James Macpherson Essay - Critical Essays

Macpherson, James


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."

Principal Works

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


Rudolf Tombo, Jr. (essay date 1901)

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...

(The entire section is 3717 words.)

George Saintsbury (essay date 1916)

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...

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Derick S. Thomson (essay date 1952)

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...

(The entire section is 2957 words.)

Robert P. Fitzgerald (essay date 1966)

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...

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Derick Thomson (lecture date 1963)

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 entire section is 7383 words.)

John J. Dunn (essay date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 2442 words.)

Robert Folkenflik (essay date 1974)

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...

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John L. Greenway (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 4081 words.)

Kirsti Simonsuuri (essay date 1979)

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 entire section is 4171 words.)

Richard B. Sher (lecture date 1980)

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 entire section is 3151 words.)

Peter T. Murphy (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 9254 words.)

Maurice Colgan (lecture date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 2227 words.)

Leah Leneman (lecture date 1986)

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...

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Ian Heywood (essay date 1986)

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...

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Further Reading


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."


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