Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Macpherson, James ("Ossian") (1736–1796)
Author:
Ladd, Andrew
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Macpherson's "Poems of Ossian" (1760–1763) was a popular epic "translation" of ancient cycle poems written in a medieval Scottish Gaelic dialect. The authenticity of the poems was a hotly debated issue during Macpherson's own time (his most famous detractor being Samuel Johnson), but it was not until after his death that scholars finally concluded that the poems were indeed forgeries. Nevertheless, Macpherson's rhapsodic poetry, his nationalistic fervor, and his original, evocative language heavily influenced major romantic writers in nineteenth-century Europe and America, including William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Whitman himself was fond of placing the Ossianic poems alongside the most cherished books of his youth—Homer, Shakespeare, and the Bible (Prose Works 2:722)—and he often ranked the bona fide Ossian among the greatest primitive poets of antiquity. Whitman, as John Townsend Trowbridge attests, was particularly fond of the bardic quality of Macpherson's poetry: "he liked to get off alone by the seashore, read Homer and Ossian with the salt air on his cheeks, and shout their winged words to the winds and waves" (172). Although Whitman once resolved never to "fall into the Ossianic, by any chance" (Notebooks 5:1806), the influence of Macpherson's poetry on Whitman's cannot be discounted.

Bibliography

Trowbridge, John Townsend. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Whitman in His Own Time. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991. 169–191.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

———. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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