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Conducted by ALEXANDER MACKENZIE, F.S.A. Scot. No. LXV. MARCH, 1881. Vol. VI.
THE DEAN OF LISMOEE'S OSSIANIC POETRY.
The Dean of Lismore did not confine his labours to collecting such poetry as was distinctively Ossianic, but has preserved for us many poems of a different order and age. These last are interesting in their way, and apart from poetic merit are valuable as giving us some insight to the manner of life which prevailed among our ancestors during the turbulent, fierce, and active ages, which men call the dark ages, though it must not be forgotten that some of our greatest institutions are to be traced back to them as to their fountain-head. We shall not linger among the beauties of these just now, but take our flight to the centuries beyond, on pinions provided for us by the industry of tho worthy old Dean. We shall thus come to, and pause to contemplate, a time when Christianity was fast obtaining at least outward mastery, but over which there still hovered the names and the deeds of famous men, or anyhow of a famous race, which never heard of the Babe of Bethlehem—names which oven now are not forgotten by a people which, although they shared in part the dangers and honours of Bruce and Wallace, have allowed them to pass from the popular memory. It is surprising that Finn should still bo a living power in our songs and stories, when later heroes have been absolutely covered with oblivion so far as tradition is concerned.
We must say something at the outset of the Roman Catholic Church dignitary to whose zeal and poetic taste we are indebted for these lyric legacies of a far-off age, and of men who have left us words we still speak, and whose blood flows in our veins, making us to a certain extent what we. are in our weakness and in our strength. The Dean was a Macgregor, aDd so was a Celt of the Celts, of the purest and the proudest blood. Ho was besides of a good family. He was born, like many of his ancestors before him, in the magnificent vale of Glenlyon, under the shadows of Cavnliath and Ben Lawers, This impressive glen is rich in associations of the olden times, It was once tho seat of tho Feino themselves, so the story goes, for there wero Fenians in Scotland at a time when the name did not suggest conspiracy but royalty, Mr Stewart in his most interesting little work recently published, entitled the Gaelic, Kingdom, tells us that there is a saying still to be heard on tho banks of the Lyon, "Tha
da chaisteal deug aig na Feine an gleami dubh nan garbh chlach." The Feino have twelve castles in the dark winding glen of the rugged rocks. The Romans too measured swords there with these same Fenians, but did not add a ray to their glory, if tradition speaks the truth. More important to us is the fact that St Eonan fought there with other weapons than the sword and spear, and was not defeated, but won his spiritual battles triumphantly. In this secluded vale the spirit of the past still haunted every rock, hill, brooklet, and old moss-grown cairn when Macgregor was born, educated, and served in high places in the Church, just at the dawn of the time when John Knox was to lay the axe to the root of things as they were to clear the ground for the new order of things. The rumble of the coming earthquake was heard by the Dean; death spared him the pain of its actual convulsions. He would now have been absolutely forgotten, but for the poems which he had collected at his leisure hours, and committed to writing. The MSS. after having passed through many hands are now safe in the Advocates' Library. At the close of iast century they came under the eye of Ewen Maclauchlan, a genuine poet and finished scholar, who transcribed the most of their contents into modem Gaelic, or rather into the modern way of spelling Gaelic, for Macgregor's Gaelic diilers from the modern more in the look of it than in its real body and substance. Ewen Maclauchlan did not publish the fruit of his labours, want of money most likely thwarting his desire. The honour of publishing the Dean's work was reserved for his namesake, Dr Maclauchlan, whose labours in the field of Celtic literature are in the highest degree worthy of all praise. With much industry, rendered easier no doubt by his predecessor's labours, and much skill and learning, he prepared a large number of the pocius for the press, and had them published in 18G2. The value of the publication is much increased by the fact that the original Gaelic is given, side by side with tlio same Gaelic dressed iu modern costume,and with an English rendering, literal, but at the same time rhythmical, so that some flavour of the original is preserved in a way very pleasing to the student. Thus the road to the study of these poems is now made very easy and smooth to the student, so much so that any intelligent Highlander can easily walk upon it, and by perseverance come to the goal. It is to be regretted—but we can't have everything—that the learned Doctor did not give us a greater number of strictly philological notes, elucidating obsolete words, old grammatical forms, and words which, though not obsolete in form, yet had a meaning ditferent from that of the same words now. The present object is, however, not so much to discuss the poems from a critical point of view as to use them as an instrument by which wo may know something of the men, their tastes, their habits, their hopes and tears—who composed them, and at the first delighted in them?
The qu&stion arises then who were the men, when and where did they live, that are celebrated in these poems? "Were they Irish, or Scotch, or British? The question is not so easily answered. According to the poems themselves, they are sometimes spoken of as Irish, sometimes they are represented as Scotch, or rather as dwelling in what is now, but was not then called, Scotland. Thus we may conclude that the race of Ossian was not limited to either side of the channel—that the songs which have transmitted their qualities sprang up, somo in Ireland, some in Scotland, and are the common heritage of the native inhabitants of both countries, though much literary blood has been shod in asserting an exclusive title to it—Irish or Scotch. As we know, the namo or designation given by Ossian to the heroes of his song is that of Feine, in modern phrase, Fingalians, after the name of their most famous warrior Fionn. It is generally agreed that Fionn is derived from a Gaelic word signifying fair, or white, though apparently the word is never now applied to the human person. Whether this designation is meant to distinguish the Feine from darker and alien races, or whether the characteristics of the great leader was applied to his followers without regard to the tints of their cheeks or locks, I am unable to say.
We may be confident, however, that when we hear of the Feine, we are hearing of real men who once trod this earth, and not with mere myths created by the play of fancy. True, much that is fanciful has gathered round the name, for we find much spoken about them that is impossible, for that is the way and prerogative of poetry. In the superhuman qualities which are freely ascribed to the Feino, we see an exaggerated poetic account of qualities which raised the Feine to supremacy over the.ir ruder neighbours, whom they surpassed in military skill, refinement of manners, and intellectual accomplishments generally. Ancient poetry adorns the fact with supernatural colours, but they don't lay these colours upon a baseless nothing, any more than the sun creates the landscape which it clothes with glory. We need not hesitate to affirm, then, that at some far oil time a certain race of men appeared among the Celts, who distinguished themselves above their follows in all those things whicli secure fame and power. There is no reason for regarding them as different in blood from the inhabitants of the land they inhabited, and in which they held the first place. In historical times the other clans were obliged to bow to the supremacy of the Lord of the Isles, who was powerful enough to aspire to the crown of Scotland. In some way, then, the Feine, whoever they wore, succeeded in securing the place of honour in their country, and by their splendid achievements and brilliant accomplishments impressed themselves on the popular imagination, just as the heroes of Greece, Scandinavia, Franco, with their immediate followers, did in their respective countries. No doubt this arose from the fact that singers as well as warriors appeared among them, that they could composo beautiful poetry which touched the heart and could not be dislodged frcm the memory, as well as march to victory in the field The warrior is soon forgotten, if he has no bard to sing his renown. But for the lament of David over Jonathan, wo should not have heard the shrieks of Gilboa. So we should not have hoard, nor should we care to hear, of Fionn, but for his Ossian—just as we 3hould know nothing of Achilles, but for Homer.
Whether all that is said of Ossian be true—whother tho songs that are ascribed to him bo his—is another matter. Of one thing wo may be certain, that the Feino were distinguished for the gift of poetry, and we may be equally sure that some groat poet did appear among them, in whom this gift gathered up into itself all the poetic excellence which floated around it, and added to it some peculiar grace and beauty of its own. Such a man would become tho representative of all poetry in his own peculiar line ; he would become the sun around which tho other poets would revolve, and from whom they would receive their light and heat Indeed, with respect to the poems before us, we can readily see that they were not the work of one mind, nor the product of one generation. The poet who had "seen the household of art" in the third century could not have discoursed with St Patrick in the fourth century.
The relation of these poems to the Ossian of Macpherson is an extremely interesting study. There is this resemblance between them, that there are incidents and stories common to both. But here the similarity ends. In Macpherson, the incident is but an episode, but a part in a long poem; in the Dean of Lismore, the same incident is self-contained, stands as a whole in itself, complete and rounded, springing from nothing that went before, and leading to no further development. The Ossian of Macpherson expands, amplifies, even to vagueness, now and then, and anticipates Irving in loving to look at an idea through a magnifying fog, in which the lines and angles of definiteness vanish. The Ossian of the Dean is precise and definite as a banker's book, without haze and long drawn-out reveries. Simplicity, directness, like that of an arrow, are stamped upon the one; elaboration and generalities upon the other. We find a curious confirmation of this criticism in the fact that no one not a student of books has been met with in the Highlands who could repeat a dozen lines of Macpherson's Ossian, while scores have been able, and are able, to repoat much of the Dean's Ossian, which travelled even as far as Caithness, and was living there in the memories of illiterate old women within the last twenty-five years—is'perhaps living there still. This seems to prove that the Dean's Ossian was more fitted for the memories of simple people than the other. It does not prove that Macpherson composed Iris Ossian, but it seems to indicate that his Ossian appealed more to men who had a literary culture—who had books, and so were not so dependent upon their memories. A careful criticism of the relation between Macpherson's Ossian, and the Ossianic ballads, apart from any preconceived theory, may be expected in competent hands to produce valuable results in a direction or two.
But we must not be tempted to dwell too long with such fascinating questions, and so we proceed to look at the contents of these poems. Now, these as we should expect deal entirely with men, not with tilings; with living passions, not with abstractions, as modern poets sometimes do. The most interesting character which they contain is for us that of the poet himself. Ossian, as pourtrayed in these melodies, dues not belong to those poets who, like Homer and Shakespere, never obtrude their own pensonalities on their hearers or readers. He, on the contrary, makes us acquainted with his inner life, and to some extent with his outer. Now it is to be observed that all his references to himself are steeped in sorrow. At an early period grief entered as iron into the heart of the Celt, and for all the sunniness and brightness of his nature he has had ever since on this side the channel and on that to water his couch with his tears. In Ossian's time this wail of despair seems to have been caused by the rising and aggressive power of Christianity; welcome, no doubt, to the poor and down-trodden when they understood it, but hateful to the lordly Feine, on whose delights it flung the shadow of the cross, and on whoso power and oppression it poured contempt. At the same time, it is curious that the lament of the bard is not over fallen gods, but over very earthly privileges which had been lost in virtue of the changes which were shaking the old foundations. Ossian never refers to the old religious beliefs of the Feine; so far as these songs are concerned his ancestors may have been as innocent of religion as any modern materialist. There is no God, or gods, or demons, in these lines. It can scarcely be said that the Celts bad no religion before Christianity came, nor can wo agree with those "wbo describe their religion as mere degrading Fetichism which imprisons a god in some trifling object, as a stono or stick. The absence, however, of any allusion to a religious culture in the Dean's Ossian is not easily explained, more especially as situations occur, such, for example, as the bard's discussion with St Patrick, in which a statement of the old view would come in naturally. Some few mythological and magical allusions there are, but they afford in themselves too scanty material from which to construct anything like a religious system. Dr Maclauchlan, however, seems to think that the boar may have been worshipped of old by the Celts, and refers to an opinion founded on the derivation of Cuchullin that the dog received a like honour. But no such views can be fairly gathered from the poems before us, though other sources of knowledge may prove them correct. It might be an interesting speculation, whether tho adoption of certain animals as badges of families may not have originated in animal worship, and whether each clan may not have paid special homage to some special animal as their god. Something like this seems to have prevailed among eastern tribes. But this is not the time for such discussions. Suffice it to say that Ossian's heart was wounded because the revolution in modern parlance had swept away the old system of thought and life in which he was reared. His swan song was the knell of the old Paganism. He was tho setting sun of the old era, and he refused to look with hope, like many since who are afraid of change which is a condition of growth as well as of destruction, on the coming morning. Tho loss he deplores was of the earth, yet not without elements of nobleness and worth, amid which life was lusty and joyful, brave and polished, yet not incapable of tenderness and grace. But let no one envy it; only the select few are noticed. Misery must have been the lot of the many, unspanned by any rainbow of hope, with no sanctuary built by the Man of Sorrows for them to find rest in. At the same time we verily believe that the condition of the meanest serf in the train of Fionn was not so wretched, so dark, as that of many who live or rather drag out a gloomy, vicious existence in tho slums of our great cities.
Another cause of the bard's grief was the encroachment of other tribes, if not of strange and alien races, on the prerogatives of his own kin. The old Greek said that the gods were jealous of too much prosperity, and tho Feine found that their superiority, power, accomplishments, awoke a spirit of resistance which led to their overthrow, no doubt because these were used, not for tho general good, but for the gratification of lust, ambition, and greed. Ossian refers to the presence in the land of the worshippers of Odin and Thor—the far-famed Lochlins of Gaelic song and tale. We have glowing descriptions of the wars of the Feine with these fierce and gallant invaders. Ominous enough the invaders had native tribes as their allies. Brave as they were they had to divide before they could conquer, and brave as the Celt was he was conquered, because he allowed himself to be divided. Of course Fiona wins, and binds in chains the King of