WE WANT OUR EPIC
AN INTERVIEW WITH FIONA STAFFORD
PREAMBLE: During the long months of pandemic-enforced stasis we decided to take stock and reflect on what it is we’re trying to do with this publication—which in the end led us to take another, closer look back at our eponymous bard. We chose the name OSSIAN because we felt there was something about the story of these poems—the conditions that led to their unearthing, their meteoric rise and subsequent fall in public opinion, the impassioned debates they sparked about authenticity—that resonated with our present moment. But was there anything else about this story we were missing? And if so, why, and is it important? We could think of few people better placed to help us answer these questions than Fiona Stafford.
Fiona is a professor of the English Language and Literature at Somerville College, Oxford, and an expert on Romantic literature. Her extensive research on Ossian and his so-called ‘translator,’ James Macpherson, was published in her book The Sublime Savage in 1988. Fiona is also author of The Brief Life of Flowers (2018) and the acclaimed The Long, Long Life of Trees (2016). Both books draw on first-hand observation along with literature, art, myth, natural science and the history of medicine to offer new perspectives on the flora that surrounds us and explore why they’ve captivated thinkers for centuries.
We met Fiona one sunny afternoon in April, as coronavirus continued to sweep with alarming momentum across the European continent; naturally our meeting was held over video call. Before starting we mused on how bizarre our current situation was. For the first time it seemed like everyone was in the same boat and, although physically apart and locked in at home, were all mulling over the same challenges brought to the fore by isolation.
OSSIAN: How did you find out about the bard Ossian and James Macpherson?
FIONA STAFFORD: It was when I was doing graduate work on the Romantic period. I obviously looked at the usual suspects like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Jane Austen, but I kept coming across references to Ossian and didn’t know who he was. In the late 18th century his epic was very well known, but it seemed to have disappeared by the 20th century, which is why I was drawn to him. I gradually discovered that it was very difficult to figure out who Macpherson actually was, and whether he had forged things or not because there was so much disagreement about it. But his work had enormous creative influence. It influenced writers—all major poets of that period—as well as the visual arts. Napoleon commissioned lots of ‘Ossianic’ paintings. It had an incredible influence on music, too.
O: I was reading your book, The Sublime Savage, and in particular the chapter about the reception of the poems, where you mention that for the non-scholarly reader perhaps the value of Macpherson’s work was in its emotional sensibility and imagination. But then it seems like something in the course of history is dismembered and we are left with just the controversy. Not many people would quote a line from the poems today, for example.
FS: Exactly, and that was something I was interested in: whether it was just a change of taste or whether it was the controversy that affected the popularity of the poems, which in the end wasn't the case because, by about 1805, they had worked out what Macpherson had done, and yet his writing continued to be a major force in the culture until the end of that century and well into the next. Ossian was being used on tobacco adverts in the 1920s, for example; that indicates how easily people could recognise the work even then. By the 1930s I think it disappeared from public discourse for all sorts of reasons. Certainly I think why it wasn’t included in English degrees, which have a lot to do with what we ought to read, is because there was a growing emphasis on a particular kind of ‘well wrought’ literature—like Keats’s Odes, that sort of finely crafted, lyrical poetry. You couldn’t get anything less like that in the works of Ossian, which are essentially these baggy, prose poems! Not formal in the sense of Keats at all. They would’ve been completely antithetical to the kind of close reading that people were starting to do in the middle of the 20th century.
I think another big reason they fell out of favour much earlier was Samuel Johnson. As the sort of preeminent man of English letters at the time, who was so opposed to Ossian and so damning of it, I think his view on things was and remains very influential.
O: It seems like the debate around the authenticity of the work is the thing that has revived contemporary interest. Do you think the work would have fallen by the wayside completely without that debate? Or do you think there is something more enduring about it?
FS: I definitely think there is something enduring about it. If you read somebody like Matthew Arnold, who was really quite a major cultural figure of the late 19th century, he suggests that Macpherson tapped into the idea of the Celt as a heroic warrior—“they went forth to battle, but they always fell” kind of thing. It’s that idea of the twilight, and melancholy, and a great people now fallen: none of that has anything to do with the controversy. We shouldn’t forget his writing was huge across Europe, too. I think one of the problems we have is that we often—‘we’ is difficult, by ‘we’ I mean readers of English language literature—tend to emphasise British English. We’re not big on the comparative element. So the fact that Ossian was huge across Europe and Russia doesn’t always feed back into our idea of a canon.
O: This conversation brings to mind how English literature was taught in India. Even just a decade ago, the syllabus there covered exactly the Romantic poets you mentioned and their work was closely associated with nature writing. I was wondering how this ties into politics and the kind of identity Britain wanted to build for itself? Not only in the early 18th century but also later, when they decided which parts of their literary history would be disseminated to the colonies?
FS: I think the colonial dimension is complicated. Ossian was definitely big in America, certainly. Jefferson wrote about it. Things like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is directly influenced by Ossian, because Chingachgook and Uncas are likewise the last of their race. So that idea of a conquered people and the kind of elegies they sing as they disappear off the historical map—which is basically what Macpherson was doing with Highland culture of the 18th century—strikes a chord in lots and lots of colonial situations. But I think it is very complicated in the case of Scottish 18th-century poetry because so many Scots were also in India, with the East India Company, as part of the colonial power. I think that is one of the reasons why the poems were so popular, because people could respond to them in different ways. You see that with the Irish response to Ossian. Post-colonial critics in Ireland in the 1980s and ‘90s were not necessarily thinking about global conquest as such when they read the poems, but they were certainly thinking about colonial relations between Great Britain and Ireland. They were responding to Macpherson in very interesting ways: they questioned whether that ‘fallen’ voice was inspiring or could inspire the cause for independence, or whether it’s actually more pleasing to a more unionist, colonial worldview—because while it gives a voice to the marginalised, that voice is still a voice in defeat. So in that sense it’s very interesting, politically.
O: That raises a lot of interesting questions about the potential response to Ossian in somewhere like India. Though I am starting to wonder about this entire project of establishing such a strong link between Romantic poetry and nature, possibly at the expense of other themes. Is there a careful selection at play here?
FS: In the late 20th century I think critics in Britain and America downplayed nature as a theme in the Romantics and saw them more in the political context of the French Revolution—and without really attending to politics within the British Isles. For example the Act of Union of 1800 doesn’t feature so much in their analysis as it might’ve done. But interestingly, now, in the 21st century, nature writing is on everyone’s mind again, because of the environmental crisis, and so the Romantic period is being yet again rewritten as a period of nature writing! It goes around. What may not have been seen as cutting edge at one point is absolutely the thing that everybody wants to talk about in another.I find that really interesting, how knowledge can disappear and then reappear like that—and that seems to me precisely what has happened with Ossian.
When I knew I was going to be talking to you I went and had a look through some of the Ossian poems again, and it’s full of very beautiful, natural imagery. It’ll be interesting to see if that gives them another ‘boost’.
O: Would you say the landscapes in Ossian are trying to be a representation of nature or a kind of nostalgia about what used to be?
FS: Because they are so unspecific, again, readers tended to read into them what they wanted to see. There are loads of references to rocks and oak trees and streams, so it is definitely the Highlands but very, very unspecific. Having said that, it is an emotional landscape, too. So when you get a fallen oak it is a fallen oak, but also always a reference to bereavement or some such sentiment. I think there was a kind of openness about it that enabled people to interpret the poems as they wanted.
Landscape artists, not just Turner, but also Thomas Girtin and others, were all responding to Macpherson’s writing and painting ‘Ossianic’ landscapes. There’s a lot of mist, light effect… I think in the late-18th century when artists were starting to paint outside for the first time, you know, actually going out and getting wet and really looking at the landscape, it was a text that spoke to them in a very direct way. When we read the poems today that idea might seem a bit odd to us. We can’t really comprehend the impact of something like, say, an invocation of the night’s sky, because things like that have just become so normal since the Romantic period. But at the time people were so excited about it!
O: Let’s talk a little more about James Macpherson in particular. I remember reading somewhere that his contemporaries described him as boastful, saying that he would bait people and be quite confrontational. But then it seems that there is another side to him emerging here, one that laments fallen grace and his fallen people. I wonder what you make of that, or what you make of him as a man?
FS: Well, I think he is quite enigmatic because we don't have much material on him.He was definitely a flamboyant figure when he arrived in London, but I think we also have to remember that he was very young. He was in his early 20s when he came from the Highlands, which would have been incredibly depressed after the ‘45 rebellion. He was very brilliant, which is why he did so well—he got into Aberdeen University, he was a very good Classical scholar—and suddenly, at the age of 23, he’s rocketed into intellectual society in Edinburgh and then London, being widely toasted and celebrated. It’s a bit like a popstar from a humble background who suddenly has everyone telling them they’re the greatest thing that’s ever lived. That kind of attention is bound to have an effect on you.
You get the sense that on the one hand, he is celebrating his fame and wealth. But on the other, there is some awkwardness and insecurity perhaps. He had close friends—he was good friends with James Boswell—which also tells you something. He was quick to rise above himself, especially when faced with the things Johnson was publishing about him.
Overall he had quite a successful career. He ended up as an MP, he was working in America for a bit, in Florida, he was commissioned to write the continuation of David Hume’s History of England… Really quite an established figure. Do you know he’s buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poet’s Corner? That really shows you how he was regarded at the time. Certainly, he wasn’t conventional. He had plenty of mistresses and girlfriends, loads of children. If you were being moralistic you might say he was a hedonist. But he must be viewed in the context of his time: what sort of behaviour was normal for a gentleman of that period?
One of the things many people don't realise about him was that he was a native Gaelic speaker. That was one of the things that took me the longest to figure out, because the opinion that he was just ‘making stuff up’ in the Ossian poems is so pervasive. The truth is, even when he moved away from Scotland, he carried on speaking in Gaelic and writing private letters in Gaelic throughout the rest of his life.
O: Yes, I definitely read that he didn't even speak Gaelic! So that is interesting.
FS: Yes, exactly. It’s a common misconception, but it’s not true. You only have to look at historical linguistic geography to see where the Highland line was in 1736—when he was born—and realise that everybody there was Gaelic-speaking. When he went on his collecting trips to the Highlands, going around Skye, Benbecula and so on, he could just sit down and chat to people. It wasn’t like somebody coming up from London who didn’t know the language. When Boswell and Johnson went, Johnson couldn't speak to anybody except the lairds and ministers who spoke English—meaning he got a very different idea of what's going on. Whereas all of Macpherson’s family still lived in the Highlands, there was a second branch of Clan Macpherson on Skye, he was going around staying with friends and relatives. There was this very clear network of people of which he was very much a part of.
Macpherson also rescued a lot of valuable medieval manuscripts, like the Book of the Dean of Lismore, which is one of the most important Gaelic manuscripts we have. It is quite likely, because of the way things were in the Highlands after Culloden, that they would have been destroyed, were it not for his intervention. So whatever people think of his poetry, just in terms of rescuing the heritage, he is a very important figure.
O: We’ve spoken about Samuel Johnson a bit here and there, who was one of the harshest critics of Ossian and Macpherson. Do you think Johnson’s rejection of the poems had something to do with class? That there was perhaps some scepticism towards the idea that the oral tradition could match the sophistication of the written one?
FS: Yes, absolutely. You still get a bit of prejudice about that today, but it was certainly massive in the 18th century. Macpherson had that prejudice himself, which is why his legacy is so complicated. It was partly why he turned the ballads and stories into this classical epic, because he thought the oral tradition tended to destroy things or water them down or make fun of great heroes. He was trying to restore and elevate the stories to what he assumed was their ‘original’ form: that is this series of pristine, highbrow poems as they ‘would have been’ in the third century. Or so he thought, wrongly.
I think that sort of suspicion of the oral tradition was huge in Johnson, too, because if you look at his dictionary, he only defined words according to how they had been used in written texts. And that is still the principle of the Oxford English Dictionary today; words can’t go into it unless there is evidence of it in print. For Johnson, that meant using sources like Shakespeare, Dreyden and Milton to give examples of what a word meant. Essentially he was defining English as a written and ‘correct’ language, because it was in writing that it was going to have its lasting monument. Whereas slang, dialect, the way people speak is just changing all the time—as we know it does! We’re all aware of how language works like that.
This was also part of the problem why Macpherson couldn’t produce any written texts of his translations, too, because there was no one ‘original’ source. He was piecing things together from all over the place. Sometimes adding his own bits, yes, but that doesn’t mean he was just making it all up from nothing.
O: Do you think if Macpherson had come out saying that the Ossian poems were his interpretation of oral stories, rather than some authentic ‘original’ work, that he would have been better accepted?
FS: Probably, though I think he was in a difficult position. You have to remember how the whole thing started. He meets John Hume—who was quite a successful playwright—at the bowling green in Moffat, and they start chatting about Highland poetry; the next day Macpherson presents him with some of his early translations. Off Hume goes back to Edinburgh with the translations, to which everyone says: ‘this is marvellous!’ Very soon all the important members of the Scottish intellectual circles get together, invite Macpherson for a feast, give him lots of money and say: ‘Right, we want our epic, off you go.’ By that point I think it would have been difficult for him to say it was ‘just’ an interpretation! He wasn’t the first person who gave powerful people exactly what they wanted on the promise of a generous subscription.
O: How did other people respond to the poems?
FS: That question goes in different ways. Once Macpherson had produced his text, there were dozens of creative responses to it. For example Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, had many references to Ossian. People who read Ossian also turned it into heroic couplets and wrote their own versions of it. But then there is also an interesting reaction from antiquarians in Wales and Ireland, who felt that Macpherson had taken far too many liberties. So they started translating Celtic poetry themselves, they started looking at manuscripts and tried to produce their own—as they saw it, ‘authentic’—versions of the Celtic tradition. Then you have people like William Sharp with the Celtic Revival in the late 19th century, who took the stories and did their own thing with them—which of course was what Yeats was doing, too, from the Irish side of things. So it carries on.
O: I feel like all these questions around authenticity and what counts as honest expression have become quite pressing these days. We’re obsessed with what’s the truth and calling out what we don’t agree with as being ‘untruthful’—or fake news.
FS: I think the whole idea of myth is very current, certainly. It tends to get used in a rather lazy way of just meaning fake when actually myths often embody truths but in a different sort of narrative. I think that is one of the reasons why the poems are so powerful, because they convey something very truthful. There was so much fuss about exactly which word was translated from which text that the whole thing got dismissed as fake, when actually it speaks to so many different readers in different countries because it is tapping into something authentic. Grief, loss, and a sense of an ancient culture being destroyed.
O: As it was happening at the time, too, with the Jacobites.
FS: Yes, exactly.
O: I think it’s interesting how no matter how often people try to dismiss or discredit Macpherson and Ossian, he keeps coming back in different ways. In a way simply ignoring the poems doesn’t get rid of them, either. It just goes underground for a while or changes shape.
FS: You see, the impulse to dismiss it is indicative of its power. You don’t need to mock something or make fun of it, if it’s nothing. I think if you dismiss people’s emotional commitment to certain things you really dismiss at your own peril, especially as a government. It’s not wise to make fun of things other people hold dear.
O: Do you think anything like the Ossian ‘scandal’ could happen today?
FS: It depends. You would need a culture that is being repressed by another regime, and a people who are making claims about something they have produced, but are questioned about the legitimacy of their claims… I don't think a poem, at least, would get that sort of attention nowadays.
O: I think that question of legitimacy is a really key one here. Who gets to speak on behalf of the marginalised? It seems like Macpherson is really complicated because, like you say, he spoke the language, he was born there, he had family there, and yet there’s this sense that he was doing it for his own gain. There are all these different pros and cons that would come into judging him.
FS: I think it is questionable whether judging people is the right thing to do here, because if you happen to be in a situation where your local area was being changed and repressed, and you are very bright and able but have no prospects at all, you too may take up the opportunity to better your life, if it came along. Questions about authenticity are usually from people who think that someone else ought to be treating their local culture or village in a particular way, when they themselves are in London or zapping around elsewhere. It’s a tricky argument.
O: This has me thinking... In those centuries when a very select few from rural communities were educated, it was not unusual for people like Macpherson to take the onus of preserving their heritage or bringing it into a format that could then be disseminated further. It is very contemporary to ask whether they were right in exercising that kind of authorship. How else do you ensure that knowledge stays relevant going forward? If the texts he wrote did not exist, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.
FS: I completely agree with that. That’s why I felt I had to find out as much about the situation in which Macpherson was born and brought up, in order to make sense of what he had done. His story was far more complicated than it was being made out to be. In another time and place people might have been saying, ‘gosh, he’s done really well,’ and be commending him for what he achieved. The idea that he should’ve just stayed put is a questionable one for me. Some people are happy to do that, others want to see the world—and that’s quite normal.