Page:A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, vol 6.djvu/174

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.


544


JAMES MACPHERSOX.


In an evil hour for his literary reputation, Macpherson, with more confidence than wisdom, began a translation of the Iliad of Homer. This work he com- pleted, and gave to the world in 1773. Its reception was mortifying in the extreme. Men of learning laughed at it, critics abused it : and, notwithstand- ing some strenuous efforts on the part of his friends, particularly Sir John Elliot, it finally sank under one universal shout of execration and contempt The finishing blow to this production was inflicted by the Critical Review, in which it was ably and fatally criticised.

" There is nothing," says one of the most able and elegant of Macpherson's commentators, Dr Graham, the late learned minister of Aberfoyle, " there is nothing which serves to set Macpherson's character and powers in a stronger light than his egregious attempt to render the great father of poetry into prose, however natural it might have been for him to have made this attempt, after his success in doing the same office to Ossian." The temerity of this attempt will not be deemed a little enhanced by the consideration that Pope's elegant translation was already before the world, nor will the awkwardness of its failure be thought lessened by a recollection of the sentiment its author himself expressed on another occasion, viz., that he " would not deign to translate what he could not imitate, or even equal." This unguarded language was now recollected to his prejudice, and carefully employed by his enemies to increase the disgrace of his failure.

To add to the literary mortifications under which Macpherson was now suf- fering, he found himself attacked by Dr Johnson in his celebrated Tour to the Hebrides, published in 1773, on the subject of the authenticity of his translations of Ossian. 'I he remarks of the great moralist, as is well known, are not confined, in this case, to an abstract discussion of the question, but in- clude some severe, though certainly not unmerited personal reflections on the translator.

These the latter resented so highly that he immediately wrote a threaten- ing letter to their author, who replied in spirited and still more severe and sarcastic language than he had employed in his published strictures, saying amongst other humiliating things, " your abilities since your Homer are not so formidable." To this letter Macpherson wisely made no reply, and is not known to have taken any further notice of it than by assisting M'Nicol in his " Remarks on Dr Johnson's Tour," printed in 1774. Even of this, however, he is only suspected, there being no positive proof that he actually had any share in that production.

Although thus thanklessly acknowledged, Macpherson still continued his literary labours, and in 1775, published "The History of Great Britain, from the Restoration to the accession of the house of Hanover," in 2 vols. 4to.

Soon after the publication of this work another favourable change took place in the fortunes of its author, and opened up to him a new source of emolument. He was selected by the government, at this time embarrassed by the resistance of the American colonies to its authority, to defend and give force to the reasons which influenced its proceedings with regard to that country. In the discharge of this duty, he wrote a pamphlet entitled, "The Rights of Great Britain asserted against the claims of the Colonies," 8vo. 1776. This pamphlet was circulated with great industry, and ran through several editions. He also wrote " A Short History of the Opposition during the last session of parliament," 8vo. 1779. The merit of this last production was so remarkable, that it was, at the time, generally ascribed to the pen of Gibbon, a compliment which, how- ever, it is very questionable if its real author appreciated.

About this period Macpherson's good fortune was still further increased by