Ossianic Unconformities
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Ossianic Unconformities

Bardic Poetry in the Industrial Age

Eric Gidal, John Tallmadge

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eBook - ePub

Ossianic Unconformities

Bardic Poetry in the Industrial Age

Eric Gidal, John Tallmadge

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Year
2015
ISBN
9780813938189
1
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The Songs of Ancient Peoples
THOUGH OUR CONCERN throughout this book will be with representations of dwelling, of inhabitation in a land, and with the uncovering of layers of sediment and drift, intrusion and erosion, it will also be with the mechanisms of mobility and technologies of translation by which such revelations are enabled, produced, transmitted, and received. We begin, therefore, as we will end, on a ship at sea: “The king of Morven commanded, and I raised my sails to the wind. Toscar chief of Lutha stood at my side, as I rose on the dark-blue wave. Our course was to sea-surrounded Berrathon, the isle of many storms.”1 Ossian—warrior, bard, and son of the great king Fingal—journeys alongside his companion Toscar, son of Conloch, at his king’s command, to restore Fingal’s ally Larthmor to his rightful throne as ruler of Berrathon, a minor principality of the kingdom of Lochlin. Larthmor sits imprisoned in a cave while his treacherous son, “fair-haired Uthal,” occupies the palace Finthormo. As he sails, Ossian recalls an earlier voyage made by his father to these same shores, where the king Starno’s beautiful daughter Agandecca once saved Fingal from her father’s treachery at the cost of her own life. Though Starno proved himself an enemy, Larthmor, his vassal, gained Fingal’s friendship through his hospitality, and thus Fingal has now sent his son and best warrior to fight for his restoration.
Off the coast of Berrathon, Fingal’s heroes encounter the maiden Ninathoma, who ran away from her father Torthóma to be with her beloved, Uthal. Though subsequently betrayed and imprisoned by Uthal, she still mourns his destruction at the hand of Ossian:
Nina-thoma sat on the shore, and heard the sound of battle. She turned her red eyes on Lethmal the gray-haired bard of Selma, for he had remained on the coast, with the daughter of Torthóma. Son of the times of old! she said, I hear the noise of death. Thy friends have met with Uthal and the chief is low! O that I had remained on the rock, inclosed with the tumbling waves! Then would my soul be sad, but his death would not reach my ear. Art thou fallen on thy heath, O son of high Finthormo! Thou didst leave me on a rock, but my soul was full of thee. Son of high Finthormo! Art thou fallen on thy heath?2
Nina-thoma’s generosity of spirit and her capacity for love have brought her only pain. Doubly exiled from both her father and her suitor, she can only sit on the shore and regret the fallen heroes. Ossian echoes her lament even as he slays her beloved. “Thou art fallen, young tree,” he says to the defeated Uthal, with tears in his eyes, “thou art fallen on thy plains, and the field is bare. The winds come from the desart, and there is no sound in thy leaves! Lovely art thou in death, son of car-borne Larthmor.” When brought to his body, Nina-thoma falls stricken by his side, and a tomb arises spontaneously alongside Ossian’s song: “Rest, hapless children of youth! at the noise of that mossy stream. The virgins will see your tomb, at the chace, and turn away their weeping eyes. Your fame will be in the song; the voice of the harp will be heard in your praise. The daughters of Selma shall hear it; and your renown shall be in other lands.—Rest, children of youth, at the noise of the mossy stream.” Larthmor is restored to his throne, and for three nights and days the heroes feast and rejoice. But as they prepare to return to Morven, raising their sails “to the roar of the northern wind,” the king spies the tomb of his son and laments, echoing Nina-thoma, “O that I had remained in the cave! That my son had dwelt in Finthormo!—I might have heard the tread of his feet, when he went to the chace of the boar.—I might have heard his voice on the blast of my cave. Then would my soul be glad: but now darkness dwells in my halls.”3 Though victory belongs to Ossian, and Fingal’s allies are restored, the dominant theme of their song is regret and a sense of irretrievable loss.
This melancholy tale of fidelity and betrayal forms the core narrative of the poem “Berrathon,” the final entry in James Macpherson’s great production Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem, in Six Books; Together with Several Other Poems, Composed by Ossian the Son of Fingal; Translated from the Galic Language (1762). In the first of several extensive annotations to the poem, Macpherson observes that it “is reputed to have been composed by Ossian, a little time before his death; and consequently it is known in tradition by no other name than Ossian’s last hymn.4 A fitting close both to Ossian’s poetry and to Macpherson’s collection, the poem recalls the restoration of Larthmor as a past moment of triumph already tinged with remorse so as to provide the dying Ossian with a measure of his own decline. This temporal dissonance is matched by a geographical divide, for while Macpherson locates the central episode somewhere on the Scandinavian coast, the framing hymn finds Ossian in Caledonian lands, sitting by the stream of Lutha, where he laments the death of Toscar’s daughter Malvina and foretells his own passing:
Bend thy blue course, O stream, round the narrow plain of Lutha. Let the green woods hang over it from their mountains: and the sun look on it at noon. The thistle is there on its rock, and shakes its beard to the wind. The flower hangs its heavy head, waving, at times, to the gale. Why dost thou awake me, O gale, it seems to say, I am covered with the drops of heaven? The time of my fading is near, and the blast that shall scatter my leaves. Tomorrow shall the traveler come, he that saw me in my beauty shall come; his eyes will search the field, but they will not find me?—So shall they search in vain, for the voice of Cona, after it has failed in the field. The hunter shall come forth in the morning, and the voice of my harp shall not be heard. “Where is the son of car-borne Fingal?” The tear will be on his cheek.5
Echoing his previous eulogy for Uthal and Nina-thoma, Ossian imagines a future traveler who will one day pass mournfully over the land and search for the remnants of heroic deeds and tragic partings. But whereas on the island of Berrathon Ossian promised the fallen couple songs of fame and renown among the virgins of Selma, he holds no such hope for his own recollection in future years. Any elegiac compact between the living and the dead is as sundered as the patrilineal line of succession that has brought an end to Fingal’s race. Likewise, Malvina, the daughter of Toscar and beloved of Oscar, Ossian’s fallen son, has forever vanished from the lands. “I passed, O son of Fingal,” intones an anonymous “son of Alpin,” “by Tar-lutha’s mossy walls. The smoke of the hall was ceased: silence was among the trees of the hill. The voice of the chace was over. I asked about Malvina, but they answered not. They turned their faces away: thin darkness covered their beauty. They were like stars, on a rainy hill, by night, each looking faintly through her mist.”6 In this land of silence, the voice of the song and the sound of the harp are present only by virtue of their noted absence, recalled by nameless and unrequited travelers. Analogously, the reader of “Berrathon” experiences a persistent and vertiginous movement between times and places, each narrator and narrative echoing the others in their evocations of noble deeds and mournful sentiments. These evocations are always incomplete, for silence is the dominant motif, and the voice and the harp no longer sound.
This silence, and the odd combination of mourning and desire it produces, is only deepened by the philological and geographical annotations that surround the poem in its printed form. Malvina’s name is glossed as “Malmhina, soft or love’s brow,” with the note that “Mih in the Galic language has the same sound with v in English.” By contrast, the river Lutha, where Ossian sings his final hymn, is translated by Macpherson as “swift stream” even as he notes that “it is impossible, at this distance of time, to ascertain where the scene here described lies. Tradition is silent on that head, and there is nothing in the poem from which a conjecture can be drawn.” The river thereby becomes the site of a peculiar memorial convention, one that gestures toward both sound and silence, calling upon the songs of the past as the basis of an authoritative tradition even as it recognizes the insufficiency of that tradition to the inquiries and understandings of the present age. Macpherson repeatedly evokes silence to note the paucity of information to be found in the Ossianic tradition, which, for example, has failed to pass on the name of the son of Alpin whose inquiries provoke the lay, though Macpherson informs the reader that “his father was one of Fingal’s principal bards, and he appears himself to have had a poetical genius.” Nor can we understand fully why Ossian refers to the successors of Fingal as “the sons of little men,” for “tradition is entirely silent concerning what passed in the north, immediately after the death of Fingal and all his heroes.”7 We encounter, in other words, a broken tradition, one whose hold on our imagination is only heightened by the silent gaps and fissures that separate our experience as readers from the bards whose songs are recounted. As readers, we are more akin to the traveler on the plain of Lutha, searching in vain for “the voice of Cona, after it has failed in the field,” than to the virgins on Berrathon, viewing the tomb of Uthal and Nina-thoma and passing their fame on through song to “the daughters of Selma” and the renown of other lands.
But on another ship at sea, in 1769, en route from Riga to Nantes, the young philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder passes along the Scandinavian coast with a copy of Michael Denis’s Gedichte Ossians, eines alten celtischen Dichters (1768–69), the first German translation of Macpherson’s works, and imagines that he can actually view the island of Berrathon, an experience he will recount at length in his “Extract from a Correspondence on Ossian and the Songs of Ancient Peoples” (1773):
Do you know why I harbor such feelings, partly for the songs of savages, partly for Ossian in particular? Firstly, I read Ossian in situations in which most readers could hardly appreciate him, those who, always distracted by bourgeois transactions, customs, and pleasures, encounter him only as amusing, interrupted reading material. You know of my sea adventure, but you can never imagine the full effect of such a long journey by ship as one experiences it. Torn suddenly from the daily business, tumult, and petty power struggles of the bourgeois world, from the armchair of the scholar and the comfortable couches of salons, without distractions, libraries, learned and unlearned newspapers, upon a wooden plank on the vast, open sea, in a small country of people who have stricter laws than the Republic of Lycurgus, in the midst of a pageant of a very different, living and breathing nature, floating between abyss and sky, surrounded daily by the same infinite elements, and only now and then noting a new distant shore, a new cloud, an ideal region of the world . . . now, imagine holding the songs and deeds of the ancient scalds in one’s hand, one’s soul completely filled by them, in the locations where they occurred . . . now passing at a distance the coasts where Fingal’s deeds took place and Ossian’s songs sang of melancholy, under the selfsame weaving of air, in the world, in the quietness. . . . Believe me, one reads skalds and bards differently there than behind the professor’s lectern. . . . And the feeling lives in me still of the night when I, on the wreck of ship no longer moved by storm nor tide, washed by the sea, and buffeted by the midnight winds, read Fingal and hoped for the morn. . . . Please forgive at least an aging imagination, which relies for support on impressions of this kind as on dear and intimate friends.8
Herder’s sprawling and enthusiastic prose simulates for his readers an affective equation of song and place from the moving perspective of a ship at sea. He celebrates the pageant of the living world of the open sea and the islands and coastlines of Nordic myth as an encounter with immersive presence much as he celebrates “the songs of ancient peoples” earlier in the same essay as the authentic voice of a culture bound by collective and sensual experience. Herder found in Ossian, as he had in the Latvian dainas whose performances he had witnessed in Riga prior to his departure, a form of Naturpoesie, a cultural anchor in what he termed the “true accents of nature.”9 His fantastic reverie in the North Sea would seem to express a nascent model of ecomusicology, one that emphasizes sound as both contingent on and formative of cultural practice and historical development within a lived and dynamic environment. Angelica Nuzzo, in her reflections on Herder, has characterized this generative sound as a sympathetic configuration of voice, body, and mind, “the original music that comes from the world itself even before being the conscious product of culture.”10 And Kate Rigby has celebrated Herder’s “rediscovery of place” as a kind of “bioregional implacement” in radical contest with the utilitarian imperatives and rationalist dislocations of the European Enlightenment.11
Yet Herder self-consciously contrasts the spiritual isolation of modern urban life not with the singing of song but with the reading of a book, not on the island of Berrathon but “upon a wooden plank on the vast, open sea.” Gazing over the waters from the deck of a moving ship, Herder positions himself between the twin gestures of speech and listening and comes to define not so much a rejection but a practice of reading, a practice that reinscribes the medial, linguistic, and geographical translations staged in the pages of “Berrathon.” His relocation from the armchairs and salons, libraries and newspapers, of a corrupted commercial existence alters his reading habits from distracted amusement to spiritual possession “in the midst,” as he puts it, “of a pageant of a very different, living and breathing nature.” He equates warrior, bard, and modern scholar as wandering readers of a belated song and uses this experience of mobility to map the contours of the lands past which he sails.12 He “holds” the songs and “gazes” upon their locations of origin, his soul “completely filled” with their power as he repetitively moves on—“now passing . . . now passing . . . now passing”—all in support of an “aging imagination.” Immediate presence—whether it be the oral recitation of vernacular poetry, the clima...

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Citation styles for Ossianic Unconformities
APA 6 Citation
Gidal, E. (2015). Ossianic Unconformities ([edition unavailable]). University of Virginia Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/856816/ossianic-unconformities-bardic-poetry-in-the-industrial-age-pdf (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Gidal, Eric. (2015) 2015. Ossianic Unconformities. [Edition unavailable]. University of Virginia Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/856816/ossianic-unconformities-bardic-poetry-in-the-industrial-age-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Gidal, E. (2015) Ossianic Unconformities. [edition unavailable]. University of Virginia Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/856816/ossianic-unconformities-bardic-poetry-in-the-industrial-age-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Gidal, Eric. Ossianic Unconformities. [edition unavailable]. University of Virginia Press, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.