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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Laing had proved Ossian an impostor


The impression was temporary, but it was immediate and powerful. Wordsworth was wrong when he said that no author of distinction except Chatterton had ventured formally to imitate Ossian. A generation after the appearance of the "Fragments" we find the youthful Coleridge alluding to "Ossian" in the preface[25] to his first collection of poems (1793), which contains two verse imitations of the same, as _ecce signum_:

"How long will ye round me be swelling, O ye blue-tumbling waves of the sea? Not always in caves was my dwelling, Nor beneath the cold blast of the tree," etc., etc.[26]

In Byron's "House of Idleness" (1807), published when he was a Cambridge undergraduate, is a piece of prose founded on the episode of Nisus and Euryalus in the "Aeneid" and entitled "The Death of Calmar and Orla--An Imitation of MacPherson's Ossian." "What form rises on the roar of clouds? Whose dark ghost gleams in the red stream of tempests? His voice rolls on the thunder. 'Tis Orla, the brown chief of Orthona. . . Lovely wast thou, son of blue-eyed Morla," etc. After reading several pages of such stuff, one comes to feel that Byron could do this sort of thing about as well as MacPherson himself; and indeed, that Johnson was not so very far wrong when he said that anyone could do it if he would abandon his mind to it. Chatterton applied the Ossianic verbiage in a number of pieces which he pretended to have translated from the Saxon: "Ethelgar," "Kenrick," "Cerdick," and "Gorthmund"; as well as in a composition which he called "Godred Crovan," from the Manx dialect, and one from the ancient British, which he entitled "The Heilas." He did not catch the trick quite so successfully as Byron, as a passage or two from "Kenrick" will show: "Awake, son of Eldulph! Thou that sleepest on the white mountain, with the fairest of women; no more pursue the dark brown wolf: arise from the mossy bank of the falling waters: let thy garments be stained in blood, and the streams of life discolor thy girdle. . . Cealwulf of the high mountain, who viewed the first rays of the morning star, swift as the flying deer, strong as a young oak, fiery as an evening wolf, drew his sword; glittering like the blue vapors in the valley of Horso; terrible as the red lightning bursting from the dark-brown clouds, his swift bark rode over the foaming waves like the wind in the tempest."

In a note on his Ossianic imitation, Byron said that Mr. Laing had proved Ossian an impostor, but that the merit of MacPherson's work remained, although in parts his diction was turgid and bombastic.[27] A poem in the "Hours of Idleness," upon the Scotch mountain "Lachin Y Gair," has two Ossianic lines in quotation points--

"Shades of the dead! have I not heard your voices Rise on the night-rolling breath of the gale?"

Byron attributed much importance to his early recollections of Highland scenery, which he said had prepared him to love the Alps and "blue Friuli's mountains," and "the Acroceraunian mountains of old name." But the influence of Ossian upon Byron and his older contemporaries was manifested in subtler ways than in formal imitations. It fell in with that current of feeling which Carlyle called "Wertherism," and helped to swell it. It chimed with the tone that sounds through the German _Sturm und Drang_ period; that impatience of restraint, that longing to give full swing to the claims of the elementary passions, and that desperation when these are checked by the arrangements of modern society, which we encounter in Rousseau and the young Goethe. Hence the romantic gloom, the Byronic _Zerrissenheit_, to use Heine's word, which drove the poet from the rubs of social life to waste places of nature and sometimes to suicide. In such a mood the mind recurred to the language of Ossian, as the fit expression of its own indefinite and stormy griefs.


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