The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian

The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian

The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian

The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian

Excerpt

I shall conclude this general account with some remarks on four of the principal works of poetry in the world, at different periods of history -- Homer, the Bible, Dante, and let me add, Ossian.

William Hazlitt, 'On Poetry in General' , 1818

To the modern reader, Hazlitt's addition of Ossian to his short-list of the world's greatest poetry seems bizarre. Few people today have even heard of The Poems of Ossian , and fewer still have read them (indeed, Macpherson's obscurity is more or less sealed by the lack of twentieth-century editions). Those who do know something of Ossian tend to dismiss it with a smile and a vague reference to literary forgeries -- wasn't it something to do with Chatterton? Surely Macpherson was a fraud and, therefore, unworthy of any serious attention? And yet Hazlitt was by no means dull. He rated Ossian among the best in the world.

Whatever we may think of Hazlitt's judgement in this instance, there is no doubt that Macpherson Ossian aroused enormous enthusiasm in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Its immediate appeal to readers of the 1760s can be seen in the effusive letter Andrew Erskine sent to James Boswell, after discovering the delights of Fingal :

It is quite impossible to express my admiration of his Poems; at particular passages I felt my whole frame trembling with ecstacy; but if I was to describe all my thoughts, you would think me absolutely mad. The beautiful wildness of his fancy is inexpressibly agreeable to the imagination.

For Erskine, Macpherson's translations of the third-century Celtic bard, Ossian , were the supreme expression of sublimity and sensibility in poetry: the question of authenticity was not an issue.

Erskine's response is typical of readers of the late eighteenth century, when the vogue for Ossian spread rapidly from Britain to Europe and America. During the century following the appearance of Fragments of Ancient Poetry , 1760, Macpherson's work was translated . . .

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