Ossian Essay - Critical Essays



Ossian c. Third Century

A warrior-bard who plays a role in Celtic myth and oral tradition, Ossian was reinvented in 1760 by James Macpherson (1736-96) with the publication of his translation entitled Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760). That collection was followed by the epics Fingal (1762) and Temora (1763), also presented to the reading public as translations of Ossian's works. Macpherson claimed that in these works he translated ancient Gaelic poetry originally composed by Ossian ostensibly in the third century. Furthermore, while tradition held that Ossian's origins were Irish, Macpherson asserted that Ossian was Scottish. Although Macpherson's editions were soon found to be spurious—not composed by Ossian and not dating to an earlier period, but rather the work of Macpherson himself—they nevertheless gained worldwide popularity, significantly influenced the burgeoning Romantic movement, and revitalized interest in Celtic poetry and Scottish national literature. Most modern critics agree that Macpherson's Ossianic poetry did draw material from ballads that had been preserved for centuries in the oral literature of the Scottish highlands, but that Macpherson pieced the epics together by interweaving that material with his own poetry.

By the mid-eighteenth century Scotland was ready for the so-called discovery of the Ossianic epics. In 1707, the Treaty of Union dissolved Scotland's Parliament by merging it with the English Parliament. The critic Neil Grobman has noted that Scottish culture then began to be heavily influenced by the English, resulting in a literary backlash against this trend. A Scottish literary renaissance had begun and included "a search for ancient Scottish bardic models in Homer's mode." David Hume, an Edinburgh intellectual and fervent Scottish nationalist, became active in promoting Scottish poetry. Among other authors, Hume endorsed the efforts of Scottish poet John Home, who had met Macpherson in 1759. Home encouraged Macpherson in the translation of Gaelic verse into English. One year later, Fragments was published, with Macpherson claiming their authenticity as remains of an ancient epic poem. After being financially supported by such prominent literary critics as Hugh Blair and Hume, Macpherson was persuaded to return to the Highlands of Scotland in search of even more Gaelic poetry. The venture resulted in the publication of Fingal and later, Temora, with Macpherson vouching that the poems were translations of the Gaelic epic works of Ossian.

After the publication of the works, Hume grew skeptical of their authenticity and in 1775-76 published a tract which

publicized his concerns. While Scotland remained supportive of Macpherson's claims, the national rivalry between England and Scotland, combined with attacks by Samuel Johnson on Ossian's authenticity, resulted in a rather cool English reception of the poems. Critic Susan Manning has noted that Johnson's main argument was that the language which Macpherson claimed to have translated was never a written language, and that the poems Macpherson said he had translated had never been set down in writing at all.

Despite the growing controversy surrounding the authenticity of the Ossianic poems, their popularity and influence escalated worldwide. J. S. Smart has attributed much of this popularity to the fact that Ossian embodied the ideals of the Romantic movement, which was just beginning to take root throughout Europe. The movement, led by Jean Jacques Rousseau, rejected rigid classical principles and embraced nature and primitive cultures. Ossian's poems were quickly translated into most European languages and were known to have influenced Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; Napoleon Bonaparte also owned a copy of the works, which he carried with him.

While the popularity of Ossian grew throughout Europe, the outrage of those who doubted Ossian's authenticity resulted in further attacks. In addition to Hume and Johnson, other contemporaries of Macpherson who criticised him included Malcolm Laing and the Highland Society of Scotland. In 1800 Laing presented a thorough and scholarly argument against Ossian's authenticity. The main thrust of his analysis focused on the names used in the poems: Laing examined the names of heroes in the Ossianic poems and found that one of the names "was indisputably of eighteenth-century origin." The Highland Society of Scotland also noted that there were no materials to prove that the poems published by Macpherson represented ancient texts. The scholar Anja Gunderloch has reviewed the conclusions of the Highland Society, finding that the Society had determined that the poems were "for the most part [Macpherson's] own invention while at the same time containing passages taken from genuine Gaelic ballad texts."

Yet Ossian was not without early defenders. Blair published the first extensive defense of Ossian in 1765. Blair was followed in 1807 by Patrick Graham, who attempted to answer arguments raised by Laing, and in 1870 by Archibald Clerk. Yet the evidence presented by the early 1800s caused considerable doubt in the minds of the English, while many Scottish still clung to the belief in Ossian as the "Scottish Homer." The controversy was extended into the nineteenth century due to the national antagonism between England and Scotland.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, critics generally accepted that Macpherson's Ossian was a fraud. Modern scholars have echoed their eighteenth-and nineteenth-century predecessors, and have commented that the style, content, and form of the poems indicate that the works were created by Macpherson himself, who drew to some degree on original Gaelic ballads. W. E. Walsh has discussed the style of the Ossianic poems, arguing that "no one who is familiar with the tales of the Heroic Age in Ireland could mistake [the Ossianic poems] for early Celtic." Derick Thomson has acknowledged the Gaelic sources from which Macpherson drew in composing Fingal, noting that the sources were used primarily for "hints for his plot," and has suggested that most other elements in the poem were Macpherson's own creation. Other modern critics have attempted to explain why Macpherson's Ossian was popular and accepted as authentic despite evidence to the contrary. Many have focused on the effects of Scottish nationalism on the acceptance of Ossian; viewed as ancient Scottish epics, the poems favorably displayed the Scottish literary genius and so fostered a strong tendency to be viewed as genuine and to admit Ossian into the literary canon.

Although Macpherson's Ossian has been decisively exposed as fraudulent, the merits and influence of the poetry have been attested to by critics as well. Matthew Arnold stated in 1867 that even when all traces of the modern and the forged are removed from Ossian, the poetry still contains "the very soul of Celtic genius." George Sainstbury observed that although Macpherson was a "faker", he was also a Highlander who effectively captured the local color. Walsh has commented on the influence of Ossian on Romantic poets, especially on George Gordon, Lord Byron, and has conceded that "without Macpherson's work, and the hue and cry it created, the Scottish revival would not have taken place." Similarly, Manning has evaluated the influence of Macpherson on Sir Walter Scott and has credited Macpherson's Ossianic poetry with the popularization of Highland subjects, which were a significant part of Scott's work. Frederic Carpenter has explored Ossian's effect on American writers, and has maintained that Ossian influenced the poetry of Walt Whitman even a century after the appearance of Macpherson's translation. Carpenter has argued that "it is probable that Macpherson's choice of a rhythmic prose for his 'translations' had much to do with the genesis of Whitman's new type of free verse." While perpetrating a major literary fraud, Macpherson nevertheless appears to have left an indelible mark on the literary world.

*Principal English Editions

Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland 1760

Fingal, an Ancient Poem, in Six Books 1762

Temora, an Ancient Epic Poem, in Eight Books 1763

The Poems of Ossian 1765

The Works of Ossian 1775

*All of these editions were compiled by James Macpherson.


Hugh Blair (essay date 1765)

SOURCE: A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1765.

[In the following excerpt from the first major examination of Ossian's authenticity, Blair defends Ossian's works as genuine.]

Among the monuments remaining of the ancient state of nations, few are more valuable than their poems or songs. History, when it treats of remote and dark ages, is seldom very instructive. The beginnings of society, in every country, are involved in fabulous confusion; and though they were not, they would furnish few events worth recording. But, in every period of society, human manners are a curious spectacle; and the most natural...

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Professor Richardson (essay date 1807)

SOURCE: "Section I.," in Essay on the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian, Peter Hill, Archibald Constable and Co., 1807, pp. 2-15.

[In the following essay, Richardson answers some objections previously raised regarding the authenticity of Ossian, and asserts that there is no internal evidence which invalidates the authenticity of the poems.]

The period which has been generally assigned as the æra of Ossian, is the beginning of the third century. It is admitted, that this deduction can be made only from the internal evidence of the poems which have been ascribed to him. In a case like this, we can expect no collateral evidence from the contemporary writers of Greece...

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Matthew Arnold (essay date 1867)

SOURCE: On the Study of Celtic Literature, Smith, Elder, and Co., 1867, pp. 151-54.

[Below, Arnold maintains that even when Macpherson's Ossian is stripped of all forgery and modernity, he still contains "the very soul of Celtic genius. "]

… [If,] by attending to the Germanism in us English and to its works, one has come to doubt whether we, too, are not thorough Germans by genius and with the German deadness to style, one has only to repeat to oneself a line of Milton,—a poet intoxicated with the passion for style as much as Taliesin or Pindar,—to see that we have another side to our genius beside the German one. Whence do we get it? The Normans may have brought...

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Archibald Clerk (essay date 1870)

SOURCE: "Dissertation," in The Poems of Ossian, William Blackwood and Sons, 1870, pp. i-xlvi.

[In the following excerpt, Clerk offers a detailed defense of Ossian's authenticity and antiquity, discussing both internal and external "evidence."]

It has often been brought as a reproach against the Galel that any knowledge of Gaelic literature possessed by the world is due to the labour of strangers; that the people themselves were indifferent to the subject. And it must be admitted that the reproach is in a great degree deserved. I am glad, however, to be able to show that the first known proposal to make the English public acquainted with the poetical treasures long...

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W. D. Howells (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "Ossian," in My Literary Passions, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1895, pp. 66-8.

[In the following essay, Howells briefly conveys his impressions of Ossian, stating that early on, he "gave the pretensions of Macpherson an unquestioning faith."]

Very likely the reading of Ossian had something to do with my morbid anxieties. I had read Byron's imitation of him before that, and admired it prodigiously, and when my father got me the book—as usual I did not know where or how he got it—not all the tall forms that moved before the eyes of haunted bards in the dusky vale of autumn could have kept me from it. There were certain outline illustrations in it, which...

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J. S. Smart (essay date 1905)

SOURCE: "The Age and the Race," in James Mac Pher-son: An Episode in Literature, David Nutt, 1905, pp. 1-32.

[Below, Smart reviews the literary climate of the mid-eighteenth century, outlining the rise of Romanticism as both a rejection of Classicism and an embracing of nature. Smart maintains that Ossian's works were seen as the epitome of the ideals of the new Romantic movement, but that by the mid-nineteenth century the works were viewed as fraudulent.]


James Macpherson is a poet whose fame in his own epoch now astonishes posterity. He appeared at a time of transition; an old school was going out, a new one coming in; and the new school...

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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, G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1916, pp. 281-328.

[In the following excerpt, Saintsbury argues that although Macpherson's Ossian was a fraud, Macpherson nevertheless succeeded in portraying Highland local color effectively and originally.]

… [It may be] difficult to get the modern reader to tackle Ossian. … But few people can be unaware that no such difficulty was felt by original readers of that singular compilation, which, if not real poetry itself, inspired poetry in two generations at least (the second of...

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Frederick I. Carpenter (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "The Vogue of Ossian in America: A Study in Taste," in American Literature, Vol. 2, No. 4, January, 1931, pp. 405-17.

[In the essay below, Carpenter analyzes the reaction of Americans to the works of Ossian, asserting that a century after the poems first appeared, they influenced in a positive way the poetry of Walt Whitman.]


It has been said so often as almost to become a truism that American literary taste has followed slowly after European literary taste at an interval of from twenty to fifty years.1 For instance, in the eighteenth century English literary circles developed a love for wit and elegance, and, after...

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W. E. Walsh (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "MacPherson's Ossian," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 3, Autumn, 1938, pp. 366-76.

[In the following essay, Walsh reviews the critical controversy over Ossian's authenticity, highlighting the findings of the Highland Society of Scotland as well as the internal stylistic evidence against Macpherson's claim.]

Macpherson's imposture is probably unique in the annals of literature. If he had looked forward and deliberately planned it, realizing the publicity it would receive, it is doubtful that he would ever have attempted it; but he was drawn into it in the first place by a tempting and unlooked-for opportunity, and once he was committed his stubborn pride...

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Derick S. Thomson (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Fingal: The Garbh mac Stáirn and Magnus Ballads," in The Gaelic Sources of MacPherson's 'Ossian,' Folcroft Library Editions, 1973, pp. 13-20.

[Here, Thomson surveys the Gaelic sources he believes Macpherson used in composing Fingal. Thomson maintains that Macpherson drew on twelve identifiable passages for "hints for his plot" in Fingal, but that in the case of Temora, which suffers from an almost non-existent plot, Macpherson appears to have drawn on only one Gaelic passage.]

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...

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Neil R. Grobman (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "James MacPherson, Ossian, and the Revival of Interest in Oral Bardic Traditions in Eighteenth-Century Scotland," in Midwestern Journal of Language and Folklore, Vol. VI, No. 1-2, Spring / Fall, 1980, pp. 51-5.

[In the following essay, Grobman discusses the eighteenth-century rise in interest in Scottish oral tradition and notes that this focus helped to ensure the initial popularity of Macpherson's Ossianic poetry.]

When Scotland lost its own Parliament by merging with the English Parliament on May 1, 1707, with the Treaty of Union, Scottish culture succumbed steadily to English influences. Scottish poets and musicians continued to leave for English cities, a...

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Susan Manning (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Ossian, Scott, and Nineteenth-Century Scottish Literary Nationalism," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol, XVII, 1982, pp. 39-54.

[Below, Manning contends that the controversy over the authenticity of Ossian "was artificially maintained into the nineteenth century," when literary issues were confused with the "contemporary national antagonism between England and Scotland."]

The "Celtic Revival" of the later eighteenth century formed part of the wider European movement away from literary neoclassicism towards a primitivist stance which looked to the barbarous past of "uncivilised" nations as the true wellspring of untutored inspiration and poetic truth....

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John Valdimir Price (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Ossian and the Canon in the Scottish Enlightenment," in Ossian Revisited, edited by Howard Gaskill, Edinburgh University Press, 1991, pp. 109-28.

[In the following essay, Price studies the factors that propelled the works of Macpherson's Ossian temporarily into the canon of English literature.]

The publication of Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760), Fingal (1762), and Temora (1763) illustrates a concerted, if an unusual, attempt to expand the literary canon: concerted in that there seems in retrospect to have been a conspiracy among some of the Scottish literati to force the poem into the canon, and...

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Howard D. Weinbrot (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Celts, Greeks, and Germans: Macpherson's Ossian and the Celtic Epic," in 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, Vol. 1, edited by Kevin J. Cope, AMS Press, 1994, pp. 3-22.

[Here, Weinbrot argues that eighteenth-century British readers assessed their Greek, German, and Celtic cultural inheritances in the light of defining their national identity. Weinbrot states that during this time, when both Greek and German literature were being re-evaluated and found too violent, Macpherson's Ossian presented a more appealing literary hero.]

In 1787 John Pinkerton laments that "this may be called the Celtic Century, for all Europe has been...

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Anja Gunderloch (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Eighteenth-Century Fraud and Oral Tradition: The 'Real' Ossian," in Orality, Literacy, and Modern Media, edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, Camden House, 1996, pp. 44-61.

[In the following essay, Gunderloch examines the manner in which Macpherson, under the guise of Ossian, approached and appropriated Scottish oral traditions, and explores the tension that exists between the genuine Scottish oral materials and Macpherson's literary treatment of them.]

The Gaelic literary tradition which flourished in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century was almost exclusively oral in character and only a small amount of this material...

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Further Reading

Cristea, S. N. "Ossian v. Homer: An Eighteenth-Century Controversy; Melchior Cesarotti and the Struggle for Literary Freedom." Italian Studies XXIV (1969): 93-111.

Discusses the first extensive translation, sold in book form, of Ossian's poetry. The translator was an Italian, Melchior Cesarotti, who, Cristea explains, used the poems of Ossian to attack Homer.

Edmunds, Kathryn. "'der Gesang soll deinen Namen erhalten': Ossian, Werther, and Texts of / for Mourning." Goethe Yearbook VIII (1996): 44-65.

Examines the influence of Ossian on Goethe's Werther.

Krause, David. "The Hidden Oisín." In The Profane Book of Irish...

(The entire section is 402 words.)