login | register
EN  |  DE


Ossian and the Birth of Romanticism

17 MAY 2016

published in: Whitsun

Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867), Loch Katrine, 1866, oil on canvas © Perth & Kinross Council
The remarkable success prompted subsidised prospecting trips to the Highlands and Islands in search of Homeric-length epic poems. These were duly “discovered” and published as Fingal (1761/2) and Temora (1763), both volumes containing in addition sundry shorter pieces that, widely anthologised in many European languages, came to exceed the epics in popular appeal. All of these Macpherson now attributed to Ossian (Scots Gaelic: Oisean; Irish: Oisín), a third-century bard, son of Fingal, geriatric, blind and decrepit, the last of a glorious race of heroes, endlessly lamenting the loss of all he holds dear. This emphasis on evanescence, the elegiac ground-note is an important part of genuine tradition, in both Ireland and Highland Scotland. Contrary to received opinion, Macpherson never publicly claimed to have translated the bulk of his Ossian  from manuscripts, though he did in fact rescue important ones, notably the Book of the Dean of Lismore, compiled from older oral sources in the early 16th century and containing poems ascribed to the legendary Oisean. His work is not a hoax, but a fabrication, an ingenious mixture of the traditional and the newly invented – and also the product of a very gifted poet. Its impact – not least on poets, artists, composers – was immediate, wide-ranging and long-lasting.
Jean Paul Richter called Ossian the “mother of Romanticism”, and though the appeal was not limited to any particular “-ism” and extended well beyond the middle of the 19th century, it is as a progenitor of this most remarkable of movements that Macpherson should be recognised. The appearance of Ossian coincided with and decisively influenced an extraordinary literary efflorescence in Germany, not only the generation of Herder, Goethe and Lenz (all of whom translated from it), but also the succeeding one of Hölderlin, Novalis and Tieck. Apart from Herder, who distrusted the epic pretensions but had a fine feeling for the folk poetry in the work, few took much interest in the question of authenticity. It was at Herder’s behest that Goethe made a heroic attempt to translate the Gaelic specimen appended by Macpherson to Temora. But by far his most influential translation was inserted into his novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows/Sufferings of Young Werther; 1774), fully 7% of which consists of a brilliant rendering of most of ‘The Songs of Selma’ and a section from ‘Berrathon’, skillfully modified for maximum emotional effect.
If the dominant mood in Ossian is one of heroic hopelessness, isolation, despair and alienation, it is tempered by the “joy of grief”, one of Ossian’s “remarkable expressions, several times repeated” (Hugh Blair). In context it implies a certain controlled detachment in the contemplation of loss. “There is a joy in grief when peace dwells in the breast of the sad. But sorrow wastes the mournful.” This anticipates Wordsworth’s later remarks on the origins of poetry in “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. The German translation of “joy of grief” to achieve widest currency is “Wonne der Wehmuth”; it first appears in print in the third volume of the Viennese-based Bavarian Jesuit Michael Denis’ translation of Ossian of 1768/9 (the first complete one into any European language). Apart from forming the title of the Goethe poem, famously set by Beethoven and also Schubert, it is quoted by Hölderlin in the novel Hyperion, his beautifully achieved response to Werther. Although the phrase might suggest little more than indulgence in modish melancholy, there is a note of genuine pathos in the original, reflecting the actual fate of the Scottish Gael in the wake of the Jacobite risings: like Hölderlin’s Empedokles, Macpherson has felt the departing god of his people.
There were many aspects of Ossian that appealed to nascent Romantics everywhere, in Europe and beyond. One was the evidence it seemed to provide of the value of the non-classical ancient, an alternative model combining, in Schiller’s terms, both the naïve and the sentimental. Another, the focus on the central role of the poet/bard whose function both as participant in the action and as self-conscious narrator is constantly foregrounded. Combining elements of lyric, epic and drama, and written in a language hovering between prose and verse, it blurs traditional genre distinctions. The broken, fragmentary narrative – itself then seen as a warrant of “poetry of the heart” – compels the use of the reader’s imagination to establish coherence.
Certainly not the least significant aspect of the work’s appeal is the wonderfully effective evocation of the landscape of Macpherson’s native Highlands and Islands – turbulent seas, rugged mountains, heath, moor, storms, mist, and dank autumnal decay – not simply as a static scenic backdrop onto which sombre moods may be projected, but as a powerful living force of terrible bleakness and awesome beauty. Walter Scott, a disabused believer, credited Macpherson with having given a “new tone to poetry throughout all Europe”. He was right.

Howard Gaskill is Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.