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Teaching Romanticism XIII: James Macpherson’s Ossian

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by Daniel Cook with Kristin Lindfield-Ott

As part of this ongoing series on Teaching Romanticism we will consider the ways in which we lecture on and discuss individual authors, whether during author-specific modules or broader period surveys. I thought it would be particularly useful to hear about which texts educators use and in what context, whether they place certain poems or prose works against those of other writers, or use contemporary or modern theoretical texts, or something else entirely. For this strand of blog posts I invite academics across the world to share their advice and tips on any aspect that interests them about teaching Romanticism. Many thanks to all of those who answered my call through NASSR-L, The BARS Review, and elsewhere (lightly edited samples are reproduced below with permission of the authors). Please do feel free to contact me with advice on future subjects or, indeed, with further thoughts on teaching Ossian, about which much more could be said, evidently. We will be considering a range of writers, canonical and non-canonical alike, in the coming months. The present issue has been guest-edited by Kristin Lindfield-Ott.

James Mulholland, NC State University
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I have generally taught Ossian—both the poems and the media event surrounding those poems—as part of a larger course in the “global eighteenth century” that seeks to examine the formation of the British nation and its expansions overseas. In this rubric, Ossian is intended to offer examples of Scottish literary nationalism that respond to British nation formation. This means I often pair three or four selections from Macpherson’s Fragments with excerpts of Samuel Johnson’s and James Boswell’s separate accounts of their 1773 journey to Scotland. This eighteenth-century uber-educated buddy movie avant la lettre was motivated in part by Johnson seeking to disparage Macpherson’s claim that he recorded his Ossian poems from living speakers resident in the Scottish Highlands. Johnson’s more general target was the existence of oral traditions in any form.

Research on oral traditions and performance didn’t follow the path that Johnson might have advised—toward universal obloquy—but Macpherson’s Ossian and its claims of accuracy can still remain surprisingly controversial. Students quite easily access the notion of this contest between literary figures and cultural claims. The competition between Macpherson and Johnson seems to personify those larger claims about cultural change and media shift occurring during the eighteenth century. In this way, pairing Macpherson and Johnson, though predictable, still feels valuable.

Since focusing on Macpherson and Johnson simplifies that larger contest between British nationalism and print culture against Scottish localism and oral performance, I make sure to trouble this formulation at some point in my class with a telling and I think overlooked scene from Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1785). In this scene, Johnson, Boswell, and some Scottish guides they’ve hired are sailing in the Hebrides, the islands off the western coast of Scotland. At the stern of an “open boat made in Norway,” Boswell writes, sat Samuel Johnson “like a magnificent Triton” while “four stout rowers, particularly a Macleod, a robust, black-haired fellow, half naked and bear-headed” drove them through the rough seas and blowing wind. One of their guides sang a song in Erse, that language from which Macpherson claimed his Ossian poems had originated and which Johnson had been denigrating his entire journey. The rowers “chorused,” Boswell reports, and Johnson, taken with the open seas and the sound, joined in by speaking aloud a portion of an ode from Horace.

Johnson_1769I ask them to imagine how this man (Dr Johnson, pictured left) ends up seeming like a “magnificent Triton” and to consider the complex emotions and dynamics at work when the intellectual assailant of Macpherson’s Ossian answers Erse singing with his own classical recitation. Is Johnson joining them in oral performance as a moment of cultural recognition? Is he extending his disgust with Erse by offering instead his classical antiquity? Johnson, sitting like a triton in an open boat in Scotland’s northern islands makes for a fitting exemplum of all of the contests, identities, fantasies, and desires motivated by the publication of Ossian. I use this one scene to recall how literary texts like those of Macpherson convey those cultural changes and political fantasies for which they are incubators. And, finally, I ask them to wonder what it would have been like to have Macpherson also in that open boat joining in the public performance.

Kristin Lindfield-Ott, University of the Highlands and Islands
I teach Macpherson and Ossian wherever I can – from first-year undergraduate to Masters-level. I have also been ‘teaching’ Ossian to the public – to local community groups here in the Highlands. I want to explore both of those in this post.

At the University of the Highlands and Islands Macpherson and Ossian feature on a number of degree programmes: Literature, Scottish History and Scottish Cultural Studies, British Studies. In particular, selection of the Fragments, Fingal and Temora appear in seminars on ‘Nature of Genius’ (Year 2), ‘Romantic Genius’ (Year 3) and ‘Past and Present: Historio-graphy’ (Year 4). In addition, I also teach Macpherson’s The Highlander in ‘Union and Discord 1707-1815’ (Year 3) and ‘Imagining the Nation’ (Masters), and his History of Great Britain and the Introduction to the History feature in ‘Eighteenth-Century British Historiography’ (Year 3).

0016028cI particularly enjoy teaching the Fragments. Students respond well to Hugh Blair’s Preface, and going through the Fragments one by one produces interesting discussion. Our students are spread across the Highlands and Islands, and the landscape depicted in the Fragments usually makes them think of particular locations either near where they live, or places they have visited. This makes it easy to teach travel writing alongside the fragments – they respond particularly well to Dorothy Wordsworth’s Scottish tour, and her reflections on Ossian. I’m hoping to one day pair the Fragments with Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, with its long Ossianic sections.

The History students spend two weeks on Macpherson – the first week on the Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland and another on the History of Great Britain. This is at the end of a semester of eighteenth-century historiography – from Bolingbroke and Hume to Smith, Stewart and Blair. Students on this module have no prior knowledge of Macpherson, and study him in a completely different context from the Literature ones, and they’re always surprised to find out about his ‘other’, Ossianic life.

The Fragments also work well with the public. We have run a number of workshops on them, attended by a variety of people, from all backgrounds and of all ages. As with the students, the Preface is very accessible, and ‘Fragment II’ in particular elicits good responses. Interestingly most of our workshop participants don’t regularly read poetry or eighteenth-century literature, yet they find the Fragments easy to engage with.

Justin Tonra, National University of Ireland, Galway
westall-thumb-440x381-14755I teach a third-year undergraduate seminar called “Textual Histories” which introduces students to a variety of topics in book history, bibliography, and textual studies. For our class on textual transmission, I ask students to examine a portion of the Ossian corpus across seven different editions published under Macpherson’s authority in the period 1760-73. The selection begins Fragment X in the two editions of Fragments of Ancient Poetry, and appears at the beginning of Colma’s speech in “The Songs of Selma” from Fingal onwards. The short passage—no more than five paragraphs—presents considerable variations which I invite the students to identify, examine, and analyse. The exercise is intended to train students in the close attention to detail needed to complete an accurate collation of a series of texts. Many are variants are textual, and our particular emphasis on textual transmission in this class means that much of our attention is drawn to thinking about what is conveyed by the change, for example, from “Why delayeth my Shalgar” to “Why delays my Salgar.” In my experience, this kind of forensic textual criticism is a useful starting point on the path to close reading. Collation breeds interpretation, and the process of identifying variants heightens students’ awareness of a text’s fluidity. That, in turn, leads them to consider how the history of a text’s transmission might make a meaningful contribution to how they understand a literary work. That, as least, is the ideal outcome of the class.

Of course, any work with a publication history of more than a couple of editions might provide suitable material for a collation exercise of this kind. However, the various issues related to orality, voice, and authorship that have formed a central part of the discourse surrounding Ossian gives the task more depth. Students generally express surprise at the many opportunities for variation to enter the texts, and enjoy speculating about their origins: do they come from author or printer? The 1773 edition of The Poems of Ossian is especially fecund in this regard, since it was this edition that Macpherson “[c]arefully corrected, and greatly improved.” In textual terms, the edition contains “minimal Ossian, and maximal Macpherson,” to use Howard Gaskill’s phrase, and the frequent stylistic shifts provide grounds for interesting debate. Given our broader focus in the class on materiality and meaning, we also consider how other changes across this period of publication—in format (octavo to quarto and back again); in lineation, syntax, and punctuation; in location and extent of paratexts—contribute to our shifting interpretations of the work. Ossian’s various mutations in these categories (which new project Ossian Online aims to recover by archiving texts of all seven editions from this period) make it a uniquely fruitful work for exploring the principal concerns of “Textual Histories”: how changes in the material and textual character of works are mutually influential, and how we, as scholars, can study this phenomenon.

James_Macpherson_by_George_RomneyEditor: As our contributors here can attest, Macpherson’s Ossianic works and the Ossian controversy continue to excite tutor and tutee alike. Teaching the Fragments in particular lights up well-worn if vital areas of concern, including the social and literary implications of the restructuring of Britain in the eighteenth century, and the intertwined relationship between poetry and history, creativity and historiography, more broadly. Ossian, in short, remains a key component on any Scottish literature module.

Dr Daniel Cook is a Lecturer in English and Associate Director of The Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee. Daniel has published widely on eighteenth-century and Romantic-period literature and biography, including his first monograph, Thomas Chatterton and Neglected Genius, 1760–1830 (Palgrave, 2013). Afterlives of Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2015) is out now.


1 Comment

  1. Looks interesting, but there is no indication that anyone offers a glimpse of the Scottish Gaelic literature on which Macpherson based his English materials. After all, given the heated debate about authenticity and the nature of literature (oral vs written), wouldn’t it be useful to examine and compare the literary expressions of Gaels with the texts produced for an 18th-century audience, to get a sense of their transformation and the purposes thereof?

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