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

By Fiona J. Stafford | Go to book overview

non-specialist ( Campbell, for example, published all the surviving collections of heroic Gaelic ballads untranslated, so that readers could compare the various versions of a poem). Biographical information, so vital to any interpretation of Macpherson, is also scarce. Apart from the scattered references in eighteenth-century writings, the only biography is Bailey Saunders' The Life and Letters of James Macpherson, 1894, which has been out of print for nearly a century. J. N. M. Maclean's biographical thesis on 'The early Political Careers of James 'Fingal' Macpherson (1736-1796) and Sir John Macpherson, Bart. (1744-1821)', 1967, was so biased against the Macphersons that much of the material is distorted to the point of inaccuracy. But in order to understand The Poems of Ossian, some knowledge of James Macpherson's background and character is essential.

Macpherson Ossian was by no means the work of a confidence trickster, bent on achieving fame and fortune through a clever hoax. Neither was it what it purported to be -- a literal translation of Gaelic poems which had survived unaltered since the third century. Rather than sitting in judgement, however, it is perhaps more fruitful to consider Macpherson's motivation. Why should a young man of twenty-two be drawn to the character of an old Celtic bard? And what attracted Macpherson to the Gaelic poetry in the first place? Why did he think it would interest English speakers? And why didn't he produce straightforward, literal translations of the Highland poems? Above all, what was it about The Poems of Ossian that caused such a furore during the latter half of the eighteenth century and the Romantic period?

Although Ossian is a crucial text for literary historians interested in the origins of the Romantic Movement, it is also important as a work representative of the 1760s. Andrew Erskine saw Fingal as a 'criterion, to discover the taste of the present age', 10 and there can be few works which embody more fully the conflicting attitudes of the mid eighteenth century. Ossian was heralded as an Original Genius, and yet his simple effusions were polished enough to suit the refined tastes of the eighteenth-cenytury aesthete. The work was presented as a classical epic and yet offered an alternative to the tired models of Greece and Rome. Macpherson opened a world of stormy mountain scenery, full of the grandeur and terror demanded by the new taste for the Sublime. At the same time, the appearance of antiquity gave a reassuring sense of permanence. The Poems of Ossian offered an imaginative escape to any one who found the prevailing climate of the Enlightenment somewhat lacking. As such, it is worth more than a passing smile.


NOTES
1.
The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols, ( London 1930-1934), V, 15.

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Illustrations vi
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Abbreviations viii
  • Prologue 1
  • Notes 4
  • Chapter One - Macpherson's Childhood in the Scottish Highlands 6
  • Notes 20
  • Chapter Two - Macpherson at the University of Aberdeen 1752-1755 24
  • Notes 37
  • Chapter Three - Macpherson's Early Poetry 40
  • Notes 58
  • Charter Four the Highlander 61
  • Notes 75
  • Chapter Five - The Death of Oscur 77
  • Notes 94
  • Chapter Six - Fragments of Ancient Poetry 96
  • Notes 111
  • Chapter Seven - The Highland Tours 113
  • Notes 129
  • Chapter Eight - Fingal 133
  • Notes 149
  • Chapter Nine - Macpherson's Vision of Celtic Scotland 151
  • Notes 160
  • Chapter Ten the Response to Ossian 163
  • Notes 178
  • Epilogue 181
  • Surviving Gaelic Manuscripts collected by James Macpherson 184
  • Index 188
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