Ossian, the European National Epic (1760-1810)

Ossian’s Cave front door at The Hermitage, Scotland / Photo by Roger Griffith, Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Gauti Kristmannsson / 11.09.2015
Professor of Translation Studies
Universitet Háskóli Íslands


Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the highlands of Scotland and tr. from the Galic or Erse language / Oxford University

The Poems of Ossian are a unique phenomenon in European literary history. They have been referred to as a “pseudotranslation” and effectively discarded from the canon, to which they undoubtedly belonged to for a hundred years, yet their monumental influence on literature, visual art and music is undeniable. The poems were certainly not a translation of one single text but an editoral construct which on its own shook the literary system of the late 18th century to its foundations and helped usher in Romantic notions of poetry, in addition to turning the focus definitely to the native productions of the people in each country or area. The number of translations and imitations of several degrees underlines the huge creative impulse of the poems, which can be seen as a major paradigm shift in the outlook of what is called high culture literature.

“The Poems of Ossian” and the New National Epic

When James Macpherson (1736–1796)  published his small volume, Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Galic or Erse Language1 in the summer of 1760 he may have had a young man’s hopes of becoming known as a man of letters, at least in Scotland. Nothing could have been more wrong, since he became famous, infamous, lionised and detested in the course of a few years, and not only in his own country, Great Britain, but all over Europe and beyond. Moreover, his financially rewarding rise from poor schoolteacher in the Highlands of Scotland to intellectual, servant of the empire and MP is more reminiscent of a modern celebrity than the career of a “man of letters” in the 18th century.2

The success of his poems was much greater and enduring, however. After the publication of the Fragments, which paved the way for romanticist, lyrical poetry, the Edinburgh elite composed of figures such as Adam Smith (1723–1790) David Hume (1711–1776) Hugh Blair (1718–1800)  and Adam Ferguson (1723–1816)  became excited about the possible existence of an epic from the Scottish Highlands. After funds had been raised, the young man went into the country where he collected folk poetry as well as manuscripts and transcribed and translated oral poetry. After the journey, he worked on his translation under the supervision of Hugh Blair, among others. Fingal, the first epic, was published in late 1761 and another edition followed in early 1762.3 In the following year, the second epic Temora4 was published, with new full editions appearing in 1765 and 1773).

The poems caused an instant controversy in the British Isles which was of a twofold nature. The first outcry came from Irish intellectuals who accused Macpherson of cultural theft since the poems, on which the epic was based, had been recited and written in Ireland for generations.South of the border, the response was much more furious, undoubtedly because of the importance of a grand national epic for Scotland at a time when the Scottish Lord John Stuart of Bute (1713–1792)  was at the helm of government and anti-Scottish feeling was widespread in the capital.6 There, the accusation was that the translation was a hoax and no such epic had ever existed.7 The controversy simmered on for years and even led to a personal feud between Macpherson and Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) , which remains an anecdote gleefully recounted by in many an encyclopaedia article.8


[LEFT]: Although they draw on well-known material, the works of the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) are distinguished by the psychological portraits of his characters and the individuality ascribed to them. Shakespeare was already recognised as one of England’s leading dramatists during his lifetime, but in the second half of the 18th century he became seen as the embodiment of the poet as inspired creator throughout Europe. In Germany, in particular, Shakespeare became a dramatic paradigm and the epitome of original genius. He acquired a cult status that extended to the “nationalisation” of Shakespeare as a “German” poet, to which the translations by Christoph Martin Wieland (1733–1813), August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) and Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853) contributed. / University of Texas Libraries, Portrait Gallery
[RIGHT]: Following his studies, the author, philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried (since 1802) von Herder initially worked as a clergyman. He travelled extensively in France, Holland and Italy. His writings concentrated mainly on linguistic theory (Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache, 1772), the philosophy of history (Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, 1784–1791) and the history of literature and culture (Über die neuere Deutsche Litteratur, 1767; Von deutscher Art und Kunst, 1773), many of which presented ground-breaking theories. He also contributed to the “Sturm und Drang” movement and influenced 19th century philosophy (Hegel, Schelling) as well as the poetry of the Romantic Movement. / Library of Congress

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829), Goethe in the roman Campagna, oil on canvas, 164 × 206 cm, 1787 / Städelsche Kunstinstitut Frankfurt am Main

This view has come to dominate the literary and scholarly discourse on the subject of Macpherson’s works and has since overshadowed all debates on the phenomenon linked with Ossian and its influence on European literature, which in the latter part of the 18th and well into the 19th century is probably second only to William Shakespeare (1564–1616)  . A prime example is the work of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) , a major philosopher of national literature. He was absolutely taken by The Poems of Ossian and convinced these works held the key to a new vision of popular poetry in the North.9 His famous Von deutscher Art und Kunst opens with an essay on ancient poetry in which he also mentions Ossian and the Eddic poetry of the North10 while the next essay is about Shakespeare .11 This slim volume, with a contribution from the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)  among others,12 is often seen as the manifesto of the Sturm und Drang period and remained influential well into the 19th century.

Herder’s fascination with Ossian was above all based on the fact that Macpherson had collected the material for the epics from folk tradition and then used it to construct his own version of an epic to the best of his ability, in line with what was considered to be textual criticism at the time.13 That Macpherson used sources which had long been in existence for his epics has been shown many times, first in the Report of the Committee of the Highland Society14 in 1805. In 1952 Derick Thomson (1921–2012)  published his The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s “Ossian” in which he was still able to trace source material related to the Ossianic poems published some 200 years earlier. Recent scholarship has also highlighted that Macpherson worked from a variety of sources, oral and written.15

Herder and Goethe may have been the pioneers in reception of Ossian in Europe, in the sense that they drew inspiration from it almost instantly (Herder even prior to seeing the English original version). Goethe used the Songs of Selma in his Die Leiden des jungen Werthers 16 and for Herder, Ossian was the chief inspiration for his highly influential Volkslieder which later were called Stimmen der Völker in Liedern. Both of them even tried to translate directly from the Gaelic with the aid of a dictionary.17

Ossian in Literature: Translation and Imitation

It is sometimes said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The response in the British Isles was, hostility in many quarters notwithstanding, also positive in parts. Many contemporaries, even among those who condemned The Poems of Ossian, started collecting and editing folk poetry themselves. The result was a flurry of publications in Ireland, Wales and indeed England, where bishop Thomas Percy (1729–1811)  published his Five Pieces of Runic Poetry  in 1763. To this translation of Eddic poetry Percy wrote a remarkable preface, calling the Nordic skalds the ancestors of the British minstrels.18 Two years later he published a collection of British ballads under the title Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,19 which confirmed that Macpherson’s works had effectually helped to change the perspective on the folk ballad and poetry tradition. Formerly an element of “low” culture, it had now become a feature of “high” culture. This trend was established all over Europe within the course of the following century and produced epics, collections of folk poetry, folk tales and other historical material largely ignored by the elites hitherto.

Translation  and criticism of the Poems of Ossian indeed spread out in a sort of transnational wildfire throughout Europe in the latter part of the 18th century and beyond. According to the Timeline of Ossian’s European Reception by Paul Barnaby the first French translation from the Fragments appeared already in 1760, done by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781) . Immediately the year after Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard (ca. 1734–1817) and Denis Diderot (1713–1784)  followed suit. This was only the beginning of a long series of translations and critical debates on Ossian in Europe. The pace of translation picked up in the following years after the epics had been published. It may be surmised from the voluminous reception, through direct translation, critical debate and also creative reception, that these poems had touched a raw nerve among European intellectuals.

The first Dutch translation by Egbert Buys (1725–1769)  appeared 1762 as well as a first anonymous one in GermanMelchiorre Cesarotti (1730–1808)  published his influential Italian translation of Fingal in 1763,20 only a year after it appeared in English. The same year Rudolf Erich Raspe (1736–1794)  published a few extracts from it in German. Swedishtranslations of selections from the poems by Johan Gothenius (1721–1809)  appeared in a journal 1765–1766 and in Austria21Michael Denis (1729–1800)  was the first to publish a full translation of the works of Ossian, and in hexameter, too. By doing so, the alignment with the Homeric epics became obvious. The number of languages into which Macpherson’s works were translated continued to grow throughout the 19th century and is indeed still growing. Few texts in the English language have been translated more often and as widely than The Poems of Ossian.22

Part of the poems’ appeal is the fact that they were received by most intellectuals and poets in Europe as a kind of prototype or model for their own budding national literatures at the time. This was certainly Herder’s point of view and indeed of many others who translated, commented or rewrote Ossianic material. As a literary “earthquake” Macpherson’s works positively shook the foundations of the old classical literary system and marked a paradigm shift by offering a viable alternative for the “new” nations north of the Alps.23

Intermedial influences: Ossian in Visual Art

The Poems of Ossian also influenced works of visual artists and composers of music. The transnational circulation and impact of The Poems of Ossian was not limited to the field of literature but inspired artists working in other media, too. This “translation” into other art forms is perhaps the best argument for counting the poems among the realm of “world literature” (Weltliteratur).24

In the visual arts, several important artists have applied Ossianic themes. Not only in Britain, but also in Denmark, Germany, and France. The British creative reception (including Ireland) was in accordance with the discourse of the day. The Scotsman Alexander Runciman (1736-1786) , who chose literary and mythological subjects very much en vogue at the timerendered the Scottish national hero appropriately in drawings and in a ceiling painting in Penicuik House, Edinburgh, which was destroyed by fire in 1899.

James Barry (1741–1806)  also interpreted Ossian as a national bard in his series The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, but since he was Irish, the bard to him was also an Irishman.25 Furthermore he sets Homer (ca. 8th century BC)  and Ossian up as equals, a notion propagated by many of the greatest authors and thinkers in the latter part of the 18th century.26 Indeed, Ossian became a transnational figure by providing two parts of the United Kingdom with a national bard comparable with the greatest of them all. Other artists in Britain, either British or foreigners living there, also took up Ossianic topics, for example Angelika Kauffmann (1741–1807) , and John Sell Cotman (1782–1842) .27 On the whole, however, Ossian did not have a major impact on British art in the second half of the 18th century, owing to the controversy which surrounded the poems.28

The Danish artist Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, who, like many of his contemporaries, merged influences of Neo-classicism and Romanticism in his work, was very fond of both classical and Nordic literary motifs. Ossian played a major part in his work. / Statens Museum for Kunst / National Gallery of Denmark

The Danish artist Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, like many of his contemporaries, merged influences of Neo-classicism and Romanticism in his work. He was very fond of both classical and Nordic literary motifs. Ossian played a major part in his work, and his Ossian Singing his Swan Song has almost become the defining image of the blind bard. It is shown here in a contemporary engraving.  The last section of Ossian, entitled Berrathon, presages Ossian’s death and tells of what will be his last song:  

“Such were my deeds, son of Alpin, when the arm of my youth was strong. Such the actions of Toscar, the car-borne son of Conloch. But Toscar is on his flying cloud. I am alone at Lutha. My voice is like the last sound of the wind, when it forsakes the woods. But Ossian shall not be long alone. He sees the mist that shall receive his ghost. He beholds the mist that shall form his robe, when he appears on his hills. The Sons of feeble men shall behold me, and admire the stature of the chiefs of old. They shall creep to their caves. They shall look to the sky with fear: for my steps shall be in the clouds. Darkness shall roll on my side.

Lead, son of Alpin, lead the aged to his woods. The winds begin to rise. The dark wave of the lake resounds. Bends there not a tree from Mora with its branches bare? It bends, son of Alpin, in the rustling blast. My harp hangs on a blasted branch. The sound of its strings is mournful. Does the wind touch thee, O harp, or is it some passing ghost? It is the hand of Malvina! Bring me the harp, son of Alpin. Another song shall rise. My soul shall depart in the sound. My fathers shall hear it in their airy hail. Their dim faces shall hang, with joy, from their clouds; and their hands receive their son. The aged oak bends over the stream. It sighs with all its moss. The withered fern whistles near, and mixes, as it waves, with Ossian’s hair.

‘Strike the harp, and raise the song: be near, with all your wings, ye winds. Bear the mournful sound away to Fingal’s airy hail. Bear it to Fingal’s hall, that he may hear the voice of his son: the voice of him that praised the mighty!'”

Statens Museum for Kunst / National Gallery of Denmark

Asmus Jacob Carstens shared his teacher Nicolai Abildgaard’s fondness for Ossianic subjects. This painting illustrates a scene from Cath-Loda, Duan I:

“Fingal again advanced his steps, wide through the bosom of night, to where the trees of Loda shook amid squally winds. Three stones, with heads of moss, are there; a stream with foaming course: and dreadful, rolled around them, is the dark red cloud of Loda. High from its top looked forward a ghost, half formed of the shadowy stroke. He poured his voice, at times, amidst the roaring stream.”

Statens Museum for Kunst / National Gallery of Denmark

Nevertheless, painters from other countries were fascinated by the image of the northern bard, but perhaps for different reasons. In the northern parts of Europe Ossian became the symbol for a new national subject. The Danish artist Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743–1809) , who, like many of his contemporaries, merged influences of Neo-classicism and Romanticism in his work, was very fond of both classical and Nordic literary motifs. Ossian played a major part in his work, and his Ossian Singing his Swan Song  has almost become the defining image of the blind bard. One of Abildgaard’s students, Asmus Jacob Carstens (1754–1798) , was inspired by Ossian as well, as were many other Danish artists.29

Philipp Otto Runge was probably the best-known German artist to depict Ossianic motifs. This drawing shows Ossian in an idealised bard’s pose, his harp combining artistic and martial attributes. / Contumax GmbH & Co. KG

Joseph Anton Koch here depicts a scene from Cath-Loda, Duan I:

“‘Fingal rushed, in all his arms, wide bounding over Turthor’s stream, that sent its sullen roar, by night, through Gormal’s misty vale. A moonbeam glittered on a rock; in the midst stood a stately form; a form with floating locks, like Lochlin’s white-bosomed maids. Unequal are her steps, and short. She throws a broken song on wind. At times she tosses her white arms: for grief is dwelling in her soul.

“Torcal-torno, of aged locks,” she said, “where now are thy steps, by Lulan? Thou hast failed at thine own dark streams, father of Conban-cargla! But I behold thee, chief of Lulan, sporting by Loda’s hall, when the dark-skirted night is rolled along the sky. Thou sometimes hidest the moon with thy shield. I have seen her dim, in heaven. Thou kindlest thy hair into meteors, and sailest along the night. Why am I forgot, in my cave, king of shaggy boars? Look from the hall of Loda, on thy lonely daughter.”‘

 Contumax GmbH & Co. KG

Fingal’s Cave is a sea cave on the uninhabited island of Staffa, in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. How it became associated with the mythical hero is unclear, although it may have something to do with the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, a possible model for Fingal and supposed builder of the causeway between Ireland and Scotland. Turner’s dramatic rendering with a steam-ship places it firmly in the modern world. / Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Just as the literary reception in Germany, or rather the German speaking part of Europe, and France was lively for decades after the publication of The Poems of Ossian, the same was true for the visual arts.30 In Germany Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810)  may be the best known artist who used Ossian as an inspiration, but the Austrian Joseph Anton Koch (1768–1839) was no less active. Furthermore Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840)  and the Englishman Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)   show the influence of the supposedly typical Ossianic landscape with its melancholy fog and strange light effects.31 Although Friedrich never painted any actual figures from Macpherson’s works, he was regarded by contemporaries as one of the “leading Ossianists in painting” because of the atmosphere in his work.32

This portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David portrays Napoleon as a both military and civil ruler. He wears his uniform as a colonel of the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard while the sword on the chair alludes to Napoleon’s military success. On the table are placed several items that speak of his administrative achievements, most prominently the scroll with the word “Code” on it, referring to the groundbraking legal codification Code civil established under Napoleon in 1804. / National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Cress Collection


[LEFT]: Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1802) / Musée national du Château de Malmaison via Wikimedia Commons
[RIGHT]: Ossian on the Bank of the Lora, Invoking the Gods to the Strains of a Harp, by François Gérard / Wikimedia Commons

Ingres’s The Dream of Ossian was especially painted for Napoleon’s quarters in Rome. It may refer to a passage in Sul-Malla of Lumon: “By night came a dream to Ossian; formless stood the shadow of Trenmor. He seemed to strike the dim shield on Selma’s streamy rock. I rose in my rattling steel: I knew that war was near…” / The Yorck Project

In France The Poems of Ossian were a favourite text of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and commissions for works from Ossian at the time gave the subject “imperial support”. Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767–1824)  painted his famous Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes  at the beginning of the 19th century, a work which was destined for one of Napoleon’s residences, the Château Malmaison. This highly nationalistic work, with French fallen heroes almost embracing Ossian, Fingal and other characters from the poems, highlights once more in how far the Celtic bard could be used to foster the subjective nationalism of another culture. The two other most famous French painters inspired by Ossian were François-Pascal-Simon Gérard (1770–1837)  and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) . The former’s painting was also commissioned for Malmaison, whereas Ingres’s The Dream of Ossian  was especially painted to embellish Napoleon’s quarters in Rome.33

The photographer Calum Colvin has created a series of portraits based on an etching by Alexander Runciman (1736–1786). These photographs were exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 2002 to 2003. According to the artist’s website, the twenty images in the series were “created as constructed sets, painted with iconic subjects, decorated with symbolic references, and finally photographed. The photographic images are subsequently digitised and printed on canvas…”. / © Calum Colvin

In Scottish contemporary art Ossian has lately resurfaced. One reason for this burgeoning interest in Macpherson’s works may be found in a newly established political context in Great Britain. Since the late 1990s devolution has begun changing the British political landscape and subsequently left its mark on the arts, too. The sculptor Alexander Stoddart (*1959)  has created a “heroic scale” bust of Ossian and his version of “Ossian singing” on a smaller scale. The art photographer Calum Colvin (*1961)  has created a series of portraits based on an etching by Runciman which was exhibited at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from 2002 to 2003.34 Despite having been dismissed from the academic literary canon, Ossian appears to play an important role again in what might be perceived as a new Scottish search for cultural identity. As Sebastian Mitchell (*1959)  puts it: “… we have just lived through the most significant period of Ossianic visual interpretation since the early nineteenth century…”35

Ossian in Music


[LEFT]: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, one of the most important composers of the 19th century / In Mathews, William Smythe Babcock: A Popular History of the Art of Music: From the Earliest Times Until the Present, Chicago 1891, p. 462, Projekt Gutenberg
[RIGHT]: Niels Wilhelm Gade, Danish composer / Archiv des Gewandhauses zu Leipzig

While The Poems of Ossian had a great impact on the visual arts, in particular during the Romantic period, the influence on European (and American) musical composers appears to be even greater and of a much longer duration. 36 Both well-known and lesser-known composers drew inspiration from Macpherson’s works. Franz Schubert (1797–1828)  set several passages to music; Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847)  was inspired by a visit to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa to write his celebrated overture Die Hebriden (The Hebrides, 1830). Jean-François Le Sueur (1760–1837)  wrote the most important opera based on Ossian (Ossian, ou Les bardes, 1804), much to the delight of Napoleon.37 The Danish composer  Niels Wilhelm Gade (1817–1890)  made his name with the overture Efterklange af Ossian (1840), a work which became part of the Danish national heritage.38 The Frenchman François-Hippolyte Barthélemon (1741–1808) , who lived in England, drew on Ossian for Oithona, a “dramatic poem” in three acts (1768).39 Among the many other musicians to adapt the material, some composed only one small piece, others whole ballets and operas. Composers such as Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) John Wall Callcott (1766–1821) Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) Georges Bizet (1838–1875) Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)  and even Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951)  belong to the illustrious circle of artists inspired by Ossian. Apparently these intermedial approaches show how the bard took on a life of his own within the musical world. The Poems of Ossian proved not only to be transnational but also transdisciplinary.

The Ossianic Paradigm Shift

Macpherson’s works thus led to a paradigm shift in European literature and, what is more important, this effect was achieved by doing exactly what Macpherson was most criticised for: by combining the gathered material into the epic form. The theoretical basis to his work might have been laid by the 18th-century scholar, Thomas Blackwell (1701–1757)  from Aberdeen, whose important work An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer went into four editions between 1735 and 1761 in Britain alone.40 Blackwell’s work opens with a question:

By what Fate or Disposition of things it has happened, that None have equalled [Homer] in Epic-poetry for two thousand seven hundred Years, the Time since he wrote; Nor any that we know, ever surpassed him before.41

Blackwell’s answer to his “research question” is centred on the “Progression of Manners”, a combination of three factors: “Thus we find that the Fortunes, the Manners, and the Languageof a People are all linked together, and necessarily influence one another”.42

This meant that the Homeric epics consisted of a combination of influences and sources which were brought together in one work by one man. Blackwell’s theories were given a new form in the so-called Homeric question of Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824)  in his Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) that undoubtedly was also related to the previous three decades of Ossianic controversy.43 Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805)  and Goethe saw it that way and asked Herder to contribute an essay to their journal Die Horen, titled Homer und OssianAnne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817)  is sometimes cited as being the first to use the phrase “Homer of the North”, although this has been disputed.44

The continous comparison of Ossian with Homer, which began with Hugh Blair’s influential A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian (1763), aims perhaps at more than mere questions of greatness.45 The causes for this juxtaposition may also be found in the nature of the epic itself. Keeping the definition of “national epic” in mind, Macpherson’s construction proved to be so influential because it effectually took the epic tradition in the West “back to basics”. Usually national epics are defined as renderings of traditional epics which have their origins in oral tradition; Homer is always the case in point when referring to an epic passed on orally. Virgil’s (70–19 BC)  Aeneid and Edmund Spenser’s (ca. 1552–1599)  The Faerie Queene are some examples from the large number of authors who wrote so-called “national epics”.

Macpherson, however, collected oral and written sources to construct his version of a national epic. In a sense, it was an attempt to create a traditional epic which instantly was defined as a “national epic”. As an effect intellectuals all over Europe began to perceive their own traditions in a different light. They ceased imitating the classical models and began using sources in their own countries or areas outside the classical sphere. In Britain itself the Welshman Evan Evans (1731–1788)  published his Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards (1764); Charles Henry Wilson (ca. 1757–1808)  presented Select Irish Poems Translated (1782) and Charlotte Brooke (ca. 1740–1793)  her Reliques of Ancient Irish Poetry (1789; with Thomas Percy’s encouragement), to name just a few. Antiquaries and poets such as Joseph Ritson (1752–1803) John Pinkerton (1758–1826)  and Walter Scott (1771–1832)  collected and published ballads and folk songs. Extensive explanatory paratexts were added in an attempt to support the construction of a unique national heritage. In the 19th century national epics were simply written with that aim in mind. The Finnish national epic Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884)  is perhaps the most important work in this vein, since Lönnrot used largely the same means of collecting sources as Macpherson did.

As this overview shows, the much-derided comparison of Homer and Ossian is perhaps not as absurd as some modern commentators like to claim. Although scholars and poets at the time had published “native” sources and used them for their own creations, as had happened often before, these works were not “ennobled” by the epic form which Macpherson gave the ballads and folk poetry of his people. He literally translated a specific culture to the “higher sphere” of classical culture. That Macpherson’s works were removed from the canon of the most important works of European, and, indeed, world literature, might thus be regarded as a matter of nationalist narrow-mindedness and dogmatic notions on translation and textual criticism.


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Ó Dochartaigh, Caitríona: Goethe’s Translation from the Gaelic “Ossian”, in: Howard Gaskill (ed.): The Reception of Ossian in Europe, London, 2004, pp. 156–175.

Roters, Eberhard: Jenseits von Arkadien: Die romantische Landschaft, Köln 1995.

Schmidt, Wolf Gerhard et al. (ed.). ‘Homer des Nordens’ und ‘Mutter der Romantik’, Berlin et al. 2003–2004, vol. 1–4.

Sher, Richard B.: Those Scotch Imposters and their Cabal: Ossian and the Scottish Enlightenment, in: Man and Nature: Proceedings of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 1 (1982), pp. 55–63.

Smith, Christopher: Ossian in Music, in: Howard Gaskill (ed.): The Reception of Ossian in Europe, London 2004, pp. 375–392.

Stafford, Fiona: The Sublime Savage: James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian, Edinburgh 1988.

Eadem: Dr. Johnson and the Ruffian: New Evidence in the Dispute between Samuel Johnson and James Macpherson, in: Notes and Queries 36, 1 (1989), pp. 70–77, online: http://nq.oxfordjournals.org/content/36/1.toc.

Eadem: Introduction: The Ossianic Poems of James Macpherson, in: Howard Gaskill (ed.): The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, Edinburgh 1996, pp. 1–18.

Tieghem, Paul van: Ossian en France, Paris 1917.

Tillyard, Eustace Mandeville Wetenhall: The English Epic and its Background, London 1954.

Thomson, Derick S.: The Gaelic Sources of MacPherson’s “Ossian”, Aberdeen 1952.

Tombo, Rudolf: Ossian in Germany: Bibliography, General Survey, Ossian’s Influence upon Klopstock and the Bards, New York 1901, reprint 1966, ed. by Projekt Gutenberg, online: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/40784 [18.06.2014].

Wessel, Matthias: Die Ossian-Dichtung in der Musikalischen Komposition, Laaber 1994 (Publikationen der Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover 6).


  1. ^ Macpherson, Fragments 1760.
  2. ^ Stafford, The Sublime Savage 1988 is the best recent introduction to Macpherson and his work.
  3. ^ Cf. Gaskill, Introduction 2004; Macpherson, Fingal 1762.
  4. ^ Macpherson, Temora 1762.
  5. ^ Cf. Kristmannsson, Literary Diplomacy 2005, vol. 1, pp. 97–108.
  6. ^ Cf. Sher, Those Scotch Imposters 1982.
  7. ^ Macpherson is still being accused of fraud, cf. Curley, Samuel Johnson 2009.
  8. ^ Cf. Stafford, Dr. Johnson 1989.
  9. ^ Cf. Kristmannsson, The Nordic Turn 2007.
  10. ^ Herder, Von deutscher Art 1773, pp. 3–70.
  11. ^ ibid., pp. 71–118.
  12. ^ ibid., pp. 119–136.
  13. ^ Cf. Kristmannsson, Literary Diplomacy 2005, part. 1, pp. 90–94.
  14. ^ Mackenzie, Report 1805.
  15. ^ Gaskill, Macpherson 1990.
  16. ^ Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers 1774, pp. 192–206.
  17. ^ Cf. Ó Dochartaigh, Goethe’s Translation 2004.
  18. ^ Cf. Kristmannsson, Literary Diplomacy 2005, vol. 1, pp. 121–194.
  19. ^ Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry 1765, vol. 1vol. 2vol. 3.
  20. ^ Macpherson, Poesie di Ossian 1763.
  21. ^ Denis, Ossian und Sineds Lieder 1791–1792, vol. 1–6.
  22. ^ Even in the 21st century, when translations or new editions of previous translations are fewer and farther between, some ones are still appearing, such as Samuel Baudry’s recent French translation James Macpherson: Oeuvres d’Ossian (2013). The same applies to the critical debate and creative reception. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of The Poems of Ossianseems to be that they are truly transnational, the wide range of reception into a great number of languages and their role within the respective national literatures as an inspiring source for the creation of an, as it were, indigenous native literature in the respective cultures of reception is simply fascinating from a transnational point of view.
  23. ^ This paradigm shift has been ignored to a large extent by European academics for almost a century, especially in Britain, but major studies have been published all the same. Paul van Tieghem’s (1871–1948) Ossian en France went into several editions between 1917 and 1967 in three languages, according to the website “WorldCat Identities”; Rudolf Tombo (1875–1914) published a study, Ossian in Germany, in 1901 and the most recent work on that issue is Wolf Gerhardt Schmidt’s (birth 1973) four-volume study, ‘Homer des Nordens’ und ‘Mutter der Romantik’, on the German reception of Ossian which underlines the massive influence in Germany alone. In Britain and the U.S. the debate has increased greatly after Fiona Stafford’s The Sublime Savage (1988) and Howard Gaskill’s Ossian Revisited (1991).
  24. ^ According to David Damrosch (birth 1953) the term “world literature” may be defined as follows: “My claim is that world literature is not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading, a mode that is applicable to individual works as to bodies of material, available for reading established classics and new discoveries alike.” (Damrosch, World Literature 2003, p. 5) The transnational literary reception of The Poems of Ossian would certainly suffice to categorise them as “world literature”, but their circulation in other art forms – also a “mode of reading” – underlines this claim even more..
  25. ^ Cf. Hofmann et al., Ossian und die Kunst 1974, p. 55.
  26. ^ Apart from Blair, (A Critical Dissertation 1763), Goethe in his Werther juxtaposed Homer and Ossian; Herder wrote an essay on the subject for Schiller’s and Goethe’s Die Horen in 1795 (Herder, Homer und Ossian 1795) and Mme de Staël also made the comparison in her groundbreaking work on German Romanticism (De l’Allemagne 1810, vol. 1vol. 2vol. 3).
  27. ^ Cf. Hofmann et al., Ossian und die Kunst 1974, pp. 55–62.
  28. ^ Cf. Roters, Jenseits von Arkadien 1995, p. 14.
  29. ^ Cf. Celenza, Efterklange af Ossian 1998, pp. 370–382.
  30. ^ The list is too long to be recapitulated here in detail, but for those interested in a good overview, albeit in German, Ossian und die Kunst um 1800, a catalogue for a major exhibition in Hamburg in 1974, and Roters’s Jenseits von Arkadien may be recommended.
  31. ^ Cf. Hofmann et al., Ossian und die Kunst 1974, p. 63.
  32. ^ Cf. Roters, Jenseits von Arkadien 1995, p. 28.
  33. ^ Cf. Hofmann et al., Ossian und die Kunst 1974, p. 127.
  34. ^ Cf. Macdonald, Ossian and Art 2004.
  35. ^ Mitchell, Celtic Postmodernism 2013, p. 327.
  36. ^ Two doctoral dissertations in German from the 1990s, one by Manuela Jahrmärker (birth 1957) and another by Matthias Wessel provide long lists of composers who from the 1760s till the 1940s used the Ossianic poetry for their compositions. The lists complement each other nicely since Jahrmärker uses a chronological order, whereas Wessel uses an alphabetical one. Wessel notes that he was able to find over 200 compositions of various provenance based on the Ossianic corpus in one way or another (cf. Wessel, Die Ossian Dichtung 1994, p. 2). Wessel (ibid., p. 13) also notes that the composers often referred to the translations in their own language rather than the original English translation and that these were often adaptations of the English text. This underlines the importance of translation for a text’s transnational circulation and impact.
  37. ^ Roters, Jenseits von Arkadien 1995, p. 16; cf. also Smith, Ossian in Music 2004, p. 379.
  38. ^ Cf. Celenza, Efterklange af Ossian 1998, p. 389.
  39. ^ Cf. Gaskill, Introduction 2004; cf. also Smith, Ossian in Music 2004.
  40. ^ Johann Heinrich Voss (1751–1826),the greatest German translators of Homer, also adapted this work, which was published in 1776: Blackwell, Untersuchung 1776. A French translation by Jean Nicolas Quatremère-Roissy (1754–1834) appeared in 1798.
  41. ^ Blackwell, An Enquiry 1757, p. 2, italics in the original.
  42. ^ ibid., p. 54, italics in original.
  43. ^ James Macpherson was educated in Aberdeen (1753–1756), first at King’s College and then Marischal College, at which Thomas Blackwell was principal at the time.
  44. ^ Cf. Gaskill, The Homer of the North 2007–2008.
  45. ^ Gaskill, The Poems of Ossian and Related Works 1996, offers a modern edition of Ossian and includes Blair, A Critical Dissertation 1763.

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