‘The Romantic awakening dates from the production of Ossian,’ Ezra Pound wrote, and he was right. One of James Macpherson’s great contributions to literature was the use of the fragment. His first Ossianic work, the Fragments of Ancient Poetry, published in Edinburgh in 1760, uses in its title and as its form one of the familiar terms of classical scholarship – the ‘fragmentum’ – and deploys it to give authority to the shattered remnants which he has carried over into English from the post-Culloden smash-up of the Gaelic world. Macpherson’s fragments predate and nourish the use of the fragment form by such Continental writers as Novalis and André Chénier. The fragment is a form which speaks of cultural ruin, and of potential re-assembly. It is central to the development of Romanticism, Modernism and Post-Modernism. Just as the Ossianic fragments are part of the aftermath of Culloden, in our own century the greatest uses of the fragment have come in the work of poets writing in the wake of a war which shattered the civilisation they knew. Pound used the form for much of his career and Eliot shored up fragments against his Waste Land ruins.
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Vol. 18 No. 22 · 14 November 1996
Robert Crawford’s piece on MacPherson’s ‘Ossian’ (LRB, 3 October) struck me as a masterpiece of scholarship bent to misleading ends. Almost nothing he said applied directly to the qualities of the work itself. I bought a copy of this strange mid-18th-century antique in a second-hand shop in Aberdeen in 1949 or thereabouts, and tried many times to read it. Finally the papier-mâché poetic diction, the monotony of the rhetoric, all ornamental adjectives and vaguely Hebraic doublets, and the soft-focus narrative, so short on physical detail and well-paced story, frustrated me completely. The book, for all my wish to admire its bardic lineage, slumped down into the dusty layers of the great unread. The only line I remember is ‘Around her from thin clouds bend the awful faces of her fathers,’ which was illustrated suitably by an engraving of mist-wraiths, white-bearded elders hovering in the sky like balloons and a female wafting about in a sort of sheet.
Crawford aggrandises the work while fudging most of its crucial aspects. He starts with a short lecture on the significance of ‘fragments’, which allows him to drop such names as Novalis, Pound and Eliot. By the end ‘fragments’ have dwindled to ‘traces’ – ‘traces of authentic material’ which ‘underlie’ MacPherson’s concoctions. What upsets me is that the strategy of wheeling in the famous names who were influenced by MacPherson’s farrago (for the worse, usually – see how he helped Blake to become diffuse and bombastic) enables him to slide right past the original Gaelic epics and dismiss the question of MacPherson’s authenticity as ‘boring’. If he is concerned about the culture of the Highlands, whether before or after the genocidal events of 1746, he should care about those original, heroic poems – the Homer of their place and time. The versions of them written down (and partly composed) by Irish monks in the 13th century read far better than MacPherson. As you would expect, they have much of the distinctness and narrative drive of, say, the sagas, the Iliad, the Mabinogion, and Aboriginal Australian oral poetry. MacPherson blurred all that in dreary atmospherics – third-rate landscape painting with lay figures posed here and there in the gloom.
This made him easy to recycle, consciously or unconsciously, when people like Byron, Emily Brontë or sundry Gothic novelists required darkly archaic effects. I wish that Crawford had been more concerned with the quality of the poetry, whether MacPherson’s or ‘Ossian’s’, and less with the sort of nationalistic point-making which is really saying something quite primitive like ‘My country’s literature right or wrong – remarkable or indifferent.’
Vol. 18 No. 24 · 12 December 1996
David Craig (Letters, 14 November) is trying to provoke a knee-jerk reaction when he writes of my Ossian piece (LRB, 3 October) in terms of ‘nationalistic point-making’. My commitment to a Scotland whose people have democratic control over their own affairs does not mean that I have undergone a complete critical and aesthetic by-pass operation. Some of the most interesting recent work on Ossian has come from Adam Potkay in Virginia and Fiona Stafford in Oxford; I doubt if either is a Scottish nationalist. What they and I are trying to do is to look at the Ossianic poems from fresh angles, rather than, as Craig tends to do, replaying old insults. Though, like Craig, I find Macpherson’s work hard to read at long stretches, I am aware that Macpherson’s use of the fragment, his tone and his work’s impact are of signal importance in Romantic literature and art; more than that, the Ossianic corpus is a focus of concerns about language, cultural imperialism and, as Potkay points out, gender. To dismiss the work as a mere ‘farrago’ is to ignore all this, and to repeat one side of an exhausted argument.
University of St Andrews