Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/176

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546


JAMES MACPHERSON.


appeared, and but little now remains even of the interest with which the mooted point was associated. Few, in short, now care any thing at all about the matter, and even though it were desirable, it would be impossible to resus- citate the intense feeling with which it was once contemplated. This apathy, however, singularly contrasts with the violent commotion and furious zeal which the discussion of the momentous question excited in the public mind some fifty or sixty years since. It was then an universal topic of conversation in private circles, while the literary arena was crowded with combatants eager for the contest, and inspired, if their feelings may be judged by their language, with the most cordial hatred towards each other. Fresh champions of the op. posite creeds followed each other in endless succession, as their predecessors re- tired, exhausted or defeated, from the lists.

At one moment the authenticity of the poems seemed established beyond all doubt ; in the next it was made still more clear that they were the most im- pudent forgeries that were ever imposed upon the credulity of the literary world. These were the results of the labours of the more active and zealous partisans of the denying and believing factions ; but there were others again, who did not strictly belong to either, and these, taking arguments from both sides, succeeded, with much ingenuity, in involving the question in an obscurity from which it has not emerged to this day.

The Ossianic controversy, like all other controversies, soon became personal, and in nearly every case the discussion of the point exhibited fully as much abuse as arguments. During all this time Macpherson himself, the cause of all this bitterness of spirit and uncharitableness, and the only person who could have al- layed it, kept sullenly aloof, and refused to produce that evidence which alone could restore the peace of the literary world, and which he yet declared he pos- sessed. Notwithstanding the celebrity, however, which he was thus acquir- ing, his situation, in other respects, was by no means an enviable one. By those who did not believe in the authenticity of the poems, he was reviled as an impudent, unprincipled impostor ; by those who did, he was charged with being a bungling, unskilful translator ; and by both he was abused for his obstinacy in refusing to come forward with his testimony in the cause in dispute.

Before proceeding to take a nearer view of the Ossianic controversy itself, there will be no impropriety in alluding to certain opinions, regarding the sub- ject of it, which have now pretty generally obtained. These are, that it is of little moment whether the poems are genuine or not, and that they are not, af- ter all, worthy, in point of merit, of the notice they have attracted, or of the discussion and dissension they have created. With regard to the last, it is mat- ter of opinion, and must always remain so, since it cannot be decided by any rule of taste. The first, again, involves a sentiment more specious perhaps than profound ; for, besides the consideration that truth is at all times and in all cases better than falsehood, and possesses an intrinsic value which in almost every instance renders it worthy of being sought for, the investigation into the authenticity of the Poems of Ossian involves, in the language of the ingenious commentator already named, matter of importance to the " general history of literature, and even that of the human race."

Whatever weight, however, may be allowed to these considerations, it is cer- tain that Macpherson's Poems of Ossian have lost a very large portion of the popularity which they once enjoyed, and are evidently losing more every day. The rising generation do not seem to have that relish for their beauties, or rather do not see those beauties in them which captivated their fathers, and this can be ascribed only, either to a change in literary taste, or to some defect or