James Macpherson

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James Macpherson (Gaelic: Seumas MacMhuirich or Seumas Mac a' Phearsain) (October 27 1736February 17 1796) was a Scottish poet and literary hoaxer. His supposed translations from poems by the ancient Highland bard Ossian, sensationally successful in their day, were largely forgeries, though with an admixture of traditional Gaelic material.

Quotes[edit]

Page numbers refer to The Poems of Ossian (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1847).
  • The gloom of the battle roared.
    • Fingal, Book III
  • Hail, Carril of other times! Thy voice is like the harp in the halls of Tura.
    • Fingal, Book V
  • Daughter of heaven, fair art thou! the silence of thy face is pleasant! Thou comest forth in loveliness. The stars attend thy blue course in the east. The clouds rejoice in thy presence, O moon! They brighten their dark-brown sides. Who is like thee in heaven, light of the silent night? The stars are ashamed in thy presence. They turn away their sparkling eyes. Whither dost thou retire from thy course, when the darkness of thy countenance grows? Hast thou thy hall, like Ossian? Dwellest thou in the shadow of grief? Have thy sisters fallen from heaven? Are they who rejoiced with thee, at night, no more? Yes! they have fallen, fair light! and thou dost often retire to mourn. But thou thyself shalt fail, one night; and leave thy blue path in heaven. The stars will then lift their heads: they, who were ashamed in thy presence, will rejoice. Thou art now clothed with thy brightness. Look from thy gates in the sky. Burst the cloud, O wind! that the daughter of night may look forth! that the shaggy mountains may brighten, and the ocean roll its white waves in light.
    • "Dar-thula"
  • The people bend before me. I turn the battle in the field of the brave. I look on the nations, and they vanish: my nostrils pour the blast of death. I come abroad on the winds: the tempests are before my face. But my dwelling is calm, above the clouds; the fields of my rest are pleasant.
    • "Carric-thura", p. 147
  • They stood in silence, in their beauty: like two young trees of the plain, when the shower of spring is on their leaves, and the loud winds are laid.
    • "Carric-thura". Compare:
      • Τὼ δ᾽ ἄνεῳ καὶ ἄναυδοι ἐφέστασαν ἀλλήλοισιν,
        ἢ δρυσίν, ἢ μακρῇσιν ἐειδόμενοι ἐλάτῃσιν,
        τε παρᾶσσον ἕκηλοι ἐν οὔρεσιν ἐρρίζωνται,
        νηνεμίῃ· μετὰ δ᾽ αὖτις ὑπὸ ῥιπῆς ἀνέμοιο
        κινύμεναι ὁμάδησαν ἀπείριτον.
        • The pair then faced each other, silent, unable to speak, like oaks or tall firs, which at first when there is no wind stand quiet and firmly rooted on the mountains, but afterwards stir in the wind and rustle together ceaselessly.
        • Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica (3rd century BC), Book III, lines 967–971 (tr. Richard Hunter)
  • Whence are thy beams, O sun! thy everlasting light? Thou comest forth in thy awful beauty; the stars hide themselves in the sky; the moon, cold and pale, sinks in the western wave; but thou thyself movest alone.
    • "Carthon", p. 163.
  • Thou shalt sleep in thy clouds, careless of the voice of the morning. Exult then, O sun, in the strength of thy youth!
    • "Carthon", p. 164.
  • I was a lovely tree, in thy presence, Oscar, with all my branches round me; but thy death came like a blast from the desert, and laid my green head low.
    • "Croma", p. 178.
  • The stream and the wind roar aloud. I hear not the voice of my love! Why delays my Salgar, why the chief of the hill, his promise? Here is the rock, and here the tree! here is the roaring stream! Thou didst promise with night to be here. Ah! whither is my Salgar gone? With thee I would fly from my father; with thee, from my brother of pride.
    • "The Songs of Selma", p. 209.
  • Where art thou, beam of light? Hunters, from the mossy rock, saw ye the blue-eyed fair?
  • Then rose the strife of kings about the hill of night; but it was soft as two summer gales, shaking their light wings on a lake.
    • "Cathlin of Clutha"
  • Can I forget that beam of light, the white-handed daughter of kings?
    • "Cath-Loda"
  • I look down from my height on nations
    And they become ashes before me.
    • Carric, quoted in Thoreau, "Life without principle"

Criticism[edit]

  • Dr. Blair, relying on the internal evidence of their antiquity, asked Dr. Johnson whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems? Johnson replied, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children."
  • Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.
    • Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell Life of Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p. 1207.
  • Why is not the original deposited in some public library, instead of exhibiting attestations of its existence? Suppose there were a question in a court of justice, whether a man be dead or alive. You aver he is alive, and you bring fifty witnesses to swear it. I answer, 'Why do you not produce the man?'
    • Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), p. 487.
  • I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian. What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the publick, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable; and what I hear of your morals, inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.
    • Samuel Johnson, letter to James Macpherson (20 January 1775), quoted in James Boswell Life of Johnson, Vol. I (1791), p. 449.
  • These pieces have been and will, I think, during my life, continue to be to me the sources of daily and exalted pleasures. The tender and the sublime emotions of the mind were never before so wrought up by the human hand. I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest poet that has ever existed. Merely for the pleasure of reading his works, I am become desirous of learning the language in which he sung, and of possessing his songs in their original form.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles McPherson, February 25, 1773, cited from H. A. Washington (ed.) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853) vol. 1, pp. 195-6.
  • Par une de ces journées sombres qui attristent la fin de l'année, et que rend encore plus mélancoliques le souffle glacé du vent du Nord, écoutez, en lisant Ossian, la fantastique harmonie d'une harpe éolienne balancée au sommet d'un arbre dépouillé de verdure, et vous pourrez éprouver un sentiment profond de tristesse, un désir vague et infini d'une autre existence, un dégoût immense de celle-ci.
    • Some gloomy autumn day, when the dreary north wind is howling, read Ossian to the accompaniment of the weird moans of an Æolian harp hung in the leafless branches of a tree, and you will experience a feeling of intense sadness, an infinite yearning for another state of existence, an intense disgust with the present.
    • Hector Berlioz, Mémoires, ch. 39 [1]; Eleanor Holmes, Rachel Holmes and Ernest Newman (trans.) Memoirs of Hector Berlioz from 1803 to 1865 (New York: Dover, 1966) pp. 156-7.
  • He produced a work of art which by its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature.
  • One is tempted to call them works of genius; they are quite Homeric in their internal unity, purity of phrasing, clear, ringing music of language and dramatic coloring.
  • All hail, Macpherson! hail to thee, Sire of Ossian! The Phantom was begotten by the suing embrace of all impudent Highlander upon a cloud of tradition—it travelled southward, where it was greeted with acclamation, and the thin Consistence took its course through Europe, upon the breath of popular applause. [...] Having had the good fortune to be born and reared in a mountainous country, from my very childhood I have felt the falsehood that pervades the volumes imposed upon the world under the name of Ossian. From what I saw with my own eyes, I knew that the imagery was spurious. In Nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute independent singleness. In Macpherson's work, it is exactly the reverse; every thing (that is not stolen) is in this manner defined, insulated, dislocated, deadened,—yet nothing distinct. It will always be so when words are substituted for things. [...] Yet, much as those pretended treasures of antiquity have been admired, they have been wholly uninfluential upon the literature of the Country. No succeeding writer appears to have taught from them a ray of inspiration; no author, in the least distinguished, has ventured formally to imitate them—except the boy, Chatterton, on their first appearance. [...] This incapacity to amalgamate with the literature of the Island, is, in my estimation, a decisive proof that the book is essentially unnatural; nor should I require any other to demonstrate it to be a forgery, audacious as worthless.

External links[edit]

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