The Poems of Ossian

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by James Macpherson

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]

Bibliographic Information

Author: James Macpherson

Title: The Poems of Ossian

Publication Info: A new ed. London: Printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1784-85.


Evidence for Inclusion in Wythe's Library

Description of the Wolf Law Library's copy

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

External Links

Hathi Trust Vol. I Hathi Trust Vol. II


  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.