Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/179

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JAMES MACPHERSON. 549


fact that, from his earliest years he was an enthusiastic admirer of Celtic lore ; and that its poetry, in particular, was one of his constant and most agreeable studies. This argument, then, can hare no great weight, unless it be deemed an impossibility, that a man who had failed in one or more literary attempts, should be successful in another ; an assertion which, it is believed, few will be hardy enough to venture, and which, it is certain, fewer still will be able to make good.

With regard to that part of the controversy where evidence is produced by credible, and, in several of the instances, certainly highly respectable witnesses, of Macpherson's having been put in possession, in their presence, of various poems ascribed to Ossian, both oral and written ; without questioning the credibility of these witnesses, an important objection may be fairly brought against the nature of their evidence. It is liable to that charge of generality which Mr Hume thought, and every impartial person must think, ought to be considered " as being of no authority." In no single instance is any particular poem, or any particular part of a poem, distinctly traced by such evidence from its original possessor to the pages of Macpherson's volumes. Not one of them lias stated the results of what came under his own observation, in any thing like such plain terms as " I saw, or heard Macpherson put in possession of the first duan of Cath-loda ; I read it over carefully at the time, and I assert that the English poem of that name which he has given, is a translation of the same." The witnesses alluded to, have said nothing like this. The amount of their evidence is, that it consists with their knowledge that Macpherson did obtain Gaelic poems, when in the Highlands. They saw him get some in MS., and they were present when others were recited to him. But here their testimony terminates ; and in no case have the poems been further identified in the English dress with those which he procured on these occasions, than as bear- ing, in some instances, a general resemblance to them. The extent to which Macpherson made use of what they saw him get, or, indeed, what use he made of it at all, they have not said, because they could not ; for, although he car- ried away the" originals, they did not, and could not, therefore, ascertain, by the only process by which it could with certainty be ascertained, by collation, what he had omitted, or what he had retained ; what he had changed, or what he had left unaltered.

We come now to the last proof exhibited in support of the authenticity of the English poems of Ossian, and it is by far the most startling of the whole. It would seem, indeed, were it adopted without examination, to set the question for ever at rest, and to place it beyond the reach of all further controversy. This proof is the " Originals" published by Sir John Sinclair in 1806, an evi- dence which certainly appears, at first sight, conclusive ; but what is the fact? They are not originals, in so far as the written poetry which Macpherson ob- tained is concerned ; for they are all in his own hand-writing, or that of his amanuensis. The term original, therefore, in this case, can only be applied to what he wrote down from oral communication ; and it will at once be perceiv- ed how much their evidence is already weakened by this limitation of the mean- ing of the word original, as employed by Sir John Sinclair. How far, again, it may be relied upon as applied to the oral communications which Macpherson received, must entirely depend upon the degree of faith which is put in his in- tegrity. He has said that they are the originals, but this is all we have for it, and by many, we suspect, it will scarcely be deemed sufficient. He had a control over these documents which greatly lessens, if it does not wholly destroy all faith in them as evidences ; while his interest in produc- ing them, must lay them open, under all circumstances, to the strongest