James Macpherson and Ossian
By Richard B.
New Jersey Institute of Technology,
With Dafydd Moore
Last revised 13 March 2004
- George F. Black, Macpherson's Ossian and the Ossianic
Controversy (New York, 1926; also published in the
Bulletin of the New York Public Library in the same year).
Useful for older sources.
- John J. Dunn, "Macpherson's 'Ossian' and the Ossianic
Controversy: A Supplementary Bibliography," Bulletin of the
New York Public Library 75 (1971): 465-73. Updates Black, but
only through the 1960s (for the 1970s and 1980s, see Paul J.
deGategno's biography, cited below).
- "James Macpherson 1736-1796," in Margaret M. Smith, Index
of English Literary Manuscripts, vol. 3: 1700-1800, Part 2
(London: Mansell, and New York: R. R. Bowker, 1989), pp. 179-83.
A useful survey of bibliographical issues.
- The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard
Gaskill, with an Introduction by Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1996). The new standard edition of the
poems, based on the 1765 edition of The Works of Ossian,
with critical notes and a helpful introduction. Also includes
Macpherson's dissertations and preface to the 1773 edition of the
Works, and Hugh Blair's A Critical Dissertation on the
Poems of Ossian. The paperback format (distributed in North
America by Columbia Univ. Press) makes Macpherson's Ossian widely
available for the first time.
- Paul J. deGategno, James Macpherson. Twayne's English
Authors Series No. 467. (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989). Very
accessible, with a useful annotated bibliography.
- Paul J. deGategno, "The Sublime Savage in America: James
'Ossian' Macpherson's Tour of Duty in West Florida," Scotia:
Interdisciplinary Journal of Scottish Studies 16 (1992):
- Bailey Saunders, The Life and Letters of James
Macpherson (London, 1894; repr. New York: Haskell House,
1968). The standard appreciation of Macpherson, now superseded
except perhaps for some of the correspondence it contains.
- John Semple Smart, James Macpherson: An Episode in
Literature (London: 1905). The standard exposé, now
- Fiona Stafford, The Sublime Savage: A Study of James
Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh: Edinburgh
Univ. Press, 1988). A sophisticated reassessment, opening the
door to serious criticism after two hundred years of
- Jennifer J. Carter and John H. Pittock, eds., Aberdeen and
the Enlightenment (Aberdeen: Aberdeen Univ. Press, 1987).
Contains five articles (of uneven length and quality) on
Macpherson and Ossian, by Maurice Colgan, Josef Bysveen, Leah
Leneman, George McElroy, and Thomas M. Curley.
- Howard Gaskill, ed., Ossian Revisited (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1991). An outgrowth of Gaskill's efforts
to reinvigorate Ossianic studies, with articles by Donald E.
Meek, Fiona J. Stafford, Uwe Böker, Paul J. DeGategno, John
Valdimir Price, Steve Rizza, David Raynor, John Dwyer, and
Richard B. Sher.
- Fiona Stafford and Howard Gaskill, eds., From Gaelic to
Romantic: Ossianic Translations (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998).
Developed from a conference held at Somerville College, Oxford,
in March 1996, with contributions by Joep Leerssen, Derick S.
Thomson, David Hall Radcliffe, Murray G. H. Pittock, Alan G.
Macpherson, Mícheál Mac Craith, John MacQueen,
Thomas Keymer, F. J. Lamport, Lisa Kozlowski, Susan Manning,
Christopher Smith, Dafydd Moore, G. J. Watson, Luke Gibbons, and
- Scotlands 4 (1997). Special issue on Ossian.
Monographs and Articles
Poetry and Controversy
- Frederic Bogel, Literature and Insubstantiality in Later
Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press,
1984). Despite an unpromising title, contains an unjustly
neglected analysis of Macpherson which was in many ways ahead of
- Josef Bysveen, Epic Tradition and Innovation in James
Macpherson's "Fingal" (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities
- Robert Folkenflik, "Macpherson, Chatterton, Blake and the
Great Age of Literary Forgery," The Centennial Review 18
- Howard Gaskill, "'Ossian' Macpherson: Towards a
Rehabilitation," Comparative Criticism 8 (1986): 113-46.
An important call to arms for revisionists.
- Nick Groom, "Celts, Goths and the Nature of the Literary
Source," in Tradition in Translation: Women Writers, Marginal
Texts, and the Eighteenth-Century Canon, ed. Avaro Ribeiro
and James G. Basker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 275-96.
Valuable comparison of Percy's written Gothic past and
Macpherson's oral Celtic past.
- Nick Groom, The Forger's Shadow: How Forgery Changed the
Course of Literature (London: Picador, 2002). Appreciative
and deliberately provocative treatment of Macpherson and others.
- Kristine Louise Haugen, "Ossian and the Invention of Textual
History," Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (April 1998):
- Andrew Hook, "'Ossian' Macpherson as Image Maker," The
Scottish Review 36 (November 1984): 39-44. A call for
recognizing the English agenda within the authenticity issue.
- Micheál Mac Craith, "Fingal: eípic thosaigh
James McPherson," Eighteenth-Century Ireland 12 (1997):
- Dafydd Moore, "Ossian, Chivalry and the Politics of
Genre: The Case of Fingal King of Morven, a
Knight-Errant," British Journal for Eighteenth-Century
Studies 23 (Summer 2000): 21-35. Examines an obscure
pamphlet of 1764 that reads Macpherson's Ossian as a chivalric
romance in the medieval Gaelic tradition.
- Dafydd Moore, "Heroic Incoherence in James Macpherson's
The Poems of Ossian," Eighteenth-Century Studies 34
(Fall 2000): 43-59. A rich and provocative critique of the view
that Ossianic poetry represented a kind of neoclassical
compromise between polite sentiment and militant heroism.
- Peter T. Murphy, Poetry as an Occupation and an Art in
Britain 1760-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993),
chap. 1. Originally published as "Fool's Gold: The Highland
Treasures of Macpherson's Ossian," ELH 53 (1986).
- Adam Potkay, The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994). Contains an interesting,
gendered interpretation of Ossian, parts of which appeared
earlier as "Virtue and Manners in Macpherson's Poems of
Ossian," PMLA 107 (1992): 120-30.
- David Hill Radcliffe, "Ossian and the Genres of Culture,"
Studies in Romanticism 31 (Summer 1992): 213-32. A
- M. M. Rubel, Savage and Barbarian: Historical Attitudes in
the Criticism of Homer and Ossian in Britain, 1760-1800
- Kenneth Simpson, The Protean Scot: The Crisis of Identity
in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Literature (Aberdeen: Aberdeen
Univ. Press, 1988), chap. 2. Treats Macpherson's Ossian as an
episode in the ongoing Scottish concern with personal and
- Margaret M. Smith, "Prepublication Circulation of Literary
Texts: The Case of James Macpherson's Ossianic Verses," Yale
University Library Gazette 64 (1990): 132-57. How the
manuscripts of poems in Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient
Poetry made the rounds.
- Derick S. Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's
"Ossian" (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1952). Classic work
that established some of the Gaelic ballads used by Macpherson,
by a scholar who actually knows the language!
- Derick Thomson, "Macpherson's Ossian: Ballads to Epics," in
The Heroic Process: Form, Function and Fantasy in Folk
Epic, ed. Bo Almqvist, Seamus O'Cathan, and Padraig
O'Healain (Dublin, 1987), 243-64.
History, Celticism, and Empire
- Malcolm Chapman, The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture
(London: Croom Helm, and Montreal: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press,
1978), chap. 2.
- Leith Davis, "'Origins of the Specious': James Macpherson's
Ossian and the Forging of the British Empire," The Eighteenth
Century 34 (1993): 132-50.
- William Ferguson, The Identity of the Scottish Nation
(Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1998). Has lots to say about
Macpherson and Ossian in the context of Scottish national
- Luke Gibbons, "The Sympathetic Bond: Ossian, Celticism and
Colonialism," in Celticism, ed. Terence Brown (Amsterdam
and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996), 273-91. Macpherson and ideologies of
- Ian Haywood, The Making of History: A Study of the
Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in
Relation to Eighteenth-Century Ideals of History and Fiction
(Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1986).
Explores the "forgery" issue in historical context.
- Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland's Past: Scottish Whig
Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity, 1689-c.
1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), chap. 10. A
valuable reassessment of Macpherson's encounter with history,
arguing that he was a Whig not a Tory.
- Gauti Kristmannsson, "Ossian: A Case of Celtic Tribalism or a
Translation without an Original?" Transfer (1997): 449-62.
An interesting treatment of the Irish-Scottish debate over the
origins of Ossian, with some attention to Samuel Johnson as well.
- Philippe Laplace, "L'institution du corpus imaginaire
gaélique dans la littérature écossaise:
MacPherson et Scott entre ideologie et synecdoque culturelle,"
Etudes écossaises 6 (2000): 129-45.
- Sebastian Mitchell, "James Macpherson's Ossian and the
Empire of Sentiment," British Journal of Eighteenth-Century
Studies 22 (1999): 155-71.
- Clare O'Halloran, "Irish Re-Creations of the Gaelic Past: The
Challenge of Macpherson's Ossian," Past & Present, 124
(August 1989): 69-94.
- Murray G. H. Pittock, Inventing and Resisting Britain:
Cultural Identities in Britain and Ireland, 1685-1789
(London: Routledge, 1997). Contains a finely balanced chapter on
Macpherson and the cultural politics of primitivism.
- Murray G. H. Pittock, Poetry and Jacobite Politics in
Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ. Press, 1994). Contains a section on "Macpherson's
Protesting Lament" in the context of Jacobite political culture
- Edward D. Snyder, The Celtic Revival in English
Literature, 1760-1800 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press,
1923). A seminal study, though now dated.
- Janet Sorensen, The Grammar of Empire in
Eighteenth-Century British Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge
Univ. Press, 2000). Chap. 5 deals with the Ossianic nemesis
William Shaw and his Gaelic dictionary in the context of the
"Celtomania" of the 1760s.
- Fiona Stafford, "Primitivism and the 'Primitive' Poet: A
Cultural Context for Macpherson's Ossian," in Celticism,
ed. Terence Brown (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996), 79-87.
Informed reading of the issue of Scottish kitsch and Ossian.
- D. S. Thomson, "Ossian Macpherson and the Gaelic World of the
Eighteenth Century," Aberdeen University Review 40
- Hugh Trevor-Roper, "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland
Tradition of Scotland," in The Invention of Tradition, ed.
Eric Hobsbawm (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), 15-41.
Savage criticism of Ossian and Gaelic culture.
- Howard D. Weinbrot, Britannia's Issue: The Rise of British
Literature from Dryden to Ossian (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Press, 1993), part 5. Rich criticism on Ossian and Celticism,
without the pugnacious attitude found in some of Weinbrot's other
pronouncements on this topic.
- Peter Womack, Improvement and Romance: Constructing the
Myth of the Highlands (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan,
1989). Contains a stimulating, if occasionally shaky, discussion
of Ossianic aesthetics in terms of Highland assimilation.
Macpherson and Johnson
- Paul Baines, "'Putting a Book Out of Place': Johnson, Ossian
and the Highland Tour," Durham University Journal 84
- Thomas M. Curley, "Johnson's Last Word on Ossian:
Ghostwriting for William Shaw," in Aberdeen and the
Enlightenment (see Collections, above), 375-431. Includes a
facsimile of the appendix to the second edition of Shaw's An
Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems Ascribed to Ossian
(1782), part of an episode in the Ossian wars that is discussed
more fully (and from a very different point of view) in an essay
by Richard B. Sher in the Gaskill collection cited above.
- Kevin Hart, Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999). The Ossian controversy
is discussed in terms of definitions of cultural property, pp.
- Clare Lamont, "Dr Johnson, the Scottish Highlander, and the
Scottish Enlightenment," British Journal for
Eighteenth-Century Studies 12 (Spring 1989): 47-55.
- Fiona Stafford, "Dr Johnson and the Ruffian: New Evidence in
the Dispute between Samuel Johnson and James Macpherson,"
Notes and Queries, n.s. 36 (1989): 70-77. More revisionist
- Kathryn Temple, "Johnson and Macpherson: Cultural Authority
and the Construction of Literary Property," Yale Journal of
Law and the Humanities 5 (1993): 355-87.
- William Ferguson, "Samuel Johnson's Views on Scottish Gaelic
Culture," Scottish Historical Review 77 (Oct. 1998):
183-98. Argues forcefully that Johnson was "all at sea" in regard
to Ossian and Scottish Gaelic, largely because "he could never be
made to understand that in Scotland the term 'Irish' signified
Scottish Gaelic, as did the term 'Erse.'"
Ossian and the Scottish Enlightenment
- John Dwyer, The Age of the Passions: An Interpretation of
Adam Smith and Scottish Enlightenment Culture (East Linton:
Tuckwell Press, 1998). Contains much stimulating discussion of
the place of Macpherson's Ossian in the sentimental ethos of the
- Ian Haywood, "The Making of History: Historiography and
Literary Forgery in the Eighteenth Century," Literature and
History 9 (1983): 139-51. Discusses Hugh Blair's preface to
the Fragments of Ancient Poetry.
- Arthur E. McGuinness, "Lord Kames on the Ossian Poems:
Anthropology and Criticism," Texas Studies in Literature and
Language 10 (1968): 65-75.
- Duncan Macmillan, Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age
(Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1986). A marvelous book with a lively
chapter on the Runciman brothers' Ossianic painting and its
- Leah Leneman, "Ossian and the Enlightenment," Scotia
11 (1987): 13-29. Brief but stimulating account, stressing the
Scottish Enlightenment-Highlands connection.
- Dafydd Moore, "James Macpherson and Adam Ferguson: An
Enlightenment Encounter," Scottish Literary Journal 24
(November 1997): 5-23.
- Steven Rizza, "Hugh Blair," in The Dictionary of
Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers, 2 vols. (Bristol,
1999), 1:101-7. Emphasizes Blair's literary side, with much
attention to Ossian.
- Robert Morrell Schmitz, Hugh Blair (New York: King's
Crown Press, 1948). A half-century old, but still occasionally
- Richard B. Sher, Church and University in the Scottish
Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh (Princeton:
Princeton Univ. Press, and Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press,
1985), chap. 6. Argues that Macpherson's Ossian was among other
things a product of the Edinburgh Enlightenment.
- Richard B. Sher, "Those Scotch Imposters and their Cabal:
Ossian and the Scottish Enlightenment," Man and Nature:
Proceedings of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century
Studies, ed. Roger L. Emerson (London, Ont., 1982), 55-63.
Another rendition of the Scottish collaboration theory.
- Fiona Stafford, "Hugh Blair's Ossian, Romanticism and the
Teaching of Literature," in The Scottish Invention of English
Literature, ed. Robert Crawford (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ.
Press, 1998), 68-88.
- Yoshiaki Sudo, "An Unpublished Lecture of Hugh Blair on the
Poems of Ossian," The Hiyoshi Review of English Studies,
no. 25 (March 1995): 160-94. Dropped from Blair's Lectures on
Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), the Ossian lecture is
here reconstructed from surviving student notes.
- Frederic I. Carpenter, "The Vogue of Ossian in America: A
Study in Time," American Literature 2 (1931): 405-17. A
- S. Cristea, "Ossian versus Homer: An Eighteenth-Century
Controversy," Italian Studies 24 (1969): 93-111. A subtly
argued piece on Cesarotti's use of Ossian to validate
non-Homeric/classical poetry (and by extension other things).
- John Daverio, "Schumann's Ossianic Manner," 19th-Century
Music 21 (Spring 1998): 247-72.
- Roger Fiske, Scotland in Music: A European Enthusiasm
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983). A very readable
- Howard Gaskill, "Ossian in Europe," Canadian Review of
Comparative Literature 21 (December 1994): 643-75. Now the
best starting point for Ossian's European career.
- Anna H. Harwell Celenza, "Efterklange af Ossian: The
Reception of James Macpherson's Poems of Ossian in Denmark's
Literature, Art, and Music," Scandinavian Studies 70 (Fall
1998): 359-96. Revisionist piece which argues that Niels W.
Gade's Eferklange af Ossian was responsible for exaggerations
about the Danish reception of Ossian.
- Kristine Louise Haugen, "Ossian and the Invention of Textual
History," Journal of the History of Ideas 59 (April 1998):
309-27. Deals with Ossianic influences on the Homeric
scholarship of Robert Wood and Friedrich August Wolf, and the
defense of Ossian by Johann Matthias Schrockh.
- Jack McLaughlin, "Jefferson, Poe and Ossian,"
Eighteenth-Century Studies 26 (Summer 1993): 627-34.
- James S. Malek, "Eighteenth-Century British Dramatic
Adaptations of Macpherson's 'Ossian,'" Restoration and
Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 14 (1975): 36-41, 52.
Thin, but a starting point.
- Susan Manning, "Ossian, Scott, and Nineteenth-Century
Scottish Literary Nationalism," Studies in Scottish
Literature 17 (1982): 39-54. Focuses on the connection
between myth-making and nationalism.
- Susan Manning, "Why Does It Matter that Ossian Was Thomas
Jefferson's Favourite Poet?" Symbiosis 1 (Oct. 1997):
219-36. The best of several articles dealing with Ossian and
- Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the
Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1992). Treats Ossian's influence on Blake.
- Henry Okun, "Ossian in Painting," Journal of the Warburg
and Courtauld Institutes 30 (1967): 327-56.
- David Punter, "Ossian, Blake, and the Questionable Source,"
in Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Developments in the
Gothic Tradition, ed. by Valeria Tinkler-Villani et al.
- Rudolf Tombo, Ossian in Germany (1901; repr. New York:
AMS Press, 1966). The old standard on its subject.
- Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel
and the British Empire (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press,
1997). Contains a splendid discussion of Ossian's influence on
the Romantic novel, set within a national and imperial context.
- Paul Van Tiegham, Ossian en France, 2 vols. (Paris,
1917). Still the standard work on its subject.
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