Goethe’s Ossian, in an unrecorded variant

Posted on 13th February 2020 by simonbeattie

One of the connecting threads of our Anglo-German Cultural Relations catalogue is James Macpherson’s highly influential and notoriously fraudulent tales of Ossian. Another, as one might expect, is Goethe. Ossian’s reach was international, and soon made its mark on the young German writer (still only 23), who published his own four-volume edition, in English, in the 1770s: Works of Ossian, privately printed in Darmstadt (vol. I, 1773), and Frankfurt and Leipzig (vols II-IV, ‘for I. G. Fleischer’, 1777).

Goethe and his friend, Johann Heinrich Merck, had Ossian printed the same year they self-published Götz von Berlichingen.  The following year Goethe published Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, perhaps the greatest Ossian reader of all, and the success of Macpherson’s work in Germany was assured.  As Henry Crabb Robinson remarked to Goethe in 1829: ‘The taste for Ossian is to be ascribed to you in a great measure.  It was Werther that set the fashion’ (Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence, ed. Sadler, II, 432).

The etched title-page designed by Goethe (present in all four vols).

Impetus for producing the book was simply that copies of the original English text were so hard to come by in Germany.  Michael Denis had had to use Cesarotti’s Italian version as the basis for his German translation (the first complete translation into any language, 1768–9), and Herder had been relying on second-hand sources for years before in 1771 he borrowed a copy which Goethe had found in his father’s library.  It was that copy (the 1765 London edition) which Goethe subsequently used for his edition with Merck, designing the etched title-page himself (his first piece of book design).

The book’s rarity meant it was all but unknown to scholarship for a long time (‘Dieses Werk wird hiermit zum ersten Mal öffentlich angeboten.  Bis vor kurzem den Goethe-Forschern unbekannt … dürfte [es]zu den grössten Seltenheiten der Goethe-Literatur zählen’, Deneke sale, 1909, lot 373). 

The first edition is usually catalogued with volumes I and II as Darmstadt, privately printed, 1773–4 (with neither volume bearing an imprint, or a publication date), and volumes III and IV ‘Francfort and Leipzig printed for I. G. Fleischer 1777’.  In this copy, vol. II has what appears to be an unrecorded title-page, dated 1777.

For more on this edition of Ossian and its influence in both England and Germany, stay tuned for the PDF version of Anglo-German Cultural Relations, available soon.

Posted in

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *