Ossian: Wikis


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Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes, Anne-Louis Girodet, 1805

Ossian is the narrator, and supposed author, of a cycle of poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in the Scots Gaelic. He is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, a character from Irish mythology. The furore over the authenticity of the poems continued into the 20th century.


The poems

Ossian's Dream, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1813

In 1760 Macpherson published the English-language text Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language, and later that year obtained further manuscripts.[1]

In 1761 he claimed to have found an epic on the subject of the hero Fingal, written by Ossian. The name Fingal or Fionnghall means "white stranger".[2]

He published translations of it during the next few years, culminating in a collected edition; The Works of Ossian, in 1765. The most famous of these poems was Fingal written in 1762.

The poems achieved international success (even Napoleon became a great fan) and were proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical writers such as Homer. Many writers were influenced by the works, including the young Walter Scott and the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose own German translation of a portion of Macpherson's work figures prominently in a climactic scene of The Sorrows of Young Werther.[3]

Goethe's associate Johann Gottfried Herder wrote an essay titled Extract from a correspondence about Ossian and the Songs of Ancient Peoples in the early days of the Sturm und Drang movement.

The poem was as much admired in Hungary as in France and Germany; Hungarian János Arany wrote "Homer and Ossian" in response, and several other Hungarian writers - Baróti Szabó, Csokonai, Sándor Kisfaludy, Kazinczy, Kölcsey, Ferenc Toldy, and Ágost Greguss, were also influenced by it.[4]

In Italy the translation of Ossian by Melchiore Cesarotti made that work highly popular, and among others it influenced Ugo Foscolo who was Cesarotti's pupil in the University of Padua.

The poems also exerted an influence on the burgeoning of Romantic music, and Franz Schubert in particular composed Lieder setting many of Ossian's poems.

Authenticity debate

There were immediate disputes of Macpherson's claims on both literary and political grounds.

Macpherson promoted a Scottish origin for the material, and was hotly opposed by Irish historians who felt that their heritage was being appropriated. However, both Scotland and Ireland shared a common Gaelic culture during the period in which the poems are set and some Fenian literature common in both countries was composed in Scotland.

A great detractor of the Ossian poems was Samuel Johnson, who had no knowledge of the Scottish Gaelic language or of the Gaelic tradition[citation needed]. Johnson not only believed that they were inauthentic, but also dismissed the poems' quality. Upon being asked, "But Doctor Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?" he famously replied, "Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children." Johnson is cited as calling the story of Ossian "as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with"[5]. Fagles refers to this book as a "fake collective bardic epic".[5]

Faced with the controversy, the Committee of the Highland Society enquired after the authenticity of Macpherson's supposed original. It was thanks to these circumstances that the so-called Glenmasan manuscript (Adv. 72.2.3) came to light, a compilation which contains the tale Oided mac n-Uisnig.

This text is a version of the Irish Longes mac n-Uislenn and offers a tale which bears some comparison to Macpherson's "Darthula", although it is radically different in many respects. Donald Smith cited it in his report for the Committee.[6]

The controversy raged on into the early years of the 19th century, with disputes as to whether the poems were based on Irish sources, on sources in English, on Gaelic fragments woven into his own composition as Johnson concluded [7], or largely on Scots Gaelic oral traditions and manuscripts as Macpherson claimed.

Scottish author Hugh Blair's 1763 A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian upheld the work's authenticity against Johnson's scathing criticism and from 1765 was included in every edition of Ossian to lend the work credibility.

In 1952 Derick Thomson concluded that Macpherson had collected Scottish Gaelic ballads, employing scribes to record those that were preserved orally and collating manuscripts, but had adapted them by altering the original characters and ideas, and had introduced a great deal of his own.[8]


  • 1996: The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill, with an Introduction by Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press).

Now see also Dafydd Moore's 'Ossian and Ossianism', the authoritative 4-volume edition of Ossianic works and collection of varied responses (London: Routledge, 2004). This includes facsimiles of the Ossian works, contemporary and later responses, contextual letters and reviews and later adaptations.


Ossian's Cave at The Hermitage in Dunkeld, Scotland.
  1. ^ Literary Encyclopedia October 6, 2004 Literary Encyclopedia: Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland Obtained December 27, 2006.
  2. ^ Behind the Name: View Name: Fingal
  3. ^ Beresford Ellis, Peter: "A Dictionary of Irish Mythology", page 159. Constable, London, 1987. ISBN 0-09-467540-6
  4. ^ Elek Oszkár. "Ossian-kultusz Magyarországon", Egyetemes Philologiai Közlöny, LVII (1933), 66-76.
  5. ^ a b Introduction of Fagles' translation of the Odyssey
  6. ^ Donald MacKinnon, "The Glenmasan manuscript." The Celtic Review 1 (1904-5). 3-17: 6.
  7. ^ Lord Auchinleck's Fingal
  8. ^ Derick Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's "Ossian" (1952).

See also


  • George F. Black, Macpherson's Ossian and the Ossianic Controversy, New York, (1926).
  • Patrick MacGregor, M.A., The Genuine Remains of Ossian, Literally Translated, Highland Society of London, (1841)

Dafydd Moore, 'Ossian and Ossianism' (London: Routledge, 2004)

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to James Macpherson article)

From Wikiquote

James Macpherson (1736-10-271796-02-17) was a Scottish poet and literary hoaxer. His supposed translations from poems by the ancient Highland bard Ossian, sensationally successful in their day, were largely forgeries, though with an admixture of traditional Gaelic material.


Page numbers refer to The Poems of Ossian (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1847).

  • The people bend before me. I turn the battle in the field of the brave. I look on the nations, and they vanish: my nostrils pour the blast of death. I come abroad on the winds: the tempests are before my face. But my dwelling is calm, above the clouds; the fields of my rest are pleasant.
    • "Carric-thura", p. 147
  • Whence are thy beams, O sun! thy everlasting light? Thou comest forth in thy awful beauty; the stars hide themselves in the sky; the moon, cold and pale, sinks in the western wave; but thou thyself movest alone.
    • "Carthon", p. 163.
  • Thou shalt sleep in thy clouds, careless of the voice of the morning. Exult then, O sun, in the strength of thy youth!
    • "Carthon", p. 164.
  • I was a lovely tree, in thy presence, Oscar, with all my branches round me; but thy death came like a blast from the desert, and laid my green head low.
    • "Croma", p. 178.
  • The stream and the wind roar aloud. I hear not the voice of my love! Why delays my Salgar, why the chief of the hill, his promise? Here is the rock, and here the tree! here is the roaring stream! Thou didst promise with night to be here. Ah! whither is my Salgar gone? With thee I would fly from my father; with thee, from my brother of pride.
    • "The Songs of Selma", p. 209.
  • Where art thou, beam of light? Hunters, from the mossy rock, saw ye the blue-eyed fair?


  • Dr. Blair, relying on the internal evidence of their antiquity, asked Dr. Johnson whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems? Johnson replied, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children."
  • Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.
    • Dr. Johnson, quoted in James Boswell Life of Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p. 1207.
  • The tender and the sublime emotions of the mind were never before so wrought up by the human hand. I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest poet that has ever existed.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles McPherson, February 25, 1773, cited from H. A. Washington (ed.) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853) vol. 1, pp. 195-6.
  • Par une de ces journées sombres qui attristent la fin de l'année, et que rend encore plus mélancoliques le souffle glacé du vent du Nord, écoutez, en lisant Ossian, la fantastique harmonie d'une harpe éolienne balancée au sommet d'un arbre dépouillé de verdure, et vous pourrez éprouver un sentiment profond de tristesse, un désir vague et infini d'une autre existence, un dégoût immense de celle-ci.
    • Some gloomy autumn day, when the dreary north wind is howling, read Ossian to the accompaniment of the weird moans of an Æolian harp hung in the leafless branches of a tree, and you will experience a feeling of intense sadness, an infinite yearning for another state of existence, an intense disgust with the present.
    • Hector Berlioz Mémoires, ch. 39 [1]; Eleanor Holmes, Rachel Holmes and Ernest Newman (trans.) Memoirs of Hector Berlioz from 1803 to 1865 (New York: Dover, 1966) pp. 156-7.
  • He produced a work of art which by its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature.
  • One is tempted to call them works of genius; they are quite Homeric in their internal unity, purity of phrasing, clear, ringing music of language and dramatic coloring.

External links

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

OSSIAN, Ossin or Oisin, the legendary Irish 3rd-century hero of Celtic literature, son of Finn. According to the legend embodied in the Ossianic or Ossinic poems and prose romances. which early spread over Ireland and Scotland, Ossian and his Fenian followers were defeated in 283 at the battle of Gabhra by the Irish king Carbery, and Ossian spent many years in fairyland, eventually being baptized by St Patrick. As Oisin he was. long celebrated in Irish song and legend, and in recent years the Irish literary revival has repopularized the Fenian hero. In Scotland the Ossianic revival is associated with the name of James Macpherson (q.v).

See CELT: Literature; also Nutt's Ossian and the Ossianic Literature (1899).

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




An anglicisation, made known by James Macpherson, of Irish Oisín, diminutive form of os (deer).

Proper noun




  1. A male given name; rather rare in the Anglo-Saxon world.


  • 1765 James Macpherson, The Poems of Ossian, Tauchnitz 1847, page 204:
    Fingal! thou king of heroes! Ossian, next to him in war! ye have fought in your youth; your names are renowned in song.




From English Ossian via Sweden in the 19th century.

Proper noun


  1. A male given name; mostly used as a middle name.


Related terms



English Ossian

Proper noun


  1. A male given name.

Usage notes

In continuous use since the 19th century, though never as popular in Sweden as Macpherson's other creation, Oscar.


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