Monday 17 December 2018

Fragments of Ancient Poetry by James 'Ossian' Macpherson (1760)

The 1760 publicaton of Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland by James Macpherson was the first definite and powerful public sign of Romanticism in Britain.

For the next three generations this work, and its successors - known as the work of Ossian - had a rapid truly immense impact on Literature and art generally, throughout the British Isles and Western Europe - also the United States. Admirers, and those influenced by, Ossian included many of the greatest figures of his time and the decades following - Coleridge and Byron wrote imitations, Goethe and Novalis in Germany, Emerson and Thoreau in New England.

Even when it became known that 'Ossian' was essentially the synthetic work of its 'translator' James Macpherson - who seems to have used Gaelic songs and stories plus a good deal of his own invention - as a basis for these purported Ancient poems; even after this was understood, and on the basis of its literary merits; Ossian was placed between Virgil and Dante as the Scottish representative in a lineage of national poets that included Homer and Shakespeare.

What was 'Ossian'? The 'poems' were printed in the form of prose; but if this is read a line at a time; the form is similar to the psalms of the Authorised Version of the Bible (using similar methods of 'parallelism' for example); and can be seen as the precursor of the kind of free verse of William Blake (who a biographer describes as adoring Ossian 'above all' in his youth) and Walt Whitman.

The words were simple, plain - and the impression is 'elemental' - the poems deal with primary aspects of tribal life; especially courage, love and grief. The physical environment of the Scottish Highlands - rain, mist, wind etc; is very immediate, and seen to have meaning for the characters. The supernatural (especially ghosts) are regarded as normal aspects of human existence.

Here are the first and last paragraphs of 'Fragments':

My love is a son of the hill. He pursues the flying deer. His grey dogs are panting around him; his bow-string sounds in the wind. Whether by the fount of the rock, or by the stream of the mountain thou liest; when the rushes are nodding with the wind, and the mist is flying over thee, let me approach my love unperceived, and see him from the rock. Lovely I saw thee first by the aged oak; thou wert returning tall from the chace; the fairest among thy friends.
I saw, answered Allad the old, Ullin the son of Carbre: He came like a cloud from the hill; he hummed a surly song as he came, like a storm in leafless wood. He entered the hall of the plain. Lamderg, he cried, most dreadful of men! fight, or yield to Ullin. Lamderg, replied Gealchoffa, Lamderg is not here: he fights the hairy Ulfadha; mighty man, he is not here. But Lamderg never yields; he will fight the son of Carbre. Lovely art thou, O daughter of Tuathal-Teachvar! said Ullin. I carry thee to the house of Carbre; the valiant shall have Gealchossa. Three days from the top of Cromleach will I call Lamderg to fight. The fourth, you belong to Ullin, if Lamderg die, or fly my sword... Lamderg rushed on like a storm. On his spear he leaped over rivers. Few were his strides up the hill. The rocks fly back from his heels; loud crashing they bound to the plain. His armour, his buckler rung. He hummed a surly song, like the noise of the falling stream. Dark as a cloud he stood above; his arms, like meteors, shone. From the summit of the hill, he rolled a rock. Ullin heard in the hall of Carbre.—

Most modern people, myself included, find this dull and pretty much unreadable in quantity; but there is no doubt that greater men and better judges than myself have found it to be first rate. And modern people find quite a lot of great work of previous generations to be (pretty much) dull and unreadable - Christopher Marlowe, Dryden, Walter Scott, Blake's Prophetic poems, Byron... So it is very possible that we moderns are missing important things.

(A telling comparison is Samuel Richardson who invented the novel and thereby changed the world with Pamela in 1740 - spawning multiple other novels within just a few years. People were crazy for Pamela at the time; yet almost nobody reads it now, except for literary professionals.)

What can Ossian tell us about the development of Western consciousness in the 'Enlightenment' era? We can see that already, in the middle 1700s, British people (at least among the upper classes) were finding modern thought to be shallow and artificial. By 1760, people were already feeling alienated from their environment - and wanted to read of ancestors who had a more primal, 'primitive' feeling of involvement with their surroundings.

...There was already a sense of the supernatural retreating, having gone from life - so people wanted to read of a world that contained more than that which was a part of natural science.

...There was already a sense that modern morality might have gone off-the-rails; and that earlier people might have lived by a deeper and more spontaneous kind of virtue.

In the strength of enthusiasm for Ossian we can also see a strong counter-cultural impulse; a more-or-less explicit rejection of the mainstream, Establishment; a rejection of the world symbolised by Samuel Johnson. Johnson was, indeed, the strongest opponent of Ossian, once of the first to recognise it as a 'fraud' - albeit this was based on Johnson's dislike of the work itself and some dubious assumptions concerning the nature of 'evidence'.

(Interestingly, Macpherson - living-up to the stereotype of the Scottish Highlander - threatened Johnson with physical violence if he did not desist from his criticisms. Johnson - a man of massive stature, albeit some 25 years older than Macpherson - responded by advertising that he had obtained a six-foot wooden cudgel which he was carrying around to defend himself! Such were the literary spats of that time and place...)

In sum, my interpretation of the Ossian phenomenon was that it can be described accurately in terms of a 'reaction'. It is the first and non-theoretic, emotional - gut-level - response of the ruling elites to the developing prospect of the modern world; with its abstraction, rationalism, complexity,  materialism - and alienation.

The pervasive tone of Macpherson's work is sad; a yearning nostalgia for a tragic 'ancient' world... a harsh world full of suffering, and yet a world that was experienced with much greater subjective reality than the world of the 1700s.

I have no doubt that Macpherson ought to be regarded as one of the greatest writers in the canonical lineage of English Literature; and the Ossian poems ought to be mentioned without condescension and accorded the same respect, given the same attention and context, that is given to authors such as Christopher Marlowe, Richardson, Scott, Byron...

That is, Macpherson's place is among the writers who epitomised excellence both in their time and for decades after, had a decisive impact on the historical development of our art and culture, and who illustrate key changes in human consciousness - albeit writers that, today, most people find it difficult to enjoy.


William Wildblood said...

A parallel is Thomas Chatterton, born in 1752, who claimed to have discovered poems by a 15th century monk called Thomas Rowley. However Chatterton wrote these himself in what he imagined was a medieval style. But they were very influential on the Romantic poets, and he is praised in poems by Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, an impressive roll call of admirers. Unfortunately, Chatterton killed himself at the tender age of 17, becoming perhaps the first Romantic suicide.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - For some reason I never got round to reading the Chatterton poems, although I know the story (and the - to me - unpleasant Pre-Rapaelite portrait by Wallace) - I shall do so now!

However, Chatterton's work didn't change the direction of literature and society in the way that Ossian's (or Richardson's) did. Also, I don't think Macpherson's was a total fake - since he used genuine Gaelic original material and the work seemingly captures the spirit of the originals.

Macpherson was a fake in that he lied about his methods and sources - but he was clearly poetically inspired in his work. His hope of recoveing a great Scottish epic poem meant that he - in effect - found what he was looking for - i.e. he assumed that the fragments of Gaelic songs and stories were corrupted remnants of a single epic, and reconstructed the lost epic on that assumption.

But this was almost exactly what (in Finland) Lonnrot did in making the Kalevala - which has since been regarded as a genuine national epic poem (and the basis of Finnish nationhood), and part of the world's great literature.

I'm not sure why Macpherson is shunned for doing the same as Lonnrot is idolised for doing... probably because the London elite had no interest in a Scottish national poem.

Also Scots Gaelic never became a national language - and anyway Macpherson did not preserve his Gaelic original source transcriptions (I guess M. probably extemporised his translations from memory, as a loose paraphrase), so the putative Gaelic-Scots national epic only ever existed 'in translation'... hardly a satisfactory situation for a nationalist revival.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I've had a browse through Chatterton's work, and at first glance it seems like good stuff. I'll try and give it more extended attention some time.

William Wildblood said...

I haven't read them either. I just (vaguely) know the story, and the portrait which, I agree, is unpleasant in that it glamourises suicide.

The parallel I meant was just that of reaching back into an idealised past and thereby helping to inspire the Romantic movement. I have a theory that in the 18th century three centuries ago seemed a lot longer ago than three centuries ago does now and therefore more exotic, mysterious and 'other' in nature. Partly because we have a lot more information about the past today and access to its products through books, the internet etc, but partly also because time is speeding up now so duration actually seems shorter.

But I have absolutely no proof of that!!