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  • 'What we wish, we easily believe' Wolf Gerhard Schmidt's opus magnum on the Reception of Ossian in German-Speaking Literature*
  • Gerald Bär (bio)

In volumes I and II of this magisterial survey, Wolf Gerhard Schmidt quite rightly claims that Ossian's influence on German literature can hardly be overestimated. He proves it impressively in a doctoral thesis (vols. I and II) backed up by reprints of German Ossian-translations (vol. III) – no other language has more versions of the Bard – and a selection of relevant sources from the eighteenth to the twentieth century (vol. IV).

In his thorough, detailed and well structured analysis Schmidt, a former Cambridge European Trust Scholar, follows the approach of Ossian-researchers such as Dunn (1966), Stewart (1971), Stafford (1988) and most of all Howard Gaskill, who also figures as co-editor of vol. IV. Focusing on the phenomenon's enormous 'Rezeptionspotential' (I, 88), he deploys discourse analysis, separating the aesthetic [End Page 405] from the philological discourse in order to facilitate the reappraisal of Macpherson's work as an autonomous piece of art and thus avoid its overshadowing by the unsolvable authenticity-debate. Furthermore, Schmidt distinguishes between several different forms of reception: the productive, the receptive (analytical, analytical-productive, reproductive) and the passive. This seems appropriate to the subject's multi-faceted attraction during the German 'Ossianomanie' (II, 638) that only reached its peak in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Schmidt's poly-perspective analysis traces Ossianic patterns and influence in the works and theories of German authors, examines translations and imitations, and consults contemporary reviews. It emphasizes the importance of Macpherson's and Blair's prefaces and critical dissertations which created a spectrum of expectations for readers and reviewers concerning origin, age, quality and authenticity of the poems. This character duplex (I, 176) of 'ancient' text and modern commentary makes Ossian the forerunner of a new genre. In its reconstruction of the fragmentary and the natural uncorrupted ('des Natürlich-Unverbildeten'; I, 4) and by assimilating it to an ideal of ancient epic poetry Macpherson's concept anticipates and influences Romanticism.

With convincing philosophical background knowledge, Schmidt places Macpherson's work in its historical-aesthetical context in Britain before examining its reception in German-speaking regions. On his journey through the literary epochs Schmidt discusses Ossian's relevance for nature poetry, the mixing of literary genres, the sublime, primitivism, subjectivity, sentimentalism, the culture of remembrance, and so on.

The author also explores the appropriation of Ossian by German poets like Klopstock, Kleist, Fouqué and Arnim who dressed old German and northern legends in Ossianic garb, confusing Scaldic with Bardic culture. Misled by contemporary theories of the origin of language allied to wishful patriotic thinking that wanted a mythological basis, Klopstock even argued that 'Ossian was of German origin because he was a Caledonian' ('Ossian war deutscher Abkunft, weil er ein Kaledonier war'; I, 508). As Wilhelm Heinse argued, 'What we wish, we easily believe' ('Was man wünscht, das glaubt man leicht'; I, 406). Together with August Wilhelm Schlegel and Eichendorff, Heinse took a critical position towards the Poems of Ossian. According to Schmidt, A. W. Schlegel's dismissal of Ossian as a worthless sentimental fabrication was just the opinion of an outsider ('Außenseitermeinung'; II, 953), while the majority (Goethe, Moritz, Schiller, Jean Paul, Novalis [End Page 406] and Hölderlin) did not comment on philological issues, but exclusively emphasized the text's aesthetic value. However, the fact that these poets did not express their (dis)belief in its authenticity publicly (presumably because they did not feel competent enough to do so) does not necessarily mean that the ongoing debate had no influence on their aesthetic judgment. The problem with discourse analysis is that it artificially separates such lines of thought, only to find out at a certain stage that the discourses have 'contaminated' each other. On the other hand they provide a structuring guiding line through the over 1100 pages and where discourse-terminology fails the author is obviously able to reformulate his insights in other words ('Die im Rekurs auf Ossian evozierte Schwärmerei darf man als ästhetische Transgression der identisch textualisierten sanften Melancholie der Empfindsamkeit verstehen...


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pp. 405-409
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Archived 2009
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