Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/182

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


altogether a. forgery, or were accommodated to the Translations, by such a pro- cess as entirely to destroy their credit, and render their publication useless.

We shall now proceed to take a view of the conduct of Macpherson himself, in so far as it relates to the controversy which he had been the means of excit- ing, and when we do this, we shall find that whether he really was an impos- tor or no, in the matter of the poems, he pursued exactly the course, with regard to them and the public, which an impostor would have done. He was accused of being guilty of an imposition. He took no steps to rebut the charge. He was solicited to give proofs of the authenticity of the poems. He refused, and for upwards of thirty years submitted to wear the dress of a bankrupt iii integrity, without making any attempt to get rid of it. He affected, indeed, a virtuous indignation, on all occasions, when the slightest insinuation was made that an imposition had been practised ; and, instead of calmly exhibiting the proofs of his innocence, he got into a passion, and thus silenced, in place of sa- tisfying inquiry. " To revenge," says Dr Johnson, speaking of Macpherson's conduct in this matter, " reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a de- gree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted ; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt."

A suspicion of the authenticity of the poems almost immediately followed the appearance of those published in 1762, and the first public notice taken of it by Macpherson himself, occurs in 1763, in his preface to Temora, published in that year. He there says, " Since the publication of the last collection of Ossian's poems, many insinuations have been made, and doubts arisen, concern- ing their authenticity. I shall probably hear more of the same kind after the present poems make their appearance. Whether these suspicions are suggested by prejudice, or are only the effects of ignorance of facts, I shall not pretend to determine. To me they give no concern, as I have it always in my power to remove them. An incredulity of this kind is natural to persons who confine all merit to their own age and country. These are generally the weakest, as well as the most ignorant of the people. Indolently confined to a place, their ideas are very narrow and circumscribed. It is ridiculous enough to see such people as these are branding their ancestors with the despicable appellation of barbarians. Sober reason can easily discern where the title ought to be fixed with more propriety. As prejudice is always the effect of ignorance, the knowing, the men of true taste, despise and dismiss it. If the poetry is good, and the charac- ters natural and striking, to these it is matter of indifference, whether the heroes were born in the little village of Angles, in Jutland, or natives of the barren heaths of Caledonia. That honour which nations derive from ancestors worthy or re- nowned, is merely ideal. It may buoy up the minds of individuals, but it con- tributes very little to their importance in the eyes of others. But of all those prejudices which are incident to narrow minds, that which measures the merit of performances by the vulgar opinion concerning the country which produced them, is certainly the most ridiculous. Ridiculous, however, as it is, few have the courage to reject it; and I am thoroughly convinced, that a few quaint lines of a Roman or Greek epigrammatist, if dug out of the ruins of Herculaneum, would meet with more cordial and universal applause, than all the most beau- tiful national rhapsodies of all the Celtic bards and Scandinavian scalds that ever existed." This, it is presumed, will be thought rather an odd reply to the doubts entertained concerning the authenticity of the poems ; or rather it will be thought to be no reply at all. It is all very well as to reasoning and writing ; but, it will be perceived, wonderfully little to the purpose. AH that he condescends to say, in this rhapsody, to the point at issue the " doubts" is, that he "has it always in his power to remove them." But he made no use of