James Macpherson 1736–1796
Scottish poet, translator, essay writer, and historian.
In the 1760s Macpherson perpetrated one of the most famous frauds in English literary history by publishing what he claimed were translations of poetry by an ancient Gaelic poet named Ossian. His efforts began as fragments of ballads and lyrics, based very loosely on actual Gaelic sources, and the success of these encouraged him to publish two longer poems, Fingal (1762) and Temora (1763), also presented as the work of the third-century epic poet Ossian. The poems were enthusiastically received by almost all of Scotland for celebrating the Gaelic, Highland heritage that was then rapidly being obliterated by changing economic and political conditions, contributing to the dominance of the English language. Samuel Johnson, however, almost immediately declared Macpherson's "translations" of Ossian a fraud, and others, such as the Scottish philosopher David Hume, soon began to question their authenticity as well. But these doubts had no effect on the popularity of the poems, which swept not only Scotland but also England and the whole of Europe. They were rapidly translated into German, French, and Italian, and Ossian was ranked second in poetic greatness only to Homer, with some critics even arguing that his works surpassed the Iliad and the Odyssey. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was an admirer, along with many other German Romantics, and Napoleon Bonaparte carried an Italian translation of the poems on his military campaigns. Macpherson's Ossianic poems were one of the great literary sensations in Europe during the eighteenth century, and his influence continued well into the next century, long after his claims of authenticity had been proven false.
Macpherson was born on October 27, 1736, in the village of Ruthven, between Perth and Inverness, where his father was a farmer. He began his university studies in Aberdeen, entering King's College in 1752 and transferring to Marischal College in 1754; he then studied at Edinburgh University for a year. In 1756 he returned to teach school in Ruthven, where he wrote The Highlander (1758), an epic. He then went back to Edinburgh and accepted a position as a private tutor. In 1759, while staying with a student of his at a fashionable resort, he met John Home, a famous Scottish dramatist of the time. Impressed with Macpherson's knowledge of Gaelic, Home
asked him to translate some poetry; Macpherson returned a few days later with several poems he had translated. Impressed, Home brought them back to Edinburgh and within a year arranged for Macpherson to publish Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760).
Following a much-publicized trip around the Scottish Highlands to collect more Gaelic manuscripts, Macpherson published the two epics Fingal and Temora. For years after their publication, Macpherson conducted a public debate with Johnson over the authenticity of his Ossianic poetry. The controversy was perpetuated by Macpherson's unwillingness to produce the originals of the poems he claimed to have translated; he continued to insist on his integrity while refusing to offer any evidence to support his claims. "Stubborn audacity," Johnson finally wrote, "is the last refuge of guilt." Macpherson, meanwhile, made a great deal of money from his publications, and his fame as the translator of Ossian also brought him opportunities in business and politics. He became extensively involved in the growing trade with India, served in the House of Commons, and purchased an estate in Scotland. He died on his estate in 1796, leaving an endowment of a thousand pounds to fund the publication of the Gaelic originals he still insisted existed for his poetry.
In Fingal Macpherson attempted to provide Scotland with a national epic, as Homer did for the Greeks, or Vergil for the Romans. Temora describes the raising of a monument to honor Fingal's victories in battle. Macpherson's Ossianic poems were all written in a style intended as an exact rendering of Gaelic verse. As Robert Fitzgerald has noted, quoting from the Fragments, Macpherson deliberately reordered his syntax to sound like a word-for-word translation of an ancient language: "Bent is his head of age, and red his tearful eye. Alpin, thou son of the song, why alone on the silent hill?" Widely praised for their natural descriptions of the Scottish highlands, the poems anticipated many aspects of Romantic poetry. They also appealed to a growing European interest in an idealized primitive society. Robert Folkenflik has attributed Macpherson's popularity in Scotland to his ability to create a heroic and poetic past that his countrymen wanted to believe had existed: "The general reception of the Ossianic works, with … Highland Scots by the score prepared to state under oath that they had learned these poems as boys, shows that the country was crying out for such a past and such a poet." Many scholars believe this was the basis of Macpherson's appeal throughout Europe. The poetry not only captured a pre-Romantic mood, it authenticated and legitimized it; people found some of their most popular beliefs embodied in what they believed was an artifact from an ancient civilization, and they took comfort in the discovery of an ancient poet who had expressed ideas with which they were familiar.
At the height of the controversy concerning Macpherson's sources, Johnson proclaimed that the Ossianic poems "never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. The editor, or author … doubtless inserted names that circulate in popular stories, and may have translated some wandering ballads, if any can be found." By the nineteenth century this verdict was widely accepted, and Ossian was less frequently and less widely read. "The extraordinarily fashionable almost inevitably becomes the irreconcilably unfashionable," George Saintsbury wrote of Macpherson at the turn of the twentieth century. But critics since then have been interested in rehabilitating Macpherson. Though the poems often had no exact originals, scholars have shown that they did rely on Gaelic sources; many have identified Gaelic sources for Macpherson's poetry and have established the existence of stylistic and structural similarities. For most critics, fraud is now too strict or harsh a verdict. Though the poems were not what Macpherson claimed, they still remain an important contribution to Scottish, English, and European culture, and critical discussion has turned from the issue of authenticity to exploration of the poetry itself. As Peter T. Murphy has written of Macpherson: "What he did with the inheritance of the Highlander is nothing worse than absorption, that respectable bardic activity … He adapted the Gaelic tradition to the modern world."
The Highlander (poetry) 1758
Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (poetry) 1760
Fingal, an Ancient Poem, in Six Books (poetry) 1762
Temora, an Ancient Epic Poem, in Eight Books (poetry) 1763
The Poems of Ossian (poetry) 1765
The Iliad [translator; from The Iliad by Homer] (poetry) 1773
The History of Great Britain (history) 1775
Original Papers (essays) 1775
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SOURCE: "General Survey and First Notices: General Considerations upon the Reception of the Ossianic Poems in Germany," in Ossian in Germany, 1901. Reprint by AMS Press, 1966, pp. 66-75.
[In the following excerpt from his landmark study of Macpherson's influence on German Romantic poetry, Tombo surveys the history of the poet's popularity in that country.]
Almost a century and a half has elapsed since the literary world of Europe bowed to a new offspring of the poetic muse that many thought would be immortal. The poems of Ossian were assigned to a 'natural genius,' whom men of unquestioned literary sagacity placed next to and even above Homer. Now they are almost forgotten, and their interest lies mainly in the influence they exerted upon some of the greatest minds of the 18th century.
It was in the year 1760 that James Macpherson, a Scotch youth of twenty-four, published in Edinburgh some Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gallic or Erse Language. Neither Macpherson nor his friends anticipated the tremendous sensation these fragments were destined to make, not only in Scotland and England, but on the whole continent of Europe. But Macpherson was not the man to underestimate the position which he had suddenly attained, and accordingly, emboldened by his initial success, he published in 1761 Fingal, an epic poem in...
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SOURCE: "The Fugitives from the Happy Valley," in The Peace of the Augustans: A Survey of Eighteenth Century Literature as a Place of Rest and Refreshment, Oxford University Press, 1946, pp. 286-334.
[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1916, Saintsbury discusses the poetic merit of Macpherson's Ossianic poems apart from the issue of their authenticity.]
It has been said that it requires considerable critical exercise or expertness to appreciate, in any critical fashion, the charm of Gray's Elegy. It may be added that even greater preparation is required before any modern man can really appreciate Ossian. The penalty of enthusiastic and unhesitating acceptance, at once, of such a work of art as this by any generation has—not quite universally but almost so—been future distaste if not disgust. The extraordinarily fashionable almost inevitably becomes the irreconcilably unfashionable. With singular felicity or singular cleverness (he showed himself, in fact, in all relations of life, except his exceedingly foolish and rash attempt to bully Johnson, a very clever man indeed) Macpherson managed to shoot his bolt with just that aim, a little ahead of the object, which is sure to hit as the object itself progresses. His recipe (to change the metaphor) was exactly what the crude and indiscriminate but greedy appetite of the last third of the century demanded without...
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SOURCE: "Fingal: The Garbh mac Stàirn and Magnus Ballads" and "Fingal (contd.)," in The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's "Ossian," Oliver and Boyd, 1952, pp. 13-20, 21-41.
[In the following excerpt from his book-length study, Thomson offers a detailed examination of the Gaelic verses Macpherson used to create some of the central scenes in his epic Fingal.]
Fingal is probably to be regarded as Macpherson's magnum opus. Some of the shorter pieces may claim a greater felicity, and indeed the lack of architectonic power which [Matthew] Arnold attributed, with some justice, to the Celts, and particularly to Ossian, may be attributed to Macpherson also. But when Fingal is compared with Macpherson's other essay in epic, Temora, the measure of his success in the former becomes more apparent. His theme, at least, was heroic, although his treatment of the theme was at times arbitrary. W. A. Craigie, writing on Fingal, remarks,
Had the same thing been done by one of equal genius at an earlier date there might have been a great Gaelic epic, not inferior in interest to those of Greece or later Europe.
The theme of Fingal may be described briefly in the words of Macpherson's own Dissertation,
The subject of it is an invasion of Ireland by Swaran, king of Lochlin,...
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SOURCE: "The Style of Ossian," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. VI, No. 1, Autumn, 1966, pp. 22-33.
[In the following essay, Fitzgerald shows how Macpherson's literary style was shaped both by his exposure to Gaelic sources and the necessity of making the poetry sound like a translation.]
When James Macpherson published his Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland in 1760 at Edinburgh, he presented them in a form that undoubtedly had a good deal to do with the remarkable success of the little volume. His rhythmic prose, with its simple syntax and exotic and profuse imagery, had the appeal of novelty; and this style was easily preserved in translation, thus accounting for some of the vogue of Ossian on the continent. But most important of all, the rhythmic prose gave the impression of authenticity. Hugh Blair noted in his Preface to the Fragments that "the translation is extremely literal. Even the arrangement of the words in the original has been imitated"; and to those who, like Blair, believed in Macpherson the peculiar rhetoric of a passage like the following derived from the effort to be literal:
The wind and the rain are over: calm is the noon of day. The clouds are divided in Heaven. Over the green hills flies the inconstant sun. Red through the stony vale comes down the stream of the hill. Sweet are thy murmurs, O Stream!...
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SOURCE: "'Ossian' Macpherson and the Gaelic World of the Eighteenth Century," in The Aberdeen University Review, Vol. XL, No. 129, Spring, 1963, pp. 7-20.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at the University of Aberdeen, Thomson relates both Macpherson's Ossianic poetry and the controversy over its authenticity to social and political circumstances in Scotland during the eighteenth century.]
What we mark today by these bicentennial celebrations is not a single, isolated occasion, but a series of events which brought James Macpherson, a young man from the Eastern Highlands and an alumnus of both King's and Marischal Colleges, prominently on to the literary stage. 1962 is a sufficiently central date for such celebrations: although James Macpherson made his first timid appearance as a translator in 1760, and although the first edition of Fingal appeared in December 1761, his epic task was not completed until 1763, with the publication of Temora, and the year 1762 can in many ways be regarded as his annus mirabilis.
The Ossianic Controversy has something of the air of an antiquarian puzzle. It is not easy to disengage one's mind from the present, or from more concrete problems, to reconsider the improbable chain of events which led Macpherson to the publication of Fingal, and to the greater eccentricity of defending his own translations...
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SOURCE: "James Macpherson's First Epic," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. LX, No. 1, July, 1971, pp. 48-54.
[In the following essay, Dunn argues that The Highlander, a long poem Macpherson published as a young man under his own name, demonstrates a commitment to Gaelic history and his Highland heritage that predates his "discovery" of Ossian.]
In June of 1760, Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry was published anonymously with a short preface by Dr. Hugh Blair, who was then at work preparing his lectures on belles lettres. A warm commendation from the pastor of the High Church of St. Giles assured the volume attention at least in the North, for at that time "Blair was one of the most signally honored men in Edinburgh"; furthermore, the poems had already been circulated among the Edinburgh literati and had received praise from such distinguished figures as Hume, Robertson, Ferguson, and Home. In view of the strong nationalistic feelings current in Scotland at the time, it would not have been difficult to predict the popularity in the North of the first published volume of what purported to be a translation of Highland poetry; but probably no one, least of all Macpherson himself, would have anticipated the great vogue these poems were to enjoy in England and throughout Western Europe.
How different was the reception that had awaited Macpherson's...
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SOURCE: "Macpherson, Chatterton, Blake and the Great Age of Literary Forgery," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 4, Fall, 1974, pp. 378-91.
[In the following essay, Folkenflik argues that eighteenth-century English culture made literary forgery both practically and imaginatively useful for several different writers, including Macpherson.]
It is no accident that the later eighteenth century was the great age of literary forgery. Macpherson, Chatterton, Pinkerton and Ireland (Steevens is perhaps another case) share a world which made forgery an innovative answer to a difficult series of questions which faced the wouldbe artist. The circumstances are fairly familiar, but the problems they posed have only recently been receiving any attention.
The chief question consciously or unconsciously asked by the ambitious was, "How can I be a great poet now?" In what follows I shall be concerned primarily with Macpherson, for though we do not consider him to be among the first rank of poets of his day, he was the first among them to provide a striking answer to the question, and his solution was immediately successful and influential. I shall then consider Chatterton's solution briefly in relationship to Macpherson, and end with a short account of a non-forger, Blake, who was a better poet than either and whose achievement may be best seen in the context of late eighteenth-century dilemmas....
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SOURCE: "The Gateway to Innocence: Ossian and the Nordic Bard as Myth," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 4, 1975, pp. 161-70.
[In the following essay, Greenway offers a reinterpretation of Macpherson's Fingal, maintaining that the poem functions as a "mythic narrative."]
Few now tremble at the dauntless heroism of Fingal, and none of us, I fear, are tempted to don Werther's yellow vest and share the misty signs of Temora. Indeed, the noble passions of this Last of the Bards have been treated with a neglect less than benign. Though we no longer read Ossian, we do read writers who, convinced of his authenticity, attempt to recapture what they imagine to be that synthesis of vigor and sentiment possessed by their Northern ancestors. As I have already implied, I propose to take Ossian seriously, and to suggest that he functioned as a mythic narrative for a modern era—"mythic" not in the Enlightenment sense of "falsehood," but in the more recent sense of "symbolic apprehension of reality." But what can Ossian have to do with reality?
Let us consider for a moment the nature and function of mythic narrative. The myths of a culture provide an orientation for man's moral experience in that they bestow an objective status upon values of the present, preserving them from relativism. Myths of gods and heroes show that the paradigms for human action not only exist outside man,...
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SOURCE: "Notions of Poetry and Society in the Controversy about Ossian," in Homer's Original Genius: Eighteenth-Century Notions of the Early Greek Epic (1688-1798), Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 108-18.
[In the following excerpt, Simonsuuri examines some of the literary and philosophical preconceptions that underlay the enormous popularity of Macpherson's Ossianic Poems in the eighteenth century.]
The view that folk poetry and popular culture have an interest of their own and are worthy of serious attention gained acceptance during the middle years of the eighteenth century. Scholars hunted for genuine folk epics. They looked for evidence for the workings of the spontaneous genius of simple peoples, not only in the past productions of northern nations, but also in the earliest works of classical antiquity. The prevalent eagerness to find evidence for certain theoretical presuppositions about early stages of civilization, an eagerness most marked in Scotland, can partly explain the fact that the inauthenticity of the Ossianic poems was not immediately realized. Ossian, Homer and the Bible were utilized almost indiscriminately as evidence by the primitivists when they formulated their theories of man and society; and this meant, in the first place, that Homer had come to attract notice as a representative of the primitive poets.
James Macpherson established his poetic reputation...
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SOURCE: "'Those Scotch Imposters and their Cabal': Ossian and the Scottish Enlightenment," in Man and Nature: Proceedings of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 1, Roger L. Emerson, Gilles Girard, Roseann Runte, eds., The University of Western Ontario 1982, pp. 55-63.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1980, Sher argues that Macpherson's "translations" of Gaelic poetry were in some part the product of a group of literary figures in Edinburgh with whom Macpherson was associated and who provided the financial and intellectual support that made the project possible.]
Although the name of Ossian was heard a great deal during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it has since become little more than a historical curiosity. We are amazed and amused that so many intelligent, welleducated people could have sincerely believed that the works of Ossian were both completely authentic and (what is perhaps more astounding) aesthetically unsurpassed—even by Homer. We have become accustomed to regarding this strange phenomenon as a case of deliberate deception: the public was simply fooled by James Macpherson, a brash young Highlander who cleverly tricked the literary world into accepting compositions that were in part distortions of genuine Gaelic poems and ballads, in part his own creation, as the original poetry of a legendary third-century Highland...
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SOURCE: "Fool's Gold: The Highland Treasures of Mac-Pherson's Ossian," in ELH, Vol 53, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 567-91.
[In the following essay, Murphy places both Macpherson's accomplishments and the controversy surrounding them in the context of the Scottish sense of national heritage in the eighteenth century.]
James MacPherson was once a famous man, famous for translating Ossian's poems. If he is remembered now, it is for forging the Ossian poems, with the emphasis on the forgery rather than the poetry; but mostly he is hardly remembered at all. If literary memory is founded on quality, then the turgid prose of these "poems," with its thick syntax and grand, vague gestures, certainly encourages forgetfulness. But if we think of him as a literary event, as a writer who generated a great deal of interest (regardless of the source of that interest), then he seems more deserving of attention. The Ossian books figure in the education of all major writers through about 1830, most often as a fond memory of youth (just as Walter Scott's novels will for the later nineteenth century); Ossian gave to these youths that adventure, mystery and romance that is still, to some extent, the clearest association of the Scottish Highlands. To the literary scholar MacPherson offers an interesting example of the literary criminal, a kind of malefactor whose faults are at best vaguely defined. In MacPherson's case the...
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SOURCE: "Ossian: Success or Failure for the Scottish Enlightenment?" in Aberdeen and the Enlightenment: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the University of Aberdeen, edited by Jennifer J. Carter and Joan H. Pittock, Aberdeen University Press, 1987, pp. 344-49.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1986, Colgan traces some of the contemporary influences on Macpherson's poetic vision and argues that Scottish intellectual culture bears at least some responsibility for his literary deceptions.]
Literary historians do not find it difficult to explain the European-wide interest in James Macpherson's 'translations' from the Gaelic of the ancient bard, Ossian. The Enlightenment, still very interested in the classical world, did not want to be confined to it. Non-classical cultures offered varieties of literary diet and alternative insights into human nature and society: they were part of the expanding consciousness of the age. Primitive cultures appeared to have most to offer, with their imagination and feeling uninhibited by belief in rationality as the essence of humanity, and by classical rules of composition. One of the most influential works taking this viewpoint was Thomas Blackwell's An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer (1735). Blackwell lectured at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where Macpherson studied. The question of the relationship between primitive society...
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SOURCE: "The Effects of Ossian in Lowland Scotland," in Aberdeen and the Enlightenment: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the University of Aberdeen, edited by Jennifer J. Carter and Joan H. Pittock, Aberdeen University Press, 1987, pp. 357-62.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1986, Leneman describes how Macpherson's poetry influenced the Scottish perception of the Highlands.]
In the first half of the eighteenth century the Highlands held no appeal for Lowland Scots. The scenery had no attraction, as evidenced by descriptions such as Daniel Defoe's 'frightful country full of hidious desart mountains.' The language was considered barbarous and the people were seen as superstitious and incorrigibly idle. Indeed, their whole way of life seemed an offence against the Calvinist work ethic.
The only attraction which the Highlands had at this time was potential. If the Highlanders could be remade in the image of Lowlanders—learn to speak English, become honest, hardworking, and industrious, discover the delights of true religion, and become imbued with the principles of the Glorious Revolution—then the area might become peaceful and prosperous instead of warlike and poor.
As far as the reformers were concerned there was nothing to be weighed in the balance against these benefits. If someone had suggested to them (no one did) that...
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SOURCE: "Ossian: The Voice of the Past," in The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to Eighteenth-Century Ideas of History and Fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986, 73-100.
[In the following excerpt from his book-length study of literary forgeries, Heywood examines the evolution of Macpherson's fictitious historical vision.]
To understand fully Macpherson's making of history, it is necessary to look at his forgery as it evolved. Like Chatterton, the historical vision manifested itself accumulatively with each new item. The forgeries were a process. The focus of our analysis in this [essay] will be on method: the mode of access to the past; the authenticating procedures used. The manner in which each new forged work related to previous ones and in hindsight to later ones was a crucial aspect of this method. Both forgers were extremely skilled in using devices such as inter-allusion, anticipation, and fulfillment. Macpherson began with "fragments" of ancient Erse poetry and progressed to complete and finished epics. Macpherson was given a free rein as to how his forgery appeared in print. It is possible then to study the evolution of his vision by taking each text in the order of original publication.
In 1760 appeared Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated...
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Saunders, Bailey. The Life and Letters of James Macpherson. London: Swann and Sonnenschein and Co., 1894, 327 p.
Relates the facts of Macpherson's life, as well as the reception of his literary works, and the course of the controversy they engendered.
Smart, J.S. James Macpherson: An Episode in Literature. London: David Nutt, 1905, 224 p.
A biographical and critical study of Macpherson's career, in which the author argues that he possessed "a sensitive and poetic mind, and a shrewd capacity for business."
Barratt, Glynn R., "The Melancholy and the Wild: A Note on Macpherson's Russian Success." In Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture: Racism in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Harold E. Pagliaro, pp. 125-35. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973.
An overview of Macpherson's popularity in Russia.
Bysveen, Josef. Epic Tradition and Innovation in James Macpherson's "Fingal." Stockholm: Uppsala, 1982, 145 p.
A book-length study of the epic elements in Macpherson's poem.
Gaskill, Howard. "German Ossianism: A Reappraisal?" German Life and...
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