James Macpherson

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James Macpherson

James_Macpherson’s Biography

In 1753 he began to study at the Kings’ College of the University of Aberdeen and later in Edinburgh, without obtaining any degree. In the year 1760 he began as a writer with Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland (Fragments of ancient poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland), which he said to have translated from Gaelic; that same year he obtained more manuscripts and in 1761 he claimed to have found an epic poem about King Fingal written by the Celtic bard Ossian, which he published under the title Fingal in that same year; then he published Temora (1763), another presumed translation, and finally the edition of the complete collection of those supposed manuscripts, The Works of Ossian, in 1765. It was believed that these books were translations of poems written by the third-century Gaelic bard Ossian (read Oisin), compiled by Macpherson; however, several stylistic, historical and linguistic elements caused controversy among the medievalists, some of whom accused Macpherson of being a forger and of not wanting to show his original manuscripts, which he never did. The issue was contaminated with political edges when the Irish understood that they were trying to assimilate their own cultural tradition and nationalize it as Scottish. The controversy was more or less defined when Dr. Samuel Johnson ruled that Ossian’s poems were actually a mystification of Macpherson: medieval compositions united by original texts composed ad hoc. But the controversy continued until the early nineteenth century, with discussions about whether the poems were based on Irish sources, sources written in English, Gaelic fragments recast in the text of Macpherson as concluded by Samuel Johnson or oral traditions in Scottish Gaelic as claimed Macpherson. Modern studies tend to believe that Macpherson had actually collected Gaelic ballads from Ossian, but he adapted them to contemporary sensibility by altering the original character and ideas and introducing much of his own material. Many believe that the question of authenticity should not hide the intrinsic artistic merit and cultural meaning of the poems.

The prestige of Ossián was enormous for the European romantics, who, as has already been said, had him as a kind of medieval Homer, and his verses were one of the favorite readings of the Scottish romantic writer Walter Scott, of the authors of the Sturm und Drang Goethe (whose translation of a part of the works of Macpherson appears in an important scene of the Sorrows of the young Werther) and Johann Gottfried Herder (who wrote an essay entitled Excerpt of a correspondence about Ossian and the songs of ancient people ), of Lord Byron and of Napoleon Bonaparte himself, apparently a frustrated writer. Osián also served as an inspiration to the Spanish poet José de Espronceda in the composition of his epic poem Óscar y Malvina.

In 1764 Macpherson was appointed secretary of the colonial governor of Pensacola (Florida) George Johnstone. He returned to Britain two years later and, despite a legal dispute with Johnstone, was allowed to keep his salary in the form of a pension. He then went on to write several historical works, the most important of which was Original Papers, containing the Secret History of Great Britain from the Restoration to the Accession of the House of Hanover (1775), which is prefaced with Extracts from the Life of James II written by the same monarch. He received a salary for defending the policy of Lord North and obtained a lucrative position as an agent of Muhammad Ali, Arkat’s nabob. He entered the House of Commons in 1780 as a deputy for Camelford and in this position remained the rest of his life. In 1783 he also worked for Sir Nathaniel Wraxall. Already with an appreciable fortune, he bought a farm, which he named Belville or Balavil, in his native county of Inverness, where he died at the age of fifty-nine. His remains were transferred from Scotland to Westminster Abbey.

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