Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Homer des Nordens" und "Mutter der Romantik": James Macphersons Ossian und seine Rezeption in der deutschsprachigen Literatur

Academic journal article German Quarterly

"Homer des Nordens" und "Mutter der Romantik": James Macphersons Ossian und seine Rezeption in der deutschsprachigen Literatur

Article excerpt

18th and 19th Century Literature and Culture Gaskill, Howard, and Wolf Gerhard Schmidt, eds. "Homer des Nordens" und "Mutter der Romantik": James Macphersons Ossian und seine Rezeption in der deutschsprachigen Literatur. Band 4. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004. 850 pp. $186.30 hardcover.

When asked in 1763 whether any contemporary man could have written the poems attributed to an ancient Celtic bard named Ossian, English lexicographer and essayist Samuel Johnson replied, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children." Published two years before as the volume Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem, In Six Books: Together with several other Poems, composed by Ossian the Son of Fingal, the ballads immediately ignited controversy among British literati over their quality and authenticity. Despite formidable detractors like Johnson, many readers elevated Ossian to the status of a Scottish Homer. Ossian's purported translator James Macpherson claimed to have worked from original Gaelic manuscripts but could never produce them for corroborative examination. Not until 1805 did the Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland confirm somewhat the petulant Doctor Johnson's suspicions. Macpherson himself, an ambitious young poet proud of his waning Highland culture, had written the ballads based upon his familiarity with Scottish oral tradition and classical Greek and Latin epic poetry. By historical irony, English readers today have largely forgotten the Ossianic ballads, whereas even beginning students of German literature will recall from Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774) the protagonist's emotional and aesthetic commitment to them. Not only does the Scottish bard supplant Homer's position in Werther's heart, but the Sturm und Drang hero reads his own translations of Ossian to Lotte before walking not so quietly into the dark night to end his life with a pistol.

Indeed, the "Ossianic Controversy" did not diminish upon the continent for at least twenty years after the Highland Society's report. The longing for a heroic past and the natural imagery described in the ballads continued to resonate within the German imagination, as Gaskill and Schmidt's exhaustive demonstrates. Intended as an "umfassende ... Darstellung der deutschen 'Ossianomanie'"(781), the authors-editors offer a representative selection of the various forms of Ossian reception in Germany: "Ossian als Originalgenie" (the "Homer des Nordens," per Madame de Staël), as "'Urbild' des sentimentalischen Dichters," as "Mutter der Romantik" (per Uhland and Jean-Paul and comprising the Scottish contribution to a "Universalpoesie"), and as "Prototyp des last of the race" (781). …

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