Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/178

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548 JAMES MACPHERSON.


The principal arguments adduced in support of the first opinion, are that the poems bear internal evidence of antiquity ; that their originals are or were well known in the Highlands, and that there were many persons there who could repeat large portions of them ; that Macpherson's talents, judging by his own original works, the Highlander, Translation of the Iliad, &c., were not equal to the production of poems of such transcendent merit as those ascribed to Ossian ; that many credible witnesses were present, on various occa- sions, when Macpherson was put in possession of these poems, orally and by MS. ; and, lastly , that the originals themselves are now before the world.

With regard to the internal evidence of the genuineness of these poems, it is to be feared that this is a thing more ingenious than sound ; and, like the imaginary figures that present themselves in the fire, is more easily described than pointed out. It will, at any rate, scarcely be deemed sufficient proof, that the poems in question are ancient, merely because they bear no likeness to any that are modern.

Dr Blair's celebrated dissertation on this subject, and on the authenticity of the poems generally, is much more elegant, ingenious, and learned, than con- vincing ; and appears, after all, to establish little more, indeed little more seems aimed at, than that the poems may and should be ancient, not that they are. To those who think that the absence of all modern allusion in the poems, and the exclusive use which is made of natural imagery, without one single ex- ception, is a proof of their antiquity, the argument of internal evidence will have, no doubt, considerable weight ; but there are others who see in this circumstance only caution and dexterity on the part of Macpherson, and who, in consequence, instead of reckoning it an evidence of his veracity, consider it but as a proof of his ingenuity.

As to the assertion, again, that the originals were well known in the High- lands, and that there were many persons there who could repeat them. This, on inquiry, turns out to mean only, that fragments of Gaelic poetry, not entire poems, as given by Macpherson, but certainly, such as they were, of undoubted antiquity, were to be met with in the Highlands. That such were, and prob- ably are to be found there even to this day, is undeniable ; but, in the first place, they have been in no instance found in the complete state in which they appear in the translations, but disjointed and disconnected, and, still worse, bearing only in a few instances any more than a resemblance to the English poems. In large portions, even this is entirely wanting. The originals, then, in the only sense in which that word ought to be used, cannot, with truth, be said to have existed in the Highlands. Fragments of ancient poetry, as al- ready said, did indeed exist there, but not the mass of poetry given to the world by Macpherson as the Poems of Ossian, and said by him to have been collected in the Highlands. The assertion, therefore, has been made, either with a view to deceive, or without a due consideration of the meaning of the terms in which it is conveyed.

The argument deduced from Macpherson's talents, as exhibited in his ori- ginal works, to show that he could not be the author of the poems in question, is plausible ; but the premises on which it is founded, are by no means of so incontrovertible a nature as to give us implicit confidence in the conclusion. That a literary man may utterly fail in one or more instances, and be eminently successful in another, is perfectly consistent with experience. It has often hap- pened, and is, therefore, not more extraordinary in Macpherson's case, suppos- ing him to be the author, and not merely the translator of the poems ascribed to Ossian, than in many others that could be named. Besides, something like a reason is to be found for his success in this species of composition, in the