The Poems of Ossian
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.
|Published||London: Printed for W. Straham and T. Cadell|
|Edition||A new edition|
|Volumes||2 volume set|
|Desc.||8vo (23 cm.)|
James Macpherson (1736 – 1796) was a Scottish writer most famous for his collection of Gaelic ballads, purportedly from a 3rd-centruy bard. Macpherson had an extensive background in Gaelic history and literature, as well as in the classics. He began his career as a poet while in university at Aberdeen, writing comical poems and developing prominent contacts in Edinburgh.
The Poems of Ossian adapts Gaelic oral history, carried down in ballads, to verse easily digestible by non-Gaelic readers. Macpherson “translated” ballads and adapted their plots to piece together historical narratives. The poems immediately became controversial in Britain because of questions of their authenticity, and also due to 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 poems Macpherson used in the original Gaelic. Charles Macpherson responded that no copies of the poems existed, as Gaelic was not only a difficult language to learn, but was mostly oral. His reply gets to the heart of the controversy surrounding the poems: that Macpherson composed the poems himself instead of translating them.
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. George Wythe's Library on LibraryThing mentions the Library of Congress copy but notes "Precise edition unknown. Several two-volume editions in octavo were published." The Brown Bibliography 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-calf with gilt, raised bands, and red labels. Purchased from Peter Shouler.
- Derick S. Thomson, "Macpherson, James (1736-1796)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004), accessed October 31, 2013.
- Robert P. Fitzgerald, "The Style of Ossian," Studies in Romanticism, 6, No. 1 (Boston University, Fall 1966), 22-23.
- Gilbert Chinard, "Jefferson and Ossian," Modern Language Notes, 38, No. 4 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Apr. 1923), pp. 201-203.
- Ibid., at p. 201, 203-04.
- Ibid., at p. 202.
- E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, 1952-1959), 4:464-466 [no.4377].
- LibraryThing, s. v. "Member: George Wythe" accessed on March 4, 2014.
- Bennie Brown, "The Library of George Wythe of Williamsburg and Richmond," (unpublished manuscript, May, 2012) Microsoft Word file. Earlier edition available at: https://digitalarchive.wm.edu/handle/10288/13433