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LECTURE THE TWENTY-THIRD.
Lecture the First.
THE CELTIC LANGUAGE-THE ORIGIN AND FORMATION OF THE ANGLO-SAXON-OSSIAN, THE CELTIC POET-GILDAS-NENNIUS-ST. COLUMBANUS-CEDMON-JOHN OF BEVERLY-BEDE-KING ALFRED-ALFRIC, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURYNORMAN FRENCH WRITERS-MAISTRE WACE-THE ORIGIN OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE-RHYMING CHRONICLES-LAYAMON-ROBERT OF GLOUCESTER-METRICAL ROMANCES-MINSTRELS OR JONGLEURS-RICHARD THE FIRST-ROGER BACON.
THE English language, now so rich in its literature, is essentially based upon the Teutonic, a dialect spoken by the inhabitants of Central Europe at the dawn of history, and which also constitutes the basis of the language of Germany, of Holland, and of Denmark. It was introduced from the continent by the Anglo-Saxons in the latter part of the fifth century of the Christian era, and gradually spread with the people who spoke it, over nearly the whole of Southern Britain; the Celtic, the language of the Aborigines of the country, soon shrinking before it into Caledonia, Wales, Cornwall, and other remote parts of the island.
During the first five centuries after its introduction into the country now called England, the Anglo-Saxon language underwent little change farther than that which resulted from the occasional introduction of Latin words by Christian missionaries from the continent; and its literature, meantime, was cultivated, chiefly, by members of the different religious orders, some of whom were evidently men of more than ordinary genius. This early age presents us with many valuable historical chronicles, and theological treatises, together with occasional poetical effusions that well deserve to be carefully preserved.
But before we proceed to speak of these writers more particularly, we can not forbear to pause for a moment on the Celtic age, and briefly notice Ossian, its brightest, and perhaps its only ornament. Without concerning ourselves with those perplexing questions which respect Ossian's identity, we shall assume, according to Dr. Blair and Lord Kames, that he really lived, and actually composed the poems attributed to him by Macpherson.
The era assigned to Ossian is the beginning of the fourth Christian century, which places him two centuries at least anterior to any Southern British writer. He was the son of Fingal, a Caledonian chief, and having survived all the companions of his youth, under the influence of the "Joy of Grief”—his own luminous expression, looked back upon the scenes of his
early life, and breathed forth in strains of melancholy tenderness, and deep pathos, all those chastening recollections which now burthened his
The principal poems of Ossian are Fingal, and Temora, both of which are regular epics, though they are comparatively limited in extent. Of these poems, as well as of the minor productions of his muse, the principal characteristics are sublimity and tenderness. They breathe nothing of the gay and cheerful kind, but an air of solemnity and seriousness is diffused over the whole. Ossian is, perhaps, the only poet who never relaxes, or lets himself down into the light or amusing strain: he moves perpetually in the high region of the grand and the pathetic. One key-note is struck at the beginning, and supported to the end; nor is any ornament introduced that is not perfectly concordant with the general tone of the melody. The events recorded are all serious and grave, and the scenery throughout is wild and romantic. The extended heath by the sea-shore; the mountains shaded with mist; the torrent rushing through a silent valley; the scattered oaks, and the tombs of warriors overgrown with moss; all produce solemn attention in the mind, and prepare it for great and extraordinary events.
We find not in Ossian an imagination that supports itself, and dresses out gay trifles to please the fancy. His poetry, to a greater extent, perhaps, than that of any other writer, deserves to be styled the poetry of the heart -a heart penetrated with noble sentiments, and with sublime and tender passions; a heart that glows and kindles the fancy; a heart that is full to overflowing, and pours its gushing feelings forth unrestrained.
Ossian, like Homer, did not write as modern poets write, to please readers and critics: he sang from the love of pure poetry and song. His delight was to think of the heroes among whom he had flourished; to recall the affecting incidents of his life; to dwell upon his past wars, and loves, and friendships; till, as he himself expresses it,
There comes a voice to Ossian, and awakes his soul. It is the voice of years that are gone; they roll before me with all their deeds;
and under this true poetic inspiration, giving vent to genius, it is no wonder that we should so often hear and acknowledge, in his strains, the powerful and ever-pleasing voice of humanity.
It is necessary to remark, however, that the beauties of the poems of Ossian can not be felt by those who give them only a single or hasty perusal. They require to be taken up at intervals, and to be frequently reviewed; and then it is impossible that his beauties should not develop themselves to every reader who is capable of sensibility. Those indeed who have the highest degree of it, will relish him the most. In the absence of religion, and religious sentiment of every kind, Ossian has created a machinery for himself out of the departed spirits of heroes and friends; and these properly constitute his mythology. The aspect of these spirits, and their breathing tones, are frequently wrought up to a height of sublimity wonderfully