorites of nations.
Poetry has been said to be more ancient than prose; and, however paradoxical such an assertion may seem, yet, in a qualified sense, it is true. Men certainly never conversed with one another in regular numbers; but even their ordinary language would, in ancient times, for the reasons before assigned, approach to a poetical style; and the first compositions transmitted to posterity, beyond doubt, were, in a literal sense, poems; that is, compositions in which imagination had the chief hand, formed into some kind of numbers, and pronounced with a musical modulation or tone. Music or song has been found coeval with society among the most barbarous nations. The only subjects which could prompt men, in their first rude state, to utter their thoughts in compositions of any length, were such as naturally assumed the tone of poetry; praises of their gods, or of their ancestors; commemorations of their own warlike exploits, or lamentations over their misfortunes. And, before writing was invented, no other compositions, except songs or poems, could take such hold of the imagination and memory, as to be pre. served by oral tradition, and handed down from one race to another.
Hence we may expect to find poems among the antiquities of all nations. It is probable, too, that an extensive search would discover a certain degree of resemblance among all the most ancient poetical productions, from whatever country they have proceeded. In a similar state of manners, similar objects and passions, operating upon the imaginations of men, will stamp their productions with the same general character. Some diversity will, no doubt, be occasioned by climate and genius. But mankind never bear such resembling features as they do in the beginnings of society. Its subsequent revolutions give rise to the principal distinctions among nations; and divert, into
channels widely separated, that current of human genius and manners which descends originally from one spring. What we have been long accustomed to call the oriental vein of poetry, because some of the earliest poetical productions have come to us from the east, is probably no more oriental than Occidental: it is characteristical of an age rather than a country, and belongs, in some measure, to all nations at a certain period. Of this the works of Ossian seem to furnish a remarkable proof.
Our present subject leads us to investigate the ancient poetical remains, not so much of the east, or of the Greeks and Romans, as of the northern nations, in order to discover whether the Gothic poetry has any resemblance to the Celtic or Gaelic, which we are about to consider. Though the Goths, under which name we usually comprehend all the Scandinavian tribes, were a people altogether fierce and martial, and noted, to a proverb for their ignorance of the liberal arts, yet they too, from the earliest times, had their poets and their songs. Their poets were distinguished by the title of Scalders, and their songs were termed Vyses. Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of considerable note, who flourished in the thirteenth century, informs us, that very many of these songs, containing the ancient traditionary stories of the country, were found engraven upon rocks in the old Runic character, several of which he, has translated into Latin, and inserted into his history. But his versions are plainly so paraphiastical, and forced into such an imitation of the style and the measures of the Roman poets, that one can form no judgment from them of the native spirit of the original. A more curious monument of the true Gothic poetry is preserved by Olaus Wormius in his book de Literatura Runica. It is an epicedium, or funeral song, composed by Regner Lodbrog, and translated
by Olaus, word for word, from the original. This Lodbrog was a king of Denmark, who lived in the eighth century, famous for his wars and victories; and at the same time an eminent scalder, or poet. It was his misfortune to fall at last into the hands of one of his enemies, by whom he was thrown into prison, and condemned to he destroyed by serpents. In this situation he solaced himself with rehearsing all the exploits of his life. The poem is divided into twenty-nine stanzas, of ten lines each; and every stanza begins with these words, "Pugnavimus ensibus," We have fought with our swords. Olaus's version is in many places so obscure as to be hardly intelligible. I have subjoined the whole below, exactly as he has published it (See p. 181); 1 and shall translate as much as may give the English reader an idea of the spirit and strain of this kind of poetry.
"We have fought with our swords. I was young. when, towards the east, in the bay of Oreon, we made torrents of blood flow, to gorge the ravenous beast of prey, and the yellow-footed bird. There resounded the hard steel upon the lofty helmets of men. The whole ocean was one wound. The crow waded in the blood of the slain. When we had numbered twenty years, we lifted our spears on high, and everywhere spread our renown. Eight barons we overcame in the east, before the port of Diminum; and plentifully we feasted the eagle in that slaughter. The warm stream of wounds ran into the ocean. The army fell before us. When we steered our ships into the mouth of the Vistula, we sent the Helsingians to the hall of Odin. Then did the sword bite. The waters were all one wound. The earth was dyed red with the warm stream. The sword rung upon the coats of mail, and
clove the bucklers in twain. None fled on that day, till among his ships Heraudus fell. Than him no braver baron cleaves the sea with ships; a cheerful heart did he ever bring to the combat. Then the host threw away. their shields, when the uplifted spear flew at the breast of heroes. The sword bit the Scarflan rocks; bloody was the shield in battle, until Rafno the king was slain. From the heads of warriors the warm sweat streamed down their armor. The crows around the Indirian islands had an ample prey. It were difficult to single out one among so many deaths. At the rising of the sun I beheld the spears piercing the bodies of foes, and the bows throwing forth their steel-pointed arrows. Loud roared the swords in the plains of Lano.--The virgin long bewailed the slaughter of that morning."--In this strain the poet continues to describe several other military exploits. The images are not much varied: the noise of arms, the streaming of blood, and the feasting the birds of prey often recurring. He mentions the death of two of his sons in battle; and the lamentation he describes as made for one of them is very singular. A Grecian or a Roman poet would have introduced the virgins or nymphs of the wood bewailing the untimely fall of a young hero. But, says our Gothic poet, "When Rogvaldus was slain, for him mourned all the hawks of heaven," as lamenting a benefactor who had so liberally supplied them with prey; "for boldly," as he adds, "in the strife of swords did the breaker of helmets throw the spear of blood."
The poem concludes with sentiments of the highest bravery and contempt of death. "What is more certain to the brave man than death, though amidst the storm of swords he stands always ready to oppose it? He only regrets this life who hath never known distress. The timorous man allures the, devouring eagle to
the field of battle. The coward, wherever he comes, is useless to himself. This I esteem honorable, that the youth should advance to the combat fairly matched one against another; nor man retreat from man. Long was this the warrior's highest glory. He who aspires to the love of virgins, ought always to be foremost in the roar of arms. It appears to me, of truth, that we are led by the Fates. Seldom can any overcome the appointment of destiny. Little did I foresee that Ella was to have my life in his hands, in that day when fainting I concealed my blood, and pushed forth my ships into the waves; after we had spread a repast for the beasts of prey throughout the Scottish bays. But this makes me always rejoice, that in the halls of our father Balder [or Odin] I know there are seats prepared, where, in a short time, we shall be drinking ale out of the hollow skulls of our enemies. In the house of the mighty Odin, no brave man laments death. I come not with the voice of despair to Odin's hall. How eagerly would all the sons of Aslauga now rush to war, did they know the distress of their father, whom a multitude of venomous serpents tear! I have given to my children a mother who hath filled their hearts with valor. I am fast approaching to my end. A cruel death awaits me from the viper's bite. A snake dwells in the midst of my heart. I hope that the sword of some of my sons shall yet be stained with the blood of Ella. The valiant youths will wax red with anger, and will not sit in peace. Fifty and one times have I reared the standard in battle. In my youth I learned to dye the sword in blood: my hope was then that no king among men would be more renowned than me. The goddesses of death will now soon call me; I must not mourn my death. Now I end my song. The goddesses invite me away; they whom Odin has sent to me from his hall. I will sit upon a lofty seat, and
drink ale joyfully with the goddesses of death. The hours of my life are run out. I will smile when I die."
This is such poetry as we might expect from a barbarous nation. It breathes a most ferocious spirit. It is wild, harsh, and irregular; but at the same time animated and strong; the style in the original, full of inversions, and, as we learn from some of Olaus's notes, highly metaphorical and figured.
But when we open the works of Ossian, a very different scene presents itself. There we find the fire and enthusiasm of the most early times, combined with an amazing, degree of regularity and art. We find tenderness, and even delicacy of sentiment, greatly predominant over fierceness and barbarity. Our hearts are melted with the softest feelings, and at the same time elevated with the highest ideas of magnanimity, generosity, and true heroism. When we turn from the poetry of Lodbrog to that of Ossian, it is like passing from a savage desert into a fertile and cultivated country. How is this to be accounted for? or by what means to be reconciled with the remote antiquity attributed to these poems? This is a curious point, and requires to be illustrated.
That the ancient Scots were of Celtic original, is past all doubt. Their conformity with the Celtic nations in language, manners, and religion, proves it to a full demonstration. The Celtæ, a great and mighty people, altogether distinct from the Goths and Teutones, once extended their dominion over all the west of Europe; but seem to have had their most full and complete establishment in Gaul, Wherever the Celtæ or Gauls are mentioned by ancient writers, we seldom fall to hear of their Druids and their Bards; the institution of which two orders was the capital distinction of their manners and policy. The druids were their
philosophers and priests; the bards their poets and recorders of heroic actions; and, both these orders of men seem to have subsisted among them, as chief members of the state, from time immemorial. We must not therefore imagine' the Celtæ to have been altogether a gross and rude nation. They possessed from very remote ages a formed system of discipline and manners, which appears to have had a deep and lasting influence Ammianus Marcellinus gives them this express testimony, that there flourished among them the study of the most laudable arts, introduced by the bards, whose office it was to sing in heroic verse the gallant actions of illustrious men; and by the druids, who lived together in colleges, or societies, after the Pythagorean manner, and, philosophizing upon the highest subjects, asserted the immortality of the human soul. Though Julius Cæsar, in his account of Gaul, does not expressly mention the bards, yet it is plain that, under the title of Druids, he comprehends that whole college or order; of which the bards, who, it is probable, were the disciples of the druids, undoubtedly made a part. It deserves remark, that, according to his account, the druidical institution first took rise in Britain, and passed from thence into Gaul; so that they who aspires to be thorough masters of that learning, were wont to resort to Britain. He adds, too, that such as were to be initiated among the druids, were obliged to commit to their memory a great number of verses, insomuch that some employed twenty years in this course of education; and that they did not think it lawful to record those poems in writing, but sacredly handed them down by tradition from race to race.
So strong was the attachment of the Celtic nations to their poetry and bards, that, amidst all the changes of their government and manners, even long after the order of the druids was extinct, and the national religion
altered, the bards continued to flourish; not as a set of strolling songsters, like the Greek Ἀοιδοι, or Rhapsodists, in Homer's time, but as an order of men highly respected in the state, and supported by a public establishment. We find them, according to the testimonies of Strabo and Diodorus, before the age of Augustus Cæsar; and we find them remaining under the same name, and exercising the same functions as of old, in Ireland, and in the north of Scotland, almost down to our own times. It is well known, that in both these countries every regulus or chief had his own bard, who was considered as an officer of rank in his court; and had lands assigned him, which descended to his family. Of the honor in which the bards were held, many instances occur in Ossian's Poems. On all important occasions they were the ambassadors between contending chiefs; and their persons were held sacred. "Cairbar feared to stretch his sword to the bards, though his soul was dark. 'Loose the bards,' said his brother Cathmor, 'they are the sons of other times. Their voice shall be heard in other ages, when the kings of Temora have failed.'"
From all this, the Celtic tribes clearly appear to have been addicted in so high a degree to poetry, and to have made it so much their study from the earliest times, as may remove our wonder at meeting with a vein of higher poetical refinement among them, than was at first to have been expected among nations whom we are accustomed to call barbarous. Barbarity, I must observe, is a very equivocal term; it admits of many different forms and degrees; and though, in all of them, it excludes polished manners, it is, however, not inconsistent with generous sentiments and tender affections. What degrees of friendship, love, and heroism may possibly be found to prevail in a rude state of society, no one can say. Astonishing instances of
them we know, from history, have sometimes appeared; and a few characters, distinguished by those high qualities, might lay a foundation for a set of manners being introduced into the songs of the bards, more refined, it is probable, and exalted, according to the usual poetical license, than the real manners of the country.
In particular, with respect to heroism; the great employment of the Celtic bards was to delineate the characters, and sing the praises of heroes. So Lucan--
Vos quoque qui fortes animos, belloque peremptos,
Laudibus in longum vates diffunditis ævum
Plurima securi fudistis carmina bardi.--Phars. l. 1.
Now when we consider a college or order of men, who, cultivating poetry throughout a long series of ages, had their imaginations continually employed on the ideas of heroism; who had all the poems and panegyrics, which were composed by their predecessors, handed down to them with care; who rivalled and endeavored to outstrip those who had gone before them, each in the celebration of his particular hero; is it not natural to think, that at length the character of a hero would appear in their songs with the highest lustre, and be adorned with qualities truly noble? Some of the qualities indeed which distinguish a Fingal, moderation, humanity, and clemency, would not probably be the first ideas of heroism occurring to a barbarous people: but no sooner had such ideas begun to dawn on the minds of poets, than, as the human mind easily opens to the native representations of human perfection, they would be seized and embraced; they would enter into their panegyrics; they would afford materials for succeeding bards to work upon and improve; they would contribute not a little to exalt the public manners. For such songs as these, familiar to the Celtic warriors from their childhood, and, throughout their whole life, both in war and in
peace, their principal entertainment, must have had a very considerable influence in propagating among them real manners, nearly approaching to the poetical; and in forming even such a hero as Fingal. Especially when we consider, that among their limited objects of ambition, among the few advantages which, in a savage state, man could obtain over man, the chief was fame, and that immortality which they expected to receive from their virtues and exploits, in songs of bards.
Having made these remarks on the Celtic poetry and bards in general, I shall next consider the particular advantages which Ossian possessed. He appears clearly to have lived in a period which enjoyed all the benefit I just now mentioned of traditionary poetry. The exploits of Trathal, Trenmor, and the other ancestors of Fingal, are spoken of as familiarly known. Ancient bards are frequently alluded to. In one remarkable passage Ossian describes himself as living in a sort of classical age, enlightened by the memorials of former times, which were conveyed in the songs of bards; and points at a period of darkness and ignorance which lay beyond the reach of tradition. "His words," says he, "Came only by halves to our ears; they were dark as the tales of other times, before the light of the song arose." Ossian himself appears to have been endowed by nature with an exquisite sensibility of heart; prone to that tender melancholy which is so often an attendant on great genius: and susceptible equally of strong and of soft emotion. He was not only a professed bard, educated with care, as we may easily believe, to all the poetical art then known, and connected, as he shows us himself, in intimate friendship with the other contemporary bards, but a warrior also; and the son of the most renowned hero and prince of his age. This formed a conjunction of
circumstances uncommonly favorable towards exalting the imagination of a poet. He relates expeditions in which he had been engaged; he sings of battles in which he had fought and overcome; he had beheld the most illustrious scenes which that age could exhibit, both of heroism in war and magnificence in peace. For however rude the magnificence of those times may seem to us, we must remember, that all ideas of magnificence are comparative; and that the age of Fingal was an æra of distinguished splendor in that part of the world. Fingal reigned over a considerable territory; he was enriched with the spoils of the Roman province; he was ennobled by his victories and great actions; and was in all respects a personage of much higher dignity than any of the chieftains, or heads of clans, who lived in the same country, after a more extensive monarchy was established,
The manners of Ossian's age, so far as we can gather them from his writings, were abundantly favorable to a poetical genius. The two dispiriting vices, to which Longinus imputes the decline of poetry, covetousness and effeminacy, were as yet unknown. The cares of men were few. They lived a roving indolent life; hunting and war their principal employments; and their chief amusements, the music of bards, and the feast of shells." The great objects pursued by heroic spirits, was "to receive their fame;" that is, to become worthy of being celebrated in the songs of bards; and "to have their name on the four gray stones." To die unlamented by a bard, was deemed so great a misfortune as even to disturb their ghosts in another state. They wander in thick mists beside the reedy lake but never shall they rise, without the song, to the dwelling of winds." After death, they expected to follow employments of the same nature with those which had amused them on earth; to fly
with their friends on clouds, to pursue airy deer, and to listen to their praise in the mouths of bards. In such times as these, in a country where poetry had been so long cultivated, and so highly honored, is it any wonder that, among the race and succession of bards, one Homer should arise: a man, who, endowed with a natural happy genius, favored with peculiar advantages of birth and condition, and meeting, in the course of his life, with a variety of incidents proper to fire his imagination, and to touch his heart, should attain a degree of eminence in poetry, worthy to draw the admiration of more refined ages?
The compositions of Ossian are so strongly marked with characters of antiquity, that although there were no external proof to support that antiquity, hardly any reader of judgment and taste could hesitate in referring them to a very remote æra. There are four great stages through which men successively pass in the progress of society. The first and earliest is the life of hunters; pasturage succeeds to this, as the ideas of property begin to take root; next agriculture; and, lastly, commerce. Throughout Ossian's Poems we plainly find ourselves in the first of these periods of society; during which hunting was the chief employment of men, and the principal method of their procuring subsistence. Pasturage was not indeed wholly unknown; for we hear of dividing the herd in the case of a divorce; but the allusions to herds and to cattle are not many; and of agriculture we find no traces. No cities appear to have been built in the territories of Fingal. No arts are mentioned, except that of navigation and of working in iron. Everything presents to us the most simple and unimproved manners. At their feasts, the heroes prepared their own repast; they sat round the light of the burning oak; the wind lifted their locks, and whistled through their open halls. Whatever was
beyond the necessaries of life was known to them only as the spoil of the Roman province; "the gold of the stranger; the lights of the stranger; the steeds of the stranger; the children of the rein."
The representation of Ossian's times must strike us the more, as genuine and authentic, when it is compared with a poem of later date, which Mr. Macpherson has preserved in one of his notes. It is that in which five bards are represented as passing the evening in the house of a chief, and each of them separately giving his description of the night. The night scenery is beautiful; and the author has plainly imitated the style and manner of Ossian; but he has allowed some images to appear which betray a later period of society. For we meet with windows clapping, the herds of goats and cows seeking shelter, the shepherd wandering, corn on the plain, and the wakeful hind rebuilding the shocks of corn which had been overturned by the tempest. Whereas, in Ossian's works, from beginning to end, all is consistent; no modern allusion drops from him; but everywhere the same face of rude nature appears; a country wholly uncultivated, thinly inhabited, and recently peopled. The grass of the rock, the flower of the heath, the thistle with its beard, are the chief ornaments of his landscapes. "The desert," says Fingal, "is enough for me, with all its woods and deer."
The circle of ideas and transactions is no wider than suits such an age; nor any greater diversity introduced into characters, than the events of that period would naturally display. Valor and bodily strength are the admired qualities. Contentions arise, as is usual among savage nations, from the slightest causes. To be affronted at a tournament, or to be omitted in the invitation to a feast, kindles a war. Women are often carried away by force; and the whole tribe, as in the Homeric times, rise to avenge the wrong. The heroes
show refinement of sentiment indeed on several occasions, but none of manners. They speak of their past actions with freedom, boast of their exploits, and sing their own praise. In their battles, it is evident, that drums, trumpets, or bagpipes, were not known or used. They had no expedient for giving the military alarms but striking a shield, or raising a loud cry: and hence the loud and terrible voice of Fingal is often mentioned as a necessary qualification of a great general; like the βοήν ἀγαθος Μενελαος of Homer. Of military discipline or skill they appear to have been entirely destitute. Their armies seem not to have been numerous; their battles were disorderly; and terminated, for the most part, by a personal combat, or wrestling of the two chiefs; after which, "the bard sung the song of peace, and the battle ceased along the field."
The manner of composition bears all the marks of the greatest antiquity. No artful transitions, nor full and extended connexion of parts; such as we find among the poets of later times, when order and regularity of composition were more studied and known: but a style always rapid and vehement; narration concise, even to abruptness, and leaving several circumstances to be supplied by the reader's imagination. The language has all that figurative cast, which, as I before showed, partly a glowing and undisciplined imagination partly the sterility of language and the want of proper terms, have always introduced into the early speech of nations; and in several respects, it carries a remarkable resemblance to the style of the Old Testament. It deserves particular notice, as one of the most genuine and decisive characters of antiquity, that very few general terms, or abstract ideas, are to be met with in the whole collection of Ossian's works. The ideas of men, at first, were all particular. They had not words to express general conceptions. These were
the consequences of more profound reflection, and longer acquaintance with the arts of thought and of speech. Ossian, accordingly, almost never expresses himself in the abstract. His ideas extended little further than to the objects he saw around him. A public, a community, the universe, were conceptions beyond his sphere. Even a mountain, a sea, or a lake, which he has occasion to mention, though only in a simile, are for the most part particularized; it is the hill of Cromla, the storm of the sea of Malmor, or the reeds of the lake of Lego. A mode of expression which, while it is characteristical of ancient ages, is at the same time highly favorable to descriptive poetry. For the same reasons, personification is a poetical figure not very common with Ossian. Inanimate objects, such as winds, trees, flowers, he sometimes personifies with great beauty. But the personifications which are so familiar to later poets, of Fame, Time, Terror, Virtue, and the rest of that class, were unknown to our Celtic bard. These were modes of conception too abstract for his age.
All these are marks so undoubted, and some of them, too so nice and delicate, of the most early times, as put the high antiquity of these poems out of question. Especially when we consider, that if there had been any imposture in this case, it must have been contrived and executed in the Highlands of Scotland, two or three centuries ago; as up to this period, both by manuscripts, and by the testimony of a multitude of living witnesses, concerning the uncontrovertible tradition of these poems, they can clearly be traced. Now, this is a period when that country enjoyed no advantages for a composition of this kind, which it may not be supposed to have enjoyed in as great, if not in a greater degree, a thousand years before. To suppose that two or three hundred years ago, when we well know the Highlands to have been in a state of gross ignorance
and barbarity, there should have arisen in that country a poet, of such exquisite genius, and of such deep knowledge of mankind, and of history, as to divest himself of the ideas and manners of his own age, and to give us a just and natural picture of a state of society ancienter by a thousand years; one who could support this counterfeited antiquity through such a large collection of poems, without the least inconsistency; and who, possessed of all this genius and art, had, at the same time, the self-denial of concealing himself, and of ascribing his own works to an antiquated bard, without the imposture being detected; is a supposition that transcends all bounds of credibility.
There are, besides, two other circumstances to be attended to, still of greater weight, if possible, against this hypothesis. One is, the total absence of religious ideas from this work; for which the translator has, in his preface, given a very probable account, on the footing of its being the work of Ossian. The druidical superstition was, in the days of Ossian, on the point of its final extinction; and, for particular reasons, odious to the family of Fingal; whilst the Christian faith was not yet established. But had it been the work of one to whom the ideas of Christianity were familiar from his infancy, and who had superadded to them also the bigoted superstition of a dark age and country, it is impossible. but in some passage or other, the traces of them would have appeared. The other circumstance is, the entire silence which reigns with respect to all the great clans or families which are now established in the Highlands. The origin of these several clans is known to be very ancient; and it is well known that there is no passion by which a native Highlander is more distinguished than by attachment to his clan, and jealousy for its honor. That a Highland bard, in forging a work relating to the antiquities of his country, should
have inserted no circumstance which pointed out the rise of his own clan, which ascertained its antiquity, or increased its glory, is, of all suppositions that can be formed, the most improbable; and the silence on this head amounts to a demonstration that the author lived before any of the present great clans were formed or known.
Assuming it then, as well we may, for certainty, that the poems, now under consideration, are genuine venerable monuments of a very remote antiquity, I proceed to make some remarks upon their general spirit and strain. The two great characteristics of Ossian's poetry are, tenderness and sublimity. It breathes nothing of the gay and cheerful kind; an air of solemnity and seriousness is diffused over the whole. Ossian is, perhaps, the only poet who never relaxes, or lets himself down into the light and amusing strain which I readily admit to be no small disadvantage to him, with the bulk of readers. He moves perpetually in the high region of the grand and the pathetic. One keynote is struck at the beginning, and supported to the end; nor is any ornament introduced, but what is perfectly concordant with the general tone of melody. The events recorded, are all serious and grave; the scenery throughout, wild and romantic. The extended heath by the seashore; the mountains shaded with mist; the torrent rushing through a solitary valley; the scattered oaks, and the tombs of warriors overgrown with moss; all produce a solemn attention in the mind, and prepare it for great and extraordinary events. We find not in Ossian an imagination that sports itself, and dresses out gay trifles to please the fancy. His poetry, more perhaps than that of any other writer, deserves to be styled, The poetry of the heart. It is a heart penetrated with noble sentiments and with sublime and tender passions; a heart that
glows, and kindles the fancy; a heart that is full, and pours itself forth. Ossian did not write,, like modern poets, to please readers and critics. He sung from the love of poetry and song. His delight was to think of the heroes among whom he had flourished; to recall the affecting incidents of his life; to dwell upon his past wars, and loves, and friendships: till, as he expresses it himself, "there comes a voice to Ossian, and awakes his soul. It is the voice of years that are gone; they roll before me with all their deeds;" and under this true poetic inspiration, giving vent to his genius, no wonder we should so often hear, and acknowledge, in his strains, the powerful and ever-pleasing voice of nature.
--Arte, natura potentior omni--
Est Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo.
It is necessary here to observe, that the beauties of Ossian's writings cannot be felt by those who have given them only a single or hasty perusal. His manner is so different from that of the poets to whom we are most accustomed; his style is so concise, and so much crowned with imagery; the mind is kept at such a stretch in accompanying the author; that an ordinary reader is at first apt to be dazzled and fatigued, rather than pleased. His poems require to he taken up at intervals, and to be frequently reviewed; and then it is impossible but his beauties must open to every reader who is capable of sensibility. Those who have the highest degree of it will relish them the most.
As. Homer is, of all the great poets, the one whose manner, and whose times, come the nearest to Ossian's, we are naturally led to run a parallel in some instances between the Greek and Celtic bard. For though Homer lived more than a thousand years before Ossian, it is not from the age of the world, but from the state of society that we are to judge of resembling times. The
[paragraph continues] 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. It was not to be expected, that in any of these particulars Ossian could equal Homer. For Homer lived in a country where society was much farther advanced; he had beheld many more objects; cities built and flourishing; laws instituted; order, discipline, and arts, begun. His field of observation was much larger and more splendid: his knowledge, of course, more extensive; his mind also, it shall be granted, more penetrating. But if Ossian's ideas and objects be less diversified than those of Homer, they are all, however, of the kind fittest for poetry: the bravery and generosity of heroes, the tenderness of lovers, the attachment of friends, parents, and children. In a rude age and country, though the events that happen be few, the undissipated mind broods over them more; they strike the imagination, and fire the passions, in a higher degree; and, of consequence, become happier materials to a poetical genius, than the same events when scattered through the wide circle of more varied action and cultivated life.
Homer is a more cheerful and sprightly poet than Ossian. You discern in him all the Greek vivacity; whereas Ossian uniformly maintains the gravity and solemnity of a Celtic hero. This, too, is in a great measure to be accounted for from the different situations in which they lived--partly personal, and partly national. Ossian had survived all his friends, and was disposed to melancholy by the incidents of his life. But, besides this, cheerfulness is one of the many blessings which we owe to formed society. The solitary, wild state, is always a serious one. Bating the sudden and violent bursts of mirth, which sometimes break forth at
their dances and feasts, the savage American tribes have been noted by all travellers for their gravity and taciturnity. Somewhat of this taciturnity may be also be remarked in Ossian. On all occasions he is frugal of his words; and never gives you more of an image, or a description, than is just sufficient to place it before you in one clear point of view. It is a blaze of lightning, which flashes and vanishes. Homer is more extended in his descriptions, and fills them up with a greater variety of circumstances. Both the poets are dramatic; that is, they introduce their personages frequently speaking before us. But Ossian is concise and rapid in his speeches, as he is in every other thing. Homer, with the Greek vivacity, had also some portion of the Greek loquacity. His speeches, indeed, are highly characteristical; and to them we are much indebted for that admirable display he has given of human nature. Yet, if he be tedious any where, it is in these: some of them are trifling, and some of them plainly unseasonable. Both poets are eminently sublime; but a difference may be remarked in the species of their sublimity. Homer's sublimity is accompanied with more impetuosity and fire; Ossian's with more of a solemn and awful grandeur. Homer hurries you along; Ossian elevates, and fixes you in astonishment. Homer is most sublime in actions and battles; Ossian in description and sentiment. In the pathetic, Homer, when he chooses to exert it, has great power; but Ossian exerts that power much oftener, and has the character of tenderness far more deeply imprinted on his works. No t knew better how to seize and melt the heart. With regard to dignity of sentiment, the pre-eminence must clearly he given to Ossian. This is, indeed, a surprising circumstance, that in point of humanity, magnanimity, virtuous feelings of every kind, our rude Celtic bard should be distinguished to such a degree,
that not only the heroes of Homer, but even those of the polite and refined Virgil, are left far behind by those of Ossian.
After these general observations on the genius and spirit of our author, I now proceed to a nearer view and more accurate examination of his works; and as Fingal is the first great poem in this collection, it is proper to begin with it. To refuse the title of an epic poem to Fingal, because it is not, in every little particular, exactly conformable to the practice of Homer and Virgil, were the mere squeamishness and pedantry of criticism. Examined even according to Aristotle's rules, it will be found to have all the essential requisites of a true and regular epic; and to have several of them in so high a degree, as at first view to raise our astonishment on finding Ossian's composition so agreeable to rules of which he was entirely ignorant. But our astonishment will cease, when we consider from what source Aristotle drew those rules. Homer knew no more of the laws of criticism than Ossian. But, guided by nature, he composed in verse a regular story, founded on heroic actions, which all posterity admired. Aristotle, with great sagacity and penetration, traced the causes of this general admiration. He observed what it was in Homer's composition, and in the conduct of his story, which gave it such power to please; from. this observation he deduced the rules which poets ought to follow, who would write and please like Homer; and to a composition formed according to such rules, he gave the name of an epic poem. Hence his whole system arose. Aristotle studied nature in Homer. Homer and Ossian both wrote from nature. No wonder that among all the three, there should be such agreement and conformity.
The fundamental rules delivered by Aristotle concerning an epic poem, are these: that the action, which
is the groundwork of the poem, should be one, complete, and great; that it should be feigned, not merely historical; that it should be enlivened with characters and manners, and heightened by the marvellous.
But, before entering on any of these, it may perhaps be asked, what is the moral of Fingal? For, according to M. Bossu, an epic poem is no other than an allegory contrived to illustrate some, moral truth. The poet, says this critic, must begin with fixing on some maxim or instruction, which he intends to inculcate on mankind. He next forms a fable, like one of Æsop's, wholly with a view to the moral; and having thus settled and arranged his plan, he then looks into traditionary history for names and incidents, to give his fable some air of probability. Never did a more frigid, pedantic notion enter into the mind of a critic. We may safely pronounce, that he who should compose an epic poem after this manner, who should first lay down a moral and contrive a plan, before he had thought of his personages and actors, might deliver, indeed, very sound instruction, but would find very few readers. There cannot be the least doubt that the first object which strikes an epic poet, which fires his genius, and gives him any idea of his work, is the action or subject he is to celebrate. Hardly is there any tale, any subject, a poet can choose for such a work, but will afford some general moral instruction. An epic poem is, by its nature, one of the most moral of all poetical compositions: but its moral tendency is by no means to be limited to some commonplace maxim, which may be gathered from the story. It arises from the admiration of heroic actions which such a composition is peculiarly calculated to produce; from the virtuous emotions which the characters and incidents raise, whilst we read it; from the happy impressions which all the parts separately, as well as the whole together, leave upon
the mind. However, if a general moral be still insisted on, Fingal obviously furnishes one, not inferior to that of any other poet, viz: that wisdom and bravery always triumph over brutal force: or another, nobler still: that the most complete victory over an enemy is obtained by that moderation and generosity which convert him into a friend.
The unity of the epic action, which of all Aristotle's rules, is the chief and most material, is so strictly preserved in Fingal, that it must be perceived by every reader. It is a more complete unity than what arises from relating the actions of one man, which the Greek critic justly censures as imperfect: it is the unity of one enterprise--the deliverance of Ireland from the invasion of Swaran; an enterprise which has surely the full heroic dignity. All the incidents recorded bear a constant reference to one end; no double plot is carried on; but the pa unite into a regular whole; and as the action is one and great, so it is an entire or complete action. For we find, as the critic, farther requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end; a nodus, or intrigue, in the poem; difficulties occurring through Cuthullin's rashness and bad success; those difficulties gradually surmounted; and at last, the work conducted to that happy conclusion which is held essential to epic poetry. Unity is, indeed, observed with greater exactness in Fingal, than in almost any other epic composition. For not only is unity of subject maintained, but that of time and place also. The autumn is clearly pointed out as the season of the action; and from beginning to end the scene is never shifted from the heath of Lena, along the seashore. The duration of the action in Fingal, is much shorter than in the Iliad or Æneid; but sure there may be shorter as well longer heroic poems; and if the authority of Aristotle be also required for this, he says expressly, that the
epic composition is indefinite as to the time of its duration. Accordingly, the action of the Iliad lasts only forty-seven days, whilst that of the Æneid is continued for more than a year.
Throughout the whole of Fingal, there reigns that grandeur of sentiment, style, and imagery, which ought ever to distinguish this high species of poetry. The story is conducted with no small art. The poet goes not back to a tedious recital of the beginning of the war with Swaran; but hastening to the main action, he falls in exactly, by a most happy coincidence of thought, with the rule of Horace:
Semper ad eventum festinat, et in medias res,
Non secus ac notas, auditorem rapit--
Nec gemino bellum Trojanum orditur ab ovo.
De Arte Poet.
He invokes no muse, for he acknowledged none. but his occasional addresses to Malvina have a finer effect than the invocation of any muse. He sets out with no formal proposition of his subject; but the subject naturally and easily unfolds itself; the poem opening in an animated manner, with the situation of Cuthullin, and the arrival of a scout, who informs him of Swaran's landing. Mention is presently made of Fingal, and of the expected assistance from the ships of the lonely isle, in order to give farther light to the subject. For the poet often shows his address in gradually preparing us for the events he is to introduce; and, in particular, the preparation for the appearance of Fingal, the previous expectations that are raised, and the extreme magnificence, fully answering these expectations, with which the hero is at length presented to us, are all worked up with such skilful conduct as would do honor to any poet of the most refined times. Homer's art in magnifying the character of Achilles, has been universally admired. Ossian certainly shows no less
aft in aggrandizing Fingal. Nothing could be more happily imagined for this purpose than the whole management of the last battle, wherein Gaul, the son of Morni, had besought Fingal to retire, and to leave him and his other chiefs the honor of the day. The generosity of the king in agreeing to this proposal; the majesty with which he retreats to the hill, from whence he was to behold the engagement, attended by his bards, and waving the lightning of his sword; his perceiving the chiefs overpowered by numbers, but, from unwillingness to deprive them of the glory of victory by coming in person to their assistance, first sending Ullin, the bard, to animate their courage, and at last, when the danger becomes more pressing, his rising in his might, and interposing, like a divinity, to decide the doubtful fate of the day; are all circumstances contrived with so much art, as plainly discover the Celtic bards to have been not unpractised in heroic poetry.
The story which is the foundation of the Iliad, is in itself as simple as that of Fingal. A quarrel arises between Achilles and Agamemnon concerning a female slave; on which Achilles, apprehending himself to be injured, withdraws his assistance from the rest of the Greeks. The Greeks fall into great distress, and beseech him to be reconciled to them. He refuses to fight for them in person, but sends his friend Patroclus; and upon his being slain, goes forth to revenge his death, and kills Hector. The subject of Fingal is this: Swaran comes to invade Ireland; Cuthullin, the guardian of the young king, had applied for his assistance to Fingal, who reigned in the opposite coast of Scotland. But before Fingal's arrival, he is hurried by rash counsel to encounter Swaran. He is defeated; he retreats, and desponds. Fingal arrives in this conjuncture. The battle is for some time dubious; but in the end he conquers Swaran; and the remembrance of Swaran's
being the brother of Agandecca, who, had once saved his life, makes him dismiss him honorably. Homer, it is true, has filled up his story with a much greater variety of particulars than Ossian; and in this has shown a compass of invention superior to that of the other poet. But it must not be forgotten that though Homer be more circumstantial, his incidents, however, are less diversified in kind than those of Ossian. War and bloodshed reign throughout the Iliad; and, notwithstanding all the fertility of Homer's invention, there is so much uniformity in his subjects, that there are few readers, who, before the close, are not tired with perpetual fighting. Whereas in Ossian, the mind is relieved by a more agreeable diversity. There is a finer mixture of war and heroism, with love and friendship--of martial, with tender scones, than is to be met with, perhaps, in any other poet. The episodes, too, have great propriety--as natural, and proper to that age and country: consisting of the songs of bards, which are known to have been the great entertainment of the Celtic heroes in war, as well as in peace. These songs are not introduced at random; if you except the episode of Duchommar and Morna, in the first book, which, though beautiful, is more unartful than any of the rest, they have always some particular relation to the actor who is interested, or to the events which are going on; and, whilst they vary the scene, they preserve a sufficient connection with the main subject by the fitness and propriety of their introduction.
As Fingal's love to Agandecca influences some circumstances of the poem, particularly the honorable dismission of Swaran at the end; it was necessary that we should be let into this part of the hero's story. But as it lay without the compass of the present action, it could be regularly introduced nowhere except in an episode. Accordingly, the poet, with as much propriety
as if Aristotle himself had directed the plan, has contrived an episode for this purpose in the song of Carril, at the beginning of the third book.
The conclusion of the poem is strictly according to rule, and is every way noble and pleasing. Th reconciliation of the contending heroes, the consolation of Cuthullin, and the general felicity that crowns the action, soothe the mind in a very agreeable manner, and form that passage from agitation and trouble, to perfect quiet and repose, which critics require as the proper termination of the epic work. "Thus they passed the night in song, and brought back the morning with joy. Fingal arose on the heath; and shook his glittering spear in his hand. He moved first towards the plains of Lena; and we followed like a ridge of fire. Spread the sail, said the king of Morven, and catch the winds that pour from Lena. We rose on the waves with songs; and rushed with joy through the foam of the ocean." So much for the unity and general conduct of the epic action in Fingal.
With regard to that property of the subject which Aristotle requires, that it should be feigned, not historical, he must not be understood so strictly is if he meant to exclude all subjects which have any foundation in truth. For such exclusion would both be unreasonable in itself, and what is more, would be contrary to the practice of Homer, who is known to have founded his Iliad on historical facts concerning the war of Troy, which was famous throughout all Greece. Aristotle means no more than that it is the business of a poet not to be a more annalist of facts, but to embellish truth with beautiful, probable, and useful fictions; to copy nature as he himself explains it, like painters, who preserve a likeness, but exhibit their objects more grand and beautiful than they are in reality. That Ossian has followed this course, and
building upon true history, has sufficiently adorned it with poetical fiction for aggrandizing his characters and facts, will not, I believe, be questioned by most readers. At the same time, the foundation which those facts and characters had in truth, and the share which the poet had himself in the transactions which he records, must be considered as no small advantage to his work. For truth makes an impression on the mind far beyond any fiction; and no man, let his imagination be ever so strong, relates any events so feelingly as those in which he has been interested; paints any scene so naturally as one which he has seen; or draws any characters in such strong colors as those which he has personally known. It is considered as an advantage of the epic subject to be taken from a period so distant, as, by being involved in the darkness of tradition, may give license to fable. Though Ossian's subject may at first view appear unfavorable in this respect, as being taken from his own times, yet, when we reflect that he lived to an extreme old age; that he relates what had been transacted in another country, at the distance of many years, and after all that race of men who had been the actors were gone off the stage; we shall find the objection in a great measure obviated. In so rude an age, when no written records were known, when tradition was loose, and accuracy of any kind little attended to, what was great and heroic in one generation, easily ripened into the marvellous in the next.
The natural representation of human character in an epic poem is highly essential to its merit; and, in respect of this, there can be no doubt of Homer's excelling all the heroic poets who have ever wrote. But though Ossian be much inferior to Homer in this article, he will be found to be equal at least, if not superior to Virgil; and has, indeed, given all the display
of human nature, which the simple occurrences of his times could be expected to furnish. No dead uniformity of character prevails in Fingal; but, on the contrary, the principal characters are not only clearly distinguished, but sometimes artfully contrasted, so as to illustrate each other. Ossian's heroes are like Homer's, all brave; but their bravery, like those of Homer's too, is of different kinds. For instance: the prudent, the sedate, the modest and circumspect Connal, is finely opposed to the presumptuous, rash, overbearing, but gallant and generous Calmar. Calmar hurries Cuthullin into action by his temerity; and when he sees the bad effects of his counsels, he will not survive the disgrace. Connal, like another Ulysses, attends Cuthullin to his retreat, counsels and comforts him under his misfortune. The fierce, the proud, and the high-spirited Swaran, is admirably contrasted with the calm, the moderate, and generous Fingal. The character of Oscar is a favorite one throughout the whole poems. The amiable warmth of the young warrior; his eager impetuosity in the day of action; his passion for fame; his submission to his father; his tenderness for Malvina; are the strokes of a masterly pencil: the strokes are few; but it is the hand of nature, and attracts the heart. Ossian's own character, the old man, the hero, and the bard, all in one, presents to us, through the whole work, a most respectable and venerable figure, which we always contemplate with pleasure. Cuthullin is a hero of the highest class: daring, magnanimous, and exquisitely sensible to honor. We become attached to his interest, and are deeply touched with his distress; and after the admiration raised for him in the first part of the poem, it is a strong proof of Ossian's masterly genius, that he durst adventure to produce to us another hero, compared with whom, even the great Cuthullin should be only an inferior
personage; and who should rise as far above him, as Cuthullin rises above the rest.
Here, indeed, in the character and description of Fingal, Ossian triumphs almost unrivalled; for we may boldly defy all antiquity to show us any hero equal to Fingal. Homer's Hector possesses several great and amiable qualities; but Hector is a secondary personage in the Iliad, not the hero of the work. We see him only occasionally; we know much less of him than we do of Fingal; who, not only in this, epic poem, but in Temora, and throughout the rest of Ossian's works, is presented in all that variety of lights, which give the full display of a character. And though Hector faithfully discharges his duty to his country, his friends, and his family, he is tinctured, however, with a degree of the same savage ferocity which prevails among all the Homeric heroes: for we find him insulting over the fallen Patroclus with the most cruel taunts, and telling him, when he lies in the agonies of death, that Achilles cannot help him now; and that in a short time his body, stripped naked, and deprived of funeral honors, shall be devoured by the vultures. Whereas, in the character of Fingal, concur almost all the qualities that can ennoble human nature; that can either make us admire the hero, or love the man. He is not only unconquerable in war, but he makes his people happy by his wisdom in the days of peace. He is truly too father of his people. He is known by the epithet or "Fingal of the mildest look;" and distinguished on every occasion by humanity and generosity. He is merciful to his foes; full of affection to his children; full of concern about his friends; and never mentions Agandecca, his first love, without the utmost tenderness. He is the universal Protector of the distressed; "None ever went sad from Fingal."--"O, Oscar! bend the strong in arms; but spare the feeble
hand. Be thou a stream of mighty tides against the foes of thy people; but like the gale that moves the grass to those who ask thine aid. So Trenmor lived; such Trathal was; and such has Fingal been. My arm was the support of the injured; the weak rested behind the lightning of my steel." These were the maxims of true heroism, to which he formed his grandson. His fame is represented as everywhere spread; the greatest heroes acknowledge his superiority; his enemies tremble at his name; and the highest encomium that can be bestowed on one whom the poets would most exalt, is to say, that his soul was like the soul of Fingal.
To do justice to the poet's merit, in supporting such a character as this, I must observe, what is not commonly attended to, that there is no part of poetical execution more difficult, than to draw a perfect character in such a manner as to render it distinct, and affecting to the mind. Some strokes of human imperfection and frailty, are what usually give us the most clear view, and the most sensible impression of a character; because they present to us a man, such as we have seen; they recall known features of human nature. When poets attempt to go beyond this range, and describe a faultless hero, they for the most part set before us a sort of vague, undistinguishable character, such as the imagination cannot lay hold of, or realize to itself as the object of affection. We know how much Virgil has failed in this particular. His perfect hero, Æneas, is an unanimated, insipid personage, whom we may pretend to admire, but whom no one can heartily love. But what Virgil has failed in, Ossian, to our astonishment, has successfully executed. His Fingal, though exhibited without any of the common human failings, is, nevertheless, a real man; a character which touches and interests every reader.
[paragraph continues] To this it has much contributed that the poet has represented him as an old man; and by this has gained the advantage of throwing around him a great many circumstances, peculiar to that age, which paint him to the fancy in a more distinct light. He is surrounded with his family; he instructs his children in the principles of virtue; he is narrative of his past exploits he is venerable with the gray locks of age; he is frequently disposed to moralize, like an old man, on human vanity, and the prospect of death. There is more art, at least more felicity, in this, than may at first be imagined. For youth and old are the two states of human life, capable of being placed in the most picturesque lights. Middle age is more general and vague; and has fewer circumstances peculiar to the idea of it. And when any object is in a situation that admits it to be rendered particular, and to be clothed with a variety of circumstances, it always stands out more clear and full of poetical description.
Besides human personages, divine or supernatural agents are often introduced into epic poetry, forming what is called the machinery of it; which most critics hold to be an essential part. The marvellous, it must he admitted, has always a great charm for the bulk of readers. It gratifies the imagination, and affords room for striking and sublime description. No wonder, therefore, that all poets should have a strong propensity towards it. But I must observe, that nothing is more difficult than to adjust properly the marvellous with the probable. If a poet sacrifice probability, and fill his work with extravagant supernatural scenes, he spreads over it an appearance of romance and childish fiction; he transports his readers from this world into a fantastic visionary region; and loses that weight and dignity which should reign in epic poetry. No work from which probability is altogether banished, can make a
lasting or deep impression. Human actions and manners are always, the most interesting objects which can be presented to a human mind. All machinery, therefore, is faulty, which withdraws these too much from view, or obscures them under a cloud of incredible fictions. Besides being temperately employed, machinery ought always to have some foundation in popular belief. A poet is by no means at liberty to invent what system of the marvellous he pleases; he must avail himself either of the religious faith, or the superstitious credulity of the country wherein he lives; so as to give an air of probability to events which are most contrary to the common course of nature.
In these respects, Ossian appears to me to have been remarkably happy. He has, indeed, followed the same course with Homer. For it is perfectly absurd to imagine, as some critics have done, that Homer's mythology was invented by him "in consequence of profound reflection on the benefits it would yield to poetry." Homer was no such refining genius. He found the traditionary stories, on which he built his Iliad, mingled with popular legends concerning the intervention of the gods; and he adopted these because they amused the fancy. Ossian, in like manner, found the tales of his country full of ghosts and spirits; it is likely he believed them himself; and he introduced them, because they gave his poems that solemn and marvellous cast which suited his genius. This was the only machinery he could employ with propriety; because it was the only intervention of supernatural beings which agreed with the common belief of the country. It was happy; because it did not interfere in the least with the proper display of human characters and actions; because it had less of the incredible than most other kinds of poetical machinery; and because it served to diversify the scene, and to heighten the subject
by an awful grandeur, which is the great design of machinery.
As Ossian's mythology is peculiar to himself, and makes a considerable figure in his other poems, as well as in Fingal, it may be proper to make some observations on it, independent of its subserviency to epic composition. It turns, for the most part, on the appearances of departed spirits. These, consonantly to the notions of every rude age, are represented not as purely immaterial, but as thin airy forms, which can be visible or invisible at pleasure; their voice is feeble, their arm is weak; but they are endowed with knowledge more than human. In a separate state, they retain the same dispositions which animated them in this life. They ride on the wind; they bend their airy bows; and pursue deer formed of clouds. The ghosts of departed bards continue to sing. The ghosts of departed heroes frequent the fields of their former fame. "They rest together in their caves, and talk of mortal men. Their songs are of other worlds. They come sometimes to the ear of rest, and raise their feeble voice." All this presents to us much the same set of ideas concerning spirits, as we find in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, where Ulysses visits the regions of the dead; and in the twenty-third book of the Iliad, the ghost of Patroclus, after appearing to Achilles, vanishes precisely like one of Ossian's, emitting a shrill, feeble cry, and melting away like smoke.
But though Homer's and Ossian's ideas concerning ghosts were of the same nature, we cannot but observe, that Ossian's ghosts are drawn with much stronger and livelier colors than those of Homer. Ossian describes ghosts with all the particularity of one who had seen and conversed with them, and whose imagination was full of the impression they had left upon it. He calls up those awful and tremendous ideas which the
--Simulacra modis pallentia miris
are fitted to raise in the human mind; and which, in Shakspeare's style, "harrow up the soul." Crugal's ghost, in particular, in the beginning of the second book of Fingal, may vie with any appearance of this kind, described by any epic or tragic poet whatever. Most poets would have contented themselves, with telling us, that he resembled, in every particular, the living Crugal; that his form and dress were the same, only his face more pale and sad; and that he bore the mark of the wound by which he fell. But Ossian sets before our eyes a spirit from the invisible world, distinguished by all those features which a strong, astonished imagination would give to a ghost. "A dark red stream of fire comes down from the hill. Crugal sat upon the beam; he that lately fell by the band of Swaran, striving in the battle of heroes. His face is like the beam of the setting moon. His robes are of the cloud of the hill. His eyes are like two decaying flames. Dark is the wound of his breast.--The stars dim twinkled through his form; and his voice was like the sound of a distant stream." The circumstance of the stars being beheld "dim twinkling through his form," is wonderfully picturesque, and convoys the most lively impression of his thin and shadowy substance. The attitude in which he is afterward placed, and the speech put into his mouth, are full of that solemn and awful sublimity, which suits the subject. "Dim, and in tears he stood, and he stretched his pale hand over the hero. Faintly he raised his feeble voice, like the gale of the reedy Lego.--My ghost, O Connal! is on my native hills; but my corse is on the sands of Ulla. Thou shalt never talk with Crugal, or find his lone steps in the heath. I am light as the blast of Cromla; and I move like the shadow of mist. Connal, son of Colgar! I see the dark cloud
of death; it hovers over the plains of Lena. The sons of green Erin Shall fall. Remove from the field of ghosts.--Like the darkened moon, he retired in the midst of the whistling blast."
Several other appearances of spirits might be pointed out, as among the most sublime passages of Ossian's poetry. The circumstances of them are considerably diversified, and the scenery always suited to the occasion. "Oscar slowly ascends the hill. The meteors of night set on the heath before him. A distant torrent faintly roars. Unfrequent blasts rush through aged oaks. The half enlightened moon sinks dim and red behind her hill. Feeble voices are heard on the heath. Oscar drew his sword--."Nothing can prepare the fancy more happily for the awful scene that is to follow. "Trenmor came from his hill at the voice of his mighty son. A cloud, like the steed of the stranger, supported his airy limbs. His robe is of the mist of Lano, that brings death to the people. His sword is a green meteor, half extinguished. His face is without form, and dark. He sighed thrice over the hero; and thrice the winds of the night roared around. Many were his words to Oscar.--He slowly vanished, like a mist that melts on the sunny hill." To appearances of this kind, we can find no parallel among the Greek or Roman poets. They bring to mind that noble description in the book of Job: "In thoughts from the vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up It stood still: but I could not discern the form thereof. An image was before mine eyes. There was silence; and I heard a voice--Shall mortal man be more just than God?"
As Ossian's supernatural beings are described with
a surprising force of imagination, so they are introduced with propriety. We have only three ghosts in Fingal: that of Crugal, which comes to warn the host of impending destruction, and to advise them to save themselves by retreat; that of Evir-allen, the spouse of Ossian, which calls on him to rise and rescue their son from danger; and that of Agandecca, which, just before the last engagement with Swaran, moves Fingal to pity, by mourning for the approaching destruction of her kinsman and people. In the other poems, ghosts sometimes appear, when invoked, to foretell futurity; frequently, according to the notions of these times, they come as forerunners of misfortune or death, to those whom they visit; sometimes they inform their friends at a distance of their own death; and sometimes they are introduced to heighten the scenery on some great and solemn occasion. "A hundred oaks burn to the wind; and faint light gleams over the heath. The ghosts of Ardven pass through the beam, and show their dim and distant forms. Comala is half unseen on her meteor; and Hidallan is sullen and dim."--"The awful faces of other times looked from the clouds of Crona."--"Fercuth! I saw the ghost of night. Silent he stood on that bank; his robe of mist flew on the wind. I could behold his tears. An aged man he seemed, and full of thought."
The ghosts of strangers mingle not with those of the natives. "She is seen: but not like the daughters of the hill. Her robes are from the strangers' land; and she is still alone." When the ghost of one whom we had formerly known is introduced, the propriety of the living character is still preserved. This is remarkable in the appearance of Calmar's ghost, in the poem entitled, The death of Cuthullin. He seems to forebode Cuthullin's death, and to beckon him to his cave. Cuthullin reproaches him for supposing that he could
be intimidated by such prognostics. "Why dost thou bend thy dark eyes on me, ghost of the car-borne Calmar? Wouldst thou frighten me, O Matha's son! from the battles of Cormac? Thy hand was not feeble in war; neither was thy voice for peace. How art thou changed, chief of Lara! if thou now dost advise to fly! Retire thou to thy cave thou art not Calmar's ghost; lie delighted in battle and his arm was like the thunder of heaven." Calmar makes no return to this seeming reproach: but "he retired in his blast with joy; for he had heard the voice of his praise." This is precisely the ghost of Achilles in Homer; who, notwithstanding all the dissatisfaction he expresses with his state in the region of the dead, as soon as he had heard his son Neoptolemus praised for his gallant behavior, strode away with silent joy to rejoin the rest of the shades.
It is a great advantage of Ossian's mythology, that it is not local and temporary, like that of most other ancient poets; which of course is apt to seem ridiculous, after the superstitions have passed away on which it is founded. Ossian's mythology is, to speak so, the mythology of human nature; for it is founded on what has been the popular belief, in all ages and countries, and under all forms of religion, concerning the appearances of departed spirits. Homer's machinery is always lively and amusing; but far from being always supported with proper dignity. The indecent squabbles among his gods surely do no honor to epic poetry. Whereas Ossian's machinery has dignity upon all occasions. It is indeed a dignity of the dark and awful kind; but this is proper; because coincident with the strain and spirit of the poetry. A light and gay mythology, like Homer's, would have been perfectly unsuitable to the subjects on which Ossian's genius was employed. But though his machinery be always solemn,
it is not, however, always dreary or dismal; it as enlivened, as much as the subject would permit, by those pleasant and beautiful appearances, which he sometimes introduces, of the spirits of the hill. These are gentle spirits: descending on sunbeams, fair moving on the plain; their forms white and bright; their voices sweet; and their visits to men propitious. The greatest praise that can be given to the beauty of a living woman, is to say, "She is fair as the ghost of the hill, when it moves in a sunbeam at noon, over the silence of Morven." "The hunter shall hear my voice from his booth. He shall fear, but love my voice. For sweet shall my voice be for my friends; for pleasant were they to me."
Besides ghosts, or the spirits of departed men, we find in Ossian some instances of other kinds of machinery. Spirits of a superior nature to ghosts are sometimes alluded to, which have power to embroil the deep; to call forth winds and storms, and pour them on the land of the stranger; to overturn forests, and to send death among the people. We have prodigies too; a shower of blood; and when some disaster is befalling at a distance, the sound of death is heard on the strings of Ossian's harp: all perfectly consonant, not only to the peculiar ideas of northern nations, but to the general current of a superstitious mention in all countries. The description of Fingal's airy hall, in the poem called Errathon, and of the ascent of Malvina into it, deserves particular notice, as remarkably noble and magnificent. But, above all, the engagement of Fingal with the spirit of Loda, in Carric-thura, cannot be mentioned without admiration. I forbear transcribing the passage, as it must have drawn the attention of every one who has read the works of Ossian. The undaunted courage of Fingal, opposed to all the terrors of the Scandinavian god; the appearance
and the speech of that awful spirit; the wound which he receives, and the shriek which he sends forth, "as, rolled into himself, he rose upon the wind;" are full of the most amazing and terrible majesty. I know no passage more sublime in the writings of any uninspired author. The fiction is calculated to aggrandize the hero; which it does to a high degree: nor is it so unnatural or wild a fiction as might at first be thought. According to the notions of those times, supernatural beings were material, and, consequently, vulnerable. The spirit of Loda was not acknowledged as a deity by Fingal; he did not worship at the stone of his power; he plainly considered him as the god of his enemies only; as a local deity, whose dominion extended no farther than to the regions where he was worshipped; who had, therefore, no title to threaten him, and no claim to his submission. We know there are poetical precedents of great authority, for fictions fully as extravagant; and if Homer be forgiven for making Diomed attack and wound in battle the gods whom that chief himself worshipped, Ossian surely is pardonable for making his hero superior to the god of a foreign territory.
Notwithstanding the poetical advantages which I have ascribed to Ossian's machinery, I acknowledge it would have been much more beautiful and perfect had the author discovered some knowledge of a Supreme Being. Although his silence on this head has been accounted for by the learned and ingenious translator in a very probable, manner, yet still it must be held a considerable disadvantage to the poetry. For the most august and lofty ideas that can embellish poetry are derived from the belief of a divine administration of the universe; and hence the invocation of a Supreme Being, or at least of some superior powers, who are conceived as presiding over human affairs, the solemnities
of religious worship, prayers preferred, and assistance implored on critical occasions, appear with great dignity in the works of almost all poets, as chief ornaments of their compositions. The absence of all such religious ideas from Ossian's poetry is a sensible blank in it; the more to be regretted, as we can easily imagine what an illustrious figure they would have made under the management of such a genius as his; and how finely they would have been adapted to many situations which occur in his works.
After so particular an examination of Fingal, it were needless to enter into as full a discussion of the conduct of Temora, the other epic poem. Many of the same observations, especially with regard to the great characteristics of heroic poetry, apply to both. The high merit, however, of Temora, requires that we should not pass it by without some remarks.
The scene of Temora, as of Fingal, is laid in Ireland; and the action is of a posterior date. The subject is, an expedition of the hero to dethrone and punish a bloody usurper, and to restore the possession of the kingdom to the posterity of the lawful prince: an undertaking worthy of the justice and heroism of the great Fingal. The action is one, and complete. The Poem opens with the descent of Fingal on the coast, and the consultation held among the chiefs of the enemy. The murder of the young prince Cormac, which was the cause of the war, being antecedent to the epic action, is introduced with great propriety as an episode in the first book. In the progress of the poem, three battles are described, which rise in their importance above, one another; the success is various, and the issue for some time doubtful; till at last, Fingal, brought into distress, by the wound of his great general Gaul, and the death of his son Fillan, assumes the command himself; and, having slain the Irish king
in single combat, restores the rightful heir to his throne.
Temora has perhaps less fire than the other epic poem; but in return it has more variety, more tenderness, and more magnificence. The reigning idea, so often resented to us, of "Fingal, in the last of his fields, is venerable and affecting; nor could any more noble conclusion be thought of, than the aged hero, after so many successful achievements, taking his leave of battles, and, with all the solemnities of those times, resigning his spear to his son. The events are less crowded in Temora than in Fingal; actions and characters are more particularly displayed: we are let into the transactions of both hosts, and informed of the adventures of the night as well as of the day. The still, pathetic, and the romantic scenery of several of the night adventures, so remarkably suited to Ossian's genius, occasion a fine diversity in the poem; and are happily contrasted with the military operations of the day.
In most of our author's poems, the horrors of war are softened by intermixed scenes of love and friendship. In Fingal these are introduced as episodes: in Temora we have an incident of this nature wrought into the body of the piece, in the adventure of Cathmor and Sulmalla. This forms one of the most conspicuous beauties of that poem. The distress of Sulmalla, disguised and unknown amongst strangers, her tender and anxious concern for the safety of Cathmor, her dream, and her melting remembrance of the land of her fathers; Cathmor's emotion when he first discovers her, his struggles to conceal and suppress his passion, lest it should unman him in the midst of war, though "his soul poured forth in secret, when he beheld her fearful eye," and the last interview between them, when, overcome by her tenderness, he lets her know he had discovered
her, and confesses his passion; are all wrought up with the most exquisite sensibility and delicacy.
Besides the characters which appeared in Fingal, several new ones are here introduced; and though, as they are all the characters of warriors, bravery is the predominant feature, they are nevertheless diversified in a sensible and striking manner. Foldath, for instance, the general of Cathmor, exhibits the perfect picture of a savage chieftain; bold and daring, but presumptuous, cruel, and overbearing. He is distinguished, on his first appearance, as the friend of the tyrant Cairbar, "His stride is haughty; his red eye rolls in wrath." In his person and whole deportment he is contrasted with the mild and wise Hidalla, another leader of the same army, on whose humanity and gentleness he looks with great contempt. He professedly delights in strife and blood. He insults over the fallen. He is imperious in his counsels, and factious when they are not followed. He is unrelenting in all his schemes of revenge, even to the length of denying the funeral song to the dead; which, from the injury thereby done to their ghosts, was in those days considered as the greatest barbarity. Fierce to the last, he comforts himself in his dying moments with thinking that his ghost shall often leave its blast to rejoice over the graves of those he had slain. Yet Ossian, ever prone to the pathetic, has contrived to throw into his account of the death, even of this man, some tender circumstances, by the moving description of his daughter Dardulena, the last of his race.
The character of Foldath tends much to exalt that of Cathmor, the chief commander, which is distinguished by the most humane virtues. He all fraud and cruelty, is famous for his hospitality to strangers; open to every generous sentiment, and to every soft and compassionate feeling. he is so amiable
as to divide the reader's attachment between him and the hero of the poem; though our author has artfully managed it so as to make Cathmor himself indirectly acknowledge Fingal's superiority, and to appear somewhat apprehensive of the event, after the death of Fillan, which he knew would call forth Fingal in all his might. It is very remarkable, that although Ossian has introduced into his poems three complete heroes, Cuthullin, Cathmor, and Fingal, he has, however, sensibly distinguished each of their characters; Cuthullin is particularly honorable; Cathmor particularly amiable; Fingal wise and great, retaining an ascendant peculiar to himself in whatever light he is viewed.
But the favorite figure in Temora, and the one most highly finished, is Fillan. His character is of that sort for which Ossian shows a particular fondness; an eager, fervent, young warrior, fired with all the impatient enthusiasm for military glory peculiar to that time of life. He had sketched this in the description of his own son Oscar; but as he has extended it more fully in Fillan, and as the character is so consonant to the epic strain, though, as far as I remember, not placed in such a conspicuous light by any other epic poet, it may be worth while to attend a little to Ossian's management of it in this instance.
Fillan was the youngest of all the sons of Fingal younger, it is plain, than his nephew Oscar, by whose fame and great deeds in war we may naturally suppose his ambition to have been highly stimulated. Withal, as lie is younger, he is described as more rash and fiery. His first appearance is soon after Oscar's death, when he was employed to watch the motions of the foe by night. In a conversation with his brother Ossian, on that occasion, we learn that it was not long since he began to lift the spear. "Few are the marks
of my sword in battle; but my soul is fire." He is with some difficulty restrained by Ossian from going to attack the enemy; and complains to him, that his father had never allowed him any opportunity of signalizing his valor. "The king hath not remarked my sword; I go forth with the crowd; I return without my fame." Soon after, when Fingal, according to custom, was to appoint one of his chiefs to command the army, and each was standing forth, and putting in his claim to this honor, Fillan is presented in the following most picturesque and natural attitude: "On his spear stood the Son of Clatho, in the wandering of his locks. Thrice he raised his eyes to Fingal; his voice thrice failed him as he spoke. Fillan could not boast of battles; at once he strode away. Bent over a distant stream he stood; the tear hung in his eye. He struck, at times, the thistle's head with his inverted spear." No less natural and beautiful is the description of Fingal's paternal emotion on this occasion. "Nor is he unseen of Fingal. Sidelong he beheld his son. He beheld him with bursting joy. He hid the big tear with his locks, and turned amidst his crowded soul." The command, for that day, being given to Gaul, Fillan rushes amidst the thickest of the foe, saves Gaul's life, who is wounded by a random arrow, and distinguishes himself so in battle, that "the days of old return on Fingal's mind, as he beholds the renown of his son. As the sun rejoices from the cloud, over the tree his beams have raised, whilst it shakes its lonely head on the heath, so joyful is the king over Fillan." Sedate, however, and wise, he mixes the praise which he bestows on him with some reprehension of his rashness. "My son, I saw thy deeds, and my soul was glad. Thou art brave, son of Clatho, but headlong in the strife. So did not Fingal advance, though he never feared a foe. Let thy people be a ridge behind
thee; they are thy strength in the field. Then shalt thou be long renowned, and behold the tombs of thy fathers."
On the next day, the, greatest and the last of Fillan's life, the charge is committed to him of leading on the host to battle. Fingal's speech to his troops on this occasion is full of noble sentiment; and, where he recommends his son to their care, extremely touching. "A young beam is before you: few are his steps to war. They are few, but he is valiant; defend my dark-haired son. Bring him back with joy; hereafter he may stand alone. His form is like his fathers; his soul is a flame of their fire." When the battle begins, the poet puts forth his strength to describe the exploits of the young hero; who, at last encountering and killing with his own hand Foldath, the opposite general, attains the pinnacle of glory. In what follows, when the fate of Fillan is drawn near, Ossian, if anywhere, excels himself. Foldath being slain, and a general rout begun, there was no resource left to the enemy but in the great Cathmore himself, who in this extremity descends from the hill, where, according to the custom of those princes, he surveyed the battle. Observe how this critical event is wrought up by the poet. "Wide-spreading over echoing Lubar, the flight of Bolga is rolled along. Fillan hung forward on their steps, and strewed the heath with dead. Fingal rejoiced over his son.--Blue-shielded Cathmor rose.--Son of Alpin, bring the harp! Give Fillan's praise to the wind: raise high his praise in my hall, while yet he shines in war. Leave, blue-eyed Clatho! leave thy hall; behold that early beam of thine! The host is withered in its course. No farther look--it is dark--light trembling from the harp, strike, virgins! strike the sound." The sudden interruption and suspense of the narration on Cathmor's rising from his hill, the
abrupt bursting into the praise of Fillan, and the passionate apostrophe to his mother Clatho, are admirable efforts of poetical art, in order to interest us in Fillan's danger; and the whole is heightened by the immediate following simile, one of the most magnificent and sublime that is to be met with in any poet, and which, if it had been found in Homer, would have been the frequent subject of admiration to critics: "Fillan is like a spirit of heaven, that descends from the skirt of big blast. The troubled ocean feels his steps as he strides from wave to wave. His path kindles behind him; islands shake their heads on the heaving seas."
But the poet's art is not yet exhausted. The fall of this noble young, warrior, or, in Ossian's style, the extinction of this beam of heaven, could not be rendered too interesting and affecting. Our attention is naturally drawn towards Fingal. He beholds front his hill the rising of Cathmor, and the danger of his son. But what shall he do? "Shall Fingal rise to his aid, and take the sword of Luno? What then shall become of thy fame, son of white-bosomed Clatho? Turn not thine eves from Fingal, daughter of Inistore! I shall not quench thy early beam. No cloud of mine shall rise, my son, upon thy soul of fire." Struggling between concern for the fame, and fear for the safety of his son, be withdraws from the sight of the engagement, and despatches Ossian in haste to the field, with this affectionate and delicate injunction: "Father of Oscar!" addressing him by a title which on this occasion has the highest propriety: "Father of Oscar! lift the spear, defend the young in arms. But conceal thy steps from Fillan's eyes. He must not know that I doubt his steel." Ossian arrived too late. But unwilling to describe Fillan vanquished, the poet suppresses all the circumstances of the combat with Cathmor; and only shows us the dying hero. We see him
animated to the end with the same martial and ardent spirit; breathing his last in bitter regret for-being so early cut off from the field of glory. "Ossian, lay me in that hollow rock. Raise no stone above me, lest one should ask about my fame. I am fallen in the first of my fields; fallen without renown. Let thy voice alone send joy to my flying soul. Why should the bard know where dwells the early-fallen Fillan?" He who, after tracing the circumstances of this story, shall deny that our bard is possessed of high sentiment and high art, must be strangely prejudiced indeed. Let him read the story of Pallas in Virgil, which is of a similar kind; and after all the praise he may justly bestow on the elegant and finished description of that amiable author, let him say which of the two poets unfolds most of the human soul. I waive insisting on any more of the particulars in Temora; as my aim is rather to lead the reader into the genius and spirit of Ossian's poetry, than to dwell on all his beauties.
The judgment and art discovered in conducting works of such length as Fingal and Temora, distinguish them from the other poems in this collection. The smaller pieces, however, contain particular beauties, no less eminent. They are historical poems, generally of the elegiac kind; and plainly discover themselves to be the work of the same author. One consistent face of manners is everywhere presented to us; one spirit of poetry reigns; the masterly hand of Ossian appears throughout; the same rapid and animated style; the same strong coloring of imagination, and the same glowing sensibility of heart. Besides the unity which belongs to the compositions of one man, there is moreover a certain unity of subject, which very happily connects all these poems. They form the poetical history of the age, of Fingal, The
same race of heroes whom we had met with in the greater poems, Cuthullin, Oscar, Connar, and Gaul, return again upon the stage; and Fingal himself is always the principal figure, presented on every occasion, with equal magnificence, nay, rising upon us to the last. The circumstances of Ossian's old age and blindness, his surviving all his friends, and his relating their great exploits to Malvina, the spouse or mistress of his beloved son Oscar, furnish the finest poetical situations that fancy could devise for that tender pathetic which reigns in Ossian's poetry.
On each of these poems there might be room for separate observations, with regard to he conduct and dispositions of the incidents, as well as to the beauty of the descriptions and sentiments. Carthon is a regular and highly finished piece. The main story is very properly introduced by Clessamore's relation of the adventure of his youth; and this introduction is finely heightened by Fingal's song of mourning over Moina; in which Ossian, ever fond of doing honor to his father, has contrived to distinguish him for being an eminent poet, as well as warrior. Fingal's song upon this occasion, when "his thousand bards leaned forwards from their seats, to hear the voice of the king," is inferior to no passage in the whole book; and with great judgement put in his mouth, as the seriousness, no less than the sublimity of the strain, is peculiarly suited to the hero's character. In Darthula are assembled almost all the tender images that can touch the heart of man, friendship, love, the affections of parents, sons, and brothers, the distress of the aged, and the unavailing bravery of the young. The beautiful address to the moon, with which the poem opens, and the transition from thence to the subject, most happily prepare the mind for that train of affecting events that is to follow. The story is regular, dramatic, interesting to the last.
[paragraph continues] He who can read it without emotion may congratulate himself, if he pleases, upon being completely armed against sympathetic sorrow. As Fingal had no occasion of appearing in the action of this poem, Ossian makes a very artful transition from his narration, to what was passing in the halls of Selma. The sound heard there on the strings of his harp, the concern which Fingal shows on bearing it, and the invocation of the ghosts of their fathers, to receive the heroes falling in a distant land, are introduced with great beauty of imagination to increase the solemnity, and to diversify the scenery of the poem.
Carric-thura is full of the most sublime dignity; and has this advantage, of being more cheerful in the subject, and more happy in the catastrophe, than most of the other poems: though tempered at the same time with episodes in that strain of tender melancholy which seems to have been the great delight of Ossian and the bards of his age. Lathmon is peculiarly distinguished by high generosity of sentiment. This is carried so far, particularly in the refusal of Gaul, on one side, to take the advantage of a sleeping foe; and of Lathmon, on the other, to overpower by numbers the two young warriors as to recall into one's mind the manners of chivalry; some resemblance to which may perhaps be suggested by other incidents in this collection of poems. Chivalry, however, took rise in an age and country too remote from those of Ossian, to admit the suspicion that the one could have borrowed any thing from the other. So far as chivalry had any real existence, the same military enthusiasm which gave birth to it in the feudal times, might, in the days of Ossian, that is, in the infancy of a rising state, through the operation of the same cause, very naturally produce effects of the same kind on the minds and manners of men. So far as chivalry was an ideal system, existing only in romance,
it will not be thought surprising, when we reflect on the account before given of the Celtic bards, that this imaginary refinement of heroic manners should be found among, them, as much, at least, as among the Troubadors, or strolling Provençal bards, in the 10th or 11th century; whose songs, it is said, first gave rise to those romantic ideas of heroism, which for so long a time enchanted Europe. Ossian's heroes have all the gallantry and generosity of those fabulous knights, without their extravagance; and his love scenes have native tenderness, without any mixture of those forced and unnatural conceits which abound in the old romances. The adventures related by our poet which resemble the most those of romance, concern women who follow their lovers to war disguised in the armor of men; and these are so managed as to produce, in the discovery, several of the most interesting situations; one beautiful instance of which may be seen in Carric-thura, and another in Calthon and Colmal.
Oithona presents a situation of a different nature. In the absence of her lover Gaul, she had been carried off and ravished by Dunrommath. Gaul discovers the place where she is kept concealed, and comes to revenge her. The meeting of the two lovers, the sentiments and the behavior of Oithona on that occasion, are described with such tender and exquisite propriety, as does the greatest honor both to the heart and to the delicacy of our author; and would have been admired in any poet of the most refined age. The conduct of Cruma must strike every reader as remarkably judicious and beautiful. We are to be prepared for the death of Malvina, which is related in the succeeding poem. She is therefore introduced in person; "she has heard a voice in her dream; She feels the fluttering of her soul:" and in a most moving lamentation
addressed to her beloved Oscar, she sings her own death-song. Nothing could be calculated with more art to sooth and comfort her than the story which Ossian relates. In the young and brave Fovargormo, another Oscar is introduced: his praises are sung; and the happiness is set before her of those who die in their youth "when their renown is around them; before the feeble behold them in the hall, and smile at their trembling hands."
But nowhere does Ossian's genius appear to greater advantage, than in Berrathon, which is reckoned the conclusion of his songs, 'The last sound of the voice of Cona.'
Qualis olor noto positurus littore vitam,
Ingemit, et mstis mulcens concentibus auras
Præsago quæritur venientia funera cantu.
The whole train of ideas is admirably suited to the subject. Every thing is full of that invisible world, into which the aged bard believes himself now ready to enter. The airy ball of Fingal presents itself to his view; "he sees the cloud that shall receive his ghost; he beholds the mist that shall form his robe when he appears on his hill;" and all the natural objects around him seem to carry the presages of death. "The thistle shakes its beard to the wind. The flower hangs its heavy head; it seems to any, I am covered with the drops of heaven; the time of my departure is near, and the blast that shall scatter my leaves." Malvina's death is hinted to him in the most delicate manner by the son of Alpin. His lamentation over her, her apotheosis, or ascent to the habitation of heroes, and the introduction to the story which follows from the mention which Ossian supposes the father of Malvina to make of him in the ball of Fingal, are all in the highest spirit of poetry. "And dost thou remember Ossian, O Toscar, son of Conloch? The battles of our youth
were many; our swords went together to the field." Nothing could be more proper than to end his songs with recording an exploit of the father of that Malvina, of whom his heart was now so full; and who, from first to last, had been such a favorite object throughout all his poems.
The scene of most of Ossian's poems is laid in Scotland, or in the coast of Ireland, opposite to the territories of Fingal. When the scene is in Ireland, we perceive no change of manners from those of Ossian's native country. For as Ireland was undoubtedly peopled with Celtic tribes, the language, customs, and religion of both nations were the same. They had been separated from one another by migration, only a few generations, as it should seem, before our poet's age; and they still maintained a close and frequent intercourse. But when the poet relates the expeditions of any of his heroes to the Scandinavian coast, or to the islands of Orkney, which were then part of the Scandinavian territory, as he does in Carric-thura, Sul-malla of Lumon, and Cathloda, the case is quite altered. Those countries were inhabited by nations of the Teutonic descent, who, in their manners and religious rites, differed widely from the Celtæ; and it is curious and remarkable, to find this difference clearly pointed out in the poems of Ossian. His descriptions bear the native marks of one who was present in the expeditions which he relates, and who describes what he had seen with his own eyes. No sooner are we carried to Lochlin, or the islands of Inistore, than we perceive we are in a foreign region. New objects begin to appear. We meet everywhere with the stones and circles of Loda, that is, Odin, the great Scandinavian deity. We meet with the divinations and enchantments for which it is well known those northern nations were early famous. "There, mixed with the
murmur of waters, rose the voice of aged men, who called the forms of night to aid them in their war;" whilst the Caledonian chiefs, who assisted them, are described as standing at a distance, heedless of their rites. That ferocity of manners which distinguished those nations, also becomes conspicuous. In the combats of their chiefs there is a peculiar savageness; even their women are bloody and fierce. The spirit. and the very ideas of Regner Lodbrog, that northern scalder, whom I formerly quoted, occur to us again. "The hawks," Ossian makes one of the Scandinavian chiefs say, "rush from all their winds; they are wont to trace my course. We rejoiced three days above the dead, and called the hawks of heaven, They came from all their winds, to feast on the foes of Annir."
Dismissing now the separate consideration of any of our author's works, I proceed to make some observations on his manner of writing, under the general heads of Description, Imagery, and Sentiment.
A poet of original genius is always distinguished by his talent for description. A second-rate writer discerns nothing new or peculiar in the object he means to describe. His conceptions of it are vague and loose; his expressions feeble; and of course the object is presented to us indistinctly, and as through a cloud. But a true poet makes us imagine that we see it before our eyes; he catches the distinguishing features; he gives it the colors of life and reality; he places it in such a light that a painter could copy after him. This happy talent is chiefly owing to a lively imagination, which first receives a strong impression of the object; and then, by a proper selection of capital picturesque circumstances employed in describing it, transmits that impression in its full force to the imaginations of others. That Ossian possesses this descriptive power in a high degree, we have a clear proof, from the effect which
his descriptions produce upon the imaginations of those who read him with any degree of attention, or taste. Few poets are more interesting. We contract an intimate acquaintance with his principal heroes. The characters, the manners, the face of the country, become familiar; we even think we could draw the figure of his ghost. In a word, whilst reading him we are transported as into a new region, and dwell among his objects as if they were all real.
It were easy to point out several instances of exquisite painting in the works of our author. Such, for instance, is the scenery with which Temora opens, and the attitude in which Cairbar is there presented to us; the description of the young prince Cormac, in the same book; and the ruins of Balclutha, in Cartho. "I have seen the walls of Balclutha, but they were desolate. The fire had resounded in the balls: and the voice of the people is heard no more. The stream of Clutha was removed from its place by the fall of the walls. The thistle shook there its lonely head; the moss whistled to the wind. The fox looked out from the windows; the rank grass of the wall waved round his head. Desolate is the dwelling of Moina; silence is in the house of her fathers." Nothing also can be more natural and lively than the manner in which Carthon afterward describes how the conflagration of his city affected him when a child: "Have I not seen the fallen Balclutha? And shall I feast with Comhal's son? Comhal! who threw his fire in the midst of my father's hall! 1 was young, and knew not the cause why the virgins wept. The columns of smoke pleased mine eye, when they arose above my walls: I often looked back with gladness, when my friends fled above the hill. But when the years of my youth came on, I beheld the moss of my fallen walls. My sigh arose with the morning; and my tears descended with night.
[paragraph continues] Shall I not fight, I said to my soul, against the children of my foes? And I will fight, O bard! I feel the strength of my soul." In the same poem, the assembling of the chiefs round Fingal, who had been warned of some impending danger by the appearance of a prodigy, is described with so many picturesque circumstances, that one imagines himself present in the assembly. "The king alone beheld the terrible sight, and he foresaw the death of his people. He came in silence to his hall, and took his father's spear: the mail rattled on his breast. The heroes rose around. They looked in silence on each other, marking the eyes of Fingal. They saw the battle in his face. A thousand shields are placed at once on their arms; and they drew a thousand swords. The hall of Selma brightened around. The clang of arms ascends. The gray dogs howl in their place. No word is among the mighty chiefs. Each marked the eyes of the king; and half assumed his spear."
It bus been objected to Ossian, that his descriptions of military actions are imperfect, and much less diversified by the circumstances than those of Homer. This is in some measure true. The amazing fertility of Homer's invention, is nowhere so much displayed as in the incidents of his battles, and in the little history pieces he gives of the persons slain. Nor, indeed, with regard to the talent of description, can too much be said in praise of Homer. Every thing is alive in his writings. The colors with which he paints are those of nature. But Ossian's genius was of a different kind from Homer's. It led him to hurry towards grand objects, rather than to amuse himself with particulars of less importance. He could dwell on the death of a favorite hero; but that of a private man seldom stopped his rapid course. Homer's genius was more comprehensive than Ossian's. It included a wider circle of
objects; and could work up any incident into description. Ossian's was more limited; but the region within which it chiefly exerted itself was the highest of all, the region of the pathetic and the sublime.
We must not imagine, however, that Ossian's battles consist only of general indistinct description. Such beautiful incidents are sometimes introduced, and the circumstances of the persons slain so much diversified, as show that be could have embellished his military scenes with an abundant variety of particulars, if his genius had led him to dwell upon them. "One man is stretched in the dust of his native land; he fell, where often he had spread the feast, and often raised the voice of the harp." The maid of Inistore is introduced in a moving apostrophe, as weeping for another; and a third, "as rolled in the dust he lifted his faint eyes to the king," is remembered and mourned by Fingal as the friend of Agandecca. The blood pouring from the wound of one who was slain by night, is heard "hissing on the half-extinguished oak," which had been kindled for giving light. Another climbing up a tree to escape from his foe, is pierced by his spear from behind; shrieking, panting he fell; whilst moss and withered branches pursue his fall, and strew the blue arms of Gaul. Never was a finer picture drawn of the ardor of two youthful warriors than the following: "I saw Gaul in his armor, and my soul was mixed with his; for the fire of the battle was in his eyes, lie looked to the foe with joy. We spoke the words of friendship in secret; and the lightning of our swords poured together. We drew them behind the wood, and tried the strength of our arms on the empty air.`
Ossian is always concise in his descriptions, which adds much to their beauty and force. For it is a great mistake to imagine, that a crowd of particulars, or a
very fall and extended style, is of advantage to description. On the contrary, such a diffuse manner for the most part weakens it. Any one redundant circumstance is a nuisance. It encumbers and loads the fancy, and renders the main image indistinct. "Obstat," as Quintilian says with regard to style, "quicquid non adjuvat." To be concise in description, is one thing: and to be general, is another. No description that rests in generals can possibly be good; it can convey no lively idea; for it is of particulars only that we have a distinct conception. But, at the same time, no strong imagination dwells long upon any one particular; or heaps together a mass of trivial ones. By the happy choice of some one, or of a few that are the most striking, it presents the image more complete, shows us more at one glance than a feeble imagination is able to do, by turning its object round and round into a variety of lights. Tacitus is of all prose writers the most concise. He has even a degree of abruptness resembling our author: yet no writer is more eminent for lively description. When Fingal, after having conquered the haughty Swaran, proposes to dismiss him with honor: "Raise to-morrow thy white sails to the wind, thou brother of Agandecca!" he conveys, by thus addressing his enemy, a stronger impression of the emotions then passing within his mind, than if whole paragraphs had been spent in describing the conflict between resentment against Swaran and the tender remembrance of his ancient love. No amplification is needed to give us the most full idea of a hardy veteran, after the few following words: "His shield is marked with the strokes of battle; his red eye despises danger." When Oscar left alone, was surrounded by foes, "he stood," it is said, "growing in his place, like the flood of the narrow vale;" a happy representation of one, who, by daring intrepidity in
the midst of danger, seems to increase in his appearance, and becomes more formidable every moment, like the sudden rising of the torrent hemmed in by the valley. And a whole crowd of ideas, concerning the circumstances of domestic sorrow, occasioned by a young warrior's first going forth to battle, is poured upon the mind by these words: "Calmar leaned on his father's spear; that spear which he brought from Lara's hall, when the soul of his mother was sad."
The conciseness of Ossian's descriptions is the more proper, on account of his subjects. Descriptions of gay and smiling scenes may, without any disadvantage, be amplified and prolonged. Force is not the predominant quality expected in these. The description may be weakened by being diffuse, yet, notwithstanding, may be beautiful still; whereas, with respect to grand, solemn, and pathetic subjects, which are Ossian's chief field, the case is very different. In these, energy is above all things required. The imagination must be seized at once, or not at all; and is far more deeply impressed by one strong and ardent image, than by the anxious minuteness of labored illustration.
But Ossian's genius, though chiefly turned towards the sublime and pathetic, was not confined to it. In subjects also of grace and delicacy, he discovers the hand of a master. Take for an example the following elegant description of Agandecca, wherein the tenderness of Tibullus seems united with the majesty of Virgil. "The daughter of the snow overheard, and left the hall of her secret sigh. She came in all her beauty; like the moon from the cloud of the east. Loveliness was around her as light. Her steps were like the music of songs. She saw the youth and loved him. He was the stolen sigh of her soul. Her blue eyes rolled on him in secret; and she blest the chief of Morven." Several other instances might be produced
of the feelings of love and friendship, painted by our author with a most natural and happy delicacy.
The simplicity of Ossian's manner adds great beauty to his descriptions, and indeed to his whole poetry. We meet with no affected ornaments; no forced refinement; no marks either in style or thought of a studied endeavor to shine or sparkle. Ossian appears everywhere to be prompted by his feelings; and to speak from the abundance of his heart. I remember no more than one instance of what may be called a quaint thought in this whole collection of his works. It is in the first book of Fingal, where, from the tombs of two lovers, two lonely yews are mentioned to have sprung, "whose branches wished to meet on high." This sympathy of the trees with the lovers, may be reckoned to border on an Italian conceit; and it is somewhat curious to find this single instance of that sort of wit in our Celtic poetry.
"The joy of grief" is one of Ossian's remarkable expressions, several times repeated. If any one shall think that it needs to be justified by a precedent, he may find it twice used by Homer: in the Iliad, when Achilles is visited by the ghost of Patroclus; and in the Odyssey, when Ulysses meets his mother in the shades. On both these occasions, the heroes, melted with tenderness, lament their not having it in their power to throw their arms round the ghost, "that we might," say they, "in mutual embrace, enjoy the delight of grief. "
Κρυεροῖο τοταρπῶμεσθα γόαιο.
But, in truth, the expression stands in need of no defence from authority; for it is a natural and just expression; and conveys a clear idea of that gratification which a virtuous heart often feels in the indulgence of
a tender melancholy. Ossian makes a very proper distinction between this gratification and the destructive effect of overpowering grief. "There is a joy in grief when peace dwells in the breasts of the sad. But sorrow wastes the mournful, O daughter of Toscar, and their days are few." To "give the joy of grief," generally. signifies, to raise the strain of soft and grave music; and finely characterizes the taste of Ossian's age and country. In those days, when the songs of bards were the great delight of heroes, the tragic muse was hold in chief honor: gallant actions and virtuous sufferings, were the chosen theme; preferably to that light and trifling strain, of poetry and music, which promotes light and trifling manners, and serves to emasculate the mind. "Strike the harp in my hall," said the great Fingal, in the midst of youth and victory; "strike the harp in my hall, and let Fingal hear the song. Pleasant is the joy of grief! It is like the shower O of spring, when it softens the branch of the oak; and the young leaf lifts its green head. Sing on, O bards! To-morrow we lift the sail."
Personal epithets have been much used by all the poets of the most ancient ages; and when well chosen, not general and unmeaning, they contribute not a little to render the style descriptive and animated. Besides epithets founded on bodily distinctions, akin to many of Homer's, we find in Ossian several which are remarkably beautiful and poetical. Such as Oscar of the future fights, Fingal of the mildest look, Carril of other times, the mildly blushing Evir-allin: Bragela, the lonely sun-beam of Dunscaich; a Culdee, the son of the secret cell.
But of all the ornaments employed in descriptive poetry, comparisons or similes are the most splendid. These chiefly form what is called the imagery of a poem; and as they abound go much in the works of
Ossian, and are commonly among the favorite passages of all poets, it may be expected that I should be somewhat particular in my remarks upon them.
A poetical simile always supposes two objects brought together, between which there is some near relation or connection in the fancy. What that relation ought to be, cannot be precisely defined. For various, almost numberless, are the analogies formed among objects, by a sprightly imagination. The relation of actual similitude, or likeness of appearance, is far from being the only foundation of poetical comparison. Sometimes a resemblance in the effect produced by two objects, is made the connecting principle: sometimes a resemblance in one distinguishing property or circumstance. Very often two objects are brought together in a simile, though they resemble one another, strictly speaking, in nothing, only because they raise in the mind a train of similar, and what may be called concordant, ideas; so that the remembrance of the one, when recalled, serves to quicken and heighten the impression made by the other. Thus, to give an instance from our poet, the pleasure with which an old man looks back on the exploits of his youth, has certainly no direct resemblance to the beauty of a fine evening; further than that both agree in producing a certain calm, placid joy. Yet Ossian has founded upon this, one of the most beautiful comparisons that is to be met with in any poet. "Wilt thou not listen, son of the rock, to the song of Ossian? My soul is full of other times; the joy of my youth returns. Thus the sun appears in the west, after the steps of his brightness have moved behind a storm. The green hills lift their dewy heads. The blue streams rejoice in the vale. The aged hero comes forth on his staff; and his gray hair glitters in the beam." Never was there a finer group of objects. It raises a strong conception of the
old man's joy and elation of heart, by displaying a scene which produces in every spectator a corresponding train of pleasing emotions; the declining sun looking forth in his brightness after a storm; the cheerful face of all nature; and the still life finely animated by the circumstance of the aged hero, with his staff and his gray locks: a circumstance both extremely picturesque, in itself, and peculiarly suited to the main object of the comparison. Such analogies and associations of ideas as these, are highly pleasing to the fancy. They give opportunity for introducing many a fine poetical picture. They diversify the scene; they aggrandize the subject; they keep the imagination awake and sprightly. For as the judgment is principally exercised in distinguishing objects, and remarking the differences among those which seem alike, so the highest amusement of the imagination is to trace likenesses and agreements among those which seem different.
The principal rules which respect poetical comparisons are, that they be introduced on proper occasions, when the mind is disposed to relish them; and not in the midst of some severe and agitating passion, which cannot admit this play of fancy; that they be founded on a resemblance neither. too near and obvious, so as to give little amusement to the imagination in tracing it, nor too faint and remote, so as to he apprehended with difficulty; that they serve either to illustrate the principal object, and to render the conception of it more clear and distinct; or, at least, to heighten and embellish it, by a suitable association of images.
Every country has a scenery peculiar to itself; and the imagery of a good poet will exhibit it. For as he copies after nature, his allusions will of course be taken from those objects which he sees around him, and which have often struck his fancy. For this reason,
In order to judge of the propriety of poetical imagery, we ought to be in some measure acquainted with the natural history of the country where the scene of the poem is laid. The introduction of foreign images betrays a poet, copying not from nature, but from other writers. Hence so many lions, and tigers, and eagles, and serpents, which we meet, with in the similes of modern poets; as if these animals had acquired some right to a place in poetical comparisons for ever, because employed by ancient authors. They employed them with propriety, as objects generally known in their, country, but they are absurdly used for illustration by us, who know them only at second hand, or by description. To most readers of modern poetry, it were more to the purpose to describe lions or tigers by similes taken from men, than to compare men to lions. Ossian is very correct in this particular. His imagery is, without exception, copied from that face of nature which be saw before his eyes; and by consequence may be expected to be lively. We meet with no Grecian or Italian scenery; but with the mists and clouds, and storms, of a northern mountainous region.
No poet abounds more in similes than Ossian. There are in this collection as many, at least, as in the whole Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. I am indeed inclined to think, that the works of both poets are too much crowded with them. Similes are sparkling ornaments; and, like all things that sparkle, are apt to dazzle and tire us by their lustre. But if Ossian's similes be too frequent, they have this advantage, of being commonly shorter than Homer's; they interrupt his narration less; he just glances aside to some resembling, object, and instantly returns to his former track. Homer's similes include a wider range of objects; but, in return, Ossian's, are, without exception,
taken from objects of dignity, which cannot be said for all those which Homer employs. The sun, the moon, and the stars, clouds and meteors, lightning and thunder, seas and whales, rivers, torrents, winds, ice, rain, snow, dews, mist, fire and smoke, trees and forests, heath and grass and flowers, rocks and mountains, music and songs, light and darkness, spirits and ghosts; these form the circle within which Ossian's comparisons generally run. Some, not many, are taken from birds and beasts: as eagles, sea-fowl, the horse, the deer, and the mountain bee; and a very few from such operations of art as were then known. Homer has diversified his imagery, by many more allusions to the animal world; to lions, bulls, goats, herds of cattle, serpents, insects; and to various occupations of rural and pastoral life. Ossian's defect in this article, is plainly owing to the desert, uncultivated state of his country, which suggested to him few images beyond natural inanimate objects, in their rudest form. The birds and animals of the country were probably not numerous; and his acquaintance with them was slender, as they were little subjected to the uses of man.
The great objection made to Ossian's imagery, is its uniformity, and the too frequent repetition of the same comparison. In a work so thick-sown with similes one could not but expect to find images of the same kind sometimes suggested to the poet by resembling objects; especially to a poet like Ossian, who wrote from the immediate impulse of poetical enthusiasm, and without much preparation of study or labor. Fertile as Homer's imagination is acknowledged to be, who does not know how often his lions, and bulls, and flocks of sheep, recur with little or no variation; nay, sometimes, in the very same words? The objection made to Ossian is, however, founded, in a great measure, upon a mistake. It has been supposed by inattentive
readers, that wherever the moon, the cloud, or the thunder, returns in a simile, it is the same simile, and the same moon, or cloud, or thunder, which they had met with a few pages before. Whereas very often the similes are widely different. The object, from whence they are taken, is indeed in substance the same; but the image is new; for the appearance of the object is changed; it is presented to the fancy in another attitude: and clothed with new circumstances, to make it suit the different illustration for which it is employed. In this lies Ossian's great art; in so happily varying the form of the few natural appearances with which he was acquainted, as to make them correspond to a great many different objects.
Let us take for one instance the moon, which is very frequently introduced in his comparisons; as in northern climates, where the nights are long, the moon is a greater object of attention than in the climate of Homer; and let us view how much our poet has diversified its appearance. The shield of it warrior is like "the darkened moon when it moves a dun circle through the heavens." The face of a ghost, wan and ale, is like "the beam of the setting moon." And a different appearance of a ghost, thin and indistinct, is like "the new moon seen through the gathered mist, when the sky pours down its flaky snow, and the world is silent and dark;" or, in a different form still, is like "the watery beam of the moon, when it rushes from between two clouds, and the midnight shower is on the field." A very opposite use is made of the moon in the description of Agandecca: "She came in all her beauty, like the moon from the cloud of the east." Hope succeeded by disappointment, is "joy rising on her face and sorrow returning again, like a thin cloud on the moon." But when Swaran, after his defeat, is cheered by Fingal's generosity, "his face brightened
like the full moon of heaven, when the clouds vanish away, and leave her calm and broad in the midst of the sky." Venvela is "bright as the moon when it trembles o'er the western wave;" but the soul of the guilty Uthal is "dark as the troubled face of the moon, when it foretells the storm." And by a very fanciful and uncommon allusion, it is said of Cormac, who was to die in his early years, "Nor long shalt thou lift the spear, mildly-shining beam of youth! Death stands dim behind thee, like the darkened half of the moon behind its growing light."
Another instance of the same nature may be taken from mist, which, as being a very familiar appearance in the country of Ossian, he applies to a variety of purposes, and pursues through a great many forms. Sometimes, which one would hardly expect, he employs it to heighten the appearance of a beautiful object. The hair of Morna is "like the mist of Cromla, when it curls on the rock, and shines to the beam of the west." "The song comes with its music to melt and please the ear. It is like soft mist, that rising from the lake pours on the silent vale. The green flowers are filled with dew. The sun returns in its strength, and, the mist is gone." But, for the most part, mist is employed as a similitude of some disagreeable or terrible object. "The soul of Nathos was sad, like the sun in the day of mist, when his face is watery and dim."--"The darkness of old age comes like the mist of the desert." The face of a ghost is "pale as the mist of Cromla."--"The gloom of battle is rolled along as mist that is poured on the valley, when storms invade the silent sunshine of heaven." Fame, suddenly departing, is likened to "mist that flies away before the rustling wind of the vale." A ghost, slowly vanishing, to "mist that melts by degrees on the sunny hill." Cairbar, after his treacherous assassination of Oscar, is
compared to a pestilential fog. "I love a foe like Cathmor," says Fingal, "his soul is great; his arm is strong; his battles are full of fame. But the little soul is like a vapor that hovers round the marshy lake. It never rises on the green hill, lest the winds meet it there. Its dwelling is in the cave; and it sends forth the dart of death." This is a simile highly finished. But there is another which is still more striking, founded also on mist, in the fourth book of Temora. Two factious chiefs are contending: Cathmor, the king, interposes, rebukes, and silences them. The poet intends to give us the highest idea of Cathmor's superiority; and most effectually accomplishes his intention by the following happy image. "They sunk from the king on either side, like two columns of morning mist, when the sun rises between them on his glittering rocks. Dark is their rolling on either side; each towards its reedy pool." These instances may sufficiently show with what richness of imagination Ossian's comparisons abound, and, at the same time, with what propriety of judgment they are employed. If his field was narrow, it must be admitted to have been as well cultivated as its extent would allow.
As it is usual to judge of poets from a comparison of their similes more than of other passages, it will, perhaps, be agreeable to the reader, to see how Homer and Ossian have conducted some images of the same kind. This might be shown in many instances. For as the great objects of nature are common to the poets of all nations, and make the general storehouse of all imagery, the groundwork of their comparisons must, of course, be Frequently the same. I shall select only a few of the most considerable from both poets. Mr. Pope's translation of Homer can be of no use to us here. The parallel is altogether unfair between prose and the imposing harmony of flowing numbers. It is
only by viewing Homer in the simplicity of a prose translation, that we can form any comparison between the two bards.
The shock of two encountering armies, the noise and the tumult of battle, afford one of the most grand and awful subjects of description; on which all epic poets have exerted their strength. Let us first hear Homer. The following description is a favorite one, for we find it twice repeated in the same words. 1 "When now the conflicting hosts joined in the field of battle, then were mutually opposed shields, and swords, and the strength of armed men. The bossy bucklers were dashed against each other. The universal tumult rose. There were mingled the triumphant shouts and the dying groans of the victors and the vanquished. The earth streamed with blood. As when winter torrents, rushing from the mountains, pour into a narrow valley their violent waters. They issue from a thousand springs, and mix in the hollowed channel. The distant shepherd hears on the mountain their roar from afar. Such was the terror and the shout of the engaging armies." In another passage, the poet, much in the manner of Ossian, heaps simile on simile, to express the vastness of the idea with which his imagination seems to labor. "With a mighty shout the hosts engage. Not so loud roars the wave of ocean, when driven against the shore by the whole force of the boisterous north; not so loud in the woods of the mountain, the noise of the flame, when rising in its fury to consume the forest; not so loud the wind among the lofty oaks, when the wrath of the worm rages; as was the clamor of the Greeks and Trojans, when, roaring terrible, they rushed against each other." 2
To these descriptions and similes, we may oppose the following from Ossian, and leave the reader to judge between them. He will find images of the same kind employed; commonly less extended; but thrown forth with a glowing rapidity which characterizes our poet. "As autumn's dark storms pour from two echoing hills, towards each other approached the heroes. As two dark streams from high rocks meet and mix, and roar on the plains; loud, rough, and dark in battle, meet Lochlin and Inisfail. Chief mixed his strokes with chief, and man with man. Steel clanging, sounded on steel. Helmets are cleft on high; blood bursts and smokes around.--As the troubled noise of the ocean, when roll the waves on high; as the last peal of the thunder of heaven; such is the noise of battle." "As roll a thousand waves to the rock, so Swaran's best came on; as meets a rock a thousand waves, so Inisfail met Swaran. Death raises all his voices around, and mixes with the sound of shields.--The field echoes from wing to wing, as a hundred hammers that rise by turns on the red son of the furnace."--"As a hundred winds on Morven; as the streams of a hundred hills; as clouds fly successive over heaven or as the dark ocean assaults the shore of the desert so roaring, so vast, so terrible, the armies mixed on Lena's echoing heath." In several of these images there is a remarkable similarity to Homer's: but what follows is superior to any comparison that Homer uses on this subject. "The groan of the people spread over the hills; it was like the thunder of night, when the cloud bursts on Cona, and a thousand ghosts shriek at once on the hollow wind." Never was an image of, more awful sublimity employed to heighten the terror of battle.
Both poets compare the appearance of an army approaching, to the gathering of dark clouds. "As when
a shepherd," says Homer, "beholds from the rock a cloud borne along the sea by the western wind; black as pitch it appears from afar sailing over the ocean, and carrying the dreadful storm. He shrinks at the sight, and drives his flock into the cave: such, under the Ajaces, moved on the dark, the thickened phalanx to the war." 1--"They came," says Ossian, "over the desert like stormy clouds, when the winds roll them over the heath; their edges are tinged with lightning; and the echoing groves foresee the storm." The edges of the clouds tinged with lightning, is a sublime idea: but the shepherd and his flock render Homer's simile more picturesque. This is frequently the difference between the two poets. Ossian gives no more than the main image, strong and full: Homer adds circumstances and appendages, which amuse the fancy by enlivening the scenery.
Homer compares the regular appearance of an army, to "clouds that are settled on the mountain-top, in the day of calmness, when the strength of the north wind sleeps." 2 Ossian, with full as much propriety, compares the appearance of a disordered army, to "the mountain cloud, when the. blast hath entered its womb, and scatters the curling gloom on every side." Ossian's clouds assume a great many forms, and, as we might expect from his climate, are a fertile source of imagery to him. "The warriors followed their chiefs like the gathering of the rainy clouds behind the red meteors of heaven." An army retreating without coming to action, is likened to "clouds, that having long threatened rain, retire slowly behind the hills." The picture of Oithona, after she had determined to die, is lively and delicate. "Her soul was resolved, and the tear was dried from her wildly-looking eye. A troubled
joy rose on her mind, like the red path of the lightning on a stormy cloud." The image also of the gloomy Cairbar, meditating, in silence, the assassination of Oscar, until the moment came when his designs were ripe for execution, is extremely noble and complete in all its parts. "Cairbar heard their words in silence, like the cloud of a shower; it stands dark on Cromla till the lightning bursts its side. The valley gleams with red light; the spirits of the storm rejoice. So stood the silent king of Temora; at length his words are heard."
Homer's comparison of Achilles to the Dog-Star, is very sublime. "Priam beheld him rushing along the plain, shining in his armor, like the star of autumn bright are its beams, distinguished amidst the multitude of stars in the dark hour of night. It rises in its splendor; but its splendor is fatal; betokening to miserable men the destroying heat." 1 The first appearance of Fingal is, in like manner, compared by Ossian to a star or meteor. "Fingal, tall in his ship, stretched his bright lance before him. Terrible was the gleam of his steel; it was like the green meteor of death, setting in the heath of Malmor, when the traveller is alone, and the broad moon is darkened in heaven." The hero's appearance in Homer is more magnificent; in Ossian, more terrible.
A tree cut down, or overthrown by a storm, is a similitude frequent among poets for describing the fall of a warrior in battle. Homer employs it often. But the most beautiful, by far, of his comparisons, founded on this object, indeed one of the most beautiful in the whole Iliad, is that on the death of Euphorbus. "As the young and verdant olive, which a man hath reared with care in a lonely field, where the springs of water
bubble around it; it is fair and flourishing; it is fanned by the breath of all the winds, and loaded with white blossoms; when the sudden blast of a whirlwind descending, roots it out from its bed, and stretches it on the dust." 1 To this, elegant as it is, we may oppose the following simile of Ossian's, relating to the death of the three sons of Usnoth. "They fell, like three young oaks which stood alone on the hill. The traveller saw the lovely trees, and wondered how they grew so lonely. The blast of the desert came by night, and laid their green heads low. Next day he returned; but they were withered, and the heath was bare." Malvina's allusion to the same object, in her lamentation over Oscar, is so exquisitely tender, that I cannot forbear giving it a place also. "I was a lovely tree in thy presence, Oscar! with all my branches round me. But thy death came, like a blast from the desert, and laid my green head low. The spring returned with its showers; but no leaf of mine arose." Several of Ossian's similes, taken from trees, are remarkably beautiful, and diversified with well-chosen circumstances such as that upon the death of Ryno and Orla: They have fallen like the oak of the desert; when it lies across a stream, and withers in the wind of the mountains." Or that which Ossian applies to himself: "I, like an ancient oak in Morven, moulder alone in my place; the blast hath lopped my branches away; and I tremble at the winds of the north."
As Homer exalts his heroes by comparing them to gods, Ossian makes the same use of comparisons taken from spirits and ghosts. "Swaran roared in battle, like the shrill spirit of a storm, that sits dim on the clouds of Gormal, and enjoys the death of the mariner." His people gathered round Erragon, "like
storms around the ghost of night, when he calls them from the top of Morven, and prepares to pour them on the land of the stranger."--"They fell before my son like groves in the desert, when an angry ghost rushes through night, and takes their green heads in his hand." In such images, Ossian appears in his strength; for very seldom have supernatural beings been painted with so much sublimity, and such force of imagination, as by this poet. Even Homer, great as he is, must yield to him in similes formed upon these. Take, for instance, the following, which is the most remarkable of this kind in the Iliad. "Meriones followed Idomeneus to battle, like Mars, the destroyer of men, when lie rushes to war. Terror, his beloved son, strong and fierce, attends him; who fills with dismay the most valiant hero. They come from Thrace armed against the Ephyrians and Phlegyans; nor do they regard the prayers of either, but dispose of success at their will." 1 The idea here is undoubtedly noble, but observe what a figure Ossian sets before the astonished imagination, and with what sublimely terrible circumstances he has heightened it. "He rushed, in the sound of his arms, like the dreadful spirit of Loda, when he comes in the roar of a thousand storms, and scatters battles from his eyes. He sits on a cloud over Lochlin's seas. His mighty hand is on his sword. The wind lifts his flaming locks. So terrible was Cuthullin in the day of his fame."
Homer's comparisons relate chiefly to martial subjects, to the appearances and motions of armies, the engagement and death of heroes, and the various incidents of war. In Ossian, we find a greater variety of other subjects, illustrated by similes, particularly the songs of bards, the beauty of women, the different
circumstances of old age, sorrow, and private distress; which give occasion to much beautiful imagery. What, for instance, can be more delicate and moving, than the following simile of Oithona's, in her lamentation over the dishonor she had suffered "Chief of Strumon." replied the sighing maid, why didst thou come over the dark blue wave to Nuath's mournful daughter? Why did not I pass away in secret, like the flower of the rock, that lifts its fair head unseen, and strews its withered leaves on the blast?" The music of bards, a favorite object with Ossian, is illustrated by a variety of the most beautiful appearances that are to be found in nature. It is compared to the calm shower of spring; to the dews of the morning on the hill of roes; to the face of the blue and still lake. Two similes on this subject I shall quote, because they would do honor to any of the most celebrated classics. The one is: "Sit thou on the heath, O bard! and let us hear thy voice; it is pleasant as the gale of the spring that sighs on the hunter's ear, when he awakens from dreams of joy, and has heard the music of the spirits of the hill." The other contains a short but exquisitely tender image, accompanied with the finest poetical painting. "The music of Carril was like the memory of joys that are past, pleasant, and mournful to the soul. The ghosts of departed bards heard it from Slimora's side. Soft sounds spread along the wood; and the silent valleys of night rejoice." What a figure would such imagery and such scenery have made, had they been presented to us adorned with the sweetness and harmony of the Virgilian numbers!
I have chosen all along to compare Ossian with Homer, rather than Virgil, for an obvious reason. There is a much nearer correspondence between the times and manners of the two former poets. Both
wrote in an early period of society; both are originals; both are distinguished by simplicity, sublimity, and fire. The correct elegances of Virgil, his artful imitation of Homer, the Roman stateliness which he everywhere maintains, admit no parallel with the abrupt boldness and enthusiastic warmth of the Celtic bard. In one article, indeed, there is a resemblance. Virgil is more tender than Homer, and thereby agrees more with Ossian; with this difference, that the feelings of the one are more gentle and polished--those of the other more strong: the tenderness of Virgil softens--that of Ossian dissolves and overcomes the heart.
A resemblance may be sometimes observed between Ossian's Comparisons and those employed by the sacred writers. They abound much in this figure, and they use it with the utmost propriety. The imagery of Scripture exhibits a soil and climate altogether different from those of Ossian: a warmer country, a more smiling face of nature, the arts of agriculture and of rural life much farther advanced. The wine-press and the threshing-floor are often presented to us; the cedar and the palm-tree, the fragrance of perfumes the voice of the turtle, and the beds of lilies. The similes are, like Ossian's, generally short, touching on one point of resemblance, rather than spread out into little episodes. In the following example may be perceived what inexpressible grandeur poetry receives from the intervention of the Deity. "The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters; but God shall rebuke them, and they shall fly far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the "mountains before the wind, and like the down of the thistle before the whirlwind." 1
Besides formal comparisons, the poetry of Ossian is embellished with many beautiful metaphors; such as that remarkably fine one applied to Deugala: "She was covered with the light of beauty; but her heart was the house of pride." This mode of expression, which suppresses the mark of comparison, and substitutes a figured description in room of the object described, is a great enlivener of style. It denotes that glow and rapidity of fancy, which, without pausing to form a regular simile, paints the object at one stroke. "Thou art to me the beam of the cast, rising in a land unknown."--"In peace, thou art the gale of spring; In war, the mountain storm."--"Pleasant be thy rest, O lovely beam! soon hast thou set on our hills! The steps of thy departure were stately, like the moon on the blue trembling wave. But thou hast left us in darkness, first of the maids of Lutha!--Soon hast thou set, Malvina! but thou risest, like the beam of the east, among the spirits of thy friends, where they sit in their stormy halls, the chambers of the thunder." This is correct, and finely supported. But in the following instance, the metaphor, though very beautiful at the beginning, becomes imperfect before it closes, by being improperly mixed with the literal sense. "Trathal went forth with the stream of his people: but they met a rock; Fingal stood unmoved; broken, they rolled back from his side. Nor did they roll in safety; the Spear of the king pursued their flight."
The hyperbole is a figure which we might expect to find often employed by Ossian; as the undisciplined imagination of early ages generally prompts exaggeration, and carries its objects to excess; whereas longer experience, and farther progress in the arts of life, chasten men's ideas and expressions. Yet Ossian's hyperboles appear not, to me, either so frequent or so harsh as might at first have been looked for; an advantage
owing, no doubt, to the more cultivated state in which, as was before shown, poetry subsisted among the ancient Celtæ, than among most other barbarous nations. One of the most exaggerated descriptions in the whole work, is what meets us at the beginning of Fingal, where the scout makes his report to Cuthullin of the landing of the foe. But this is so far from deserving censure, that it merits praise, as being on that occasion natural and proper. The scout arrives, trembling and full of fears; and it is well known that no passion disposes men to hyperbolize more than terror. It both annihilates themselves in their own apprehension, and magnifies every object which they view through the medium of a troubled imagination. Hence all those indistinct images of formidable greatness, the natural marks of a disturbed and confused mind, which occur in Moran's description of Swaran's appearance, and in his relation of the conference which they held together; not unlike the report which the affrighted Jewish spies made to their leader, of the land of Canaan. "The land through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature: and there saw we giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." 1
With regard to personifications, I formerly observed that Ossian was sparing, and I accounted for his being so. Allegorical personages he has none; and their absence is not to be regretted. For the intermixture of those shadowy beings, which have not the support even of mythological or legendary belief, with human actors, seldom produces a good effect. The fiction
becomes too visible and fantastic; and overthrows that impression of reality, which the probable recital of human actions is calculated to make upon the mind. In the serious and pathetic scenes of Ossian, especially, allegorical characters would have been as much out of place as in tragedy; serving only unseasonably to use the fancy, whilst they stopped the current and weakened the force of passion.
With apostrophes, or addresses to persons absent or dead, which have been in, all ages the language of passion, our poet abounds; and they are among his highest beauties. Witness the apostrophe, in the first book of Fingal, to the maid of Inistore, whose lover had fallen in battle; and that inimitably fine one of Cuthullin to Bragela, at the conclusion of the same book. He commands his harp to be struck in her praise; and the mention of Bragela's name immediately suggesting to him a crowd of tender ideas--"Dost thou raise thy fair face from the rocks," he exclaims, "to find the sails of Cuthullin? The sea is rolling far distant, and its white foam shall deceive thee for my sails." And now his imagination being wrought up to conceive her as, at that moment, really in this situation, he becomes afraid of the harm she may receive from the inclemency of the night; and with an enthusiasm happy and affecting, though beyond the cautious strain of modern poetry, "Retire," he proceeds, "retire, for it is night, my love, and the dark winds sigh in thy hair. Retire to the hall of my feasts, and think of the times that are past: for I will not return until the storm of war has ceased. O, Connal! speak of wars and arms, and send her from my mind; for lovely with her raven hair is the white-bosomed daughter of Sorglan." This breathes all the native spirit of passion and tenderness.
The addresses to the sun, to the moon, and to the evening star, must draw the attention of every reader
of taste, as among the most splendid ornaments of this collection. The beauties of each are too great and too obvious to need any particular comment. In one passage only of the address to the moon, there appears some obscurity. "Whither dost thou retire from thy course when the darkness of they countenance grows? Hast thou thy hall like Ossian? Dwellest thou in the shadow of grief? Have thy sisters fallen from heaven? Are they who rejoiced with thee, at night, no more? Yes, they have fallen, fair light! and thou dost often retire to mourn." We may be at a loss to comprehend, at first view, the ground of those speculations of Ossian concerning the moon: but when all the circumstances are attended to, they will appear to flow naturally from the present situation of his mind. A mind under the domination of any strong passion, tinctures with its own disposition every object which it beholds. The old bard, with his heart bleeding for the loss of all his friends, is meditating on the different phases of the moon. Her waning and darkness present to his melancholy imagination the image of sorrow; and presently the idea arises, and is indulged, that like himself, she retires to mourn over the loss of other moons, or of stars, whom he calls her sisters, and fancies to have once rejoiced with her at night, now fallen from heaven. Darkness suggested the idea of mourning, and mourning suggested nothing so naturally to Ossian as the death of beloved friends. An instance precisely similar, of this influence of passion, may be seen in a passage, which has always been admired, of Shakspeare's King Lear. The old man, on the point of distraction through the inhumanity of his daughters, sees Edgar appear, disguised as a beggar and a madman.
Lear. Didst thou give all to thy daughters? And art thou come to this?
Couldst thou leave nothing? Didst thou give them all?p. 171
Kent. He hath no daughters, sir.
Lear. Death, traitor! nothing could have subdued nature
To such a lowness, but his unkind daughters.
The apostrophe to the winds, in the opening of Dar-thula, is in the highest spirit of poetry. "But the winds deceive me, O Dar-thula! and deny the woody Etha to thy sails. These are not the mountains, Nathos, nor is that roar of thy climbing waves. The halls of Cairbar are near, and the towers of the foe lift their heads. Where have ye been, ye southern winds! when the sons of thy love were deceived? But ye have been sporting on plains, and pursuing the thistle's beard. O that ye had been rustling in the sails of Nathos, till the hills of Etha rose! till they rose in the clouds, and saw their coming chief." This passage is remarkable for the resemblance it bears to an expostulation with the wood nymphs, on their absence at a critical time; which, as a favorite poetical idea, Virgil has copied from Theocritus, and Milton has very happily imitated from both.
Where were ye, nymphs! when the remorseless deep
Closed o'er the head of your lov'd Lycidas?
For neither were ye playing on the steep
Where your old bards, the famous Druids, he!
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona, high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard stream.--Lycid.
Having now treated fully of Ossian's talents, with respect to description and imagery, it only remains to make some observations on his sentiments. No sentiments can be beautiful without being proper; that is, suited to the character and situation of those who utter them. In this respect Ossian is as correct as most writers. His characters, as above described, are, in general, well supported; which could not have been the case, had the sentiments been unnatural or out of place. A variety of personages, of different ages, sexes, and conditions, are introduced into his poems; and
they speak and act with a propriety of sentiment and behavior which it is surprising to find in so rude an age. Let the poem of Dar-thula, throughout, be taken as an example.
But it is not enough that sentiments be natural and proper. In order to acquire any high degree of poetical merit, they must also be sublime and pathetic.
The sublime is not confined to sentiment alone. It belongs to description also; and whether in description or in sentiment, imports such ideas presented to the mind, as raise it to an uncommon degree of elevation, and fill it with admiration and astonishment. This is the highest effect either of eloquence or poetry; and, to produce this effect, requires a genius glowing with the strongest and warmest conception of some object, awful, great, or magnificent. That this character of genius belongs to Ossian, may, I think, sufficiently appear from many of the passages I have already had occasion to quote. To produce more instances were superfluous. If the engagement of Fingal with the spirit of Loda, in Carric-thura; if the encounters of the armies, in Fingal; if the address to the sun, in Carthon; if the similes founded upon ghosts and spirits of the night, all formerly mentioned, be not admitted as examples, and illustrious ones too, of the true poetical sublime, I confess myself entirely ignorant of this quality in writing.
All the circumstances, indeed, of Ossian's composition, are favorable to the sublime, more perhaps than to any other species of beauty. Accuracy and correct. ness, artfully connected narration, exact method and proportion. of parts, we may look for in polished times. The gay and the beautiful will appear to more advantage in the midst of smiling scenery and pleasurable themes; but, amidst the rude scenes of nature, amidst rocks and torrents, and whirlwinds and battles, dwells
the sublime. It is the thunder and the lightning of genius. It is the offspring of nature, not of art. It is negligent of all the lesser graces, and perfectly consistent with a certain noble disorder. It associates naturally with that grave and solemn spirit which distinguishes our author. For the sublime is an awful and serious emotion; and is heightened by all the Images of trouble, and terror, and darkness.
Ipse pater, media nimborum in nocte, coruscâ
Fulmina molitur dextra; quo maxima motu
Terra tremit; fugere feræ; et mortalia corda
Per gentes, humilis stravit pavor; ille, flagranti
Aut Atho, aut Rhodopen, aut alta Ceraunia telo
--Virg. Georg. i.
Simplicity and conciseness are never-failing characteristics of the style of a sublime writer. He rests on the majesty of his sentiments, not on the pomp of his expressions. The main secret of being sublime is to say great things in few, and in plain words: for every superfluous decoration degrades a sublime idea. The mind rises and swells, when a lofty description or sentiment is presented to it in its native form. But no sooner does the poet attempt to spread out this sentiment, or description, and to deck it round and round with glittering ornaments, than the mind begins to fall from its high elevation; the transport is over; the beautiful may remain, but the sublime is gone. Hence the concise and simple style of Ossian gives great advantage to his sublime conceptions, and assists them in seizing the imagination with full power.
Sublimity, as belonging to sentiment, coincides, in a great measure, with magnanimity, heroism, and generosity of sentiment. Whatever discovers human nature in its greatest elevation; whatever bespeaks a high effort of soul, or shows a mind superior to pleasures, to dangers, and to death, forms what may be called the moral of sentimental sublime. For this Ossian is
eminently distinguished. No poet maintains a higher tone of virtuous and noble sentiment throughout all his works. Particularly in all the sentiments of Fingal there is a grandeur and loftiness, proper to swell the mind with the highest ideas of human perfection. Wherever he appears, we behold the hero. The objects which he pursues are always truly great: to bend the proud; to protect the injured; to defend his friends; to overcome his enemies by generosity more than by force. A portion of the same spirit actuates all the other heroes. Valor reigns; but it is a generous valor, void of cruelty, animated by honor, not by hatred. We behold no debasing passions among Fingal's warriors; no spirit of avarice or of insult; but a perpetual contention for fame; a desire of being distinguished and remembered for gallant actions; a love of justice; and a zealous attachment to their friends and their country. Such is the strain of sentiment in the works of Ossian.
But the sublimity of moral sentiments, if they wanted the softening of the tender, would be in hazard of giving a hard and stiff air to poetry. It is not enough to admire. Admiration is a cold feeling, in comparison of that deep interest which the heart takes in tender and pathetic scenes; where, by a mysterious attachment to the objects of compassion, we are pleased and delighted, even whilst we mourn. With scenes of this kind Ossian abounds; and his high merit in these is incontestible. He may be blamed for drawing tears too often from our eyes; but that he has the power of commanding them, I believe no man, who as the least sensibility, will question. The general character of his poetry is the heroic mixed with the elegiac strain; admiration tempered with pity. Ever fond of giving, as he expresses it, "the joy of grief," it is visible that, on all moving subjects, he delights to
exert his genius; and, accordingly, never were there finer pathetic situations than what his works present. His great art in managing them lies in giving vent to the simple and natural emotions of the heart. We meet with no exaggerated declamation; no subtile refinements on sorrow; no substitution of description in place of passion. Ossian felt strongly himself; and the heart, when uttering its native language, never fails, by powerful sympathy, to affect the heart. A great variety of examples might be produced. We need only open the book to find them everywhere. What, for instance, can be more moving than the lamentations of Oithona, after her misfortune? Gaul, the son of Morni, her lover, ignorant of what she had suffered, comes to her rescue. Their meeting is tender in the highest degree. He proposes to engage her foe, in single combat, and gives her in charge what she is to do if he himself shall fall. "And shall the daughter of Nuath live?" she replied, with a bursting sigh. "Shall I live in Tromathon, and the son of Morni low? My heart is not of that rock; nor my soul careless as that sea, which lifts its blue waves to every wind, and rolls beneath the storm. The blast, which shall lay thee low, shall spread the branches of Oithona, on earth. We shall wither together, son of car-borne Morni! The narrow house is pleasant to me, and the gray stone of the dead; for never more will I leave my rocks, sea-surrounded Tromathon!--Chief of Strumon! why comest thou over the waves to Nuath's mournful daughter? Why did I not pass away in secret, like the flower of the rocks that lifts its fair head unseen, and strews its withered leaves on the blast? Why didst thou come, O Gaul I to bear my departing sigh ?--O, had I dwelt at Duvranna, in the bright beam of my fame! Then had my years come on with joy: and the virgins would bless my steps.
[paragraph continues] But I fall in youth, son of Morni! and my father shall blush in his hall!"
Oithona mourns like a woman: in Cuthullin's expressions of grief after his defeat, we behold the sentiments of a hero--generous, but desponding. The situation is remarkably fine. Cuthullin, roused from his cave by the noise of battle, sees Fingal victorious in the field. He is described as kindling at the sight. "His hand is on the sword of his fathers; his red-rolling eyes on the foe. He thrice attempted to rush to battle; and thrice did Connal stop him;" suggesting that Fingal was routing the foe; and that he ought not, by the show of superfluous aid, to deprive the king of any part of the honor of a victory, which was owing to him alone. Cuthullin yields to this generous sentiment; but we see it stinging him to the heart with the sense of his own disgrace. "Then, Carril, go," replied the chief, "and greet the king of Morven. When Lochlin fails away like a stream after rain, and the noise of the battle is over, then be thy voice sweet in his ear, to praise the king of swords. Give him the sword of Caithbat; for Cuthullin is worthy no more to lift the arms of his fathers. But, O ye ghosts of the lonely Cromla! ye souls of chiefs that are no more! be ye the companions of Cuthullin, and talk to him in the cave of his sorrow. For never more shall I be renowned among the mighty in the land. I am like a beam that has shone: like a mist that has fled away; when the blast of the morning came, and brightened the shaggy side of the hill. Connal! talk of arms no more: departed is my fame. My sighs shall be on Cromla's wind; till my footsteps cease to be seen. And thou, white-bosomed Bragela! mourn over the fall of my fame: for vanquished, I will never return to thee, thou sunbeam of Dunscaich!"
Uno in corde pudor, luctusque, et conscia virtus.
Besides such extended pathetic scenes, Ossian frequently pierces the heart by a single unexpected stroke. When Oscar fell in battle, "No father mourned his son slain in youth; no brother, his brother of love; they fell without tears, for the chief of the people was low." In the admirable interview of Hector with Andromache, in the sixth Iliad, the circumstance of the child in his nurse's arms, has often been remarked as adding much to the tenderness of the scene. In the following passage, relating to the death of Cuthullin, we find a circumstance that must strike the imagination with still greater force. "And is the son of Semo fallen?" said Carril, with a sigh. "Mournful are Tura's walls, and sorrow dwells at Dunscaich. Thy spouse is left alone in her youth; the son of thy love is alone. He shall come to Bragela, and ask her why she weeps? He shall lift his eyes to the wall, and see his father's sword. Whose sword is that? he will say; and the soul of his mother is sad." Soon after Fingal had shown all the grief of a father's heart for Ryno, one of his sons, fallen in battle, he is calling, after his accustomed manner, his sons to the chase. "Call," says he, "Fillan and Ryno.--But he is not here.--My son rests on the bed of death." This unexpected start of anguish is worthy of the highest tragic poet.
If she come in, she'll sure speak to I wife--
My wife!--my wife!--What wife!--I have no wife--
Oh, insupportable! Oh, heavy hour!--
The contrivance of the incident in both poets is similar: but the circumstances are varied with judgment. Othello dwells upon the name of wife, when it had fallen from him, with the confusion and horror of one tortured with guilt. Fingal, with the dignity of a hero, corrects himself, and suppresses his rising grief.
The contrast which Ossian frequently makes between his present and his former state, diffuses over his whole poetry a solemn pathetic air, which cannot fail to make impression on every heart. The conclusion of the songs of Selma is particularly calculated for this purpose. Nothing can be more poetical and tender, or can leave upon the mind a stronger and more affecting idea of the venerable and aged bard. "Such were the words of the bards in the days of the song; when the king heard the music of harps, and the tales of other times. The chiefs gathered from all their hills, and heard the lovely sound. They praised the voice of Cona, 1 the first among a thousand bards. But age is now on my tongue, and my soul has failed. I hear, sometimes, the ghosts of bards, and learn their pleasant song. But memory fails on my mind; I hear the call of years. They say, as they pass along, Why does Ossian sing? Soon shall he lie in the narrow house, and no bard shall raise his fame. Roll on, ye dark-brown years! for ye bring no joy in your course. Let the tomb open to Ossian, for his strength has failed. The sons of the song are gone to rest. My voice remains, like a blast, that roars lonely on the sea-rur-rounded rock, after the winds are laid. The dark moss whistles there, and the distant mariner sees the waving trees."
Upon the whole, if to feel strongly, and to describe naturally, be the two chief ingredients in poetical genius, Ossian must, after fair examination, be held to possess that genius in a high degree. The question is not, whether a few improprieties may be pointed out in his works?-whether this or that passage might not have been worked up with more art and skill, by some writer of happier times? A thousand such cold and
frivolous criticisms are altogether indecisive as to his genuine merit. But has he the spirit, the fire the inspiration of a poet? Does he utter the voice of nature? Does he elevate by his sentiments? Does lie interest by his description? Does be paint to the heart as well as to the fancy? Does he make his readers glow, and tremble, and weep? These are the great characteristics of true poetry. Where these are found, he must be a minute critic, indeed, who can dwell, upon slight defects. A few beauties of this high kind transcend whole volumes of faultless mediocrity. Uncouth and abrupt Ossian may sometimes appear, by reason of his conciseness; but he is sublime, he is pathetic, in an eminent degree. If he has not the extensive knowledge, the regular dignity of narration, the fulness and accuracy of description, which we find in Homer and Virgil, yet in strength of imagination, in grandeur of sentiment, in native majesty of passion, he is fully their equal. If he flows not always like a clear stream, yet he breaks forth often like a torrent of fire. Of art, too, he is far from being destitute; and his imagination is remarkable for delicacy as well as strength. Seldom or never is he either trifling or tedious; and if he be thought too melancholy, yet he is always moral. Though his merit were in other respects much less than it is, this alone ought to entitle him to high regard, that his writings are remarkably favorable to virtue. They awake the tenderest sympathies, and inspire the most generous emotions. No reader can rise from him without being warmed with the sentiments of humanity, virtue, and honor.
Though unacquainted with the original language, there is no one but must judge the translation to deserve the highest praise, on account of its beauty and elegance. Of its faithfulness and accuracy, I have been assured by persons skilled in the Gaelic tongue,
who from their youth were acquainted with many of these poems of Ossian. To transfuse such spirited and fervid ideas from one language into another; to translate literally, and yet with such a glow of poetry; to keep alive so much passion, and support so much dignity throughout; is one of the most difficult works of genius, and proves the translator to have been animated with no small portion of Ossian's spirit.
The measured prose which he has employed, possesses considerable advantages above any sort of versification he could have chosen. While it pleases and fills the ear with a variety of harmonious cadences, being, at the same time, freer from constraint in the choice and arrangement of words, it allows the spirit of the original to be exhibited, with more justness, force, and simplicity. Elegant, however, and masterly, as Mr. Macpherson's translation is, we must never forget, whilst we read it, that we are putting the merit of the original to a severe test. For we are examining a poet stripped of his native dress; divested of the harmony of his own numbers. We know how much grace and energy the works of the Greek and Latin poets receive from the charm of versification in their original languages. If then, destitute of this advantage, exhibited in a literal version, Ossian still has power to please as a poet; and not to please only, but often to command, to transport, to melt the heart; we may very safely infer that his productions are the off-spring of a true and uncommon genius; and we may proudly assign him a place among those whose works are to last for ages.
93:1 See the note at the end of the Dissertation.
159:1 Iliad, iv. 46; and Iliad, viii. 60.
159:2 Iliad, xiv. 393.
161:1 Iliad, iv. 275.
161:2 Iliad, v. 522.
162:1 Iliad, xxii. 26.
163:1 Iliad, xvii. 58.
164:1 Iliad, xiii. 298
166:1 Isaiah, xvii. 13
168:1 Numbers, xiii. 32,38
178:1 Ossian himself is poetically called the voice of Cona.