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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Ossian and Ossianic Poetry
Critical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905) and Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
 
THE OLD controversy over “Ossian,” which once engaged so many famous disputants from Dr. Samuel Johnson to Matthew Arnold, need no longer trouble the reader on his way through the world’s literature. Celtic research and the modern sense of our ancient poetry have changed the venue. We have a whole cycle of Gaelic tales and poems now on the subject, which have been gradually unearthed, affording new clues and a clearer outlook. Out of these fuller materials we may still construct, if we will, an ideal Ossian, just as Macpherson did. But we must remember, if we do, that there is no corresponding real Ossian, the actual and undeniable author of these Gaelic sagas or any part of them. Indeed, to be at all precise in choosing their typical hero, we should have to admit that a better name than Ossian’s for our label would be Finn’s; 1 while the whole cycle is wider than the names of either Finn or Ossian would fully suggest.  1
  It is Ossian, however, to whom, by force of habit and by popular suffrage, we still look and probably shall ever look as the king in this haunted realm. And Ossian’s name, no doubt, will still best serve to characterize the poetry which fragmentarily but none the less potently long ago fascinated Macpherson, and through him caught the ear of Europe.  2
  Who then was Ossian? 2  3
  Ossian, or Oisin, was traditionally the son of Finn; that Finn mac Cumhool (Cool) whose name is in Celtic literature the beacon round which all other lesser lights congregate. Oisin may be roughly assigned in history to the Ireland of the end of the third century. According to Scottish tradition, Finn, however, was the son of a Scottish king who came over from Ireland, and of a Scandinavian princess; and we may say at once that this mixed Celtic and Norse origin is significant, not only for the personal history of the hero himself, but for that of the whole heroic literature to which he and his son Ossian lend characteristic life, color, and antique circumstance. It is to the fine fusion of certain Norse with certain Gaelic elements, in the Aryan past, that we owe the particular genre, at any rate, which was produced in the Scottish region associated with Ossian. Some difference is to be found if we turn to the more purely Irish of our Gaelic originals, and seek in Ireland for the old battle which is almost always, in Celtic tradition, the beginning of what we may call epic balladry.  4
  In this case it is the battle of Cnucha (Castleknock), ten miles from the present city of Dublin, which sets the war-music going. Here it was that Conn of the Hundred Battles warred with Cool (Cumhool) Finn’s father, and Cool was slain by Aedh, afterwards known as “Goll,” or the Blind, because he lost an eye in the battle. This gives a leitmotiv to the dramatic episodes that follow, in Finn’s desire for revenge on his father’s enemies. Here begins a sort of tribal warfare between Munster and Connaught, which ends in the destruction of the followers of Finn, the “Fianna,”—a name, by the way, which, although it so closely resembles Finn’s, has no connection with it; meaning simply the tribal militia, or “Fenians,” to use the modern equivalent that has been too long removed from its original context to be successfully replaced there. The battle of Gowra is the last great event of this war. At Gowra, Ossian and his son Oscar fought disastrously against the descendants of Conn of the Hundred Battles, and the power of the Fianna was finally broken.  5
  In these battles and their allied and sequent episodes and disasters and tribal intrigues, we arrive at the basis of the Irish traditions of the Ossianic cycle. And though there is endless variation in the names and dates and places involved, according as these traditions were retailed in one country-side, or one century, or another, we still find that behind them lurks a real fragment of heroic history, colored perhaps by some earlier Celtic myth, and in any case full of potential romance, heroic imagination, and a crude but splendid poetry. It is not only that the subject-matter behind it is so full and rich, but that the manner and turn of its expression is also so individual and sonorous and effective. As for its subject-matter, it may be said to range over something like thirteen or fourteen centuries, from first to last. We have already referred to its quasi-historical first beginnings in the third century, when Fionn’s father fought Conn of the Hundred Battles, and fell by the hand of Goll; and many critics are content to accept this as the extreme starting-point. But if we accept the conclusions of such authorities in Celtic folk-lore as Professor Kuno Meyer and his collaborator Mr. Alfred Nutt, we shall have to travel much further back into time. Mr. Nutt has stated very ingeniously and carefully the claim for a mythical prehistoric origin for the Ossianic cycle. “Every Celtic tribe,” he writes, “possessed traditions both mythical and historical…. Myth and history acted and reacted upon each other, and produced heroic saga, which may be defined as myth tinged and distorted by history. The largest element is as a rule suggested by myth, so that the varying heroic sagas of a race have always a great deal in common.”  6
  Whether we quite accept this or not, in its entirety, we cannot ignore the distinct mythical coloring of many parts of the Ossianic cycle; and admitting it to exist, we are at once carried to the remote pre-Gaelic antiquity of the Aryan peoples, who personified sun, stars, earth, sea, air, fire, and water, and told the folk-tales which were to grow into Homeric epics, Norse sagas, and Ossianic ballads, as races and languages grew and took on a local habitation and a name.  7
  These wild-birds of old tradition found in their flight through time a congenial resting-place in the mountain regions which we associate with Ossian, whether in Scotland or Ireland. There they prospered and their broods grew and spread, century after century. To drop the figure of speech, the descendants of these first folk-tales, that grew and turned themselves into little heroic histories, multiplied wherever the Gaelic imagination worked on the memories of the people, and the Gaelic tongue gave it characteristic expression. Thus we have, in the immense number of MSS. dealing with Ossianic materials, ballads and stories which date from almost every century from the tenth to the eighteenth. Successive bards and tale-tellers shaped them and colored them anew time after time, fitting them to the need of the period; using them now as a thinly veiled fable of recent events, now as an allegory of war, and now as a localized and modified narrative of some Norse invasion or some lingering tribal feud.  8
  There is nothing more interesting in the whole history of the world’s literature than this passage of the Ossianic tradition through the centuries until it arrived in the eighteenth at Macpherson, whose genius gave it new effect and a new set of disguises that still puzzle many people. At this late hour in our own day it has had a strange and significant re-birth, though in the spirit rather than in the letter.  9
  We wish here to pursue the tradition in its adventures, and as much for the entertainment to be had by the way as for its curious historical and severely literary interest. One or two of its earlier phases have already been touched upon; but we have said nothing yet of the exceedingly characteristic way in which the early conflict in Gaeldom between the old pagan and the new Christian cult is given dramatic expression in the cycle. One of the richest of its sections is that devoted to the series of ballad-colloquies between St. Patrick and Ossian, as the special pleaders respectively of the new and the old order.
          “The spirit of banter,” says Dr. Hyde, “with which St. Patrick and the Church are treated, and in which the fun just stops short of irreverence, is a mediæval, not a primitive trait;… we all remember the inimitable felicity with which that great English-speaking Gael, Sir Walter Scott, has caught this Ossianic tone in the lines which Hector McIntyre repeats for the Antiquary:—
  “‘Patrick the psalm-singer,
Since you will not listen to one of my stories
Though you never heard it before,
I am sorry to tell you
You are little better than an ass.’
  “To which the saint replies:—
  “‘Upon my word, son of Fingal,
While I am warbling the psalms,
The clamor of your old-woman’s tales
Disturbs my devotional exercises.’”
  10
  With this grotesque echo we may compare the real text of one of the actual ‘Dialogues’ or ‘Colloquies,’ which we owe to the Irish Ossianic Society’s good offices. The MS. in this case was a comparatively modern copy, but the faithfulness of the copy may be guaranteed from ancient sources. See following selection.  11
 
Note 1. Finn, Fionn, Fin. The Scottish or rather Macphersonian equivalent, Fingal, is not ancient. [back]
Note 2. Ossian is the Scottish variant, and that most familiar to non-Celtic peoples. Osh-shin is the common pronunciation in the Highlands. The proper spelling is Oisin; but even in Ireland the name is never so pronounced, but variably as Usheen, Isheen, Useen, Washeen, and otherwise. [back]
 
 
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