- Howard Gaskill (ed.), The Reception of Ossian in Europe
The average Anglophone reader of the twenty-first century is likely to respond only with a bemused shake of the head to James Macpherson's Ossianic poems, and to the seismic magnitude of the shock-waves which Macpherson's remarkable translations/redactions/reconstructions/fabrications sent throughout the western world in the later part of the eighteenth century, and whose distant reverberations have not entirely died away even now. But as the series editor Elinor Shaffer's preface reminds us, 'a minor writer at home […] may be a major one abroad'. And there has been no lack of scholarly interest in the Ossian phenomenon in recent years. Among its recent productions may be singled out Fiona Stafford's monograph (1988), Howard Gaskill's indispensable critical edition of the Poems (1996), and latterly the two monumental compendia, Wolf-Gerhard Schmidt's 'Homer des Nordens' und 'Mutter der Romantik' (2003–2004) covering the German background and reception, and Dafydd Moore's Ossian and Ossianism: Subcultures and Subversions (2004) doing the same for these islands. Both Schmidt and Moore (see my review, Modern Language Review, July 2005) offer both critical discussion and a generous selection of 'original' and secondary material, much of it difficult or well-nigh impossible of general access. Now Howard Gaskill, doughtiest of Ossian's champions, has edited a comprehensive survey of the reception of Ossian in Europe – here understood to include the whole of these islands, for controversy on the merits of the poems, on their supposed authenticity, and on the critical criteria by which they were to be judged, was as lively in England, Ireland, Wales and indeed Scotland itself as anywhere (see the essays here by Dafydd Moore, Donald Meek, Mary-Ann Constantine and Mícheál Mac Craith). That controversy laid the ground for the subsequent and wider Continental debate. Gaskill himself furnishes a wide-ranging introduction, and a 'time-line' of almost fifty pages compiled [End Page 402] (a formidable labour!) by Paul Barnaby documents translations, critical works, and other Ossianic echoes from the first partial French (1760) to the first Slovenian translation (1996), new editions of Ossian in Italy, Hungary, and Francophone Canada in the 90s, and the Ossian exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2002.
The subsequent essays differ widely in their approach: those dealing with countries such as France or Germany, where the broader picture of Ossian reception has already been well-documented, focus on particular writers or works (Colin Smethurst on Chateaubriand, Sandro Jung on Klopstock, Catríona Ó Dochartaigh on Goethe, Wolf-Gerhard Schmidt on Schiller); others range more widely. Joop Leersen in a general essay on 'Ossian and the Rise of Literary Historicism' argues that 'it is Macpherson's Ossian, more than any other eighteenth-century text, which changed attitudes to the nature of literary inspiration'. Leersen also shows that Macpherson's work gave the first impetus, in a century of ever-increasing nationalist sentiment, to the discovery, re-editing and in some cases again the fabrication of the 'foundational texts of the vernacular European literatures'. The case of the Old Czech manuscripts 'discovered' in 1817, discussed here by James Porter, offers a particularly striking instance of the latter.
The political aspect of Macpherson's work, probably ignored even at the time (and yet more in subsequent generations) by sentimental readers content to wallow in the notorious 'joy of grief', played a significant role for many an emergent nation (see especially Gabriella Hartwig's essay on Ossian in Hungary). Ossian was 'a model for the freedom-loving citizen-poet' (Peter France on Ossian in Russia) – but one of the most famous admirers of Ossian was, of course, Napoleon: both the Emperor and his patriotic enemies carried Fingal in their pockets.
In many cases the Ossianic texts – themselves supposedly translations from the original Gaelic – were transmitted at second- or third-hand, by translations of translations (and often much 'improved' in accordance with general contemporary taste, thereby losing much if not all of the 'primitive' quality which was an essential part of their appeal in the first place). Tourneur's French and Cesarotti's Italian versions were particularly significant...