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A Dissertation concerning the Æra of Ossian
Cath-loda, in three Duang
As Swift has, with some reason, affirmed that all sublunary happiness consists in being well deceived, it may possibly be the creed of many, that it had been wise, if, after Dr. Blair's ingenious and elegant Dissertation on the able Ossian,' all doubts respecting what we have been taught to call his works had for ever ceased : since there appears cause to believe, that numbers who listened with delight to the voice of Cona,' would have been happy, if, seeing their own good, they had been content with these Poems accompanied by Dr. Blair's judgment, and sought to know no more. There are men, however, whose ardent love of truth rises on all occasions paramount to every other consideration; and though the first step in search of it should dissolve the charm, and turn a fruitful Eden into a barren wild, they would pursue it. For these, and for the idly curious in literary problems, added to the wish of making this new edition of The Poems of Ossian' as well-informed as the hour would allow, we have here thought it proper to insert some account of a renewal of the controversy
relating to the genuineness of this rich treasure of poetica! excellence.
Nearly half a century has elapsed since the publication of the poems ascribed by Mr. Macpherson to Ossian, which poems he then professed to have collected in the original Gaelic, during a tour through the Western Highlands and Isles ; but a doubt of their authenticity nevertheless obtained, and from their first appearance to this day has continued in various degrees to agitate the literary world. In the present year, “A Report,' * springing from an inquiry instituted for the purpose of leaving, with regard to this matter, no hinge or loop to bang a doubt on,' has been laid be. fore the public. As the Committee, in this investigation, followed, in a great measure, that line of conduct chalked out by David Hume to Dr. Blair, we shall, previously to stating their precise mode of proceeding, make several .arge and interesting extracts from the his, torian's two letters on this subject.
• I live in a place,' he writes, where I have the pleasure of frequently hearing justice done to your Dissertation, but never heard it mentioned in a company, where some one person or other did not express his doubts with regard to the authenticity of the poems which are its subject; and I often hear them totally rejected with disdain and indignation, as a pal. pable and most impudent forgery. This opinion has, indeed, become very prevalent among the men of letters in London; and I can foresee, that in a few years the poems, if they continue to stand on their present footing, will be thrown aside, and will fall into final obli. vion.
* A Report of the Committee of the Highland Socie. ty of Scotland, appointed to inquire into the nature and authenticity of the Poems of Ossian. Drawn up, according to the directions of the Committee, by Henry Mackenzie, Esq. its convener, or chairman. With a copious appendix, containing some of the principal documents on which the report is founded. Edinburgh, 1805.' 8vo.
• The absurd pride and caprice of Macpherson himself, who scorns, as he pretends, to satisfy any body that doubts his veracity, has tended much to confirm this general scepticism; and I must own for my part, that though I have had many particular reasons to believe these poems genuine, more than it is possible for any Englishman of letters to have, yet I am not entirely without my scruples on that head. You think, that the internal proofs in favour of the poems are very convincing ; so they are; but there are also internal reasons against them, particularly from the manners, notwithstanding all the art with which you have endeavoured to throw a vernish * on that circumstance; and the preservation of such long and such connected poems, by oral tradition alone, during a course of fourteen centuries, is so much out of the ordinary course of human affairs, that it requires the strongest reasons to make us believe it. My present purpose, therefore, is to apply to you in the name of all the men of letters of this, and, I may say, of all other countries, to establish this capital point, and to give us proofs that these poems are, I do not say, so ancient as the age of Severus, but that they were not forged within these five years by James Macpherson. These proofs must not be arguments, but testimonies ; people's ears are fortified against the former; the latter may yet find their way, before the poems are consigned
* So in MS.