Saturday, November 26, 2016

Like a cloud of mist on the silent hill

The poetry of the Scottish bard Ossian is often described in terms of its admirers: Diderot, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Mendelssohn etc.  Few read it now though, partly perhaps because it was exposed as a fake, written by its translator 'from the Gaelic or Erse language', James Macpherson.  In these heroic narratives there is no time for landscape description but even a cursory read reveals a remarkably dense use of nature similes, which no doubt appealed to the Romantics.  Here are a few lines from the opening of Fingal, written in 1762 (its eponymous hero was the father of Ossian and king of north-west Scotland).  The Irish general Cuthullin, sitting 'by the tree of the rustling sound' at Tura, a castle on the coast of Ulster, is approached by his scout Moran, who has just seen Swaran, king of Lochlin. 
"I beheld their chief," says Moran, "tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the shore! like a cloud of mist on the silent hill! Many, chief of heroes! I said, many are our hands of war. Well art thou named, the mighty man; but many mighty men are seen from Tura's windy walls.

"He spoke, like a wave on a rock, 'Who in this land appears like me? Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth from my hand. Who can meet Swaran in fight? Who but Fingal, king of Selma of storms? Once we wrestled on Malmor; our heels overturned the woods. Rocks fell from their place; rivulets, changing their course, fled murmuring from our side. Three days we renewed the strife; heroes stood at a distance and trembled. On the fourth, Fingal says, that the king of the ocean fell! but Swaran says he stood! Let dark Cuthullin yield to him, that is strong as the storms of his land!"

If you gather together all the similes in Book 1 of Fingal they make a kind of nature poem:
like a cloud of mist on the silent hill
like a wave on a rock
like streams from the mountains
like mist that shades the hills of autumn
like the dark rolling of that wave on the coast
like reeds on the lake of Lego
like a roe from Malmor
like a hart from thy echoing hills
like a star, that shoots across the desert
like two white pillars in the halls of the great Fingal

like the bank of a mountain stream
like the thunder of heaven
like a whale of ocean
like the gathered flies of the eve
like the flame of death
like a wave near a rock
like a sun-streaked mist of the heath
like the sea round the boat of night
like a stream of smoke on a ridge of rocks
like wreaths of mist fly over the streamy vales
like the blast of winter
like my polished yew

like a flame
like a storm along the streamy vale
like the echoing main
like autumn's dark storms pouring from two echoing hills
like two deep streams from high rocks meeting, mixing roaring on the plain
like the circles of light, which gild the face of night
like two hinds of the desert
like the shrill spirit of a storm
like the beam of heaven
like two clouds
like lightning
like the sullen sound of Cromla before a storm
like snow
like the calm shower of spring
like the sun on our fields

No comments: