Ossian: the name once rivaled Homer in the Western literary canon. His Gaelic epics were translated into most of the European languages by the beginning of the 19th century. Napoleon, Diderot, and Goethe were among his Continental admirers; Voltaire gave him the honor of parodying him. Operas, paintings, even Romanticism’s concept of the noble savage, were inspired by him. Europe finally had an epic poet it could match up with Homer and Virgil.
As Frederic I. Carpenter details, Ossian’s poems were also enthusiastically greeted in the U.S., even before the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was a fan-boy: “I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the north the greatest poet that has ever existed.” A century later, Walt Whitman was still under the Ossianic spell.
So how come you’ve never heard of him?
Because almost from the publication of the first part of the Ossianic opus, Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language, in 1760, there were… doubts.
Samuel Johnson, for one, was a notable skeptic, calling Ossian’s translator James Macpherson “a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud.” Now, Johnson was an English snob and didn’t think the Scots, much less the Irish, had any literature in them at all, but he was kinda right about the provenance of Ossian.
For Ossian was not, in fact, a 3rd century bard related to Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool). It’s difficult, after all, to be related in any strict genetic sense to a mythological giant. Ossian might be more accurately described as the late 18th century Scottish poet named James Macpherson. And judging from the reception of his work, Macpherson was a pretty good at it.
What Macpherson did was his homework, collecting Highland ballads and tales as the basis of his Ossian poems. Calling him a forger is no longer quite right, for his poems echoed “authentic Gaelic verse,” says Kristine Louise Haugen, who notes how the Ossian episode has raised “sustained thought about the relationship between early poetry and history and the value of early texts for reconstructing the past.”
What Ossian/Macpherson also sparked was a great interest in the Gaelic language, launching a revival of a tongue what was swiftly disappearing in the ocean of English. In his way, Macpherson invented a tradition of Gaelic translation and publication. So this National Poetry Month, we celebrate a notorious hoaxer and/or literary genius.
All hail Ossian, and “weep on the rocks of roaring winds!”