Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/177

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


JAMES MACPHERSON. 547

defects in the poems themselves, which improved intellectual culture has de- tected ; for it is the result of an opinion formed on their abstract merits as literary compositions, and is wholly unconnected with the question of their au- thenticity, that now being considered a point of such indifference, as to be but rarely taken into account in the decision. The book is now taken up, without a thought being wasted on the consideration whether it be the production of Ossian or Macpherson, and is judged of by its own intrinsic value ; and tested in this way, it would appear that it has been found want- ing ; a result which seems to show that the greatest charm of the poems, even at the time when they were most appreciated, co-existed with the belief that they were genuine relics of antiquity; that it was inseparable from this belief, that it was born of it, fostered by it, and perished with it; that, in short, it lived and died with it, and was exactly proportioned to its strength and its weakness.

Of the controversialists in this celebrated literary war the list is both long and illustrious, and comprehends some of the proudest names of which this country has to boast. Amongst them occur those of Dr Blair, Dr Gregory, lord Kaines, Hume, and Dr Johnson. The most remarkable next to these were, Dr Smith of Campbelltown, Dr Graham of Aberfoyle, Sir John Sinclair, Mr Laing, author of " Notes and Illustrations " introduced into an edition of Ossian's Poems, published in Edinburgh in 1805; Mr Alexander Macdonald, author of a work entitled " Some of Ossian's lesser poems rendered into verse, with a preliminary discourse in answer to Mr Laing's Critical and Historical Dissertations on the an- tiquity of Ossian's Poems," 8vo, Liverpool, 1805 ; and W. Shaw, A.M., author of " An Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian," London, 1781. There were besides these a host of others, but of lesser note. Of those just named, there were six who may be said, generally speaking, to have been in favour of the authenticity of the poems, and five against it. The former were Dr Blair, Dr Gregory, lord Karnes, Dr Graham, Sir John Sinclair, and 31r Macdonald. The latter, Mr Hume, Dr Johnson, Mr Laing, Dr Smith, and Mr Shaw.

Here, then, we are startled at the very outset by the near approach to equality in the amount of intelligence and talent which appears arrayed on either side ; nor is this feeling greatly lessened in comparing the evidence adduced by each party in support of their opposite opinions, and in confutation of those of their opponents. Both seem conclusive when taken separately, and both defective when placed in juxtaposition.

Although, however, two classes only of controversialists have been made above, there were actually four, or rather the two given are found on closer in- quiry to be again subdivided of the believers, into those whose opinion of the authenticity of the poems was unqualified, and those again who believed them to be authentic only to a certain extent, while the remainder were interpola- tions by the translator. Of the former were Blair, Gregory, lord Kames, Sir John Sinclair, and Macdonald. Of the latter was Dr Graham, arid though only one, he was yet the representative of a large body who entertained a similar opinion. Of the disbelievers, again, there were those who utterly denied their authenticity ; and those who, entertaining strong doubts, did not yet go the whole length of rejecting them as spurious. Of the first were Dr Johnson, Laing, and Shaw. Of the last, Mr Hume, and Dr Smith.

The controversy thus stands altogether upon four separate and distinct grounds. These are, first, an entire and unqualified belief in the authenticity of the poems ; second, a belief that they are in part genuine, and in part spurious, including a charge of interpolation and false translation ; third, much doubt, but no certainty ; and, fourth, a thorough conviction of their being wholly forgeries.