James Macpherson 1736–96
Educated at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities, Macpherson had published his own poetry before the Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760) allegedly collected in the Scottish Highlands and translated from Gaelic. In an age whose increasing value on primitive literature saw Bishop Percy’s ballad collections, and his and Gray’s interest in Norse poetry, it excited the imagination and flattered the Scottish cultural sense that Macpherson should ‘find’ and translate two Scottish historical epic poems by ‘Ossian’: Fingal (1762) and Temora (1763) were admired at home (David Hume and Adam Smith) and abroad (Schiller, Goethe, Napoleon), where they had an extraordinary influence. The hostile camp was led by Johnson, whose Scottish journey confirmed his view (which appears to be near the truth) that the Ossianic poems were a lash-up of Macpherson’s inventions and some traditional scraps. The reception of Ossian is a remarkable episode in the history of taste. (See also Johnson’s defiant letter to Macpherson on p. 347.)
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