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The International Companion to James Macpherson and The Poems of Ossian.

The International Companion to James Macpherson and The Poems of Ossian. Ed. by Dafydd Moore. Glasgow: Scottish Literature International, 2017. ISBN 9781908980199. 187pp. pbk. [pounds sterling]14.95.

Ossian has been in need of a companion for as long as he has been telling the tales of other times. Thanks to Dafydd Moore, he now has a very congenial one: slim, engaging and wonderfully sympathetic. It is not that the ancient Celtic bard has been entirely neglected in the centuries since James Macpherson revealed him to the reading world, but his reputation has soared and plummeted, sunk, risen and ricocheted, often (but not always) in tandem with that of his translator-creator. As an established authority on Ossian, Dafydd Moore is ideally placed to guide a new generation of readers through the bewildering mists that have continued to hang about this elusive figure and to encourage those who think they know the way to think again.

This is an explicitly International companion, with a carefully chosen band of contributors hailing from Denmark, England, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland and the United States. Building on the foundational work published in Howard Gaskill's The Reception of Ossian in Europe and other recent studies, these new essays range across languages and cultures as well as centuries. In his brilliantly condensed account of Ossian and the visual arts, Murdo Macdonald points out that 'the first full-page illustration of Ossian' was by 'an Italian artist in an Italian book' (Melchiorre Cesarotti's 1763 translation of Macpherson's text). The essential 'internationalism' of Ossian is evident from the title-page design of Goethe's 1777 edition to Calum Colvin's Ossian artworks, which went on show at the UNESCO building in Paris in 2005, just as the Louvre was mounting a major exhibition of one of Ossian's earlier, French interpreters, Anne-Louis Girodet. Ossian's poems, hovering in the no-man's land between the oral tradition and the written word, have always proved remarkably malleable to imaginative readers. Robert Rix's fascinating discussion of the 'Discovery of Ancient Scandinavian Literature' homes in on Ossian in eighteenth-century Copenhagen, as seen through the artists Abildgaard and Carstens or the circle of writers surrounding Klopstock, who produced Ossian-inspired musical theatre and tragedy, while urging the great Danish sculptor, Thorvaldsen, to turn from classical subjects to the heroes of the North. The power of Ossianic imagery fired strongly visual responses, even though the poems were uttered by a figure whose own sight was long gone.

Mood and image, conjured by relatively simple vocabulary, was irresistible to translators. Sebastian Mitchell's penetrating analysis of the tension between the specific and general in Macpherson's poetry of place demonstrates with remarkable clarity the peculiar capacity of Ossian to offer European readers a 'distinct and an imaginative landscape' which was, at the same time, 'capable of being adopted for their own sense of belonging and purpose'. Ossian, steadily translated into every major European language, expressed a yearning for his homeland that readers everywhere could understand. Cordula Lemke's essay, taking a postcolonial approach to Macpherson's practice, is concerned not so much with translation, as transcreation, a form of rewriting or 'narrative strategy' that enables fresh creation. Rather than suggest a clear political agenda, however, Lemke is alert to the essential ambivalence of Macpherson's nostalgia and sees his texts in terms of offering possibilities for further transcreative acts. Her untethered Ossian remains open to all comers.

Macpherson's treatment of the past has often provoked opposition rather than openness. The vexed question of sources is bravely revisited by Lesa Ni Mhunghaile, who offers a level-headed account of the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and Scotland and their significance for Ossian. Due reference is made to Ludwig Stern, Derick Thomson and Donald Meek, but she writes with real authority, offering fresh comparisons and signalling directions for further research, especially into the Gaelic prose tradition. Gauti Kristmannsson approaches translation from a different angle, dwelling thoughtfully on Macpherson's own emphasis on literalism and his decidedly un-Shelleyan claim that 'Genuine poetry, like gold, loses little, when properly transfused'. Kristmannsson's wide-ranging and passionate defence of Macpherson's place in the history of translation is not restricted to Ossian, but expands to make a compelling case for the poet who 'did away with the heroic couplet in Homeric translation'. In addition to the brief but well-judged biographical introduction, Dafydd Moore's also considers Macpherson's Homeric translation, but sets it in the light of Enlightenment stadialism. In an astute consideration of literary primitivism and the phenomenon of 'original genius', he summarises the potential tensions between the claims of historical context and the aesthetic criterion of transcendence, thereby making Ossian central to a very long-running literary-critical debate.

James Macpherson was in his early twenties when catapulted to international fame by The Poems of Ossian and though he revised the text a decade later, his life had, by then, taken a very different course. Moore's collection includes welcome consideration of aspects of Macpherson's later career, beginning and ending with essays on the correspondence and historical writings. Macpherson's letters, scattered through printed sources and numerous archives, have yet to be collected and published. Paul deGategno's discussion, which selects key moments such as Macpherson's dealings with the Nawab of Arcot or acquisition of an estate at his native Kingussie, will whet the appetite for a comprehensive edition. If letters raise expectations of ultimate revelations about Ossian, however, readers may be disappointed by deGategno's judicious conclusion that they 'present a thoroughly personal, but cautious and sometimes hidden image of the man who was Macpherson'. The final contribution, from Robert Jones, suggests that the time for Macpherson's equally neglected histories 'might at last have come'. He deals perceptively with Macpherson's two-volume continuation of David Hume's History of Great Britain, which covered the complicated period between the Restoration and the Hanoverian Accession, before concluding with the much briefer Short History of the Opposition, written in support of Lord North. Jones is sensitive to Macpherson's imaginative engagement with the past, as evident in his Tacitean skill in describing characters and Sternean creation of moving tableau, but the final emphasis is once again on equivocation, as Macpherson's polemic concludes with sentiments both 'rousing' and 'dejected'.

Throughout these varied and informative essays, Macpherson emerges as a generator of correspondence, controversy and coteries, while remaining oddly elusive. Ossian, too, the poet-historian of ancient days, is characterised not only by his solitary situation, but also by a tendency to send ripples through ever-increasing circles.

Fiona Stafford Somerville College, Oxford

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Author:Stafford, Fiona
Publication:Scottish Literary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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