Ossian Criticism - Essay

Hugh Blair (essay date 1765)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12326 words.)

Professor Richardson (essay date 1807)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2108 words.)

Matthew Arnold (essay date 1867)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Archibald Clerk (essay date 1870)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 22176 words.)

W. D. Howells (essay date 1895)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

J. S. Smart (essay date 1905)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7689 words.)

George Saintsbury (essay date 1916)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1542 words.)

Frederick I. Carpenter (essay date 1931)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4554 words.)

W. E. Walsh (essay date 1938)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4052 words.)

Derick S. Thomson (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9191 words.)

Neil R. Grobman (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2229 words.)

Susan Manning (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 5346 words.)

John Valdimir Price (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8840 words.)

Howard D. Weinbrot (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7708 words.)

Anja Gunderloch (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8278 words.)