restricted access 8. Macpherson’s Iliad and the Logic of Literary Primitivism
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105 CHAPTER EIGHT Macpherson’s Iliad and the Logic of Literary Primitivism Dafydd Moore Macpherson’s The Iliad of Homer (1773) rendered all twenty-four books of The Iliad in the measured prose that was so striking a feature of Ossian. For friends and allies, presenting Homer in the manner of The Poems of Ossian was a logical progression in the primitivist project of remediating epic poetry for the late eighteenth century. As Hugh Blair, Macpherson’s one-time mentor and the man who not only provided much of the critical underpinning to Ossian but also then testified to the value of the poems in his Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, put it to Macpherson: I am exceedingly glad to hear that you have undertaken Homer. [Adam] Ferguson’s idea that you were the proper person for such a work is not new. Ever since your translation of Ossian, we have often been saying the same in this country; and, if I mistake not, I have more than once told you so.1 Ossian – or rather the Ossianic prose-poem style – represented a distillation of eighteenth-century linguistic and literary critical notions of primitive poetic form as they emerged from the work in different fields of, amongst others, Robert Lowth, Thomas Blackwell, Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, and Edmund Burke. As such, the reconfiguration of Homer in this light was but a natural and necessary next step. Not all, however, were convinced. One-time supporter David Hume was not sure whether the ‘attempt or the execution be worse’; William Mason affected outrage at the idea that ‘Homer a la Erse’ would ‘Fingalize’; while Horace Walpole was merely content to think that Macpherson’s attempt to ‘make a Fingal out of Homer’ was yet more evidence that he lived in an age of contraries.2 106 dafydd moore Posterity has tended to follow the latter camp when it has come to its view of Macpherson’s Iliad. It is widely considered a failure, evidence of the moment when the pretensions of the Ossianic mode were revealed as such: if there had been something of the tragic in Ossian’s misguided brilliance, then there was something merely ludicrous in the Iliad’s misguided inanity. Generally, critics have been content to write it off as an oddity or as a sign of Macpherson’s cynical manipulation of the literary marketplace, with Homer sacrificed in the cause of making money off the back of the Ossian craze. Else it has been considered a curio, its attempts to produce a version of Homer in line with the northern bard Ossian as a somewhat embarrassing document of the ways in which an emergent British national literary identity was competed over in the last third of the eighteenth century. Alternative views are thin on the ground. George Steiner anthologised a sample from it in his Homer in English (1996), while in 2012 David Hopkins took it seriously enough to include it as one of four translations (alongside those of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and William Cowper) discussed at significant length in his essay on Homer in the Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature.3 However, the seriousness with which Sebastian Mitchell treats the translation when he considers it ‘the culmination of a sustained attempt by [Macpherson] to consider the appropriate modern form for the effective transmission of ancient artefacts’ is rare.4 Along with a predominant attitude of disdain, the other inheritance from the eighteenth-century verdict on Macpherson’s Iliad is the unproblematic sense (shared by supporters and critics alike) in which it is understood as an attempt to ‘Fingalize’ Homer; in other words, that the text aims to render Homer as Ossian and fails miserably in the attempt. This chapter will argue that while it might be hard to maintain that Macpherson’s Iliad is anything other than an artistic and aesthetic failure, the reasons for that failure are more interesting and sophisticated than have been assumed. In particular, it will suggest that the relationship between Ossian and Macpherson’s Iliad is more enlightening than the received wisdom that, with the Homer, Macpherson tried and failed to do as he had with Ossian. It will take as its starting point Mitchell’s conclusion , in the face of the assumptions made manifest in that label ‘Homer a la Erse’, that one of the problems with Macpherson’s Iliad is ‘not that Macpherson had introduced too many of the distinctive elements of Fingal, but...