網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

The care

The descendants of the Celtæ, who inhabit. ed Britain and its isles, were not singular in this method of preserving the most precious monuments of their nation. The ancient laws of the Greeks were couched in verse, and hand. ed down by tradition. The Spartans, through a long habit, became so fond of this custom, that they would never allow their laws to be committed to writing.

The actions of great men, and eulogiums of kings and heroes, were preserved in the same manner. All the historical monuments of the old Germans were com. prehended in their ancient songs; which were either hymns to their gods, or elegies in praise of their heroes, and were intended to perpetuate the great events in their nation, which were carefully interwoven with them. This species of composition was not committed to writing, but delivered by oral tradition. they took to have the poems taught to their children, the uninterruptedcustom of repeating them upon certain occasions, and the happy measure of the verse, served to preserve them for a long time uncorrupted. This oral chronicle of the Germans was not forgot in the eighth century; and it probably would have remained to this day, had not learning, which thinks every thing that is riot committed to writing, fabulous, been introduced. It was from poetical traditions that Garcilasso composed his account of the Incas of Peru. Th. Peruvians had lost all other monuments of their history, and it was from ancient poems, which his mother, a princess of the blood of the Incas, taught him in his youth, that he collected the materials of his history. If other nations, then, that had often been overrun by enemies, and hath sent abroad and received colonies, could for many ages preserve, by oral tradition, their laws, and histories uncorrupted, it is much more probable that the ancient Scots, a people so free of intermixture with foreigners, and so strongly attached to the memory of their ancestors, had the works of their bards handed down with great purity.

What is advanced, in this short Dissertation, it must be confessed, is mere conjecture. Beyond the reach of records is settled a gloom which no ingenuity can penetrate. The manners described in these Poems suit the ancient Celtic times, and no other period that is known in history. We must, therefore, place the heroes far back in antiquity; and it matters little, who were their contemporaries in other parts of the world. If we have placed Fingal in his proper period, we do honour to the manners of barbarous times. He exercised every manly virtue in Caledonia, while Helio. gabalus disgraced human nature at Rome.

А

DISSERTATION

CONCERNING THE POEMS OF OSSIAN.

The history of those nations, who originally possessed the north of Europe, is less known than their manners. Destitute of the use of letters, they themselves had not the means of transmitting their great actions to remote posterity. Foreign writers saw them only at a distance, and described them as they found them. The vanity of the Romans induced them to consider the nations beyond the pale of their empire as barbarians; and, consequently, their history unworthy of being investigated. Their manners and singular character were matters of curiosity, as they committed them to record. Some men otherwise of great merit, among ourselves, give into confined ideas on this subject. Having early imbibed their idea of exalted manners from the Greek and Roman writers, they scarcely ever afterward have the fortitude to allow any dignity of cha. racter to any nation destitute of the use of letters.

Without derogating from the fame of Greece

and Rome, we may consider antiquity beyond the pale of their empire worthy of some attention. The nobler passions of the mind never shoot forth more free and unrestrained than in the times we call barbarous. That irregular manner of life, and those manly pursuits, from which barbarity takes its name, are highly favourable to a strength of mind unknown in polished times. In advanced society, the characters of men are more uniform and disguised. The human passions lie in some degree concealed behind forms and artificial manners ; and the powers of the soul, without an opportunity of exerting them, lose their vigour. The times of regular government, and polished manners, are therefore to be wished for by the feeble and weak in mind. An unsettled state, and those convulsions which attend it, is the proper field for an exalted character, and the exertion of great parts. Merit there rises always superior; no fortuitous event can raise the timid and mean into power.

To those who look upon antiquity in this light, it is an agreeable prospect; and they alone can have real pleasure in tracing nations to their source.

The establishment of the Celtic states, in the north of Europe, is beyond the reach of written annals. The traditions and songs to which they trusted their history, were lost, or altogether corrupted, in their revolutions and migrations, which were so frequent and universal, that no kingdom in Europe is now possessed by its original inhabitants. Societies were formed, and kingdoms erected, from a mixture of nations, who, in process of time, lost all knowledge of their own origin. If tradition could be depended upon, it is only among a people, from all time, free from intermixture with foreigners. We are to look for these among

men.

the mountains and inaccessible parts of a country; places, on account of their barrenness, un. inviting to an enemy, or whose natural strength enabled the natives to repel invasions. Such are the inhabitants of the mountains of Scot. land. We, accordingly, find that they differ materially from those who possess the low and more fertile parts of the kingdom. Their lan. guage is pure and original, and their manners are those of an ancient and unmixed race of

Conscious of their own antiquity, they long despised others, as a new and mixed people. As they lived in a country only fit for pas. ture, they were free from that toil and business which engross the attention of a commercial people. Their amusement consisted in hearing or repeating their songs and traditions, and these entirely turned on the antiquity of their nation, and the exploits of their forefathers. It is no wonder, therefore, that there are more remains among them, than among any other people in Europe. Traditions, however, concerning remote periods are only to be regarded, in so far as they coincide with contemporary writers of undoubted credit and veracity.

No writers began their accounts from a more early period, than the historians of the Scots nation. Without records, or even tradition it. self, they gave a long list of ancient kings, and a detail of their transactions, with a scrupulous

One might naturally suppose, that when they had no authentic annals, they should, at least, have recourse to the traditions of their country, and have reduced them into a regular system of history. Of both they seem to have been equally destitute. Born in the low country, and strangers to the ancient language of their nation, they contented themselves with

exactness.

« 上一頁繼續 »