The Poems of Ossian and Related Works 
by James Macpherson, edited by Howard Gaskill.
Edinburgh, 573 pp., £16.95, January 1996, 0 7486 0707 2
Show More
Show More

‘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.

When we read the Ossianic fragments now we often hear in them the voices of later poets. ‘Who cometh from the hill, like a cloud tinged with the beam of the west? Whose voice is that, loud as the wind, but pleasant as the harp of Carry1?’ To these questions from the fourth fragment, I’m tempted to answer that the voice is that of Walt Whitman, the great self-styled ‘bard’ who classed Ossian with the Bible, and who thought that Red Jacket, one of the great Iroquois orators, was ‘like one of Ossian’s ghosts’. Whitman grew his long lines out of Macpherson’s cadenced prose. A multitude of European and American writers over the last three centuries have found direct or indirect sustenance in Macpherson’s poems: Burns’s visionary ‘duans’; Walter Scott’s ‘translations’ of ‘Highland Minstrelsy’ in Waverley; Fenimore Cooper’s translatorese standing in for Native American languages; Byron’s ‘Imitation of Macpherson’s Ossian’; Goethe’s Werther; and Thomas Jefferson, who said that Ossian was better than Homer. It was also Ossian by way of Matthew Arnold who structured the Celtic Twilight in-Ireland and Scotland.

Despite all this Macphcrson’s texts have been ignored for much of this century, partly because his translatorese verse-prose is hard to read at long stretches. This new and revelatory edition by Howard Gaskill does well to reprint not only the expanded Ossianic epics, but also the first fragments from which the later works grew. The Fragments are what modern readers should concentrate on if they wish to feel Macpherson’s power: it was surely the Ossianic tone that attracted earlier readers, at least as much as any larger design. This tone is at the root of Romanticism: ‘Autumn is dark on the mountains; grey mist rests on the hills. The whirlwind is heard on the heath. Dark rolls the river thro’ the narrow plain.’ This voice is evident in Wordsworth, Byron, Emily Brontë and the Ann Radcliffe of The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne. It can be heard, too, in Walter Scott, who was also impressed by Macpherson’s ability to capture attention outside Britain. Ossian’s tone is that of the Scotland which was central to the Romantic imagination.

The Gaelic Scottishness of Macpherson’s work was a strong part of its allure and its power, but it was also part of its problematic status. Macpherson was urged by Hugh Blair, one of the inventors of modern English Studies, to bring back more developed texts of his Gaelic epic, which he could then translate into English. Macpherson had claimed, after the Fragments were published, that there survived in the Highlands great untranslated epic poems. The Works of Ossian, published in 1765, was the result of Macpherson’s further researches in the Highlands, although his claim to have translated the works of Ossian – a third-century blind bard – was questioned almost immediately. Post-Union and post-Culloden Scotland needed a national epic, a poetic assembly that would enhance its endangered cultural status. Burns and Scott followed Macpherson’s project, each attempting to collect and create a national literary assembly of his own. In his way, Whitman did this too. Macpherson’s triumph was to translate Gaelic culture into a form acceptable to Hanoverian Britain and to a wider world interested in nobly civilised savages. In making his extremely free translations he worked to save something of the culture that he had known in his youth and which belonged to his family and his people. He also lined his own pocket: he became a successful British Imperialist with commercial interests in India; and when he died exactly two hundred years ago his cortège slowly wound its way through the United Kingdom so that this Highlander on the make could be buried in Westminster Abbey.

The Ossianic poems made more international impact than any other outgrowth of Gaelic culture. Like the Highland bagpipe, these poems owed their success not least to a sometimes enforced, sometimes willing, collaboration between native Highland culture and the British Imperial drive. In the 18th century this tension was evident in the Scottish universities, which were pioneering English literary studies in a sometimes quasi-colonial and sometimes literally colonial milieu.

As well as, or because of, the conflicts which took place during the century on British battlefields, the Gaelic language, too, was fought over. Did Macpherson rescue the language of the Highland natives by translating it into the native language of the dominant power; or did he betray it? Perhaps he did both, but what he sought was some accommodation between the Gaelic and English languages, as well as between the cultures that they represented, an accommodation in which both voices could be discerned. He wrote out of a concern with dual linguistic identity which is now common to most users of the worldwide English language. This issue is important to many late 20th-century poets, from contemporary Scottish writers to the work of Caribbean poets, from one master of the fragmentary, Paul Muldoon, to another, Christopher Okigbo.

Scholarship has buried Macpherson. From the 18th century to recent times the only question scholars have asked has been: ‘Are the Ossianic poems a fake?’ This is a boring question, and one easily answered. Headed by the Gaelic poet and professor Derrick Thomson (whose 1952 The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s Ossian is deft and authoritative), modern Gaelic scholars have shown that traces of authentic material underlie Macpherson’s spiralling elaborations. Recent Macpherson scholars operating largely outside the Gaelic world, and headed by Fiona Stafford, point out that it was customary for 18th-century translators and literary collectors to add to and embellish their source material. Sadly, though, the best known modern voice in this controversy has been that of Lord Dacre, who has argued zealously over the decades that Macpherson was a mere forger. Dacre seems blind to the larger interest that the Ossianic corpus might have. But then fate has had its revenge on Lord Dacre.

This new book is the first usable modern edition of Ossian, and should put a stop to the tendency of many surveys of Romanticism to omit Macpherson entirely, or treat him simply as a hoaxer. It should encourage critics to rewrite the stories of Romanticism in a way that is more sensitive to the massive impact of Macpherson’s work, and to realise that this sly, collusive writer’s impact extends much further and deeper than has been thought. In Scotland, where language and identity remain healthily protean, Macpherson has been a source of curious energies. He is not quite a typical Scottish writer, but, bilocated, at home on the Gaelic margin and at the English centre, he is a valuable example. Like many many modern writers, he operates between languages, and, for good and ill, he is one of the bridges between the languages of Scottish literature. Writing about Macpherson sixty years ago, Hugh MacDiarmid made spirited use of the still extant controversy over the authenticity of the Ossianic poems, making the point that

whatever the final verdict may be on the question of forgery, it is well to remember that no great Scottish writer has failed to display questionable, if not criminal, characteristics in regard to his personal character or in connection with his work, and that, even if the charges against Macpherson were fully proved, it would be entirely fitting that Scotland should impress itself most powerfully on the consciousness of Europe through the agency of an imposture, just as it is in perfect keeping that the genius responsible for such a phenomenon as Ossian should also pen The Rights of Great Britain asserted against the Claims of the Colonies and the Letters from Mohammed Ali Chan, Nabob of Arcot, to the Court of Directors.

When MacDiarmid wrote these words, he did so as a poet who had championed a Scottish Renaissance and poetry in the Scots language, yet who was also a supporter of Stalin and whose own poetry, which many saw as prose, was by this time written almost entirely in a curious version of English. MacDiarmid was alert to the complexities of Macpherson’s position, because they were not utterly remote from his own. MacDiarmid’s magnificence is still denied in some quarters, as is Macpherson’s. Both are Scottish writers who do not fit into the orthodox literary maps, and who seem to rejoice in their ‘crimes’. They write in English yet retain fidelity to other tongues which the world thinks of as ‘dying’.

In the long term Macpherson will matter most for his tone, for his use of the fragment and as a kind of conceptual artist: not a minimalist or maker of videos, but a writer whose work matters crucially for its central idea – that of dual-identity language, a translatorese which fuses Gaelic and English, creating out of fragments an implied (and later, in the expanded version, a delivered) epic that moves beyond the cultural apocalypse of Culloden. He is, like Burns and MacDiarmid, a master of salvage and of creation.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


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.’

David Craig
Burton-in-Kendal, Cumbria

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.

Robert Crawford
University of St Andrews

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences