The Poetical Works of Ossian by James Macpherson

Introduction

 

Influence

"The Poems of Ossian" by James Macpherson were published in the 1760's, (see Bibliographic Note) and created a sensation. Over the next thirty years it was translated into many languages, and gave a tremendous impetus to both the nascent romantic movement, and the study of folklore and Celtic languages. Goethe translated parts into German; Napoleon brought a copy to Moscow and also commissioned Ingres to paint The Dream of Ossian; Scandinavian and German princes were named Oscar after the character in it, as was Oscar Wilde; indeed the popularity of this name is due entirely to Macpherson. The city of Selma in Alabama, USA, is named after the palace of Fingal. Writers as diverse as William Blake, Henry Thoreau, George Byron, Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Matthew Arnold praised or imitated it. Its influence or lack of it on James Fenimore Cooper has been the subject of lively debate. Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms composed pieces inspired by it. But it is little known today (though it has been recently reprinted -- see below).

 

The "Ossian Controversy"

When it was first published Macpherson said that it was a translation of an ancient manuscript in Scottish Gaelic which had come into his possession, and which was a copy of an original work written by Ossian. This was contested by various people, including notably Samuel Johnson, who said that it was entirely the work of Macpherson himself. Both sides became passionate and vituperative in expressing their own view, and the controversy rumbled on over the next fifty years. The alleged manuscript never appeared, but later researches have shown that the work is based partly on genuine Highland traditions.

Those familiar with the later, more authentic, versions in English of ancient Gaelic literature will recognise many of the names and stories - Fingal is evidently Fionn Mac Cumhaill; Temora is Tara (Temro in Old Irish); Cuthulinn is Cú Chulainn (though a much feebler figure than the Irish hero), Dar-Thula is Deirdre of the Sorrows; Ros-cranna is Gráinne and Dermid is Diarmuid Ó Duibhne, though the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne is not one of Macpherson's stories. And so on. However, much of the work is Macpherson's own invention -- the tragic love story of Fingal and Agandecca, for example; and though "Temora" has some similarity to the Battles of Ventry and of Gabhra, the details are different. The footnotes (by Macpherson) are almost entirely misleading or downright wrong - be warned!

 

Ossian in Print!

I am glad to say that Ossian is in print. Howard Gaskill has produced an edition The Poems of Ossian and Related Works (Edinburgh University Press). This is based on the 1765 edition, and so is different from ours, which is taken from the 1773 edition (see Bibliographic Note). He is also in course of editing a work on The Reception of Ossian in Europe which is due to be published at the end of 2003 and is worth reading if you can afford it or get it from the library (it's very expensive).

 

Ossian Exhibition

After many years of neglect, Macpherson's Ossian is again inspiring artists. Calum Colvin has created an exhibition entitled: "Ossian - Fragments of Ancient Poetry." This was at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh from October, 2002 to February 2003 and is now touring the Highlands. More information on Calum Campbell's web site http://www.calumcolvin.com/

 

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The James Fenimore Cooper debate

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