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

By Fiona J. Stafford | Go to book overview

not only for their antiquity, but because they possessed the energy of an early world, unhampered by literary predecessors. While this would be true of a third-century Ossian (and, indeed, accounts for much of the acclaim which met Fingal), Macpherson's bard, who remembers a vigorous past but remains doomed to an impotent present, was symptomatic of the mid eighteenth century.

The modern problem of equalling the past and wrestling with the debilitating notion that everything had been said before was particularly acute in Scotland. The self-consciousness about the Scottish language meant that many writers sheltered behind imitations of English masters, just as Macpherson had in his earlier attempts at poetry. Past masters could provide inspiration, but they could just as easily lead to depressing feelings of inadequacy. The image of the decrepit bard decaying slowly in his ruined world casts interesting light on the anxieties of the eighteenth-century poet, and Hazlitt's comments on Ossian are extremely revealing:

As Homer is the first vigour and lustihed, Ossian is the decay and old age of poetry. He lives only in the recollection and regret of the past. There is one impression which he conveys more entirely than all other poets, namely, the sense of privation, the loss of all things, of friends, of good name, of country -- he is even without God in the world. He converses only with the spirit of the departed; with the motionless and silent clouds . . . The feeling of cheerless desolation, of the loss of the pith and sap of existence, of the annihilation of the substance, and the clinging to the shadow of all things as in a mock-embrace, is here perfect . . . If it were indeed possible to show that this writer was nothing, it would only be another instance of mutability, another blank made, another void left in the heart, another confirmation of that feeling which makes him so often complain, 'Roll on, ye dark brown years, ye bring no joy on your wing to Ossian!' 29


NOTES
1.
The Poems of Charles Churchill, ed. J. Laver, 1933; ( London 1970), 216.
2.
See Hume's letter to William Strahan, 9 February 1761, The Letters of David Hume, 1, 342-3.
3.
Ramsay, Scotland and Scotsmen, 1, 549.
4.
Elizabeth Montagu, The Queen of the Bluestockings, Her Correspondence from 1720-1761, ed. E. J. Climenson, 2 vols, ( London 1906), II, 267-68.
5.
SRO GD 110/1171, Hamilton/ Dalrymple of North Berwick Muniments.
6.
Ibid.
7.
Home to Bute, 12 June 1761, R. George Thomas, 'Lord Bute, John Home and Ossian', 73.

-149-

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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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