English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.



   The Eighteenth Century.  James Macpherson.  Ossian.  Thomas Chatterton. 
   His Poems.  The Verdict.  Suicide.  The Cause.


The middle of the eighteenth century is marked as a period in which, while other forms of literature flourished, there arose a taste for historic research.  Not content with the actual in poetry and essay and pamphlet, there was a looking back to gather up a record of what England had done and had been in the past, and to connect, in logical relation, her former with her latter glory.  It was, as we have seen, the era of her great historians, Hume, Gibbon, and Robertson, who, upon the chronicles, and the abundant but scattered material, endeavored to construct philosophic history; it was the day of her greatest moralists, Adam Smith, Tucker, and Paley, and of research in metaphysics and political economy.  In this period Bishop Percy collected the ancient English ballads, and also historic poems from the Chinese and the Runic; in it Warton wrote his history of poetry.  Dr. Johnson, self-reliant and laborious, was producing his dictionary, and giving limits and coherence to the language.  Mind was on the alert, not only subsidizing the present, but looking curiously into the past.  I have ventured to call it the antiquarian age.  In 1751, the Antiquarian Society of London was firmly established; men began to collect armor and relics:  in this period grew up such an antiquary as Mr. Oldbuck, who curiously sought out every relic of the Roman times,—­armor, fosses, and praetoria,—­and found, with much that was real, many a fraud or delusion.  It was an age which, in the words of old Walter Charleton, “despised the present as an innovation, and slighted the future, like the madman who fell in love with Cleopatra.”

There was manifestly a great temptation to adventurous men—­with sufficient learning, and with no high notion of honor—­to creep into the distant past; to enact, in mask and domino, its literary parts, and endeavor to deceive an age already enthusiastic for antiquity.

Thus, in the third century, if we may believe the Scotch and Irish traditions, there existed in Scotland a great chieftain named Fion na Gael—­modernized into Fingal—­who fought with Cuthullin and the Irish warriors, and whose exploits were, as late as the time of which we have been speaking, the theme of rude ballads among the highlands and islands of Scotland.  To find and translate these ballads was charming and legitimate work for the antiquarian; to counterfeit them, and call them by the name of a bard of that period, was the great temptation to the literary forger.  Of such a bard, too, there was a tradition.  As brave as were the deeds of Fingal, their fame was not so great as that of his son Ossian, who struck a lofty harp as he recounted his father’s glory.  Could the real poems be found, they would verify the lines: 

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