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  • Ocean meets Ossian: Staffa as Romantic Symbol1
  • Jennifer Davis Michael

The Romantic period in Britain witnessedthe discovery of British landscapes as tourist destinations, fed in turn by the rediscovery of British antiquity in the late eighteenth century. Tourists in search of wild sublimity and ancient echoes gravitated especially toward the Scottish highlands and islands. Thick with ruined castles, abbeys, and stone circles, this region provoked imaginings of a heroic, aboriginal past, best articulated through the elusive myths of the third-century Celtic poet Ossian. While the myths are human constructions, they embody the familiar Romantic idea that to go back in time is to approximate a state of nature. Indeed, Ossian's heroes are represented in James Macpherson's 'translations' as gigantic forces of nature:

I beheld their chief […] tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the shore! likea cloud of mist on the silent hill! […] He spoke like a wave on a rock, who in this land appears like me? Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth from my hand. Who can meet Swaran in fight? Who but Fingal, king of Selma of storms? Once we wrestled on Malmor; our heels overturned the woods. Rocks fell from their place; rivulets, changing their course, fled murmuring from our side.2

This merging of the human with the natural points to, and even potentially resolves, a persistent contradiction in Romanticism: the relationship between nature and art. To the extent that 'nature' in its wild, raw state becomes more and more the aesthetic standard, the role of the human artist is called into question. Yet that same artist is celebrated as the Promethean champion of humanity, a priest of the imagination. By humanizing nature itself, Fingal and the other poems evoke a time when humanity was nature; hence the quest to unite with nature was unnecessary.3 The poems, while artificial themselves, thus suggest a bridge between nature and artifice.

Moreover, 'authenticity' in art begins to be measured by its proximity to the raw materials either of nature or of human speech. There is, to be sure, a difference between the quest for 'found' beauty in nature and Macpherson's claim that his Ossianic fragments were found rather than fabricated. Even an authentically 'found' fragment would already be a work of art. Macpherson further complicates his work by adding a faux scholarly apparatus, just as Wordsworth complicates his imitations of folk ballads with extensive notes on psychological curiosities. The search for authenticity, in other words, invariably trips over itself, just as tourists by their very presence alter, and perhaps destroy, the sites they seek. Yet Macpherson's fragments of ancient poetry, in their conception of 'oral epic poetry as [End Page 1] emanating from, yet rooted in, a specific sense of place',4 drew tourists in droves to Scotland.

As an embodiment of these interrelated aesthetic cruxes, no other site in the British Isles is comparable to Staffa, a tiny island of black stone in the Inner Hebrides. Its structure of hexagonal basalt columns, and especially the vault-like cavern known as Fingal's Cave, calls into question the very nature of construction: as a natural formation, it at once points to the hand of some great maker (Nature, God, Ocean) and also mocks (in both the senses of ridicule and imitation) the work of human architects. And perhaps no other British site in the period was rendered in so many different arts.5 Surprisingly, however, there has been no synthesizing criticism of these representations. The few books and articles on Staffa that are not tourist guides tend to emanate from a particular field: geology, art history, or New Age mysticism.6 By considering some key representations in poetry and painting alongside scientific accounts, this essay aimsnot only to fill that gap, but to argue that Staffa concentrates and epitomizes a central Romantic problem: the transmission of nature into art and the concomitant paradox of judging nature by the standard of art. Visitors to the island repeatedly comment on the artfulness of its natural structure, and yet their responses are filtered through the arts of their...


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pp. 1-14
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Archived 2009
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