Source 6 : ‘Poems of Ossian’, Volume 1, edited by Malcolm Laing, 1805
Printed book (NLS shelfmark: Oss.64-65)
Malcolm Laing was a historian and advocate from Orkney. He questioned the authenticity of the Ossian poems, and his 1805 edition, which included ‘Fingal’, ‘Temora’ and ‘Fragments of ancient poetry’, featured his extensive notes and annotations to the poems.
Instead of a formal dissertation on those marks of poetical imitation which a learned critick has so well explained [See Hurd on the Marks of Poetical Imitation], it is sufficient to observe, that in Ossian there are some hundred similes and poetical images, which must either be original, or derived from imitation. If the poems are authentick, they must be original; and their casual coincidence with other poetry can possess only such a vague resemblance, as that of Virgil’s Pollio to the prophesies of Isaiah. If the poems, however, are not authentick,
these similes and poetical images must be derived from the classicks, scriptures, and modern poetry, with which the author’s mind was previously impregnated, and, however artfully disguised, they may be traced distinctly to their source.
And conversely again, if these similes and poetical images are original, the authenticity of the poems can admit of no contradiction; if, on the contrary, they are derived from imitation, all the attestations and oaths in the Highlands would fail to establish the authenticity of Ossian. The present commentary professes, therefore, not merely to exhibit parallel passages, much less instances of a fortuitous resemblance of ideas, but to produce the precise originals from which the similes and images are indisputably derived.
The arrangement of the three first editions is preserved, as the order in which the poems were written leads occasionally to some curious detections. But the text of the [page viii]
corrected edition of 1773 is adopted throughout, and the additions are carefully marked and distinguished by Italics, though the alterations are too numerous and minute to be noted. Not only Macpherson’s historical dissertations, but many of his notes, are rejected, as full of falsehood; and Blair’s critical dissertation is also omitted, as it can do no honour now to his memory.
In the course of my enquiries, I have discovered above four thousand of Macpherson’s verses, written between the age of seventeen and twenty-two, while he sacrificed, or served his apprenticeship in secret to the muses. His earliest poem is in blank verse, and entitled Death; the second is a heroic poem, which may be stiled the Hunter; both written at the age of eighteen, and discovered in the Highlands in his own hand-writing. The Highlander, his next heroic poem, was published in 1758. Other verses, marked with his initials, were occasionally inserted in the Scots and Edinburgh
Magazines; and in a Collection of Original Poetry, by Blacklock and other Scots gentlemen, (Edinburgh 1760,) a series of anonymous poems must be appropriated to Macpherson. These poems, of which some are highly descriptive, and others again sentimental, are authenticated by the repetition of the same expressions and imagery in Ossian; but at present, the chief value of Macpherson’s verses consists in the evidence which they afford, that his first, and most predominating ambition was to become a heroic poet.
- With reference to the source, outline Malcolm Laing’s main reasons for believing that the poems were actually written by Macpherson himself, and not by an ancient poet.
- Malcolm Laing was an advocate. Is there anything in his approach to presenting his argument which would suggest this was his profession? Refer to the source to support your answer.