Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/180

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550 JAMES MACPHERSON.


suspicions. But it is said, that it is not likely that he would be at the trouble of going through so laborious a process as this, merely to support an imposture that, though willing, he was, from his want of skill in the Gaelic language, unfit for the task, and could not have produced poems in that language of such merit as those which he gave as originals that the Gaelic poems are superior to the English and lastly, that from impartial and critical examination, the former must have been anterior to the latter. With regard to the first of these asser- tions, it seems to be merely gratuitous, as it rests upon a question which Mac- pherson himself alone could determine, and can, therefore, be of no weight as an argument. That Macpherson was greatly deficient in critical knowledge of the Gaelic language, and that he could not consequently produce poems in that language of such merit as those which he represents as the originals of Ossian, is certain, because it is established by the clearest evidence, and by the concurring testimony of several eminent Gaelic scholars ; but although he could not do this himself, he could employ others to do it, and it is well known that he was inti- mate, and in close correspondence with several persons critically skilled in the Gaelic language, of whose services he availed himself frequently, and largely, when preparing his " Translations." Might he not have had recourse to the same aid in translating from the English to the Gaelic? Dr Johnson thought so. " I am far from certain," says the sagacious moralist, " that some transla- tions have not been lately made that may now be obtruded as parts of the origi- nal work." In truth, the presumption that Macpherson did procure Gaelic translations to be made from the English, is exceedingly strong, as will appear from various circumstances yet to be alluded to. At all events, it does not seem by any means an inevitable conclusion, that because he was not himself capable of writing what are called the originals, they are, therefore, original. But the strongest part of the argument in favour of their originality yet remains. It is said that the Gaelic is superior to the English, and that on an impartial and critical examination, it appears that the former must have been anterior to the latter. Now, the first of these is again matter of opinion, and as such, en- titled to no more consideration than opinions generally deserve. To many their merits will appear on the whole pretty equal ; to others, the Gaelic will, in some instances, seem the more beautiful ; and in some, again, the English. The second assertion, however, is not of this description. It is not founded on opinion, but on an alleged positive internal evidence. It is to be regretted, however, that that evidence had not been pointed out in more specific terms than those employed that it had not been distinctly said what are those particular circumstances which, on a perusal, establish the relative ages of the Gaelic and English versions; for, on an impartial and critical examination lately made by a person eminently skilled in the Gaelic language, for the express purpose of furnishing information for this article, it does not appear, at least from any thing he could discover, that the Gaelic poems must, of necessity, have preceded the English. They certainly contain nothing that shows the contrary nothing that discovers them to be of modern composition ; but neither do Mac- pherson's English poems of Ossian. Neither of them betray themselves by any slip or inadvertency, and this, negative as it is, is yet all that can be said of both as to internal evidence.

What has just been said, includes nearly all the leading and direct arguments which have been employed in the defence of the authenticity of Macpherson's translations of the Poems of Ossian, and nearly all that can be urged against that belief, with the exception of that which may be deduced from Macpherson's own conduct in relation to the question, and which shall be afterwards refer- red to.