The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Ossian
OSSIAN, a Celtic bard, who is supposed to have flourished in the 2d or 3d century of the Christian era, and whose compositions in the Celtic language were for many ages preserved among the Scottish and Irish peasantry. His father Fingal was one of the most famous of the Celtic legendary heroes. Public attention was first called to the Celtic poetry of Scotland by Alexander McDonald, who published in 1751 a volume of his own songs in Gaelic, in the English preface to which he proposed to make a collection of Gaelic poems still in existence in the highlands of Scotland, and, as he asserted, of great excellence. He is considered the ablest of the modern Gaelic poets, and was a man of good character and of much general culture; but the highlanders were at that time, in consequence of their recent rebellion, very unpopular in the rest of Great Britain, and his project met with no encouragement. Jerome Stone, a person of Saxon descent, who was principal of an academy in a Gaelic district, and had mastered the language, published in the “Scots Magazine” in November, 1755, a letter in which he said of the Gaelic: “There are compositions in it which for sublimity of sentiment, nervousness of expression, and high-spirited metaphor are hardly to be equalled among the chief productions of the most cultivated nations.” This letter attracted the attention of John Home, then celebrated for his tragedy of “Douglas,” and he consulted on the subject Prof. Ferguson of Edinburgh, a good Gaelic scholar, who confirmed the opinion expressed by Stone. In 1759 Home became acquainted with James Macpherson, then a young man of 21, of good classical education, who had already published two or three poems in English of very little merit. He was acquainted with the Gaelic language, and on being questioned by Home as to the existence of ancient Gaelic poetry answered that there was a great deal of it, and in his judgment it was very good. Home persuaded him to translate some of it into English, and he produced 16 short pieces, which he said were episodes of a long poem by Ossian on the wars of Fingal. These were published in 1760 under the title of “Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland,” with a commendatory preface by Hugh Blair, the distinguished critic and professor of rhetoric, to wham Home had shown the poems. They were received with great favor by the public, and excited so much interest that several eminent scholars in Scotland warmly solicited Macpherson to make a journey through the highlands in order to gather what he could of the Ossianic poems. He complied with reluctance, declaring that he was unfit for the task, but finally set out accompanied by two gentlemen, both of them good Gaelic scholars. The result of their researches was the publication in 1762 of “Fingal,” and in 1763 of “Temora,” with five minor poems, all translated by Macpherson into English prose of a declamatory and somewhat turgid description. They created a prodigious sensation, and almost immediately excited a fierce controversy. The poems were translated into almost all the languages of Europe, and ran through many editions. Among their eminent admirers may be mentioned Goethe, Schiller, and Napoleon. In Scotland their merit and their authenticity were maintained by nearly all the leading men of let- ters, while in England Dr. Johnson, whose critical authority was at that time nearly unquestioned, denounced them as impudent forgeries, the composition of Macpherson himself. Gaelic he said was the rude speech of a barbarous people, and there were no manuscripts in it more than 100 years old. In reply, it was proved that the Advocates' library at Edinburgh contained Gaelic manuscripts 500 years old, and one of even greater antiquity. The gentlemen who travelled with Macpherson in the highlands testified that they took down some of the poems from oral recitation and transcribed others from old manuscripts. Gentlemen resident in the highlands testified that they gave manuscripts to Macpherson, and other persons of unquestionable character also declared that Macpherson on his return from the highlands showed them several volumes of Gaelic manuscripts containing poems by Ossian. Macpherson, in fact, carried his manuscripts to London, deposited them with his publishers in the Strand, where they remained for a year, advertised in the newspapers that he had done so, and offered to publish them if a sufficient number of subscribers came forward. No attention was paid to his offer or to the manu- scripts, and finally Macpherson, a man of proud, irascible, and haughty nature, grew disgusted with being called a forger and a liar, and for the rest of his life treated his assailants with contemptuous indifference. Recent investigations by competent scholars seem to have clearly established the authenticity of Ossian and justified Macpherson from the charges against him. See “The Poems of Ossian in the Original Gaelic,” by the Rev. Archibald Clerk (2 vols., Edinburgh and London, 1870).