James Macpherson (1736-1796) and his famous works

James Macpherson was a Scottish poet, writer, literary translator, and politician. Son of a farmer, he was educated at Edinburgh University. In him, we have ‘an unusual figure’, who catered to the new romantic interest in the old epic heroes, and “won immense, though momentary, fame, by a series a literary forgeries”(Long). In 1760, he published as many as fifteen or sixteen poems in prose – Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language, which he claimed to be the works of a third-century poet Ossian, but long later it was proved that they were not.

After traveling in the Western Isles that very year and next with all his expenses being borne by his admirers, he published the translations of two complete epics of Ossian. The title of one epic was Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books (1762). Though many including Swinburne in the 19th century were not very happy with this claim, they in his age enjoyed astonishing popularity. It is worth noting here that when Johnson and many critics wanted to see the original manuscripts, he failed to produce them and his literary forgery was exposed. But by this time Macpherson had shot into such a height of fame, that he was honored as a literary explorer.

Capitalizing on his counterfeit popularity, he was elected M.P. for Camelford and after his death in 1796, he was accorded a warm tribute and buried with the great men of England in the Westminster Abbey. In 1805 the Highland Society of Scotland, after an inquiry into his works, declared that his claim was false, and they were the amalgam of freely adapted Irish ballads and original composition of Macpherson. Whatever that might be, Macpherson, by these admirable works, contributed immensely to the advent of romanticism. He influenced poets of the height of Chatterton, William Blake, Robert Burns, and many others. Even Goethe and Napoleon waxed eloquent over them and in spite of his false claim, they still retain their popularity as products of an original writer.

Also read: Leigh Hunt and his famous works