The Invention of Ossian
In this paper I argue that by exploring James Macpherson’s alleged “invention” of the ancient Celtic bard Ossian Homerists can learn something about the way that contemporary theory about the nature of poetry influences our scholarly attempts to objectively analyze the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. I will summarize briefly here the Macpherson controversy before moving on to discuss the broader implications for Homeric scholarship.
In 1760 Macpherson published his Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gallic or Erse Language, followed by Fingal, An Ancient Epic in 1761 and Temora, An Epic Poem in 1763. Macpherson attributed this body of poetry to a blind third century Gaelic warrior turned bard named Ossian (the son of Fingal, aka Finn Mac Cumail in Irish myth), whose poetry he translated at the request of intellectuals from Edinburgh. The “poems” (which were in fact rendered in rhythmic prose) were a huge success, enchanting England and Europe, and had a significant impact on subsequent literature, helping to usher in the Romantic Movement. It was soon discovered, however, that Macpherson’s “translations” of Highland epics were largely poems of his own creation, based loosely on the oral songs and tales and manuscripts that he had collected in trips to the Highlands in 1760 and 1761. From their first publication it has been debated to what extent Macpherson invented Ossian and Ossianic poetry, with such well known contemporary critics as Samuel Johnson claiming that the whole of Ossianic poetry was a complete forgery with no basis in tradition.
The similarities between Macpherson’s recreation of the legendary figure of Ossian and the conception of Homer at this time are striking. Both figures were seen by Macpherson and many of his contemporaries to be primitive folk poets of “original genius” whose monumental epic poems were transmitted orally for centuries and became corrupted through time, and both were thought to embody the creativity of a primitive culture. Macpherson saw Ossian as the inventor of the Scottish tradition of heroic poetry, whose works had been corrupted and scattered over time. Likewise, Homer had since antiquity been credited with inventing the Greek epic tradition. Conversely, Macpherson himself was accused of inventing not only an oral tradition, but also a “Homer” behind the tradition. I argue that Macpherson was not necessarily attempting to pull a fast one on a gullible public. Rather, Macpherson’s conception of Ossian, with its deep roots in Highland heroic traditions, owes a great deal to the intellectual and literary trends the of mid-eighteenth century, particularly as they relate to Homer. A perfect reconstruction of Macpherson’s thoughts and intentions on this point is impossible, of course, but it seems likely that Macpherson conceived of himself as a kind of Peisistratus in the reconstruction of Ossian’s lost epics. Ossian’s poetry, like Homer’s, had once been a unity and epic in form, but was scattered and nearly lost in the centuries after Ossian’s death. To his mind, it was only through Macpherson’s efforts to collect and assemble the scattered fragments that the epics of Ossian were saved.
Throughout this historical inquiry into the nature of Macpherson’s efforts, I play with the notion of invention, a term that has a long history in Homeric scholarship. Homer is often credited, for example, as author and “inventor” of the poetic tradition that we know as the Iliad. In her recent book, Inventing Homer (Cambridge, 2002), Barbara Graziosi turns this concept on its head and instead explores how the ancient Greeks themselves invented the figure of Homer in a multitude of ways and in various places and at various points in time (hence her title Inventing Homer). In the eighteenth century, however, scholars and translators, most notably Alexander Pope, understood the term invention quite differently, assessing the “genius” of Homer in terms of “fire” and “invention.” Such explorations of the “invention” of Homer at different historical moments raise the question as to whether the “of” in Martin West’s phrase “the invention of Homer” (Classical Quarterly 49 : 364–382) is a subjective or objective genitive. Did antiquity “invent” Homer, or did Homer invent the poetic tradition that is now encompassed by his name? For Martin West, both are true. Homer is indeed the inventor of our Iliad, but Homer himself was to some extent invented by his successors, the Homeridai, who are, according to West, responsible for the invention of the very name Homer.
There is some ambiguity, therefore, to the term invention, at least as it is used in English. The Homeric scholarship that makes use of the term invention seems problematic to me as well. “Invention” is the term often used when scholars try to find the authorial genius behind the Iliad or Odyssey. If the Iliad and Odyssey were composed in a traditional, oral medium (as has been clearly demonstrated by the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord), we ask ourselves, what is Homer’s contribution? I feel that we are still severely limited by modern concepts of authorship when dealing with the Homeric poems. We just aren’t comfortable with a Homer who doesn’t consciously strive to “invent” anything, a Homer whose contribution is his skillful composition in performance using traditional techniques, a Homer who is not particularly different than any of the other skilled performers who came before or after him, a Homer who is one of many. In current scholarship, the concept of the inventing Homer is double edged. When something seems really good or poetically sophisticated, we often assign it to Homer. The implication is that an oral traditional medium could not produce something that good. Likewise when something seems particularly bad to our poetic sensibilities, we excuse Homer: he was inventing in performance and couldn’t quite get it in right.
Taking a cue from Ingres’ painting, The Dream of Ossian, in this paper I tried to suggest that (1) not unlike James Macpherson do we dream up Homer even as we dream of him, and that (2) no less than in the 1760’s do we continue to obsess over the question of Homer’s genius (termed, in the earliest discussions of it, “invention”). That we cannot separate the poetry from the man is signified by the existance of at least ten titles published in the last fifty years or so in English that consist of simply that magical name, Homer. But our evidence is such that however we dream up Homer it is of necessity a matter of faith and will always be rooted in current conceptions of poets and poetry. We all compose lives of Homer (even me), and each one says far more about the poetry and scholarship and the preoccupations of our own time than it does about Homer’s.
On Homeric poetry as the product of a traditional oral system:
Lord, A. B. 1960/2000. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass. 2nd ed., ed. S. Mitchell and G. Nagy.
Nagy, G. 1996a. Homeric Questions. Austin, Tx.
— 1996b. Poetry as Performance. Cambridge.
Parry, A., ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford.
On James Macpherson and the Ossianic controversy:
Gaskill, H., ed. 1991. Ossian Revisited. Edinburgh.
—, ed. 1996. The Poems of Ossian and Related Works. Edinburgh.
Stafford, F. 1988. The Sublime Savage. James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian. Edinburgh.