During the 1760s, James MacPherson published a series of works purporting to be translated from collected fragments of the work of Ossian, a third-century Scottish poet. These are now largely considered as pastiches, however MacPherson may be credited as collecting and preserving the surviving fragments of Gaelic bardic oral literature. At the time, MacPherson’s publications were hailed as masterpieces, and his Fragments of Ancient Poetry sparked a passion for heroic Gaelic poetry located in a wild landscape, which Ezra Pound credited as the start of ‘the Romantic awakening’. Later, angry debates raged over whether MacPherson had ‘stolen’ Irish literary heritage and appropriated it to create a fresh history for Scotland - a country still coming to terms with the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion. But the Gaelic tradition from which the work sprang was common to both Ireland and Western Scotland, as indicated by MacPherson at the end of his Preface.
How was Ossian influential?
Ossian’s influence on non-British readers and writers, such as Diderot, Thomas Jefferson, and Goethe, who quoted him extensively in Sorrows of Young Werther, was extensive – even Napoleon was an admirer. But there was less acknowledged influence within literature in England; Samuel Johnson’s magisterial condemnation of MacPherson was indicative of the lack of enthusiasm for his work in England.
Peter T Murphy proposes three important aspects of Ossian for 18th-century readers: MacPherson’s beautiful prose style, the persona of the sentimental and isolated poet (which can be seen later in the personas of Byron and Shelley), and the presentation of a ‘national voice’. Robert Burns was one of a number of important writers who acknowledged the influence of Ossian; more than anything, Ossian’s influence on Burns is in the proclamation of a ‘national poetry’ springing from the soil of Scotland.
The success of the Fragments provided support for MacPherson to make tours of the Highlands collecting material, which was incorporated into two epic poems, but his use of the material to create a dubious Scottish history led to controversy and his withdrawal from writing from Gaelic literature.
- Article by:
- Robert Irvine
Dr Robert Irvine examines the Hastie manuscript, a collection of manuscript songs by Robert Burns, and The Scots Musical Museum, where they were ultimately published.
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