The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 12. Gaelic Elements in Fingal and Temora
Then, Macpherson went travelling in the Highlands and Western isles, persuaded by “several people of rank, as well as taste.” The result was the complete epic of Fingal: an ancient epic poem in six books, which was published in 1762.Several gentlemen in the Highlands and isles gave me all the assistance in their power, and it was by their means I was enabled to compleat the epic poem. How far it comes up to the rules of the epopoea, is the province of criticism to examine. It is only my business to lay it before the reader, as I have found it.In the Fingal volume was also published among shorter pieces Temora, an epic poem: “little more than the opening” is Macpherson’s note. But, in 1763, this poem, too, was completed, in eight books.
The “advertisement” to Fingal states thatthere is a design on foot to print the Originals as soon as the translator shall have time to transcribe them for the press; and if this publication shall not take place, copies will then be deposited in one of the public libraries, to prevent so ancient a monument of genius from being lost.Nevertheless, it is clear that Macpherson, from the first, intended to take no more than was convenient from what he knew of Gaelic verse. He did not wish to translate such poems as captain Hector MacIntyre translated for Mr. Jonathan Oldbuck. He did not ask for help from Irish scholars. He spoke slightingly of the Irish tales of Finn; the traditional name of Finn MacCowl was not good enough, and Macpherson invented the name Fingal; he insisted that Fingal, Ossian, Oscar and all the poems were not merely Scottish but “Caledonian”; in the glory of Ossian, the Irish have only by courtesy a share. This glory, in Macpherson’s mind, was not romantic like the tales of chivalry, but heroic and political, like the Iliad and the Aeneid. He might have been content, and he might have been successful, with the purely romantic elements as he found them in Gaelic poems, whether of Scotland or of Ireland. But his fabrications (like those of Geoffrey of Monmouth) are intended to glorify the history of his native country, and Fingal and Oscar (like king Arthur in The Brut) are victorious adversaries of Rome. “Both nations” (Caledonia and Ireland), says Macpherson, “were almost the same people in the days of that hero”; but they are not equal; and Fingal the Caledonian hero comes to the relief of Ireland against the king of Lochlin, when Cuchullin the Irish champion has been defeated. Macpherson thus provoked Irish scholars and English sceptics equally, and in such a way that Irish scholars were generally cut off from a hearing in England. Johnson did not care for them; what he asked for was the original Gaelic of the “epopoea”; this the Irish Ossianic poems were not, and they were rejected by Macpherson himself. They would have exploded his history, and, with it, his epic scaffolding. Fingal, conqueror of the Romans, and Ossian, rival of Homer, had become necessary to Macpherson’s scheme. And, as a literary man, Macpherson was right—amazingly clever in his selections and rejections and in the whole frame of his policy, so far as it was intended to catch the greatest numbers of readers. Romance is to be found there in its two chief modes—superficial variety of scenes, and the opposite mode of intense feeling. There is also enough to conciliate a severer taste, in the motives of national heroism, and in the poet’s conformity with the standards of epic. Thus, all sorts of readers were attracted—lovers of antiquity, lovers of romance, hearts of sensibility and those respectable critics who were not ashamed to follow Milton, Dryden and Pope in their devotion to the epic ideal.