The Poems of Ossian

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by James Macpherson

The Poems of Ossian

Title page from The Poems of Ossian, volume two, George Wythe Collection, Wolf Law Library, College of William & Mary.

Author James Macpherson
Editor {{{editor}}}
Translator {{{trans}}}
Published London: Printed for W. STraham and T. Cadell
Date 1784-1785
Edition A new edition
Language English
Volumes 2 volume set
Pages {{{pages}}}
Desc. 8vo (23 cm.)
Location [[Shelf {{{shelf}}}]]
  [[Shelf {{{shelf2}}}]]

James Macpherson (1736-96) was a Scottish writer most famous for his Ossianic poems.[1] Macpherson had an extensive background in Gaelic history and literature, as well as in the classics.

He began his career as a poet in university at Aberdeen, writing comical poems and developing prominent intellectual contacts in Edinburgh.

The Poems of Ossian, published in the early 1760s in two volumes, adapts Gaelic oral history, carried down in ballads, to verse easily digestible by non-Gaelic readers. He “translated” ballads and adapted their plots to piece together historical narratives. These poems immediately became controversial in Britain because of questions of their authenticity,[2] and because of the tangle of Scottish, English, and Irish rivalries.

Thomas Jefferson corresponded with Charles Macpherson in 1773, thirteen years after the initial publication of The Poems of Ossian, to ask for a copy of the Gaelic poems James Macpherson used to compose his Gaelic epic poems.[3] Charles Macpherson responded that no copies of poems existed, as Gaelic was not only a difficult language to learn, but was mostly oral.[4] This response gets to the heart of the controversy surrounding the poems, which is a rumor that James Macpherson fraudulently composed the poems instead of translating them.[5]

Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Listed in the Jefferson Inventory of Wythe's Library as "Ossian. 2.v. 8vo." and kept by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson later sold a copy of the London (1784-1785) edition of The Poems of Ossian to the Library of Congress in 1815, but the volumes no longer exist to ascertain Wythe's previous ownership.[6] George Wythe's Library[7] on LibraryThing mentions the Library of Congress copy but notes "Precise edition unknown. Several two-volume editions in octavo were published." The Brown Bibliography[8] includes the Library of Congress copy while also listing a copy of the Paris (1783) edition at the University of Virginia as a possibility for Wythe's copy. The Wolf Law Library purchased a copy of the London edition.

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

Bound in recent half sprinkled calf gilt, raised bands, and red labels. Purchased from Peter Shouler.

View this book in William & Mary's online catalog.


  1. Derick S. Thomson, “Macpherson, James (1736-1796),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004), accessed October 31, 2013. All biographical information is from this source unless otherwise noted.
  2. Robert P. Fitzgerald, “The Style of Ossian,” Studies in Romanticism, 6, No. 1 (Boston University, Fall 1966), pp. 22-23.
  3. Gilbert Chinard, “Jefferson and Ossian,” Modern Language Notes, 38, No. 4 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Apr. 1923), pp. 201-203.
  4. Ibid., at p. 201, 203-04.
  5. Ibid., at p. 202.
  6. E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 2nd ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 4:464-466 [no.4377].
  7. LibraryThing, s. v. "Member: George Wythe" accessed on March 4, 2014.
  8. Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at:

External Links

Read volume one of this book at the Hathi Trust. Read volume two of this book at the Hathi Trust.