James Macpherson

British writer and politician

James Macpherson (Gaelic: Seumas MacMhuirich or Seumas Mac a' Phearsain) (October 27 1736February 17 1796) was a Scottish poet and literary hoaxer. His supposed translations from poems by the ancient Highland bard Ossian, sensationally successful in their day, were largely forgeries, though with an admixture of traditional Gaelic material.


Page numbers refer to The Poems of Ossian (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1847).
  • The people bend before me. I turn the battle in the field of the brave. I look on the nations, and they vanish: my nostrils pour the blast of death. I come abroad on the winds: the tempests are before my face. But my dwelling is calm, above the clouds; the fields of my rest are pleasant.
    • "Carric-thura", p. 147
  • Whence are thy beams, O sun! thy everlasting light? Thou comest forth in thy awful beauty; the stars hide themselves in the sky; the moon, cold and pale, sinks in the western wave; but thou thyself movest alone.
    • "Carthon", p. 163.
  • Thou shalt sleep in thy clouds, careless of the voice of the morning. Exult then, O sun, in the strength of thy youth!
    • "Carthon", p. 164.
  • I was a lovely tree, in thy presence, Oscar, with all my branches round me; but thy death came like a blast from the desert, and laid my green head low.
    • "Croma", p. 178.
  • The stream and the wind roar aloud. I hear not the voice of my love! Why delays my Salgar, why the chief of the hill, his promise? Here is the rock, and here the tree! here is the roaring stream! Thou didst promise with night to be here. Ah! whither is my Salgar gone? With thee I would fly from my father; with thee, from my brother of pride.
    • "The Songs of Selma", p. 209.
  • Where art thou, beam of light? Hunters, from the mossy rock, saw ye the blue-eyed fair?
  • I look down from my height on nations
    And they become ashes before me.
    • Carric, quoted in Thoreau, "Life without principle"


  • Dr. Blair, relying on the internal evidence of their antiquity, asked Dr. Johnson whether he thought any man of a modern age could have written such poems? Johnson replied, "Yes, Sir, many men, many women, and many children."
  • Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.
    • Dr. Johnson, quoted in James Boswell Life of Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989) p. 1207.
  • Sir, what is Poetry? Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is: but it is not easy to tell what it is.
    • Samuel Johnson, letter to James Macpherson, 20 June 1778. (Quotation used as epigram to Władysław Tatarkiewicz, "Dwa pojęcia poezji" ("Two Concepts of Poetry"), in Tatarkiewicz's book, Parerga, Warsaw, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1978, pp. 20–38.)
  • The tender and the sublime emotions of the mind were never before so wrought up by the human hand. I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest poet that has ever existed.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to Charles McPherson, February 25, 1773, cited from H. A. Washington (ed.) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853) vol. 1, pp. 195-6.
  • Par une de ces journées sombres qui attristent la fin de l'année, et que rend encore plus mélancoliques le souffle glacé du vent du Nord, écoutez, en lisant Ossian, la fantastique harmonie d'une harpe éolienne balancée au sommet d'un arbre dépouillé de verdure, et vous pourrez éprouver un sentiment profond de tristesse, un désir vague et infini d'une autre existence, un dégoût immense de celle-ci.
    • Some gloomy autumn day, when the dreary north wind is howling, read Ossian to the accompaniment of the weird moans of an Æolian harp hung in the leafless branches of a tree, and you will experience a feeling of intense sadness, an infinite yearning for another state of existence, an intense disgust with the present.
    • Hector Berlioz Mémoires, ch. 39 [1]; Eleanor Holmes, Rachel Holmes and Ernest Newman (trans.) Memoirs of Hector Berlioz from 1803 to 1865 (New York: Dover, 1966) pp. 156-7.
  • He produced a work of art which by its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature.
  • One is tempted to call them works of genius; they are quite Homeric in their internal unity, purity of phrasing, clear, ringing music of language and dramatic coloring.

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