The Celtic Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 2, December 1875 A Monthly Periodical Devoted to the Literature, History, Antiquities, Folk Lore, Traditions, and the Social and Material Interests of the Celt at Home and Abroad

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In controversy about Ossian, the man on the affirmative side has an immeasurable advantage over all others; and, with an average practical acquaintance with the subject, may exhaust any antagonist. The contents, the connection, and the details; the origin, the tradition, the translation; the poetry, the sentiment, the style; the history, the characters, the dramatis personæ; the aspects of nature represented, the customs and manners of the people; the conflicting nationalities introduced, the eventful issues, the romantic incidents; the probable scenes, the subsequent changes; the philosophy and the facts, and multiplied revelations of humanity—all these, and many more such themes inseparably connected with Ossian, if a man rightly understands and believes in them, would enable him to maintain his position in actual controversy, with integrity and ease, for a twelvemonth. The man, on the other hand, who does not believe in the authenticity of Ossian must forego all these advantages in succession, and will reduce himself to straits in an hour. He dare not expatiate or admire, or love, or eulogise, or trust, or credit, or contemplate, or sympathise with anything; or admit a fact, or listen to a word, or look at an argument, on the peril of immediate discomfiture. He must simply shut the book. His only stronghold is denial; his sole logic is assertion; his best rhetoric is abuse; his ultima ratio is to create distrust, and to involve both himself and everybody else in confusion. Genius, for example, he declares without hesitation to be trickery; poetry to be bombast; pathos, monotonous moaning; the tenderest human love to be sham; the most interesting natural incidents, contemptible inventions; the plainest statistical information, a deliberate act of theft; the sublimest conceptions of human character, a fudge; the details of human history for three hundred years, a melodramatic, incredible fiction; and what cannot now be found anywhere else recorded, a dream; accidental coincidence he speaks of as detected dishonesty; imaginary resemblance, as guilty adaptation; a style suitable to the subject, as plagiarism; occasional inspiration he calls a lie; translation, a forgery; and the whole, if not a "magnificent mystification," then, in Procurator-Fiscal phrase, a "wilful falsehood, fraud, and imposition." But all this, without proof—and nothing like proof is ever advanced—may be said in an hour, and the argument would remain as it is. Such, in point of fact, has been the sum total of assault, reiterated by every new antagonist with increasing boldness for a century, till reasonable readers have become callous to it, and only ignorant or prejudiced listeners are impressed. To be "hopelessly convinced" by it, is perhaps the latest phase of incredulity; to be edified or enlightened by it is impossible.

But, besides the advantage of being able to speak with freedom of an author like Ossian, from any natural point of view, an almost infinitely higher advantage still is to be obtained by actually verifying his text; by realising his descriptions, ascertaining his alleged facts, and localising the scenes of his narrative. Whatever is truly grand in Ossian may thus be identified with nature, if it has a counterpart there; and what seems only an imaginary outline at first may be filled up and fixed for ever as among her own still extant properties. A new sense, coherent and intelligible, may thus be imparted to the most familiar figures; and not an allusion to earth or sky, to rock or river, will be lost after such a process. Nay, a certain philosophic significance, amounting to scientific revelation, may be honestly associated with some of his loftiest figures; and what the translator himself apologises for as extravagant, may be thus converted into dreamful intuitions of hidden fact and poetic forecasting of future discoveries. Mr Arnold, in his Celtic Literature, seems to glance at such a capacity in Celtic man—"His sensibility gives him a peculiarly near and intimate feeling of nature, and the life of nature; here, too, he seems in a special way attracted by the secret before him, the secret of natural beauty and natural magic, and to be close to it, to half-divine it," p. 108. But Mr Arnold does not seem to include in this capacity the intuitions of natural science, at least not for Ossian; yet nothing can be more certain than that Ossian and his fellow-countrymen enjoyed them.

That verification to such an extent, however, both of facts and localities, and ideas—philosophic or imaginative, in the text of Ossian, was possible, has scarcely hitherto been believed by any one; it has certainly never been attempted. A sort of vagueness in many of his descriptions ill-understood, and a similarity in poetic figures that might be indiscriminately applied; and an occasional apparent conflict or confusion of details seem to have deterred almost all readers from the study we now recommend. But all these difficulties, of verification and interpretation alike, are only on the surface; and not even there, if it has been looked at attentively. Let any intelligent reader, with the poems which refer to Scotland in his hand, survey the Clyde, the Kelvin, and the Carron, and trace the still remaining footsteps of nature and of civilization through distant centuries on their banks, and he will see that Ossian has been there. Let him look steadily even at the cloud-drifts from the Atlantic, as they troop or roll along in a thousand fantastic forms, converging all to a certain inland range, and he will understand that the author of these poems must have seen and studied them so. Let him proceed then to Arran, and he will discover there, if he looks and listens, not only scenes and traditions, and monuments of sepulture, still associated with the names of Oscar and Malvina, Fingal and Ossian—in literal confirmation of what has been stated in the text concerning them; but the only reliable account, by survey and tradition also, of the Fingalian expeditions from Morven to Ireland....