Ossian Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.