Gaelic Poetry of Known & Unknown Bards, Published & Traditional – Part 6, pp.227-231.

And now, having given all the evidence which I have, let me give my own opinion on this much vexed question. 

I hold that there is nothing to prove that MacPherson, Ossian, or any other individual, composed the Gaelic poems of 1807 – or that they are older than MacPherson’s time as a whole – but there is a mass of evidence to prove that he had genuine materials, some of which we also have got for ourselves, and there is a strong presumption that he had something which we have not. Nothing was forthcoming after MacPherson’s death except his manuscript which was published; so that is one “fact,” at all events. 

When it is considered how much old poetry rests upon the existence of single manuscripts in other languages, and that MacPherson certainly had a mass of materials, it is possible that there may have been some compounder of poems far older than the man who gets the credit and discredit of “Ossian;” still there is nothing but “Ossian’s Poems” to prove that their composer lived anywhere at any time. It is certain that the heroes have been Celtic worthies for centuries, and that their exploits have been celebrated in Gaelic verse ever since the ninth century, if not the seventh: but of the published Gaelic Ossian as an entire work there is not a trace before MacPherson’s time. I have no doubt that the work is founded upon genuine old popular materials, and I would rank it for originality with Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” or “Homer,” if the Greek poems were floating ballads before they were made into epic poems. But till the author is discovered, MacPherson’s name must be associated with his publication. That must rank as a Scoto-Gaelic work at least a hundred years old, and till the contrary is proved, Ireland has not a ghost of a claim to it. 

“MacPherson’s Ossian” is, as I conceive, without doubt a composite work, to be ranked in the class which I have numbered 5th or 6th; poetry made up of various materials, ancient and modern, like houses which I have seen in ancient Greece. There, an old Corinthian capital is placed upside down in one corner, its graceful acanthus leaves drooping upwards, and beside it lies a fluted shaft, with boulders and turf resting upon it, – sculptured white marble is mingled with ordinary stones of the roughest description, and the whole is bound together with lime and cement, overgrown with weeds, and, it may be, daubed with ignoble mud; but MacPherson’s Ossian, like the Greek hut, is, in the main, composed of genuine materials, and a clever antiquary, or a good critic, might yet pick out all the old fragments, and mayhap arrange them more scientifically. To do so would be loss of labour, for we have a mass of similar materials, Scotch and Irish. The Greek hut, with all its incongruities, dirt, and discomfort, with its dress of shrubs and lichens, and utter disregard of the rules of architecture, is more likely to attract a painter’s eye than the most symmetrical museum of antiquities, geology, and botany, or the most luxurious brick palace in London; and so Ossian has attracted the notice and the admiration of famous men, who would not have bestowed a thought upon popular tales and ballads separately arranged, and classed in due order, as I have striven to do with my stores. 

Ossian is a fiction, but a structure founded upon facts, a work built mainly of Scotch materials, worked by Scotch minds long ago – a very famous work a century old, which is known far and wide, while that of honest John Gillies is almost quite unknown. But the fame of the architect is not to be coveted, for the stigma of dishonesty rests upon his name. MacPherson undoubtedly tried to deceive, and especially when he denied to Ireland all share in the heroes of Ossian, or seemed to claim the entire work as his own invention. 

If this be correct; if such was the real nature of the work; when the author held his peace and refused any explanation; when party spirit ran high, and Scotch were rebels, there was room for controversy. Antiquaries might fall upon the traditional and genuine, because it seemed modern, and deny the antiquity of the whole. Irishmen might recognise bits of their property, and claim the entire work. Indignant Scotchmen, knowing their own, might fret and fume and plead possession, and defend the right and the wrong; and the “Gall,” the stranger, knowing nothing of the case, hearing the din, and called on to accept the whole as historically true, and a genuine work, complete, and completely preserved by tradition alone, for some fifteen centuries, might well indignantly reject the whole as a set of impudent forgeries and fictions. John Bull is “not going to be gulled,” and “he will not believe anything of a man who tries to do him once,” and so everything Gaelic is suspected to this day. In this battle of the inky plumes all sides might well lose their tempers, or spoil them. But, for all that, truth may now be found amongst the relics of the strife, amongst wasted ink and spoilt paper; and the truth, as I imagine, lies as usual somewhere in the middle. She may be enticed out of her well by coaxing, patience, and perseverance, but she is only driven deeper, and far out of sight, by wrangling critics, who fight for her favours as men have fought, and are still fighting, for the truth of this Ossianic controversy. 

When “Flosi (in the Njal Saga) undertook to tell the story of the burning, he was fair to all; and therefore what he said was believed.” I have tried to tell my story fairly, and if any one holds a different opinion, let him not quarrel with mine. 

“Cogadh na sith,” strife or peace, is an old Gaelic watchword. We have tried the first for a century, and made very little by it, except bad blood; let Celts try a turn on the other road, and, at all events, let us give up flighting amongst ourselves. 

There is an old monkey of my acquaintance whose wont it is to hoist his hind leg over his shoulder, and lean his head confidingly on the sole of his foot, and caress his ears with his toes, till his toes, in some strange unaccountable manner, excite his wrath; then he seizes the offending foot in both hands, and grins defiance at it, and cuffs it and bites it, till a new freak comes over him, and he sits down upon his heels, and goes to sleep again, at peace with himself and the rest of the world. 

I never see this venerable pug without thinking that he must be the embodied spirit of the Ossianic controversy, which it is my ambition to lull fast asleep for good and all. 

2 thoughts on “Gaelic Poetry of Known & Unknown Bards, Published & Traditional – Part 6, pp.227-231.

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