Imitating a forgery

Posted on 10th December 2014 by simonbeattie


James Macpherson (1736–1796) has been called ‘in literary and cultural terms perhaps the most influential of all forgers …  Rare among educated Scots of his era in his familiarity with the Gaelic language and its still primarily oral tradition, he drew largely on both in his early poetry (The Highlander, 1758), which brought him little critical success.  Turning to “translations”, however (i.e. adaptations, or even wholecloth inventions) of alleged ancient Scots verse, Macpherson found himself taken up by patriotic countrymen like John Home, Lords Hailes and Kames, James Beattie, and above all Hugh Blair, and when copies of his work – collected in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Galic or Erse Language – circulated south of the Tweed, he added Gray, Walpole, Mason, Shenstone, and Burke to his admirers.  Repeatedly encouraged by the Edinburgh literati … Macpherson soon came up with an astonishingly extensive find: a 19,000-word epic by “Ossian”, a blind bard of third-century Argyllshire, recounting the faded glory of his warrior-brethren among the Highland clans’ (Arthur Freeman, Bibliotheca Fictiva, p. 33).  Nearly everyone appears to have been taken in by it, and Ossian became widely popular, in Britain, America (Jefferson was an admirer), and Europe.  ‘By 1800 some if not all Ossianic verse had been translated into ten languages, a figure that had risen to twentry-six by 1860’ (op. cit., p. 35).

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how the young Goethe produced his own edition of Ossian, and earlier this year I came across another piece in the Ossianic jigsaw: scarce imitations of Macpherson’s original published by an Irish soldier–poet called Edmund Harold in Düsseldorf in 1787.  What’s particularly fascinating is that he published them simultaneously in English and German versions:



Born in Limerick, Harold (1737–1808) was one of the ‘Wild Geese’ who left Ireland to seek military service in Europe.  Boswell met him on a visit to Mannheim in 1764, calling him ‘a genteel young fellow [who] talked well, though with affectation’.  Though a professional soldier, Harold also became known as a minor writer in German literary circles, corresponding with Herder and Lichtenberg.  The seventeen pieces published in his book, all but two ascribed to Ossian, are a kind of follow-up work to Harold’s own German translation of Ossian (1775, an early complete version, later used by Schubert for his settings).

‘Both Edmund von Harold and John Smith [Galic Antiquities, Edinburgh, 1780], as imitators of Macpherson, enjoyed little or no success in Britain, and it is easily overlooked that abroad they often came to rival their illustrious model in popularity and impact, if in a geographically more limited way [Harold in Northern, Smith in Southern Europe] …  Harold made no secret of his methods as “translator”, freely admitting in the preface to the 1787 edition that he had simply taken the bare bones of ancient stories and legends, and dressed them up as he saw fit.  In this he was following the procedure which he assumed Macpherson himself has adopted.  Harold’s candour does not, however, prevent his light-heartedly attempting to sustain the fiction that he has had privileged access to hitherto unknown sources, and he is capable of littering his pages with asterisks to suggest defective transmission – no doubt influenced here by Macpherson himself.  Harold is, however, innovative in some respects.  He insists on Ossian’s Irish origins, and he also reintroduces religion into the poetry …  It is interesting that it is in Northern Europe … that Harold seems to have enjoyed his major success’, in Scandinavia, Holland, and Russia (Gaskill, The Reception of Ossian in Europe, pp. 15–16).

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One response to “Imitating a forgery”

  1. […] written before about Ossian, and the effect it had in Germany (not least, on Goethe), but I’d never heard of this book […]

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