"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.5 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
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 Werthers16 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 German. Melchiorre 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. Swedish translations of selections from the poems by Johan Gothenius (1721–1809) appeared in a journal 1765–1766 and in Austria21, Michael 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 time, rendered 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
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
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
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
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 (born 1959) has created a "heroic scale" bust of Ossian and his version of "Ossian singing" on a smaller scale. The art photographer Calum Colvin (born 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 (born 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
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 Language of 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 Ossian. Anne 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.