“These pieces have been and will, I think, during my life, continue to be to me the sources of daily and exalted pleasures. The tender and the sublime emotions of the mind were never before so wrought up by the human hand. I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest poet that has ever existed. Merely for the pleasure of reading his works, I am become desirous of learning the language in which he sung, and of possessing his songs in their original form.” -Thomas Jefferson (1773), from a letter sent to James Macpherson, the supposed translator of Ossian
The minds of literary critics and artists of late-Enlightenment Europe often turned to the subject of a purportedly ancient Gaelic epic called Ossian. The poems themselves were published in 1760 by a Scottish writer named James Macpherson (1736–1796) who claims to have translated the work from ancient sources. The poems do build on ancient Gaelic mythology but Macpherson, a talented writer himself, was never able to produce the ancient materials upon which he claim his ‘translation’ was based, despite being challenged by major literary critics like Samuel Johnson. Though the work has fallen into relative obscurity after time has revealed the epic to have originated with Macpherson himself (with the legendary bard Ossian also fabricated by Macpherson), opinions were divided at the time. The quality of the work, however, remains. There is a reason Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (the future King Karl Johan of Sweden-Norway), and Diderot all though highly of the work. Jefferson thought the legendary Ossian to be the ‘greatest poet that has ever existed.’ The legend of Ossian was popular throughout the early United States to the extent that there is a town in Indiana named Ossian after the legendary third-century poet.
“Why should Ossian sing of battles? For never more shall my steel shine in war. I remember the days of my youth with grief; when I feel the weakness of my arm. Happy are they who fell in their youth, in the midst of their renown! They have not beheld the tombs of their friends, or failed to bend the bow of their strength.” — ‘Ossian’
The Greeks have Homer, the Romans Virgil. Ossian (or Oisín) was a figure from Irish mythology, a legendary poet used by James Macpherson as the purported author of the poems he claimed to have come across. Ossian was the son of legendary warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), considered to be the builder of the Giant’s Causeway according to myth. The poems themselves were published as prose poems under the name Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language in 1760 by James Macpherson. This article will look at the cycle of epic poems known as Ossian, what one recent academic referred to as the ‘Harry Potter of the 18th century.” I don’t often agree with professional academics but I would argue that this characterization is spot on.
The epic opens with the story of one of the main character — Fingal (based loosely on Fionn mac Cumhaill). There is no central storyline throughout the epic, though the characters reappear. The landscape and general atmosphere are described in an engaging and epic way. The opening lines describe Fingal’s trip to Scandinavia.
A tale of the times of old! Why, thou wanderer unseen! Thou bender of the thistle of Lora; why, thou breeze of the valley, hast thou left mine ear? I hear no distant roar of streams! No sound of the harp, from the rock! Come, thou huntress of Lutha, Malvina, call back his soul to the bard. I look forward to Lochlin of lakes, to the dark, billowy bay of U-thorno, where Fingal descends from ocean, from the roar of winds. Few are the heroes of Morven, in a land unknown!
Starno sent a dweller of Loda, to bid Fingal to the feast; but the king remembered the past, and all his rage arose. “Nor Gormal’s mossy towers, nor Starno, shall Fingal behold. Deaths wander, like shadows, over his fiery soul! Do I forget that beam of light, the white-handed daughter of kings? Go, son of Loda; his words are wind to Fingal: wind, that, to and fro, drives the thistle, in autumn’s dusky vale. Duth-maruno, arm of death! Cromma-glas, of iron shields! Struth-mor, dweller of battle’s wing! Cormar, whose ships bound on seas, careless as the course of a meteor, on dark-rolling clouds! Arise, around me, children of heroes, in a land unknown! Let each look on his shield, like Trenmor, the ruler of wars. “Come down,” thus Trenmor said, “thou dweller between the harps! Thou shalt roll this stream away, or waste with me in earth.”
Around the king they rise in wrath. No words come forth: they seize their spears. Each soul is rolled into itself. At length the sudden clang is waked, on all their echoing shields. Each takes his hill, by night; at intervals, they darkly stand. Unequal bursts the hum of songs, between the roaring wind! -Ossian, Duan I
So begins the opening of the first in a series of prose poems. Macpherson did gather information from Gaelic sources, though a considerable amount of the work was his invention. He drew on Irish sources and tried to make Scotland the source of Gaelic culture. Macpherson’s work drew criticism from Irish, as well as English scholars. Antiquarian Charles O’Connor published a work refuting Macpherson’s claims. Fingal and Oscar were based on figures from Irish mythology while Oscar’s lover Malvina was created by Macpherson himself.
“ Star of descending night! fair is thy light in the west! thou liftest thy unshorn head from thy cloud: thy steps are stately on thy hill. What dost thou behold in the plain? The stormy winds are laid. The murmur of the torrent comes from afar. Roaring waves climb the distant rock. The flies of evening are on their feeble wings; the hum of their course is on the field. What dost thou behold, fair light? But thou dost smile and depart. The waves come with joy around thee: they bathe thy lovely hair. Farewell, thou silent beam! Let the light of Ossian’s soul arise!” -from ‘Ossian’
Though the root of these myths, as far as they are authentic, is Irish, Scotland can lay claim to both the inventiveness of the author and compiler (Macpherson) as well as the massive influence they had. Nascent Romantic movements across Europe were inspired, at least in part, by Ossian. The work was translated into many European languages. It was the Italian translation which Napoleon enjoyed so much that he carried it into battle with him. French and Scandinavian artists were quick to paint pictures of many key scenes over the coming decades. Swedish-Norwegian King Karl Johan named his son Oscar after the Oscar in Ossian. The legendary author ‘Ossian’ was dubbed the ‘Homer of the North’ and often depicted in a manner much like Homer -blind and bearded, though with a harp rather than a lyre.
“Whence is the stream of years? Whither do they roll along? Where have they hid, in mist, their many-coloured sides? I look into the times of old, but they seem dim to Ossian’s eyes, like reflected moon-beams, on a distant lake.” -from ‘Ossian’
The high quality of these lines, even though not ancient (a reality which Jefferson considered in his later years), contributed to a shift in how Scottish culture was viewed as well as how peoples across Europe viewed their own respective cultures. While antiquarians of previous years had traveled to northern England and Scotland to view the remains of Roman civilization which remained, Ossian began to inspire tourism which emphasized Gaelic culture and ancient resistance to Rome. Scotland gave us the Industrial Enlightenment as well as the Romantic movement. The Irish-inspired Ossian epic, written and compiled by James Macpherson in the eighteenth century, contributed to artistic visions of local legends, cultural awareness, and populism which helped shape Europe and the world ever since.