James Macpherson Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."