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Fragments of Ancient Poetry   By: (1736-1796)

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E text prepared by David Starner, Ted Garvin, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.




Introduction by JOHN J. DUNN


George Robert Guffey, University of California, Los Angeles

Earl Miner, University of California, Los Angeles

Maximillian E. Novak, University of California, Los Angeles

Robert Vosper, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library


Richard C. Boys, University of Michigan

James L. Clifford, Columbia University

Ralph Cohen, University of California, Los Angeles

Vinton A. Dearing, University of California, Los Angeles

Arthur Friedman, University of Chicago

Louis A. Landa, Princeton University

Samuel H. Monk, University of Minnesota

Everett T. Moore, University of California, Los Angeles

Lawrence Clark Powell, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library

James Sutherland, University College, London

H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., University of California, Los Angeles


Edna C. Davis, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library


Byron was actually the third Scotsman in about fifty years who awoke and found himself famous; the sudden rise from obscurity to international fame had been experienced earlier by two fellow countrymen, Sir Walter Scott and James Macpherson. Considering the greatness of the reputation of the two younger writers, it may seem strange to link their names with Macpherson's, but in the early nineteenth century it would not have seemed so odd. In fact, as young men both Scott and Byron would have probably have been flattered by such an association. Scott tells us that in his youth he "devoured rather than perused" Ossian and that he could repeat whole duans "without remorse"; and, as I shall discuss later, Byron paid Macpherson the high compliment of writing an imitation of Ossian, which he published in Hours of Idleness .

The publication of the modest and anonymous pamphlet, Fragments of Ancient Poetry marks the beginning of Macpherson's rise to fame, and concomitantly the start of a controversy that is unique in literary history. For the half century that followed, the body of poetry that was eventually collected as The Poems of Ossian provoked the comment of nearly every important man of letters. Extravagance and partisanship were characteristic of most of the remarks, but few literary men were indifferent.

The intensity and duration of the controversy are indicative of how seriously Macpherson's work was taken, for it was to many readers of the day daring, original, and passionate. Even Malcolm Laing, whose ardor in exposing Macpherson's imposture exceeded that of Dr. Johnson, responded to the literary quality of the poems. In a note on the fourth and fifth "Fragments" the arch prosecutor of Macpherson commented,

"From a singular coincidence of circumstances, it was in this house, where I now write, that I first read the poems in my early youth, with an ardent credulity that remained unshaken for many years of my life; and with a pleasure to which even the triumphant satisfaction of detecting the imposture is comparatively nothing. The enthusiasm with which I read and studied the poems, enabled me afterwards, when my suspicions were once awakened, to trace and expose the deception with greater success. Yet, notwithstanding the severity of minute criticism, I can still peruse them as a wild and wonderful assemblage of imitation with which the fancy is often pleased and gratified, even when the judgment condemns them most."[2]


It was John Home, famous on both sides of the Tweed as the author of Douglas , who first encouraged Macpherson to undertake his translations. While taking the waters at Moffat in the fall of 1759, he was pleased to meet a young Highland tutor, who was not only familiar with ancient Gaelic poetry but who had in his possession several such poems. Home, like nearly all of the Edinburgh literati, knew no Gaelic and asked Macpherson to translate one of them... Continue reading book >>

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