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Significant Scots
James MacPherson

MACPHERSON, JAMES, a literary character of celebrity, was born at Ruthven, in the county of Inverness, in the latter end of the year 1738. His family was one of the most ancient in that part of the country, and of high respectability. The earlier rudiments of education he received at home, and was afterwards sent to the grammar school of Inverness. At this period he began to discover a degree of talent which induced his family, contrary to their original intention, to bring him up to a learned profession. With this view he was sent, after completing an initiatory course at Inverness, to the university of Aberdeen, and afterwards to that of Edinburgh, where he finished his studies.

Young Macpherson had already begun to exercise his poetical talents; and, while at the university, gave some specimens of his powers to that department of literature, but with very indifferent success. Hitherto, however, he had confined his muse to such short and desultory flights, as young men of poetical temperament usually begin with; but, in 1758, he made a bolder essay, by producing a poem in six cantos, entitled the "Highlander." This work was printed at Edinburgh, in 12 mo, in the year above named. Though not without some excellences, the "Highlander," as a whole, is an exceedingly poor production, and must be considered so, even with every allowance for the youth of its author, who was yet only in the twentieth year of his age. The public was of a similar opinion with regard to its merits, and it almost instantly sank into oblivion. It must, however, be recorded to the credit of the poet, that he very soon became sensible of its defects and deficiencies, and made every endeavour to suppress it. About this time, also, he wrote an ode on the arrival of the earl Marischal in Scotland, which he entitled "An Attempt in the manner of Pindar." This ode, though it certainly does not possess much poetical merit, is yet, on the whole, considerably above mediocrity. From this period, there is no more heard of Macpherson’s poetical compositions, until he appeared as the translator of those singular poems on which his celebrity is founded.

It was intended by his friends that he should, on completing his studies, enter the church; but it is not certainly known whether he ever actually did take orders or not. He is, however, spoken of about this time, 1760, as a "Young clergyman;" and is described by Hume, the celebrated historian, as "a modest, sensible young man, not settled in any living, but employed as a private tutor in Mr Graham of Balgowan’s family; a way of life which he is not fond of." The notice of Mr Hume was thus directed to Macpherson, in consequence of the appearance of a work bearing the title of "Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic, or Erse Language," the production of Macpherson, and the first presentation of that literary novelty which was afterwards to attract so large a portion of the world’s notice, and to excite so much discussion and dissension in its literary circles.

‘The "Fragments" were declared to be genuine remains of ancient Celtic poetry; and were, as well from that circumstance, as their own intrinsic merit, received with the utmost enthusiasm and delight. Every one read them, and every one admired them; and, altogether, a sensation was created in the world of letters, which it had known but on few occasions before. As it was intimated that other specimens of this ancient poetry might be recovered, a subscription was immediately begun to enable Macpherson to quit his employment as a family preceptor, and to undertake a mission into the Highlands to secure them. With the wishes of his patrons on this occasion, the principal of whom were Dr Blair, Dr Robertson, Dr Carlyle, and Mr Hume, Macpherson readily complied, and lost no time in proceeding in quest of more "Fragments;" having been furnished previously to his setting out with various letters of recommendation and introduction, from the influential persons just named, to gentlemen resident in the Highlands.

After making an extensive tour through the mainland and isles, he returned to Edinburgh, and in 1762 presented to the world the first portion of the results, real or pretended, of his mission. This was "Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem, in 6 books; together with several other Poems, composed by Ossian, the son of Fingal: translated from the Gaelic," 4to. These poems were received with equal, if not yet greater applause, than that which had hailed the first specimen Macpherson had given of Celtic poetry. The demand for the work was immense, and the fame of the translator and saviour, as he was deemed, of these presumed relics of ancient literature, was rapidly spread, not only over Britain, but over all Europe. They were almost immediately translated into nearly every language spoken on the continent; and in each of these translations, Macpherson was alluded to in terms, "that might," as he himself says, "flatter the vanity of one fond of fame,"--a circumstance which must have been highly gratifying to him, for he was fond of fame, even inordinately so, and was known to have been under the influence of a violent passion for literary repute, from a very early period of his life.

In the following year, viz., 1763, the poem of Fingal, &c., was succeeded by "Temora, in eight books, with other Poems, by Ossian," 4to. This was also well received, but scarcely with the same degree of enthusiasm which had marked the reception of the preceding poems. A change had taken place, both with regard to Macpherson himself, personally, and his poetry. A suspicion as to the authenticity of the latter, was now beginning to steal over the public mind; and the former, from being a modest man, as he was represented to be by Mr Hume, had become insolent amid arrogant. Whether this last was the result of the operation of extraordinary success on an ill-regulated mind, or the effect of frequent irritation from the attacks of the sceptical, to which Macpherson was now certainly subjected, it would not, perhaps, be easy to determine. It probably arose partly from both. The likelihood that the latter consideration had, at any rate, some share in producing this change of demeanour is considerable, when the nature of Macpherson’s disposition, which was ardent, haughty, impatient and irascible, is taken into account. That such a change, however, had taken place, is certain; and the circumstance derives no little interest from the person by whom, and the manner in which it is marked. "You must not mind," says Mr Hume, in a letter to Dr Blair on the subject of the poems of Ossian, "so strange and heteroclite a mortal, (Macpherson,) than whom I have scarce ever known a man more perverse and unamiable." This was Mr Hume’s opinion of him in 1763 and it will be remarked how oddly it contrasts with that which he expressed regarding him in 1760. That Mr Hume, however, saw sufficient reason in Macpherson’s conduct, thus to alter his opinion of him, no man can doubt, who knows any thing of the character of the illustrious historian, himself one of the most amiable of men.

In 1764, the year following that in which Temora appeared, Macpherson obtained the appointment of secretary to governor Johnstone, then about to set out for the settlement of Pensacola, of which he was made chief. After a short residence in the colony, during which he had assisted in, the construction and arrangement of its civil government, a difference arose between Macpherson and the governor, and they parted. The former left the settlement, visited several of the West India islands, and some provinces of North America, and finally returned to England in 1766.

He now took up his residence in London, and shortly after resumed his literary pursuits; these, however, as the Ossianic Poems were now exhausted, were of an entirely different nature from those which had hitherto employed him. His first public appearance again as an author, was in 1771, when he produced a work, entitled "An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland," 4to. This work, he says himself, he composed merely for private amusement. Whatever were the incitements which led to its production, necessity, at any rate, could not have been amongst the number; for Macpherson, if not already comparatively wealthy, was rapidly becoming so by the extensive sale of the poems. Whether written, however, for amusement, or with a view to fame, the author of the "Introduction" had no reason to congratulate himself on the result of its publication. Both the book and the writer were attacked from various quarters with much bitterness of invective, and a controversy regarding its merits and the opinions it promulgated, arose, which was but little calculated to improve the irritable temper of its author, or to add to his happiness. Nor was this treatment compensated by any success to the work itself. It made a sufficient noise; but yielded neither fame nor profit. The former was the result of its author’s celebrity; the latter, it is to be feared, of his incapacity.

In an evil hour for his literary reputation, Macpherson, with more confidence than wisdom, began a translation of the Iliad of Homer. This work he completed, and gave to the world in 1773. Its reception was mortifying in the extreme. Men of learning laughed at it, critics abused it; and, notwithstanding some strenuous efforts on the part of his friends, particularly Sir John Elliot, it finally sank under one universal shout of execration and contempt. The finishing blow to this production was inflicted by the Critical Review in which it was ably and fatally criticised.

"There is nothing," says one of the most able and elegant of Macpherson’s commentators, Dr Graham, the late learned minister of Aberfoyle, "there is nothing which serves to set Macpherson’s character and powers in a stronger light than his egregious attempt to render the great father of poetry into prose, however natural it might have been for him to have made this attempt, after his success in doing the same office to Ossian." The temerity of this attempt will not be deemed a little enhanced by the consideration that Pope’s elegant translation was already before the world, nor will the awkwardness of its failure be thought lessened by a recollection of the sentiment its author himself expressed on another occasion, viz., that he "would not deign to translate what he could not imitate, or even equal." This unguarded language was now recollected to his prejudice, and carefully employed by his enemies to increase the disgrace of his failure.

To add to the literary mortifications under which Macpherson was now suffering, he found himself attacked by Dr Johnson in his celebrated Tour to the Hebrides, published in 1773, on the subject of the authenticity of his translations of Ossian. The remarks of the great moralist, as is well known, are not confined, in this case, to an abstract discussion of the question, but include some severe, though certainly not unmerited personal reflections on the translator.

These the latter resented so highly that he immediately wrote a threatening letter to their author, who replied in spirited and still more severe and sarcastic language than he had employed in his published strictures, saying amongst other humiliating things, "your abilities since your Homer are not so formidable." To this letter Macpherson wisely made no reply, and is not known to have taken any further notice of it than by assisting M’Nicol in his "Remarks on Dr Johnson’s Tour," printed in 1774. Even of this, however, he is only suspected, there being no positive proof that he actually had any share in that production.

Although thus thanklessly acknowledged, Macpherson still continued his literary labours, and in 1775, published "The History of Great Britain, from the Restoration to the accession of the house of Hanover," in 2 vols. 4to.

Soon after the publication of this work another favourable change took place in the fortunes of its author, and opened up to him a new source of emolument. He was selected by the government, at this time embarrassed by the resistance of the American colonies to its authority, to defend and give force to the reasons which influenced its proceedings with regard to that country. In the discharge of this duty, he wrote a pamphlet entitled, "The Rights of Great Britain asserted against the claims of the Colonies," 8vo. 1776. This pamphlet was circulated with great industry, and ran through several editions. He also wrote "A Short History of the Opposition during the last session of parliament," 8vo. 1779. The merit of this last production was so remarkable, that it was, at the time, generally ascribed to the pen of Gibbon, a compliment which, however, it is very questionable if its real author appreciated.

About this period Macpherson’s good fortune was still further increased by his being appointed agent to the Nabob of Arcot, in behalf of whom he made several effective appeals to the public, and amongst others published "Letters from Mahommed Au Chan, Nabob of Arcot, to the court of Directors. To which is annexed a State of facts relative to Tanjore, with an Appendix of original papers," 4to. 1777. He is also supposed to have been the author of "The History and Management of the East India Company, from its origin in 1600, to the present times; vol. i. containing the affairs of the Carnatic, in which the rights of the Nabob are explained, and the injustice of the Company proved," 4to. 1779.

It was now thought advisable that Macpherson, in capacity of agent to the Nabob, should be provided with a seat in parliament, and he was accordingly returned member for Camelford in 1780, and was re-elected for the same place in 1784 and 1790. He, however, never made any attempt to speak in the house, so that the cause of the eastern potentate, whatever it may have gained from his influence abstractly as a member of parliament, was nothing forwarded by his oratory. The period, however, was now rapidly approaching when this and all other earthly matters were no longer to be of any concernment to him. His health now began gradually to fail, and continued to decline till the year 1796, when he became so seriously ill, that it was thought advisable, as all other means were found unavailing, that he should return to his native country, and try the effect of a change of air. He accordingly proceeded to Scotland; but died in the same year, on the 17th February, at his seat of Bellville in the shire of Inverness, in the 58th year of his age.

Macpherson died in opulent circumstances, leaving by his will, dated June 1793, legacies and annuities to various persons to a large amount. Amongst his other bequests there is one of particular interest from its connexion with the celebrated works to which he owes his celebrity, and from its bearing on a circumstance which created one of the most memorable civil wars, in the literary world, upon record—the question of the authenticity of Ossian’s poems.

This bequest comprised the sum of 1000, payable to John Mackenzie of Fig-tree Court, in the Temple, to defray the expense of printing and publishing Ossian in the original. Macpherson also directed by his will, that the sum of 300 pounds should be expended in erecting a monument to his memory in some conspicuous situation at Bellville, and that his body should be carried to London and be interred in Westminster Abbey. This was complied with, and he was buried in Poet’s Corner.

The preceding sketch, brief as it is, comprehends nearly all of any interest with which the life of Macpherson presents us, and affords in that brevity another instance of the utter disproportion which is so often found to exist between the bulk of a man’s personal history and that of his fame,—how much may be afforded in one and the same life, to the essayist, philosopher, or moralist, and how little to the biographer.

One point of interest in Macpherson’s life, however, and without some allusion to which any account of it would be incomplete, has been hitherto left all but untouched in this sketch, and that purposely; as it was thought better to give it a distinct and separate place at the conclusion than to interrupt the biographical narrative by its earlier introduction.

The circumstance alluded to is the celebrated controversy regarding the authenticity of Macpherson’s translations of the Poems of Ossian,—a controversy which, whether its voluminous amount is considered, the extremely opposite and conflicting testimony by which it is supported, or the various and widely scattered members of which it is composed, cannot be approached without hesitation. The fervour with which it was once attended has long since altogether disappeared, and but little now remains even of the interest with which the mooted point was associated. Few, in short, now care any thing at all about the matter, and even though it were desirable, it would be impossible to resuscitate the intense feeling with which it was once contemplated. This apathy, however, singularly contrasts with the violent commotion and furious zeal which the discussion of the momentous question excited in the public mind some fifty or sixty years since. It was then an universal topic of conversation in private circles, while the literary arena was crowded with combatants eager for the contest, and inspired, if their feelings may be judged by their language, with the most cordial hatred towards each other. Fresh champions of the opposite creeds followed each other in endless succession, as their predecessors retired, exhausted or defeated, from the lists.

At one moment the authenticity of the poems seemed established beyond all doubt; in the next it was made still more clear that they were the most impudent forgeries that were ever imposed upon the credulity of the literary world. These were the results of the labours of the more active and zealous partisans of the denying and believing factions; but there were others again, who did not strictly belong to either, and these, taking arguments from both sides, succeeded, with much ingenuity, in involving the question in an obscurity from which it has not emerged to this day.

The Ossianic controversy, like all other controversies, soon became personal, and in nearly every case the discussion of the point exhibited fully as much abuse as arguments. During all this time Macpherson himself, the cause of all this bitterness of spirit and uncharitableness, and the only person who could have allayed it, kept sullenly aloof, and refused to produce that evidence which alone could restore the peace of the literary world, and which he yet declared he possessed. Notwithstanding the celebrity, however, which he was thus acquiring, his situation, in other respects, was by no means an enviable one. By those who did not believe in the authenticity of the poems, he was reviled as an impudent, unprincipled impostor; by those who did, he was charged with being a bungling, unskilful translator; and by both he was abused for his obstinacy in refusing to come forward with his testimony in the cause in dispute.

Before proceeding to take a nearer view of the Ossianic controversy itself, there will be no impropriety in alluding to certain opinions, regarding the subject of it, which have now pretty generally obtained. These are, that it is of little moment whether the poems are genuine or not, and that they are not, after all, worthy, in point of merit, of the notice they have attracted, or of the discussion and dissension they have created. With regard to the last, it is matter of opinion, and must always remain so, since it cannot be decided by any rule of taste. The first, again, involves a sentiment more specious perhaps than profound; for, besides the consideration that truth is at all times and in all cases better than falsehood, and possesses an intrinsic value which in almost every instance renders it worthy of being sought for, the investigation into the authenticity of the Poems of Ossian involves, in the language of the ingenious commentator already named, matter of importance to the "general history of literature, and even that of the human race."

Whatever weight, however, may be allowed to these considerations, it is certain that Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian have lost a very large portion of the popularity which they once enjoyed, and are evidently losing more every day. The rising generation do not seem to have that relish for their beauties, or rather do not see those beauties in them which captivated their fathers, and this can be ascribed only, either to a change in literary taste, or to some defect or defects in the poems themselves, which improved intellectual culture has detected; for it is the result of an opinion formed on their abstract merits as literary compositions, and is wholly unconnected with the question of their authenticity, that now being considered a point of such indifference, as to be but rarely taken into account in the decision. The book is now taken up, without a thought being wasted on the consideration whether it be the production of Ossian or Macpherson, and is judged of by its own intrinsic value; and tested in this way, it would appear that it has been found wanting; a result which seems to show that the greatest charm of the poems, even at the time when they were most appreciated, co-existed with the belief that they were genuine relics of antiquity; that it was inseparable from this belief, that it was born of it, fostered by it, and perished with it; that, in short, it lived and died with it, and was exactly proportioned to its strength and its weakness.

Of the controversialists in this celebrated literary war the list is both long and illustrious, and comprehends some of the proudest names of which this country has to boast. Amongst them occur those of Dr Blair, Dr Gregory, lord Kames, Hume, and Dr Johnson. The most remarkable next to these were, Dr Smith of Campbelltown, Dr Graham of Aberfoyle, Sir John Sinclair, Mr Laing, author of "Notes and Illustrations" introduced into an edition of Ossian’s Poems, published in Edinburgh in 1805; Mr Alexander Macdonald, author of a work entitled "Some of Ossian’s lesser poems rendered into verse, with a preliminary discourse in answer to Mr Laing’s Critical and Historical Dissertations on the antiquity of Ossian’s Poems," 8vo, Liverpool, 1805; and W. Shaw, A.M., author of "An Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian," London, 1781. There were besides these a host of others, but of lesser note. Of those just named, there were six who may be said generally speaking, to have been in favour of the authenticity of the poems, and five against it. The former were Dr Blair, Dr Gregory, lord Kames, Dr Graham, Sir John Sinclair, and Mr Macdonald. The latter, Mr Hume, Dr Johnson, Mr Laing, Dr Smith, and Mr Shaw.

Here, then, we are startled at the very outset by the near approach to equality in the amount of intelligence and talent which appears arrayed on either side; nor is this feeling greatly lessened in comparing the evidence adduced by each party in support of their opposite opinions, and in confutation of those of their opponents. Both seem conclusive when taken separately, and both defective when placed in juxtaposition.

Although, however, two classes only of controversialists have been made above, there were actually four, or rather the two given are found on closer inquiry to be again subdivided—of the believers, into those whose opinion of the authenticity of the poems was unqualified, and those again who believed them to be authentic only to a certain extent, while the remainder were interpolations by the translator. Of the former were Blair, Gregory, lord Kames, Sir John Sinclair, and Macdonald. Of the latter was Dr Graham, and though only one, he was yet the representative of a large body who entertained a similar opinion. Of the disbelievers, again, there were those who utterly denied their authenticity; and those who, entertaining strong doubts, did not yet go the whole length of rejecting them as spurious. Of the first were Dr Johnson, Laing, and Shaw. Of the last, Mr Hume, and Dr Smith.

The controversy thus stands altogether upon four separate and distinct grounds. These are, first, an entire and unqualified belief in the authenticity of the poems; second, a belief that they are in part genuine, and in part spurious, including a charge of interpolation and false translation; third, much doubt, but no certainty; and, fourth, a thorough conviction of their being wholly forgeries.

The principal arguments adduced in support of the first opinion, are—that the poems bear internal evidence of antiquity;—that their originals are or were well known in the Highlands, and that there were many persons there who could repeat large portions of them; that Macpherson’s talents, judging by his own original works, the Highlander, Translation of the Iliad, &c., were not equal to the production of poems of such transcendent merit as those ascribed to Ossian; that many credible witnesses were present, on various occasions, when Macpherson was put in possession of these poems, orally and by MS.; and, lastly, that the originals themselves are now before the world.

With regard to the internal evidence of the genuineness of these poems, it is to be feared that this is a thing more ingenious than sound; and, like the imaginary figures that present themselves in the fire, is more easily described than pointed out. It will, at any rate, scarcely be deemed sufficient proof, that the poems in question are ancient, merely because they bear no likeness to any that are modern.

Dr Blair’s celebrated dissertation on this subject, and on the authenticity of the poems generally, is much more elegant, ingenious, and learned, than convincing; and appears, after all, to establish little more, indeed little more seems aimed at, than that the poems may and should be ancient, not that they are. To those who think that the absence of all modern allusion in the poems, and the exclusive use which is made of natural imagery, without one single exception, is a proof of their antiquity, the argument of internal evidence will have, no doubt, considerable weight; but there are others who see in this circumstance only caution and dexterity on the part of Macpherson, and who, in consequence, instead of reckoning it an evidence of his veracity, consider it but as a proof of his ingenuity.

As to the assertion, again, that the originals were well known in the Highlands, and that there were many persons there who could repeat them. This, on inquiry, turns out to mean only, that fragments of Gaelic poetry, not entire poems, as given by Macpherson, but certainly, such as they were, of undoubted antiquity,—were to be met with in the Highlands. That such were, and probably are to be found there even to this day, is undeniable; but, in the first place, they have been in no instance found in the complete state in which they appear in the translations, but disjointed and disconnected, and, still worse, bearing only in a few instances any more than a resemblance to the English poems. In large portions, even this is entirely wanting. The originals, then, in the only sense in which that word ought to be used, cannot, with truth, be said to have existed in the Highlands. Fragments of ancient poetry, as already said, did indeed exist there, but not the mass of poetry given to the world by Macpherson as the Poems of Ossian, and said by him to have been collected in the Highlands. The assertion, therefore, has been made, either with a view to deceive, or without a due consideration of the meaning of the terms in which it is conveyed.

The argument deduced from Macpherson’s talents, as exhibited in his original works, to show that he could not be the author of the poems in question, is plausible; but the premises on which it is founded, are by no means of so incontrovertible a nature as to give us implicit confidence in the conclusion. That a literary man may utterly fail in one or more instances, and be eminently successful in another, is perfectly consistent with experience. It has often happened, and is, therefore, not more extraordinary in Macpherson’s case, supposing him to be the author, and not merely the translator of the poems ascribed to Ossian, than in many others that could be named. Besides, something like a reason is to be found for his success in this species of composition, in the fact that, from his earliest years he was an enthusiastic admirer of Celtic lore; and that its poetry, in particular, was one of his constant and most agreeable studies. This argument, then, can have no great weight, unless it be deemed an impossibility, that a man who had failed in one or more literary attempts, should be successful in another; an assertion which, it is believed, few will be hardy enough to venture, and which, it is certain, fewer still will be able to make good.

With regard to that part of the controversy where evidence is produced by credible, and, in several of the instances, certainly highly respectable witnesses, of Macpherson’s having been put in possession, in their presence, of various poems ascribed to Ossian, both oral and written;—without questioning the credibility of these witnesses, an important objection may be fairly brought against the nature of their evidence. It is liable to that charge of generality which Mr Hume thought, and every impartial person must think, ought to be considered "as being of no authority." In no single instance is any particular poem, or any particular part of a poem, distinctly traced by such evidence from its original possessor to the pages of Macpherson’s volumes. Not one of them has stated the results of what came under his own observation, in any thing like such plain terms as "I saw, or heard Macpherson put in possession of the first duan of Cath-loda; I read it over carefully at the time, and I assert that the English poem of that name which he has given, is a translation of the same." The witnesses alluded to, have said nothing like this. The amount of their evidence is, that it consists with their knowledge that Macpherson did obtain Gaelic poems, when in the Highlands. They saw him get some in MS., and they were present when others were recited to him. But here their testimony terminates; and in no case have the poems been further identified in the English dress with those which he procured on these occasions, than as bearing, in some instances, a general resemblance to them. The extent to which Macpherson made use of what they saw him get, or, indeed, what use he made of it at all, they have not said, because they could not; for, although he carried away the originals, they did not, and could not, therefore, ascertain, by the only process by which it could with certainty be ascertained, by collation, what he had omitted, or what he had retained; what he had. changed, or what he had left unaltered.

We come now to the last proof exhibited in support of the authenticity of the English poems of Ossian, and it is by far the most startling of the whole. It would seem, indeed, were it adopted without examination, to set the question for ever at rest, and to place it beyond the reach of all further controversy. This proof is the "Originals" published by Sir John Sinclair in 1806, an evidence which certainly appears, at first sight, conclusive; but what is the fact? They are not originals, in so far as the written poetry which Macpherson obtained is concerned; for they are all in his own hand-writing, or that of his amanuensis. The term original, therefore, in this case, can only be applied to what he wrote down from oral communication; and it will at once be perceived how much their evidence is already weakened by this limitation of the meaning of the word original, as employed by Sir John Sinclair. How far, again, it may be relied upon as applied to the oral communications which Macpherson received, must entirely depend upon the degree of faith which is put in his integrity. He has said that they are the originals, but this is all we have for it, and by many, we suspect, it will scarcely be deemed sufficient. He had a control over these documents which greatly lessens, if it does not wholly destroy all faith in them as evidences; while his interest in producing them, must lay them open, under all circumstances, to the strongest suspicions. But it is said, that it is not likely that he would be at the trouble of going through so laborious a process as this, merely to support an imposture--that, though willing, he was, from his want of skill in the Gaelic language, unfit for the task, and could not have produced poems in that language of such merit as those which he gave as originals—that the Gaelic poems are superior to the English—and lastly, that from impartial and critical examination, the former must have been anterior to the latter. With regard to the first of these assertions, it seems to be merely gratuitous, as it rests upon a question which Macpherson himself alone could determine, and can, therefore, be of no weight as an argument. That Macpherson was greatly deficient in critical knowledge of the Gaelic language, and that he could not consequently produce poems in that language of such merit as those which he represents as the originals of Ossian, is certain, because it is established by the clearest evidence, and by the concurring testimony of several eminent Gaelic scholars; but although he could not do this himself, he could employ others to do it, and it is well known that he was intimate, and in close correspondence with several persons critically skilled in the Gaelic language, of whose services he availed himself frequently, and largely, when preparing his "Translations." Might he not have had recourse to the same aid in translating from the English to the Gaelic? Dr Johnson thought so. "I am far from certain," says the sagacious moralist, "that some translations have not been lately made that may now be obtruded as parts of the original work." In truth, the presumption that Macpherson did procure Gaelic translations to be made from the English, is exceedingly strong, as will appear from various circumstances yet to be alluded to. At all events, it does not seem by any means an inevitable conclusion, that because he was not himself capable of writing what are called the originals, they are, therefore, original. But the strongest part of the argument in favour of their originality yet remains. It is said that the Gaelic is superior to the English, and that on an impartial and critical examination, it appears that the former must have been anterior to the latter. Now, the first of these is again matter of opinion, and as such, entitled to no more consideration than opinions generally deserve. To many their merits will appear on the whole pretty equal; to others, the Gaelic will, in some instances, seem the more beautiful; and in some, again, the English. The second assertion, however, is not of this description. It is not founded on opinion, but on an alleged positive internal evidence. It is to be regretted, however, that that evidence had not been pointed out in more specific terms than those employed—that it had not been distinctly said what are those particular circumstances which, on a perusal, establish the relative age of the Gaelic and English versions; for, on an impartial and critical examination lately made by a person eminently skilled in the Gaelic language, for the express purpose of furnishing information for this article, it does not appear, at least from any thing he could discover, that the Gaelic poems must, of necessity, have preceded the English. They certainly contain nothing that shows the contrary-—nothing that discovers them to be of modern composition; but neither do Macpherson’s English poems of Ossian. Neither of them betray themselves by any slip or inadvertency, and this, negative as it is, is yet all that can be said of both as to internal evidence.

What has just been said, includes nearly all the leading and direct arguments which have been employed in the defence of the authenticity of Macpherson’s translations of the Poems of Ossian, and nearly all that can be urged against that belief, with the exception of that which may be deduced from Macpherson’s own conduct in relation to the question, and which shall be afterwards referred to.

We come now to consider the grounds of the belief, that the poems are in part genuine, and in part spurious; including a charge of interpolation, and of false translation. What has been already said having necessarily included all the ramifications of the controversy, the consideration of this point need not detain us long, for happily the evidence is not only quite at hand, but of the most conclusive and satisfactory description. That some portion of Macpherson’s English poems are genuine, at least in so far as that can be considered genuine, of which the utmost that the committee of the Highland Society found themselves warranted in saying, after much and careful inquiry, was, that it bore a strong resemblance to certain fragments which they themselves had obtained, is beyond doubt. Macpherson, as before said, certainly did gather some scraps of poetry in the Highlands, and as certainly did make some use of them in the composition of his poems. But that he introduced a great deal of his own, that he interpolated, and that he translated falsely the little he got, is equally certain. The fact is incontrovertibly established by Dr Graham, to whose able work on the subject, entitled "An Essay on the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian," we refer the reader for more full information, and is thus confirmed by the committee of the Highland Society, who, after stating in their Report that they had "not been able to obtain any one poem the same in title or tenor with the poems published by him," proceed to say, " It (the committee) is inclined to believe that he (Macpherson) was in use to supply chasms, and to give connexion, by inserting passages which he did not find, and to add what he conceived to be dignity and delicacy to the original composition, by striking out passages, by softening incidents, by refining the language, in short, by changing what he considered as too simple or too rude for a modern ear, and elevating what, in his opinion, was below the standard of good poetry." What immediately follows this sentence, though not relevant to the point immediately under discussion is too important to be passed over. The committee goes on to say, "To what degree, however, he exercised these liberties, it is impossible for the Committee to determine." Now, this means, if it means any thing, that the interpolations were such close imitations of the original, that, of the whole poems, it was impossible to distinguish which was Ossian’s and which Macpherson’s; therefore, that the poetry of the latter was as good as that of the former. An admission this, that would seem to settle the point of Macpherson’s ability to forge the poems, a point so strongly insisted upon by the defenders of their authenticity, by showing that he was competent to write them, and, in accordance with this, it may be asked, if he wrote a part thus excellently, why might he not have written the whole? Dr Graham, it is true, has, in several instances, detected "Macpherson’s bombast," but this only shows that Macpherson has occasionally fallen into an error, which it was next to impossible to avoid altogether in a work written in the peculiar style of Ossian’s poems.

There still, however, remains one overpowering circumstance, which, if there were no other evidence against the fidelity of Macpherson, would probably be held by most unprejudiced inquirers as quite conclusive of the whole question. The "Originals" correspond exactly with the "Translations," in language, and indeed in every point. How can this be reconciled to the fact admitted by Macpherson himself, that he took certain liberties with the original Gaelic? The "Originals," when published, might have been expected to exhibit such differences with the "Translations," as would arise from Mr Macpherson’s labours as an emendator and purifier of the native ideas. But they do not exhibit any traces of such difference. The unavoidable conclusion is, that the Originals, prepared by Macpherson, and published by Sir John Sinclair, were either altogether a forgery, or were accommodated to the Translations, by such a process as entirely to destroy their credit, and render their publication useless.

We shall now proceed to take a view of the conduct of Macpherson himself, in so far as it relates to the controversy which he had been the means of exciting, and when we do this, we shall find that whether he really was an impostor or no, in the matter of the poems, he pursued exactly the course, with regard to them and the public, which an impostor would have done. He was accused of being guilty of an imposition. He took no steps to rebut the charge. He was solicited to give proofs of the authenticity of the poems. He refused, and for upwards of thirty years submitted to wear the dress of a bankrupt in integrity, without making any attempt to get rid of it. He affected, indeed, a virtuous indignation, on all occasions, when the slightest insinuation was made that an imposition had been practised; and, instead of calmly exhibiting the proofs of his innocence, he got into a passion, and thus silenced, in place of satisfying inquiry. "To revenge," says Dr Johnson, speaking of Macpherson’s conduct in this matter, "reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt."

A suspicion of the authenticity of the poems almost immediately followed the appearance of those published in 1762, and the first public notice taken of it by Macpherson himself, occurs in 1763, in his preface to Temora, published in that year. He there says, "Since the publication of the last collection of Ossian’s poems, many insinuations have been made, and doubts arisen, concerning their authenticity. I shall probably hear more of the same kind after the present poems make their appearance. Whether these suspicions are suggested by prejudice, or are only the effects of ignorance of facts, I shall not pretend to determine. To me they give no concern, as I have it always in my power to remove them. An incredulity of this kind is natural to persons who confine all merit to their own age and country. These are generally the weakest, as well as the most ignorant of the people. Indolently confined to a place, their ideas are very narrow and circumscribed. It is ridiculous enough to see such people as them are branding their ancestors with the despicable appellation of barbarians. Sober reason can easily discern where the title ought to be fixed with more propriety. As prejudice is always the effect of ignorance, the knowing, the men of true taste, despise and dismiss it. If the poetry is good, and the characters natural and striking, to these it is matter of indifference, whether the heroes were born in the little village of Angles, in Jutland, or natives of the barren heaths of Caledonia. That honour which nations derive from ancestors worthy or renowned, is merely ideal. It may, buoy up the minds of individuals, but it contributes very little to their importance in the eyes of others. But of all those prejudices which are incident to narrow minds, that which measures the merit of performances by the vulgar opinion concerning the country which produced them, is certainly the most ridiculous. Ridiculous, however, as it is, few have the courage to reject it; and I am thoroughly convinced, that a few quaint lines of a Roman or Greek epigrammatist, if dug out of the ruins of Herculaneum, would meet with more cordial and universal applause, than all the most beautiful national rhapsodies of all the Celtic bards and Scandinavian scalds that ever existed." This, it is presumed, will be thought rather an odd reply to the doubts entertained concerning the authenticity of the poems; or rather it will be thought to be no reply at all. It is all very well as to reasoning and writing; but, it will be perceived, wonderfully little to the purpose. All that he condescends to say, in this rhapsody, to the point at issue--the "doubts"—is, that he "has it always in his power to remove them." But he made no us of this power then, nor at any period during his after life, though urged to it by motives which gentlemen and men of honour have been always accustomed to hold as sacred.

When pressed by the committee of the Highland Society of London, to publish the originals, and thus satisfy the public mind as to the authenticity of the poems, Macpherson thus replies to the secretary of that body:--"I shall adhere to the promise I made several years ago to a deputation of the same kind, (in their anxiety to have the question set at rest, they had proposed that another deputation should wait upon him for this purpose,) that is, to employ my first leisure time, and a considerable portion of time it must be, to do it accurately, in arranging and printing the originals of the Poems of Ossian, as they have come to my hands." The delay here acknowledged, a delay of several years, and the further delay bespoken, as it were, in this extract, between the promise of giving the originals to the world and its fulfilment, will seem to many suspicious circumstances, and will appear rather a necessary provision for getting up a translation from the English, than for the preparation of original documents. Nor is this suspicion lessened by his telling us, that they were yet to arrange; a process which it will be thought must of necessity have taken place before they were translated. It seems odd that the translations should be in perfect order, while the originals were in confusion. The mere disarrangement of sheets of MS., from passing through the hands of the printer, or from inattention, could scarcely warrant the formidable and cautious provision of "a considerable portion of time."

The fact of Macpherson having interpolated, although it could not have been ascertained by other evidence, would be sufficiently established by his own. When taxed by Dr Macintyre of Glenorchy with being himself the author of the greater part of the Poem of Fingal—"You are much mistaken," replied Macpherson; "I had occasion to do less of that than you suppose." Thus admitting the fact, and only limiting its extent.

On the whole, it seems, on a careful revision of all that has been said on this once famous controversy, beyond all doubt that Macpherson is, in nearly the strictest sense of the word, the author of the English Poems of Ossian. The skeleton was furnished him, but it was he who clothed it with flesh, endued it with life, and gave it the form it now wears. He caught the tone and spirit of the Celtic lyre, from hearing its strings vibrating in the wind. The starting note was given him, but the strain is his own. Whatever degree of merit, therefore, may be allowed to these strains, belongs to Macpherson.

Click here to read an e-text of his work

The Life and Letters of James MacPherson
By Thomas Bailey Saunders (1894) (pdf)

Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland
Appointed to inquire into the Nature and Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian. Drawn up, according to the directions of the committee by Henry MacKenzie with a copius appendix containing some of the principle documents on which the report is founded. (1805) (pdf)

MacPherson Warrior Poet
is an illustrated edition of the Poems of Ossian, by Scottish artist Eileen Budd. This new book will bring the old stories to life with full colour illustrations, hand-drawn maps and new introductions and commentaries. We want Ossian: Warrior Poet to rekindle these tales of ancient Scotland for a general audience who might be unfamiliar with the texts.

A critical dissertation on the poems of Ossian
By Hugh Blair (1800) (pdf)

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