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THE POEMS OF OSSIAN
THE SON OF FINGAL.
BY HUGH BLAIR, D.D. Ce of the Ministers of the High Church, and Professor
of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, Edinburgh.
AMONG the monuments remaining of the ancient state of nations, few are more valuable than their poems or songs. History, when it treats of remote or dark ages, is seldom very instructive. The beginnings of society, in every country, are involved in fabulous confu. sion ; and though they were not, they would furnish few events worth recording. But, in every period of society, human manners are a curious spectacle ; and the most natural pictures of ancient manners are exhibited in the ancient poems of nations.
These present to us, what is much more valuable than the his. tory of such transactions as a rude age can afford—the history of human imagination and passion. They make us acquainted with the notions and feelings of our fellow creatures in the most artless ages; discovering what objects they admired, and what pleasures they pursued, before those refinements of society
had taken place, which enlarge indeed, and diversify the transactions, but disguise the man ners of mankind.
Besides this merit which ancient poems have with philosophical observers of human nature, they have another with persons of taste. They promise some of the highest beauties of poetical writing. Irregular and unpolished we may expect the productions of uncultivated ages to be; but abounding, at the same time, with that enthusiasm, that vehemence and fire, which are the soul of poetry : for many circumstances of these times which we call barbarous, are favourable to the poetical spirit. That state, in which human nature shoots wild and free, though unfit for other improvements, certainly encourages the high exertions of fancy and passion.
In the infancy of societies, men lived scattered and dispersed in the midst of solitary rural scenes, where the beauties of nature are their chief entertainment. They meet with many ob-, jects to them new and strange; their wonder and surprise are frequently excited ; and by the sudden changes of fortune occurring in their unsettled state of life, their passions are raised to the utmost; their passions have nothing to restrain them, their imagination has nothing to check it. They display themselves to one another without disguise, and converse and act in the uncovered simplicity of nature. As their feelings are strong, so their language, of itself, assumes a poetical turn. Prone to exaggerate, they describe everything in the strongest colours ; which of course renders their speech picturesque and figurative. Figurative language owes its rise chiefly to two causes ; to the want of proper names for objects, and to the influence of imagination and
passion over the form of expression. Both these causes concur in the infancy of society. Figures are commonly considered artificial modes of speech, devised by orators and poets, after the world had advanced to a refined state. The contrary of this is the truth. Men never have used so many figures of style, as in those rude ages, when, besides the power of a warm imagination to suggest lively images, the want of proper and precise terms for the ideas they would express, obliged them to have recourse to circumlocution, metaphor, comparison, and all those substituted forms of expression, which give a poetical air to language. An American chief, at this day, harangues at the head of his tribe, in a more bold and metaphorical style, than a modern European would adventure to use in an epic poem.
In the progress of society, the genius and manners of men undergo a change more favourable to accuracy than to sprightliness and sublimity.
As the world advances, the under. standing gains ground upon the imagination ; the understanding is more exercised; the imagination, less. Fewer objects occur that are new or surprising. Men apply themselves to trace the causes of things; they correct and refine one another; they subdue or disguise their passions ; they form their exterior manners upon one uniform standard of politeness and civi. lity. Human nature is pruned according to method and rule.
Language advances from sterility to copiousness, and at the same time from fervour and enthusiasm, to correctness and precision. Style becomes more chaste, but less animated. The progress of the world in this respect resembles the progress of age in man. The powers of imagination are most vigorous and predominant in youth; those of the under
standing ripen more slowly, and often attain not to their maturity, till the imagination begins to flag. Hence poetry, which is the child of imagination, is frequently most glowing and animated in the first ages of society. As the ideas of our youth are remembered with a peculiar pleasure, on account of their liveliness and vivacity; so the most ancient poems have often proved the greatest favourites of nations.
Poetry has been said to be more ancient than prose ; and, however paradoxical such an assertion may seem, yet, in a qualified sense, it is true, Men certainly never conversed with one another in regular numbers; but even their ordinary language would in ancient times, for the reasons before assigned, approach to a poetical style; and the first compositions transmitted to posterity, beyond doubt, were, in a literal sense, poems; that is, compositions in which imagination had the chief hand, formed into some kind of numbers, and pronounced with a musical modulation or tone. Music or song has been found coeval with society among the most barbarous nations. The only subjects which could prompt men, in their first rude state, to utter their thoughts in compositions of any length, were such as naturally assumed the tone of poetry : praises of their gods, or of their ancestors ; commemorations of their own warlike exploits; or lamentations over their misfortunes. And, before writing was invented, no other composi. tions, except songs or poems, could take such hold of the imagination and memory, as to be preserved by oral tradition, and handed down from one race to another.
Hence we may expect to find poems among the antiquities of all nations. It is probable, too, that an extensive search would discover a certain degree of resemblance among all the
most ancient poetical productions, from whatever country they have proceeded. In a similar state of manners, similar objects and passions, operating upon the imaginations of men, will stamp their productions with the same general character. Some diversity will, no doubt, be occasioned by climate and genius. But mankind never bear such resembling features, as they do in the beginnings of society. Its subsequent revolutions give rise to the principal distinctions among nations; and divert, into channels widely separated, that current of human genius and manners, which descends ori. ginally from one spring. What we have been long accustomed to call the oriental vein of poetry, because some of the earliest poetical productions have come to us from the east, is probably no more oriental than occidental : it is characteristical of an age rather than a country ; and belongs, in some measure, to all nations at a certain period. Of this the works of Ossian seem to furnish a remarkable proof.
Our present subject leads us to investigate the ancient poetical remains, not so much of the east, or of the Greeks and Romans, as of the northern nations ; in order to discover whether the Gothic poetry has any resemblance to the Celtic or Gaelic, which we are about to consider. Though the Goths, under which name we usually comprehend all the Scandinavian tribes, were a people altogether fierce and martial, and noted, to a proverb, for their ignorance of the liberal arts, yet they too, from the earliest times, had their poets and their songs. Their poets were distinguished by the title of Scal. ders, and their songs were termed Vyses. Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of considerable note, who flourished in the thirteenth century, informs us, that very many of these songs,