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

By Fiona J. Stafford | Go to book overview

appealed strongly to Gothic tastes, as well as to those readers seeking the Sublime. Ossian's poetry burst straight from the overpowering emotions of the ancient bard and was lost in the 'sublime' landscape of mountains and storms. As such, it offered an exciting alternative to the familiar classical models, and Ossian rapidly became a symbol for the literature of the North.

At the same time, Macpherson's vision of Celtic society accorded well with the ideals of Rousseau and his followers. In Ossian's age of heroes, men were free from the burden of property and unrepressed by Church or State. There were no class barriers: Fingal was a leader through merit rather than privilege, while his army was tied by bonds of affection rather than by self interest or obligation. For readers with radical sympathies, such as William Blake, the appeal of Ossian was not merely stylistic and indeed, the free style of the verse seemed a reflection of the free society of Ancient Britain.

Unlike the urban society of Western Europe, Macpherson's Celts almost seemed part of the natural world. Their passions, unhindered by social conventions, were expressed freely, using metaphors drawn directly from their surroundings. Ossian's language, like his landscapes, seemed refreshingly different from the tired poetic diction of much mid-eighteenth-century poetry, which Wordsworth was to attack in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Instead of personified abstractions and latinate vocabulary, Ossian used simple words which could be grasped by anyone.

Despite their newness, The Poems of Ossian also seemed to offer a comforting sense of permanence: it was ancient poetry like the Bible or Homer and therefore seemed safe. Although Macpherson's work anticipated many of the concerns of the Romantic Movement, the words of a third-century poet could hardly seem revolutionary. The melancholy preoccupations of the Celtic bard himself attracted the sympathy of an eighteenth-century audience, but he still retained the stature of an Ancient. The combination of the subjective poet and the sage prophet was perfect for the Romantic Period, where the image of the poet as an isolated genius emerged again and again. As sole survivor of a greater world, Ossian commanded the perennial fascination with the exiled hero and the loss of paradise.


NOTES
1.
Poesie di Ossian figlio di Fingal, tr. M. Cesarotti, ( Padua 1763). For the different editions of Ossian, see C. F. Black, Macpherson's Ossian and the Ossianic Controversy, ( New York 1926); J. J. Dunn, "'Macpherson's Ossian: A Supplementary Bibliography'", BNYPL, lxxv, 1971, 467-73.

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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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