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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages

§ 10. Ossian and Macpherson

Ossian, like Ragnar Lodbrok, belongs to a time earlier than what is now generally reckoned the Middle Ages; it was not till after Macpherson that the chivalrous Middle Ages—the world of Ivanhoe or The Talisman, of Lohengrin or Tannhäuser—came to their own again. There was something in the earlier times which seemed to have been more fascinating. But Ossian did not need to concern himself much about his date and origin; there was no serious rivalry to be feared either from The Descent of Odin or The Castle of Otranto. Only a few vestiges of medieval literature contributed to the great victory, which was won, not unfairly, by rhythm, imagery and sentiment, historical and local associations helping in various degrees. The author or translator of Ossian won his great success fairly, by unfair means. To call him an impostor is true, but insufficient. When Ossian dethroned Homer in the soul of Werther, the historical and antiquarian fraud of Macpherson had very little to do with it. Werther and Charlotte mingle their tears over the “Songs of Selma”; it would be an insult to Goethe to suppose that he translated and printed these “Songs” merely as interesting philological specimens of the ancient life of Scotland, or that he was not really possessed and enchanted by the melancholy winds and the voices of the days of old. Blair’s opinion about Ossian is stated in such terms as these:

  • The description of Fingal’s airy hall, in the poem called Berrathon, and of the ascent of Malvina into it deserves particular notice, as remarkably noble and magnificent. But above all, the engagement of Fingal with the Spirit of Loda, in Carric-thura, cannot be mentioned without admiration. I forbear transcribing the passage, as it must have drawn the attention of every one who has read the works of Ossian. The undaunted courage of Fingal opposed to all the terrors of the Scandinavian god; the appearance and the speech of the awful spirit; the wound which he receives, and the shriek which he sends forth, “as rolled into himself, he rose upon the wind,” are full of the most amazing and terrible majesty, that I know no passage more sublime in the writings of any uninspired author.
  • Blair, as a doctor of divinity and professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres, was bound to be careful in his language, and, if it here seems extravagant, it is certainly not careless. His deliberate judgment as to the sublimity of Ossian must be taken as absolutely sincere, and it cannot be sincere if not founded on the text as it stands, if bribed or biassed in any measurable degree by antiquarian considerations. And the praise of Goethe and Blair was honestly won by Macpherson; his imagery, thoughts and sentences are estimated by these critics for the effect upon their minds. What they desire is beauty of imagination, thought and language; these, they find in Ossian, the published Ossian, the book in their hands; if Macpherson wrote it all, then their praise belongs to him. Nothing can alter the fact that sentences were written and published which were good enough to obtain this praise; all Macpherson’s craft as a philological impostor would have been nothing without his literary skill. He was original enough, in a peculiar way, to touch and thrill the whole of Europe.

    The glamour of Ossian is only very partially to be reckoned among the literary influences of the Middle Ages. It is romantic, in every acceptation of that too significant word. But “romantic” and “medieval” are not the same thing. The Middle Ages help the modern romantic authors in many ways, and some of these may be found in Ossian; the vague twilight of Ossian, and the persistent tones of lamentation, are in accordance with many passages of old Scandinavian poetry—of The Lays of Helgi and The Lament of Gudrun, in the elder Edda—with many old ballads, with much of the Arthurian legend. But those very likenesses may prove a warning not to take “medieval” as meaning the exclusive possession of any of those qualities or modes. If certain fashions of sentiment are found both in the elder Edda and in Morte d’Arthur, it is probable that they will be found also in ancient Babylon and in the South Sea islands. And, if the scenery and sentiment of Ossian are not peculiarly medieval, though they are undoubtedly romantic, the spell of Ossian, as we may fitly call it—that is, the phrases and rhythmical cadences—are obviously due to the inspired writings with which Blair, by a simple and well-known device of rhetoric, was willing to compare them. The language of Ossian is copied from David and Isaiah. It is enough to quote from the passage whose sublimity no uninspired author has outdone—the debate of Fingal and the “spirit of dismal Loda”:

  • “Dost thou force me from my place?” replied the hollow voice. “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.”
  • Another quotation may be taken from the other place selected by Blair (which, by the way, is close to Werther’s last momentous quotation, following on “Selma”):
  • Malvina! where art thou, with thy songs, with the soft sound of thy steps? Son of Alpin, art thou near? where is the daughter of Toscar? “I passed, O son of Fingal, by Tor-lutha’s mossy walls. The smoke of the hall was ceased. Silence was among the trees of the hill. The voice of the chase was over. I saw the daughters of the bow. I asked about Malvina, but they answered not. They turned their faces away: thin darkness covered their beauty. They were like the stars, on a rainy hill, by night, each looking faintly through her mist.”
  • The last sentence is in a different measure from the rest of the passage. Most of it, and almost the whole of Ossian, is in parallel phrases, resembling Hebrew poetry. This was observed by Malcolm Laing, and is practically acknowledged by Macpherson in the parallel passages which he gives in his notes; his admirers dwelt upon the “uninspired” eloquence which reminded them of the Bible. It sometimes resembles the oriental manner satirised by Goldsmith in The Citizen of the World: “there is nothing like sense in the true Eastern style, where nothing more is required but sublimity.”

    But Macpherson did not invent the whole of Ossian out of his own head: he knew a good deal of Gaelic poetry. If he had been more of a Celtic scholar, he might have treated Gaelic songs as Hickes did The Incantation of Hervor, printing the text with a prose translation, and not asking for any favour from “the reading public.” But he wished to be popular, and he took the right way to that end—leaving Percy in the cold shade with his Five Pieces of Runic Poetry and his philological compilations.