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THE AUTHENTICITY OF OSSIAN'S POEMS.
In these observations it is proposed to discuss in a cursory manner the following subjects, which could not be brought within the limits of the preceding Notes on Cesarotti's Dissertation, without extending them to a greater length than was consistent with the plan prescribed.
1. Oral tradition, ancient song and music.
2. The ancient name and inhabitants of Great Britain, and progress of letters among the Caledonians.
3. Philological enquiries, and the affinity of the Celtic, or Gaelic, with the Oriental and other languages.
4. A summary of the evidence already adduced in support of the authenticity of Ossian's poems, with further proofs.
To which it is proposed to add topographic descriptions of some of the principal scenes of Fingal and his warriors, and notices of Celtic, Gaelic, Irish, and Welsh books published, also of Gaelic and Irish manuscripts still existing in Great Britain and Ireland.
I. ORAL TRADITION, ANCIENT SONG AND MUSIC.
THAT unwritten compositions of heroic actions have been preserved unimpaired for ages, is a truth no person, who has given the subject an impartial consideration can deny. The retentive powers of memory, when duly exercised, more especially by minds accustomed to receive early impressions, from the great book of nature, on love, war, and hunting, subjects so deeply interesting to man in the early stages of society, must have enabled the ancient druids and bards to transmit unimpaired to posterity what they had acquired, by long perseverance in professional duties, on topics perfectly congenial with their natural inclination.
It was not merely the constant practice of the druids and Scottish bards, like the ancient poets of Greece and Arabia, to recite or sing the heroic compositions of their country, but it was their official duty to transmit them to their successors unaltered as they had acquired them; and hence it may be inferred that those compositions were preserved in greater purity, than could have been expected had they been committed to writing. Because, in transmitting them orally, the cadence or rhyme, by the transposition of a single syllable, or even a change in the place of the same long or short vowel, could not fail to be detected, by every ear susceptible of the harmony of sounds; whereas, in written compositions, errors might imperceptibly creep into the successive transcripts handed down during a series
of ages; they might become even unintentionally so disguised with alterations, as to destroy the original simplicity of the composition; and they might be subject to the imagined improvements, which the vanity of some transcribers would lead them to introduce. It may be added, that a written record is liable to be destroyed by various causes, not to mention the ravages of time; while narratives, imprinted on the minds of the youth of successive generations, can only be lost with the race itself.
In corroboration of this opinion, we have the authority of Julius Cæsar, who, speaking of the druids, says, "They are said to get by heart a great number of verses, so that some continue twenty years in their education. Neither is it held lawful to commit those things to writing, though, in almost all public transactions and private accounts, they use the Greek letter. They seem to have instituted this method for two reasons: because, they would not have their learning divulged to the vulgar; and lest those who learned, by depending on their writings, should be less assiduous in cultivating their memory; and because it frequently happens, that, by the assistance of letters, persons take less pains in getting by heart or remembering.
In a recent publication by a member of the Celtic Academy at Paris, we are told, that the principles of druidical learning were established and consigned in sixty thousand verses, and that it was incumbent on the druids of the first class to get them all by heart.†
* Cæs. Com. Lib. VI. Cap. 13.
Les principes de leur doctrine furent établis et consignés dans soixante mille vers qui n'étoient que des adages ou des résultats dans
The extraordinary powers of memory must at the present moment be universally admitted. Many persons might be named, to prove that those powers, even in our age, are almost unlimited when fully exercised and called into action. By affidavits and other sources of evidence, so conclusive that in any case, excepting the authenticity of Ossian's poems, no person would dare to question them, it is indisputably established, that the whole of those poems published by Mr. Macpherson, and many others, were preserved in their native Gaelic, at least from time immemorial, by oral tradition; but reference shall be made to one affidavit only, (as given in the Appendix to Sir John Sinclair's Dissertation prefixed to this work,)* namely, the affidavit of Captain John Macdonald of Breakish, who solemnly swears, and his veracity is unimpeached, that, for a certain period of his life, he could repeat some thousand verses of those poems, which he had acquired solely by oral tradition. In a subsequent division, viz. Summary of Evidence, we shall have occasion to detail more amply this and the other proofs.
In note E. to Cesarotti's Dissertation we have the testimony of the learned Sir Wm. Jones, respecting the credit due to the traditions of the ancient Arabs; whose monuments of old history are collections of poetical pieces orally recited for ages, and thus transmitted from one generation to another. Writing was so little practised among the Arabs, that their most
tous les genres de connoissances: les druides de la première classe devoient les savoir par cœur.
Monumens Celtiques, par M. Cambry de l'Academie Celtique, &c. Appendix, No. I.
ancient poems, recording their most memorable transactions, may be considered as originally unwritten. What Sir Wm. Jones tells us respecting the unwritten language of the Arabs, is equally applicable to the Celtic, or Gaelic, and proves that "Dr. Johnson's reasoning on the extreme imperfection of unwritten language was too general, since a language that is only spoken may nevertheless be highly polished by a people who, like the ancient Arabs, make the improvement of their idiom a national concern, appoint solemn assemblies for the purpose of displaying their poetical talents, and hold it a duty to exercise their children in getting by heart their most approved compositions."
This too, as observed in the preceding notes, was the constant practice and duty of the rhapsodists of ancient Greece, and of the druids, and Celtic bards; and the practice was continued after letters were known, and even after the art of printing had been introduced into Europe. We find that in the reigns of Edgar the Peaceable, and of Ethelred, the mountains of Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and even of Iceland, were the residence of the Muses. The commemoration of heroic actions, and the chronicle of interesting events were, in those countries, perpetuated in rhyme; and, like the sons of Albion, the ancient Greeks, as well as the northern nations, advanced to battle with their war-songs. We are told in Torfæus, † that the Scandinavian bards or scalds were, like the Celtic, held in the highest
* Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus.
↑ Torf. Hist. Rerum Orcadensium.