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...
(The entire section is 1,068 words.)