James Macpherson: Fake it til you Make it!

 Skrevet av - Publisert 10.11.2005 kl. 20:40

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{img src=\'http://bitsofnews.com/images/graphics/ossian1.jpeg\' align=\'right\' desc=\'\"Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes\"
1802 by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson
(Click for larger image)\' link=\'http://bitsofnews.com/images/graphics/ossian1_large.jpeg\'}Macpherson had already aired the notion that these fragments were in reality parts of a larger epic work, which through further collection and study was still obtainable. Spurred on by the adulation he set to work, travelling through Perthshire, Argyll, Inverness-shire, Skye, Uist, Benbecula and Mull in search of more material. And though his Gaelic was weak, at best, he returned triumphantly with \"Fingal\" and \"Temora\", verse translations of epic poems by the third century celtic bard Ossian. And, wonder of wonders, this ancient epic poet, son of Fingal, the hero Finn of the Irish Fenian cycle of legends, was even blind, as Homer was thought to have been.

Europe went Ossian mad. Goethe, perhaps the foremost poet of his age, and the German Romantics were smitten. Most Swedes today will probably think that the name Oscar, which a couple of their kings have carried, is an indigenous Swedish name. While it is in fact the name of a character in Macpherson\'s \"The Poems of Ossian\", which Napoleon, who was a confirmed Ossian fan and the godfather of the heir to the Swedish throne, suggested.

An example of the influence the Ossian poems had can be gauged from an exhibition now opening in Paris, documenting the impact of Ossian in Europe.
Napoleon read his poems in an Italian translation and took a copy on his campaigns. An opera performed on the night he became emperor was based on the verses.

He even refers Josephine to certain passages from Ossian in his love letters from the battlefield - so presumably she shared his enthusiasm.

The emperor said: \"I like Ossian for the same reason that I like to hear the whisper of the wind and the waves of the sea.\"

It was this \"elemental\" aspect of the work - with its tales of an ancient, noble Celtic race - that made the \"Scottish Homer\", as Voltaire called Ossian, so important and influential on literature, music and the visual arts throughout Europe for the following century.

{img src=\'http://bitsofnews.com/images/graphics/ossian2.jpeg\' align=\'left\' desc=\'\"The Dream of Ossian\"
1813 by Ingres
(Click for larger image)\' link=\'http://bitsofnews.com/images/graphics/ossian2_large.jpeg\'}There was just one problem, the whole thing was the probably greatest literary hoax in history.

Already in the immediate wake of its publication, the formidable man of letters and author of the \"Dictionary of the English Language\", Dr Samuel Johnson, had questioned the authenticity of the work in the strongest terms.

Doubters and his supporters alike called on him to produce the original sources, but Macpherson declined to do so. The debate was to rage for years to come, though Macpherson himself took little part in it. He took up a post as secretary to the Governor of Florida and later became a political operative and landed gentleman.

Opinions vary on whether there in fact were bits and pieces, especially early on, of real Gaelic sources for his work, which he then stitched into a cloth of his own weaving. Others maintain that just about the whole thing was spun from his own head. Whatever the case may be, it has now long been clear that there was no surviving third century Scottish epic in any way shape or form still being passed down by the storytellers of the highlands in the eighteenth century. The case is pretty much closed on whether he was a literary fraud.

What is not quite as simple is to make a judgement on his place in the history of literature and the canon. \'Cause not only was he, when speaking through Ossian at least, a poet of some power, but his writings had such an impact as few writers can boast of.

Judged by the influence he had on both his contemporaries and later generations, and the very fact of an exhibition such as the one now opening in Paris, keeping his name alive even today, while most of his peers on the literary scene of the day are remembered now only by antiquarians, one might indeed say that James Macpherson has made it.

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