Temora - An Influential Forgery
In 1760, James Macpherson published the first volume of the Poems of Ossian titled Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland. In 1762 and 1763, he followed with the final two volumes Fingal and Temora, respectively. Macpherson stated that he did not compose the prose, but that he was merely the translator of the poems that were supposedly produced in the 3rd century by the bard, Ossian. According to legend, Ossian was the chief bard of the Fianna, a group of warriors from Ireland and Scotland. The poems related to the life and military conquests of Fingal, a Scottish warrior from the 3rd century. Macpherson claimed to have translated the books into English from Gaelic from fragments of unpublished manuscripts which he discovered.
From the publication of the first book, rumors swirled about the authenticity of the epic poems. Macpherson's translation included inadequacies in historical dates and examples of literary devices like alliteration that were more than likely not employed in the original. Macpherson was also unable to produce the original manuscripts to the first two volumes which heightened suspicion. He did exhibit a few examples for Temora which were immediately proven to be forgeries due to the elementary Gaelic used by Macpherson.
One of Macpherson's harshest critics was the English writer Samuel Johnson who thought that the poems were too modern in design to be written in the 3rd century. On a trip to Scotland, Johnson searched for the manuscripts which he was unable to find. At this point, he became especially bold in his allegations that the writings were forgeries. In A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Johnson wrote many disparaging remarks about the Ossian trilogy.
It was eventually proven that the poems were indeed literary forgeries. Macpherson had taken events from Celtic mythology and changed them around while adapting the Gaelic names to be more "English-friendly." All of the poems were written by Macpherson.
Even after having the poems proven to be forgeries, the popularity and importance of the Ossian poems are almost unmatched in literary history. In the immediate years after the publication, the works became works of national importance in Scotland where the poems were seen as proof that there was an indigenous culture in Scotland.
The Ossian poems are often considered the most important work to influence the Romantic Movement. William Blake, George Byron, Walter Scott, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are some of the writers who were deeply influenced by these poems. Artists such as Jean Ingres and Francois Gerard created paintings that reflected scenes from the works. Thomas Jefferson once commented that Ossian was "the greatest Poet that ever existed." Oscar was a character in the Ossian poems.. The popularity of the books was so intense that Oscar became one of the most popular names of the time. Oscar Wilde was named after this character.
Special Collections in McCain Library & Archives owns the first edition of the third book, Temora (1763). To view the item, visit Room 305 in McCain Library. It can be found at SpCol PR3544 .A6 1763.
For more information on Temora and the Ossian series:
Porter, James. "Bring Me the Head of James Macpherson: The Execution of Ossian and the Wellsprings of Folkloristic Discourse." The Journal of American Folklore, 114 (454), 396-435.
Weinbrot, Howard D. Britannia's Issue: The Rise of British Literature from Dryden to Ossian. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. (Cook PR448 .N38 W44 1993)
Haywood, Ian. The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to Eighteenth-Century Ideas of History and Fiction. London: Associated University Press, 1986. (Cook PR575 .H5 H39 1986)
Text by Jennifer Brannock, Special Collections Librarian