In Bonaparte’s Backback

Posted on July 8, 2015 in Essays

Review of Howard Gaskill (ed), The Reception of Ossian in Europe (Thoemmes Continuum, 2004)

In his introduction to this symposium on the reception of Ossian in Europe, Howard Gaskill acknowledges that ‘any suggestion of a general rehabilitation’ of James Macpherson ‘would be premature’. But if the task is to be accomplished, a demonstration of the seminal importance of Ossianic poetry for European romanticism is probably the best way forwards. Meanwhile, as several contributors acknowledge, it is curious how perfectly Ossianic poetry fits the requirements of contemporary literary theory. If your interests lie in nationalism and invented traditions, in Romantic forgery, in the oral-literacy debate, in translation studies, in reception theory, in post-modernist indeterminancy, or whatever (except, so far, queer theory), Macpherson is your perfect author, with the added advantage that virtually nobody in Britain reads him.

When Macpherson published in 1760 the first version of his Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Galic or Erse language, a sober title to a piece of antiquarian research, he can hardly have anticipated he would upset so many people. Five years later, a not dissimilar anthology, Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, was received with enthusiasm. But Percy’s claims for his material were apologetic to the point of self-parody, as he confessed himself ‘long in doubt whether in the present state of improved literature they could be deemed worthy the attention of the public.” In sharp contrast, Macpherson seemed to be throwing down the gauntlet to every contemporary canon as in rapid succession he published Fingal, An Ancient Epic Poem … composed by Ossian in 1762; Temora, An Ancient Epic Poem … composed by Ossian in 1763; and The Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal, in two volumes … to which is subjoined a critical dissertation on the poems of Ossian. By High Blair D.D. in 1765. What Macpherson had done in reconstructing ‘Ur’ texts from scattered fragments was to become standard practice in the early twentieth century in the treatment of African oral materials. But his invocation of a third-century Scottish Homer upset every assumption about the classical foundations of literature, and that his claims emanated from the mists of the Jacobite highlands didn’t help. ‘Forgery’, the cry went up, and an investigation by the Highland Society of Scotland proved inconclusive. Damned by Dr Johnson, damned by Scott, and finally damned by Wordsworth, there was no way Ossianic poetry could gain a foothold in an English literary tradition that took Chatterton, for example, in its stride.

Ossian’s importance to European romanticism, however, seems beyond question, and this symposium begins with a useful ‘Timeline’, tracing the dates of the first translations – 1760 into French, 1762 Dutch and German, 1763 Italian, 1765 Swedish, and so on through Finnish, Danish, Hungarian, Polish, Russia, Spanish, Portuguese and Czech versions, right down to 1975 Latvian, 1976 Estonian, and 1996 Slovenian. Any resurgence of nationalism throughout most of modern Europe seems to have been heralded by a version of Ossian, making it as much a political barometer as a literary event.

Yet Ossian’s reception was as bafflingly diverse two hundred years ago as it is today. Peter France writing about ‘Fingal in Russia’ has a nice image of Napoleon invading Russia with Ossian, that revolutionary epic, in his backpack, to be met by generals Ermolov and Kutaisov reading Fingal to each other the night before Borodino, as the superior Scottish version of their own national epic of prince Igor. Though partly apocryphal, the anecdote well illustrates how Macpherson’s heady mixture of ancient heroism, a threatened language, and apparently free forms, all against a background of mountains, moors, lakes, sea mist, storms and autumnal decay, could appeal in contradictory ways. It fed revolution and reaction, international anti-classicism and primitive national revival. For those like Mme de Staël, it confirmed the superiority of northern literature over that of the Mediterranean. It presented Catholic absolutism with a more insidious enemy than the enlightenment, for there seemed to be no religion in Fingal’s world. Only in Portugal, of the countries discussed here, did Fingal make little headway though even there, in Gerald Bär’s evocative phrase, it lives ‘lying hidden and scattered under the surface like heathen roots under Catholic asphalt.”

In a study like this, covering twelve countries plus Britain, along with essays on Ossian in Music and Art, the most interesting contributions tend to be those making the biggest claims. According to the introduction, ‘there can be no comparison with Germany’ where ‘the depth of the impact and both quality and range of writers’ involved proved the encounter with Ossian ‘of decisive significance’. But the essays on Klopstock’s Hermanns Schlacht (by Sandro Jung) and on Schiller (by Wolf Gerhard Schmidt) are content for the most part to trace parallels and correspondences, and evincing ‘allusions’ and ‘references’, meticulously tracked down and proving beyond doubt that Ossian had been assimilated. But they stop short of demonstrating the intellectual excitement that would make Macpherson’s poetry an essential point of reference for early German romanticism. Even more puzzling is Caitríona Ó Dochartaigh’s essay on Goethe’s translation from Ossian (in Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), which devotes extraordinarily detailed scholarship to a question that turns out to be unanswerable, namely, whether Goethe used either of the available ‘Gaelic’ dictionaries in producing his texts. Her conclusion is that given Goethe worked ‘with no previous knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, with two dictionaries of a related language and an inadequate grammar, we can but laud his achievement’. Fair enough, but it’s a bit of anticlimax to an essay that began with the sentence ‘Ossian’s success in Germany was unparalleled’.

In contrast, James Porter explores the explosive impact of Ossian on the Czech national revival. Ironically, the first translations to be read in Prague were probably German, and it was only as the anti-German ‘revival’ gathered pace that Ossian appeared in Czech. Meanwhile, Ossian’s influence on poets such as Karel Hynek Mácha had created a cultural climate in which the whole extraordinary tale could be repeated. In 1817, the Slavicist and poet Václav Hanka found what appeared to be a thirteenth century manuscript of old Czech poems in a church tower. This was followed by the appearance of another manuscript, this time from the ninth century, the two together constituting an ancient Czech literary tradition predating anything Germany had to show. But were the manuscripts genuine? Porter shows how the ensuing controversy permeates Czech life to the present day.

In Hungary, Ossian also first arrived in German translations, emanating from Vienna. But in Gabriella Hartvig’s entertaining account, the swift plethora of Hungarian versions led to the emergence of Ossian parodies (a welcome note this, after 200-odd closely argued pages). Apparently, the infinitive of the Hungarian verb fingál means ‘to fart frequently’, making comic responses (Who is this Cuchullin? Is he liveried attendant, a ruffian or a common soldier’) at least as popular as the heroic. Even more entertainingly negative was the Welsh reaction to Ossian. In a splendid essay, Mary-Ann Constantine quotes Iolo Morganwe laying claim to a literary tradition that went back to Taliesin in the sixth century (‘Our bards were not barbarians amongst barbarians, they were men of letters’). As Constantine concludes, for the Welsh, Thomas Gray’s Pindaric ode ‘The Bard’ had got there first.

By far the biggest claims for Ossian are made by Joep Leerssen. Pointing out that until the early nineteenth century, few people had ever heard of Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, and the Sevatius Legend while the manuscript of the Chanson de Roland languished in the Bodlean library, he argues that ‘more than any other eighteenth century text’ Ossian ‘changed attitudes to the nature of literary inspiration – as a mantic, almost shamanistic visionary communion with a spiritual Otherworld’. In a chapter that ranges widely over Britain, Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe, France and Germany, he shows how ‘Macpherson’s rash attempt to extrapolate epic poems from his ancient fragments, was to prove programmatic for the vogue which was to sweep Europe for the next century: to elucidate the origins of nations by collecting their folksongs and retrieving their foundational epics’. In the process, not only nationalism, but historicism was born, replacing a previously undifferentiated ‘world literature’ with the national texts associated with the romantic movement. He calls this process ‘curious inverted’, leaving it a little uncertain how far Ossian was cause and how far symptom. But if Macpherson really matters, it is because of the claims made in this chapter rather than because of the residue of his style in other authors.

In an excellent introduction, Howard Gaskill has fun with the prejudices that have stood in the way of an appreciation of Macpherson – the belief that enthusiasm for Ossian is contingent upon belief in its authenticity as a third-century epic, or the continuing assumption that romanticism was, first and foremost, an English phenomenon. But, apart from a comparison with Tristram Shandy and the recommendation that Ossian needs to be ‘intoned’ aloud, he never quite gets round to making the case for reading Macpherson today. He doesn’t, for example, quote any passages for our admiration. The impression remains that Ossian is one of those texts that always worked better in translation, where the same materials (those misty moor lands) could be recast in less cloying and portentous language. To return to Leerssen, Ossian’s importance ‘does not lie in its subject matter or literary form’ but ‘its flavour … its heroic-melancholy sentimentalism, its thematization of loss and historical defeat, its use of liminality and mantic ideas of inspiration’. This seems right, and it is the achievement of this important symposium to show how widespread was this effect.

First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 14th April 2006