James MacPherson : romancing the Gael : the literary, cultural and historiographical context of "The Poems of Ossian"
This thesis locates James Macpherson's The Poems of Ossian (1760-1763) within a range of contexts in order to come to a more fully integrated conception of text in context than has frequently been the case previously. It argues that Macpherson scholarship has been dogged by issues of authenticity and cultural identity one step removed from the works Macpherson wrote. This has led to a situation in which Ossian is viewed as an important cultural artefact but one whose textual source, and therefore significance, has frequently been misrepresented and misunderstood. Having delineated the critical heritage of the Poems in these terms I shall offer four interrelated contextualised readings of Ossian which aim to reconcile and reunite the text and its most valuable contexts. I locate Macpherson's poems within what I shall argue is their most compelling contemporary aesthetic context, that of the discourse of Sentiment and Sensibility by suggesting that the grand compromise the poems offe r between action and sentimental virtue proves an illusion. I then place Ossian within the generic context of romance, arguing that current understanding of romance offers compelling ways of understanding both Ossian's relationship to its sources and the world of the poems. In reaching an understanding about why Macpherson was unable to assent to the romance label himself, the chapter discusses the state of scholarship and ideological status of romance at the time. A historiographical context is offered by an analysis of Ossian and Macpherson's more theoretical prose in the light of that of Adam Ferguson in order to define more clearly Ossian's relationship to the Scottish Enlightenment's dominant historiographical paradigms and their ideological significance. Finally a wider cultural context is explored by considering Ossian as writing about defeat, and about the formulations of defeat created by both victors and losers. This chapter ties together many of the dimensions discussed in earlier chapters and comes to a subtly articulated conception of Ossian's cultural locale, one which stresses the instability and ambivalence of Macpherson's position.