Ossian is the narrator and supposed author of a cycle of poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in the Scots Gaelic. He is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool, a character from Irish mythology. Although the poems were well-received, many critics voiced concerns about their authenticity, a debate that continued into the 20th century.
In 1760 Macpherson published the English-language text Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language, and later that year obtained further manuscripts.
He published translations of it during the next few years, culminating in a collected edition; The Works of Ossian, in 1765. The most famous of these poems was Fingal, written in 1762.
The poems achieved international success (Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson were great fans) and were proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical writers such as Homer. Many writers were influenced by the works, including the young Walter Scott and the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose own German translation of a portion of Macpherson's work figures prominently in a climactic scene of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).
The poem was as much admired in Hungary as in France and Germany; Hungarian János Arany wrote "Homer and Ossian" in response, and several other Hungarian writers – Baróti Szabó, Csokonai, Sándor Kisfaludy, Kazinczy, Kölcsey, Ferenc Toldy, and Ágost Greguss, were also influenced by it.
The play Ossian, ou Les bardes by Le Sueur was a sell-out at the Paris Opera in 1804, and transformed his career. This led to its influence on Napoleon and Girodet's 1805 painting Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes (see above).
The poems also exerted an influence on the burgeoning of Romantic music, and Franz Schubert, in particular composed Lieder setting many of Ossian's poems. In 1829 Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to visit the Hebrides and composed the Hebrides Overture, better known as "Fingal's Cave".
There were immediate disputes of Macpherson's claims on both literary and political grounds.
Macpherson promoted a Scottish origin for the material, and was hotly opposed by Irish historians who felt that their heritage was being appropriated. However, both Scotland and Ireland shared a common Gaelic culture during the period in which the poems are set and some Fenian literature common in both countries was composed in Scotland.
The English author, critic, and biographer, Samuel Johnson, was convinced that Macpherson was "a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries". Johnson also dismissed the poems' quality. Upon being asked, "But Doctor Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?" he famously replied, "Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children." Johnson is cited as calling the story of Ossian "as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with". The American literature professor and translator Bernard Knox alternatively refers to this book as a forged or fake "collective bardic epic".
Faced with the controversy, the Committee of the Highland Society enquired after the authenticity of Macpherson's supposed original. It was thanks to these circumstances that the so-called Glenmasan manuscript (Adv. 72.2.3) came to light,Template:When a compilation which contains the tale Oided mac n-Uisnig.
This text is a version of the Irish Longes mac n-Uislenn and offers a tale which bears some comparison to Macpherson's "Darthula", although it is radically different in many respects. Donald Smith cited it in his report for the Committee.
The controversy raged on into the early years of the 19th century, with disputes as to whether the poems were based on Irish sources, on sources in English, on Gaelic fragments woven into his own composition as Johnson concluded, or largely on Scots Gaelic oral traditions and manuscripts as Macpherson claimed.
Scottish author Hugh Blair's 1763 A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian upheld the work's authenticity against Johnson's scathing criticism and from 1765 was included in every edition of Ossian to lend the work credibility. The work also had a timely resonance for those swept away by the emerging Romantic movement and the theory of the "noble savage", and it echoed the popularity of Burke's seminal A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).
In 1952, Scottish poet Derick Thomson concluded that Macpherson had collected Scottish Gaelic ballads, employing scribes to record those that were preserved orally and collating manuscripts, but had adapted them by altering the original characters and ideas, and had introduced a great deal of his own.
- 1996: The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill, with an Introduction by Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press).
- 2004: Ossian and Ossianism, Dafydd Moore, (London: Routledge). A 4-volume edition of Ossianic works and a collection of varied responses (London: Routledge, 2004). This includes facsimiles of the Ossian works, contemporary and later responses, contextual letters and reviews, and later adaptations.
- Berresford Ellis, Peter (1987), A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, Constable, ISBN 0-09-467540-6
- Black, George F. (1926), Macpherson's Ossian and the Ossianic Controversy, New York
- Gaskill, Howard. (ed.) The reception of Ossian in Europe London: Continuum, 2004 ISBN 0-8264-6135-2
- MacGregor, Patrick (1841), The Genuine Remains of Ossian, Literally Translated, Highland Society of London
- Magnusson, Magnus (2006), Fakers, Forgers & Phoneys, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1-84596-190-0
- Moore, Dafydd. Enlightenment and Romance in James Macpherson's the Poems of Ossian: Myth, Genre and Cultural Change (Studies in Early Modern English Literature) (2003)
- ↑ "Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland", Literary Encyclopedia, 2004, http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=9045, retrieved 27 December 2006
- ↑ Behind the Name: View Name: Fingal, http://www.behindthename.com/php/view.php?name=fingal
- ↑ Howard Gaskill, The reception of Ossian in Europe (2004)
- ↑ Berresford Ellis 1987, p. 159
- ↑ Oszkár, Elek (1933), "Ossian-kultusz Magyarországon", Egyetemes Philologiai Közlöny (LVII): 66–76
- ↑ Magnusson 2006, p. 340
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Introduction of Robert Fagles' translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey
- ↑ MacKinnon, Donald (1904–5), "The Glenmasan Manuscript", The Celtic Review 1 (6): 3–17
- ↑ Lord Auchinleck's Fingal, Florida Bibliophile Society, http://www.floridabibliophilesociety.org/Fingal.html, retrieved 9 April 2010
- ↑ Thomson, Derick (1952), The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's 'Ossian'
- ↑ Yale University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0300136869
- ↑ "Telegraph" review, 6 June 2008; seen on 29 May 2011
- The Poetical Works of Ossian Full text at Ex-Classics
- Selected Bibliography: James Macpherson and Ossian Excellent online bibliography; compiled by designated experts in the field; covering the most important scholarly monographs and articles on Ossian and Macpherson up to March 2004.
- Literary Encyclopedia: Ossian
- Popular Tales of the West Highlands by J. F. Campbell Volume IV (1890)
- A Vision of Britain Through Time James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, discussion in entries for 22 and 23 September 1773.
- Calum Colvin: "Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry" Reproduction of the cycle of paintings "Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry" (2002) by one of Scotland's most renowned contemporary artists