A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Macpherson, James

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Macpherson, James (1736?-1796). -- Alleged translator of the Ossianic poems, s. of a small farmer at Ruthven, Inverness-shire, studied for the Church at Aberdeen and Edin., became teacher of the school in his native parish, and afterwards tutor in a gentleman's family. In 1758 he pub. The Highlander, an ambitious poem in 6 cantos, which, however, attracted no attention. But in the following year he submitted to John Home (q.v.), the author of Douglas, certain writings which he represented to be translations from ancient Gaelic poems. By the help of Home and some of his friends M. was enabled to pub. a considerable number of his Fragments of Poetry translated from the Gaelic and Erse Languages. These were received with profound and widely-spread interest, and gave rise to a controversy which can hardly yet be said to be settled. While some authorities received them with enthusiastic admiration, others immediately called their genuineness in question. In the first instance, however, a subscription was raised to enable M. to make a journey in search of further poetic remains, the result of which was the production in 1761 of Fingal, an epic in 6 books, and in 1763 of Temora, also an epic, in 8 books. The fame which these brought to their discoverer was great, and the sales enormous. In 1764 M. went as sec. to the Governor of Pensacola in Florida. Returning in 1766 he settled in London, became an energetic pamphleteer in support of the Government, and in 1780 entered Parliament, and was next year appointed to the lucrative post of Agent for the Nabob of Arcot. He retired in 1789, and bought an estate in his native page 254parish, where he d. in 1796. Great doubt still rests upon the subject of the Ossianic poems: it is, however, generally admitted that M. took great liberties with the originals, even if they ever really existed in anything at all resembling the form given in the alleged translations. No manuscripts in the original have ever been forthcoming. Few, however, will deny that M. either discovered, or composed, a body of poetry unlike anything that has preceded it, of unequal merit, indeed, but containing many striking and beautiful passages, and which unquestionably contributed to break up the tyranny of the classical school and thus prepare the way for the romantic revival.