| English Literature for Boys and Girls|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Delightful introduction to the writers of English literature whose works hold the greatest appeal for the youthful reader. The life and personality of each author is given in outline, with enough material quoted from his works to give an idea of what he wrote. For most authors suggestions for further reading are included. The outline of historical background enables the young reader to grasp the connection between the literature and the life of the time. Excellent as a companion to a chronological study of English literature. Ages 12-15 |
THE STORY OF A LITERARY LIE
 WHO wrote the stories which are found in the old Gaelic
manuscripts we do not know, yet the names of some of the old
Gaelic poets have come down to us. The best known of all is
perhaps that of Ossian. But as Ossian, if he ever lived, lived
in the third century, as it is not probable that his poems were
written down at the time, and as the oldest books that we have
containing any of his poetry were written in the twelfth century,
it is very difficult to be sure that he really made the poems
called by his name.
Ossian was a warrior and chief as well as a poet, and as a poet
he is claimed both by Scotland and by Ireland. But perhaps his
name has become more nearly linked to Scotland because of the
story that I am going to tell you now. It belongs really to a
time much later than that of which we have been speaking, but
because it has to do with this old Gaelic poet Ossian, I think
you will like to hear it now.
In a lonely Highland village more than a hundred and fifty years
ago there lived a little boy called James Macpherson. His father
and mother were poor farmer people, and James ran about
barefooted and wild among the hills and glens. When he was about
seven years old the quiet of his Highland home was broken by the
sounds of war, for the Highland folk had risen in rebellion
against King George II., and were fighting for Prince Charlie,
 hoping to have a Stewart king once more. This was the rebellion
called the '45, for it was fought in 1745.
Now little James watched the red coats of the southern soldiers
as, with bayonets gleaming in the sun, they wound through the
glens. He heard the Highland battle-cry and the clash of steel
on steel, for fighting came near his home, and his own people
joined the standard of the Pretender. Little James never forgot
these things, and long afterwards, when he grew to be a man and
wrote poetry, it was full of the sounds of battle, full, too, of
love for mountain and glen and their rolling mists.
The Macphersons were poor, but they saw that their son was
clever, and they determined that he should be well taught. So
when he left school they sent him to college, first to Aberdeen
and then to Edinburgh.
Before he was twenty James had left college and become master of
the school in his own native village. He did not, however, like
that very much, and soon gave it up to become tutor in a family.
By this time James Macpherson had begun to write poetry. He had
also gathered together some pieces of old Gaelic poetry which he
had found among the Highland folk. These he showed to some other
poets and writers whom he met, and they thought them so beautiful
that he published them in a book.
The book was a great success. All who read it were delighted
with the poems, and said that if there was any more such poetry
in the Highlands, it should be gathered together and printed
before it was lost and forgotten for ever. For since the '45 the
English had done everything to make the Highlanders forget their
old language and customs. They were forbidden to wear the kilt
or the tartan, and everything was done to make them speak English
and forget Gaelic.
So now people begged Macpherson to travel through
 the Highlands
and gather together as much of the old poetry of the people as he
could. Macpherson was at first unwilling to go. For one thing,
he quite frankly owned that he was not a good Gaelic scholar.
But at length he consented and set out.
For four months Macpherson wandered about the Highlands and
Islands of Scotland, listening to the tales of the people and
writing them down. Sometimes, too, he came across old
manuscripts with ancient tales in them. When he had gathered all
he could, he returned to Edinburgh and set to work to translate
the stories into English.
When this new book of Gaelic poetry came out, it again was a
great success. It was greeted with delight by the greatest poets
of France, Germany, and Italy, and was soon translated into many
languages. Macpherson was no longer a poor Highland laddie, but
a man of world-wide fame. Yet it was not because of his own
poetry that he was famous, but because he had found (so he said)
some poems of a man who lived fifteen hundred years before, and
translated them into English. And although Macpherson's book is
called The Poems of Ossian, it is written in prose. But it is a
prose which is often far more beautiful and poetical than much
that is called poetry.
Although at first Macpherson's book was received with great
delight, soon people began to doubt about it. The Irish first of
all were jealous, for they said that Ossian was an Irish poet,
that the heroes of the poems were Irish, and that Macpherson was
stealing their national heroes from them.
Then in England people began to say that there never had been an
Ossian at all, and that Macpherson had invented both the poems
and all the people that they were about. For the English knew
little of the Highlanders and their customs. Even after the '15
and the '45 people in the south knew little about the north and
 lived there. They thought of it as a land of wild
mountains and glens, a land of mists and cloud, a land where wild
chieftains ruled over still wilder clans, who, in their lonely
valleys and sea-girt islands, were for ever warring against each
other. How could such a people, they asked, a people of savages,
make beautiful poetry?
Dr. Samuel Johnson, a great writer of whom we shall hear more
later, was the man of his day whose opinion about books was most
thought of. He hated Scotland and the Scottish folk, and did not
believe that any good thing could come from them. He read the
poems and said that they were rubbish, such as any child could
write, and that Macpherson had made them all up.
So a quarrel, which has become famous, began between the two men.
And as Dr. Johnson was far better known than Macpherson, most
people agreed with him and believed that Macpherson had told a
"literary lie," and that he had made up all the stories.
There is no harm in making up stories. Nearly every one who
writes does that. But it is wrong to make up stories and then
pretend that they were written by some one else more famous than
Dr. Johnson and Macpherson were very angry with and rude to each
other. Still that did not settle the question as to who had
written the stories; indeed it has never been settled. And what
most men believe now is that Macpherson did really gather from
among the people of the Highlands many scraps of ancient poetry
and tales, but that he added to them and put them together in
such a way as to make them beautiful and touching. To do even
that, however, a true poet was needed, so people have, for the
most part, given up arguing about whether Macpherson wrote Ossian
or not, and are glad that such a beautiful book has been written
by some one.
I do not think that you will want to read Ossian for
 yourself for
a long time to come, for the stories are not always easy to
follow. They are, too, often clumsy, wandering, and badly put
together. But in spite of that there is much beauty in them, and
some day I hope you will read them.
In the next chapter you will find one of the stories of Ossian
called Fingal. Fingal was a great warrior and the father of
Ossian, and the story takes place in Ireland. It is told partly
in Macpherson's words.
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