About the Project
This project aims to make available the various editions of the sequence of eighteenth-century works known collectively as the Ossian poems. Initially presented by Scottish writer James Macpherson as ‘fragments' of original manuscripts he had found on journeys around the Highlands of Scotland, the publication of his Fragments of Ancient Poetry in 1760 was a profound success. ‘Except the Bible and Shakespeare, there is not any book that sells better than Ossian' (George Chalmers, 17 July 1805, in Stafford 1998, 171). Macpherson's portrayal of his poems as ‘fragments' of a lost Celtic epic fed into, and stimulated, his audience's appetite for antiquarian sensation. Ostensibly translated from a Gaelic oral culture for the edification of a polite English readership, Macpherson's poems were dogged by controversy over their origins: were they genuine translations? Where were the original manuscripts? Where was the rest of this primitive epic? Yet while the question of literary authenticity has coloured the legacy of the Ossian poems, it did not prevent them from achieving international success. Indeed, the Ossian phenomenon transformed European literature. Its impact was profound, international and long lasting. In many ways Ossian shaped the Romantic Movement in Britain, Europe, and beyond. The style and subject matter of the Ossian poems shaped the Celtic and Gaelic Revivals, influenced American poets such as Emerson, Poe and Whitman, and inspired music by Mendelssohn and Schubert.
After the waning of the Romantic Movement, the perceived inauthenticity of Macpherson's poetry led to a century of neglect and disregard. It was only in the 1990s that literary scholars began to bring sustained attention to reinvestigating Ossian. Fiona Stafford's study The Sublime Savage (1988) reignited interest in Macpherson's work. Over a decade of intense academic activity followed, with Howard Gaskill's collection Ossian Revisited (1991), and Stafford and Gaskill's From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations (1998), Colin Kidd's Subverting Scotland's Past (1993), and Katie Trumpener's Bardic Nationalism (1997) all contributing to the revival of interest in Macpherson's work. Revisionist literary history rehabilitated the Ossian poems by emphasising aesthetic value above questions of authorship and stressing the cultural importance for Scottish, British, and European Romanticism.
Yet despite this, the Ossian poems remained out of print until 1996, when Edinburgh University Press published a scholarly edition of The Poems of Ossian edited by Howard Gaskill. This important volume was instrumental in making Macpherson’s poems available to a new audience of readers and scholars. The edition notes that the textual and publication history of Ossian does not constitute “a single fixed entity” (xxii-xxiii). Thus, Gaskill’s editorial stewardship and Fiona Stafford’s introduction posit a mutable text whose poems act as “creative catalysts for the reader” (xvi). Gaskill’s editorial commentary testifies to the challenges of representing the shifting versions of Macpherson’s poetry in a single-volume printed edition. Stafford’s characterisation of Ossian as “pre-eminently a text of the margins” (viii) refers to its role in depicting and negotiating “oppositional cultures” (viii), but it might equally apply to the complex relationships between its texts and paratexts. Gaskill’s decision to move footnotes to endnotes presents a fruitful occasion for considering the essential relationship between the poems and Macpherson’s annotations, and the experiences effected by the readers’ navigations of the different printed volumes. This volume selects the 1765 Works of Ossian as its copy-text and argues for its textual, paratextual, and cultural centrality within the corpus, but its editor notes that the constraints of the printed medium dictate that variants between the several editions of the Ossian poems must be “selective” (xxv): whether or not a textual variant would show in a translation is a guiding criterion for inclusion (xxv). This textual fluidity--like the work’s adoption by different reading communities, Stafford notes--”indicates its resistance to any fixed interpretation” (xv). As a work that grants readers and scholar the “opportunity to enter the text” and “fill out the narrative gaps with their own stories” (xvi), Ossian endures with a creatively dense and richly provocative legacy.
About Ossian Online
This project aims to make the textual genetics of Ossian available to a new generation of readers and researchers. In contrast to the printed form, the affordances of the online archive allow the reader to view and compare the multiple incarnations and permutations of Macpherson's corpus—from the first edition of Fragments in 1760 to the 'carefully corrected and greatly improved' (Macpherson) 1773 edition of The Poems of Ossian. Thus, Ossian Online permits readers to actively select between editions, to view the differences between editions, and to make analyses and interpretations informed by variation and revision. Ossian Online will liberate the work from the fixity of a scholarly print edition, in which the compromises of a critical apparatus may impede readers' grasp of the full extent of the textual variants and authorial revisions. While the confines of print medium precluded the inclusion of a full textual apparatus, the online edition contains the capacity and means to visualise variation in an effective and enabling fashion. More importantly, the online edition will facilitate the interdisciplinary annotation the work deserves—as well as making the full texts of all editions of the works available for the purposes of reading, teaching, and learning.
Though much discussed, Ossian is still rarely read: Ossian Online will make the primary source available in a freely accessible scholarly format. The project will stimulate further research on this key work by providing an innovative online research environment. By creating a collaborative network of contributors inside the academy and beyond, Ossian Online will open Macpherson's work to a genuinely interdisciplinary and transnational community of readers and researchers.
Rebecca Barr is Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her research interests are in the literature of the long eighteenth century, particularly the novels and visual culture of mid- century. She is currently preparing a collection of essays, Ireland and Masculinity in History, with Sean Brady (Birkbeck) and Jane McGaughey (Concordia).
David Kelly is Research Technologist for the Moore and Whitaker Institutes at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Before joining NUI Galway, David established and ran a web development company, and worked as a researcher in Information Systems at University College Cork.
Justin Tonra is University Fellow in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has research interests in literature of the Romantic period, digital humanities, book history, and textual scholarship. He has previously worked at University College London (as Research Associate on Transcribe Bentham) and the University of Virginia. His work has been published in Literary and Linguistic Computing and European Romantic Review, and he is co-editor of the recent collection Thomas Moore: Texts, Contexts, Hypertext (2013).
Meaghan Connell completed a PhD in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway in 2014. She worked as a Research Assistant on the preparation of the texts of Fingal and Temora for Ossian Online.
Ioannis Doukas is a PhD candidate in Classics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He worked as a Research Assistant on the preparation of the texts of Fingal, Temora, and Works of Ossian for Ossian Online.
Siobhán Purcell is a PhD candidate in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She worked as a Research Assistant on the preparation of the text of Temora for Ossian Online.
The members of the project would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for their advice and assistance:
Marie Boran; Daniel Carey; Evelyn Flanagan; Ian Gadd; Anette I. Hagan; Elaine Harrington; Mike Lynch; Jerome McGann; Dafydd Moore; Crónán Ó Doibhlin; Eugene Roche; Sean Ryder.
Early Printed Books, Trinity College Dublin; Special Collections, University College Cork; Special Collections, University College Dublin; Moore Institute; National Library of Scotland.