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  • Macpherson's Ossian:Trying to Hit a Moving Target
  • John Miles Foley (bio)

The cluster of articles on James Macpherson and the poems of the legendary Ossian, in issue 454 of JAF, offers us up-to-date information and helpful perspectives on an inherently fascinating phenomenon. The four authors argue precisely and cogently for their points of view, and the readership of JAF will remain in their debt for a clear-headed perspective on a knotty problem in the history of folklore studies. For this reader, however, the most striking feature of the collective presentation is the set of contingencies it brings to light, especially the ever-changing historical trajectory it documents and the open-ended variety of frames of reference it suggests. That the Ossian controversy should have remained a heated issue, full of contradictions and apparently irresolvable impasses, for all these years is perhaps no surprise. That the same controversy also tracks the development of folklore theory from at least the early 19th century onward to the present day—serving as a bellwether for period-bound concepts of heritage, identity, and verbal art—is more remarkable. No wonder, then, that reception of Ossian's art has run the gamut from extravagant enthusiasm to disdainful invective, or that each author's concerns illuminate a different but complementary aspect of Macpherson-become-Ossian. It is always a challenge to hit a moving target.

In the spirit of "Dialogues," I propose to take up a few salient ideas from the four articles and briefly examine them in a comparative context. Most of my analogues will be drawn from South Slavic oral poetry, until recently very much a living tradition and one that was extremely well collected in the 19th and 20th centuries. Other comparisons will be made to ancient Greek poems ascribed to Homer and others, to the largely anonymous Anglo-Saxon poetry from early medieval England, and to slam poetry, an oral poetic tradition presently gaining momentum in contemporary North America. Juxtaposing these parallels is a way of recognizing the value of the Ossian collection and of thanking its authors for their stimulating words; hopefully, it also satisfies the intent of "Dialogues," which at the root of its Greek lineage is the near-equivalent of "swapping stories."1

One of the most convincing of James Porter's contentions revolves around the vexed issue of the "authenticity" of what Macpherson presented to an international audience as translations of bona fide oral tradition. Porter observes that modern folklore [End Page 99] theory has left such concepts in its wake, no longer imagining a pure, unadulterated Volkspoesie but inquiring into what transformations and adaptations lie beneath the visible surface of any instance or publication of verbal art.2 He sees Macpherson's role as that of "both a liminal figure and a mediator," someone who acted as a kind of gatekeeper operating from the assumption of an epic tradition that had devolved into fragments and just as particular a concept of the audience he wished to reach and the poetic self-portrait he wished them to view. Over a complex and multilayered lifetime, Porter's Macpherson reacted intelligently and consistently to a wide array of influences—intellectual, political, sociocultural, and historical. His adroitness in responding to these influences resulted in an international reception that was unique in drawing both unbridled approbation and more than occasional calumny.

These sound observations help us not only to understand the phenomenon of Macpherson but also to follow the orbit of folklore studies from Romantic nationalism and the search for ethnic identity to today's more characteristic inquiry into the contextual and especially political conditions that frame any folklore event. For example, consider the publication program undertaken by Vuk Stefanovi Karadžič, the great mid-19th-century ethnographer, lexicographer, and collector of Serbian narodne pjesme or "folk songs." We will have more to say about his actual collection and processing methods later on, but for the moment let us concentrate on his implicit aims and his presentation of the oral poems that won so fervent and wide-ranging an audience all over Europe.3 For his second volume, subtitled the "oldest heroic songs" (pjesme junačke najstarije), Karad...


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