James MacPherson

Dafydd Moore

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
James MacPherson


James Macpherson (b. 1736–d. 1796) was a poet, historian and controversialist most famous for The Poems of Ossian, his supposed translations from the works of the 3rd-century ce Celtic poet Ossian. While inspired by and incorporating the Gaelic balladry of the Scottish Highlands, Ossian was not as Macpherson claimed, and it is better read as a creative construction of what Macpherson would have liked to think was the heroic poetic tradition emanating from the Highlands of Scotland. It was a reconstruction greeted with recognition within the Irish and Gaelic Scottish world. Macpherson did collaborate with Gaelic poets and incorporated both Classical and Vernacular Gaelic traditions to differing extents across his oeuvre (there are identifiable sources for passages in Fingal even if none such have been identified for Temora). This makes the notion of fakery or fraud in any straightforward sense untenable. Ossian was highly influential on a global scale. Macpherson’s works were also subject to controversy, notably involving Samuel Johnson, though this and the misconceptions upon which it was based have played a disproportionately large role within the Anglo-American critical tradition. Until the 1980s, consideration of Macpherson tended to be concerned with questions of influence or questions of authenticity and controversy. Since then, however, scholarship has emphasized other things as well: Macpherson’s Scottish Enlightenment context, mid-18th-century ideas of the epic and the place of poetry in culture; the aesthetics and politics of Sentiment; and Ossian’s place within debates about British identity in the 18th century within the context of “four nations” or “archipelagic” criticism. With increasingly rare exceptions, considerations of fraud and influence are now read through one of these lenses. The Anglo-American obsession with forgery is interpreted as a response to the unsettling Celtocentricism of Macpherson’s vision. The presence here of some of the more unreconstructed, and apparently uninformed, views is a moot point. However, it seems important to acknowledge the availability of different emphases, partly because a denial of plurality is one of the most disappointing things about the neo-Johnsonite position. This bibliography allows readers to make up their own minds by mapping the contours of Macpherson scholarship today, for good or ill. One symptom of renewed interest in Macpherson is passing reference in works of a more general nature. This bibliography does cite some particularly significant individual chapters and sections of larger works, while generally being restricted to stand-alone items. This might misrepresent a critical heritage that has relied on the kindness of strangers. However, a focus on works that specifically address Macpherson is justified, given the need to be selective, doubly so because many glancing references do not do Ossian appropriate justice. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Leanne Tough in sourcing some of the references in this bibliography.

Article.  12316 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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