James Macpherson

1736 - 1796


The Poems of Ossian










WITHOUT increaſing his genius, the author may have improved his language, in the eleven years that the following poems have been in the hands of the public. Errors in diction might have been committed at twenty-four, which the experience of a riper age may remove; and ſome exuberances in imagery may be reſtrained with advantage, by a degree of judgment acquired in the progreſs of time. Impreſſed with this opinion, he ran over the whole with attention and accuracy; and he hopes he has brought the work to a ſtate of correctneſs which will preclude all future improvements.

The eagerneſs with which theſe poems have been received abroad, is a recompenſe for the coldneſs with which a few have affected to treat them at home. All the polite nations of Europe have tranſferred them into their reſpective languages; and they ſpeak of him who brought them to light, in terms that might flatter the vanity of one fond of flame. In a convenient indifference for a literary reputation, the author hears praiſe without being elevated, and ribaldry without being depreſſed. He has frequently ſeen the firſt beſtowed too precipitately; and the latter is ſo faithleſs to its purpoſe, that it is often the only index to merit in the preſent age.

Though the taſte which defines genius by the points of the compaſs, is a ſubject fit for mirth in itſelf, it is often a ſerious matter in the ſale of the work. When rivers define the limits of abilities, as well as the boundaries of countries, a writer may meaſure his ſucceſs by the latitude under which he was born. It was to avoid a part of this inconvenience, that the author is ſaid by ſome, who ſpeak without any authority, to nave aſcribed his own productions to another name. If this was the caſe, he was but young in the art of deception. When he placed the poet in antiquity, the tranſlator ſhould have been born on this ſide of the Tweed.

Theſe obſervations regard only the frivolous in matters of literature; theſe, however, form a majority of every age and nation. In this countrymen of genuine taſte abound; but their ſtill voice is drowned in the clamors of a multitude, who judge by faſhion of poetry, as of dreſs. The truth is, to judge aright, requires almoſt as much genius as to write well; and good critics are as rare as great poets. Though two hundred thouſand Romans ſtood up when Virgil came into the theatre, Varius only could correct the Æneid. He that obtains fame muſt receive it through mere faſhion; and gratify his vanity with the applauſe of men, of whoſe judgment he cannot approve.

The following poems, it muſt be confeſſed, are more calculated to pleaſe perſons of exquiſite feelings of heart, than thoſe who receive all their impreſſions by the car. The novelty of cadence, in what is called a proſe verſion, thou h not deſtitute of harmony, will not, to common readers, ſupply the abſence of the frequent returns of rhyme. This was the opinion of the writer himſelf, though he yielded to the judgment of others, in a mode, which preſented freedom and dignity of expreſſion, inſtead of fetters, which cramp the thought, whilſt the harmony of language is preſerved. His attention was to publiſh inverſe.—The making of poetry, like any other handicraft, may be learned by induſtry; and he had ſerved his apprenticeſhip, though in ſecret, to the Muſes.

It is, however, doubtful, whether the harmony which theſe poems might derive from rhyme, even in much better hands than thoſe of the tranſlator, could atone for the ſimplicity and energy which they would loſe. The determination of this point ſhall be left to the readers of this preface. The following is the beginning of a poem, tranſlated from the Norſe to the Gaelic language; and, from the latter, tranſferred into Engliſh. The verſe took little more time to the writer than the proſe; and he himſelf is doubtful (if he has ſucceeded in either) which of them is the moſt literal verſion.


Fragment of a northern tale.


WHERE Harold, with golden hair, ſpread o'er Lochlinn his high commands; where, with juſtice, he ruled the tribes, who ſunk, ſubdued, beneath his ſword; abrupt riſes Gormal in ſnow! the tempeſts roll dark on his ſides, but calm, above, his vaſt forehead appears. White-iſſuing from the ſkirt of his ſtorms, the troubled torrents pour down his ſides. Joining, as they roar along, they bear the Torno, in foam, to the main.

Gray on the bank, and far from men, half-covered, by ancient pines, from the wind, a lonely pile exalts its head, long ſhaken by the ſtorms of the north. To this fled Sigurd, fierce in fight, from Harold the leader of armies, when fate had brightened his ſpear with renown: when he conquered in that rude field, where Lulan's warriors fell in blood, or roſe in terror on the waves of the main. Darkly ſat the gray-haired chief; yet ſorrow dwelt not in his ſoul. But when the warrior thought on the paſt, his proud heart heaved againſt his ſide: forth flew his ſword from its place: he wounded Harold in all the winds.

One daughter, and only one, but bright in form and mild of ſoul, the laſt beam of the ſetting line, remained to Sigurd of all his race. His ſon, in Lulan's battle ſlain, beheld not his father's flight from his foes. Nor finiſhed ſeemed the ancient line! The ſplendid beauty of bright-eyed Fithon covered ſtill the fallen king with renown. Her arm was white like Gormal's ſnow; her boſom whiter than the foam of the main, when roll the waves beneath the wrath of the winds. Like two ſtars were her radiant eyes, like two ſtars that riſe on the deep, when dark tumult embroils the night. Pleaſant are their beams aloft, as ſtately they aſcend the ſkies.

Nor Odin forgot, in aught, the maid. Her form ſcarce equalled her lofty mind. Awe moved around her ſtately ſteps. Heroes loved-but ſhrunk away in their fears. Yet, midſt the pride of all her charms, her heart was ſoft and her ſoul was kind. She ſaw the mournful with tearful eyes. Tranſient darkneſs aroſe in her breaſt. Her joy was in the chaſe. Each morning, when doubtful light wandered dimly on Lulan's waves, ſhe rouſed the reſounding woods to Gormal's head of ſnow. Nor moved the maid alone, &c.


The same versified.


Where fair-hair'd Harold, o'er Scandinia reign'd,

And held with juſtice what his valor gain'd ,

Sevo, in ſnow, his rugged forehead rears,

A o'er the warfare of his ſtorms, appears

Abrupt and vaſt.—White wandering down his ſide

A thouſand torrents, gleaming as they glide,

Unite below, and, pouring through the plain,

Flurry the troubled Torno to the main.

Gray, on the bank, remote from human kind,

By aged pines half-ſhelter'd from the wind,

A homely manſion roſe, of antique form,

For ages batter'd by the polar ſtorm.

To this, fierce Sigurd fled from Norway's lord,

When fortune ſettled on the warrior's ſword,

In that rude field, where Suecia's chiefs were ſlain,

Or forc'd to wander o'er the Bothnic main.

Dark was his life, yet undiſturb'd with woes,

But when the memory of defeat aroſe,

His proud heart ſtruck his ſide; he graſp'd the ſpear,

And wounded Harold in the vacant air.

One daughter only, but of form divine,

The laſt fair beam of the departing line,

Remain'd of Sigurd's race. His warlike ſon

Fell in the ſhock which overturn'd the throne.

Nor deſolate the houſe! Fionia's charms

Suſtain'd the glory which they loſt in arms.

White was her arm as Sevo's lofty ſnow,

Her boſom fairer than the waves below

When heaving to the winds. Her radiant eyes

Like two bright ſtars, exulting as they riſe,

O'er the dark tumult of a ſtormy night,

And gladd'ning heaven with their majeſtic light.

In nought is Odin to the maid unkind,

Her form ſcarce equals her exalted mind;

Awe leads her ſacred ſteps where'er they move,

And mankind worſhip where they dare not love.

But mix'd with ſoftneſs was the virgin's pride,

Her heart bad feeling, which her eyes denied;

Her bright tears ſtarted at another's woes,

While tranſient darkneſs on her ſoul aroſe.

The chaſe ſhe lov'd; when morn with doubtful beam

Came dimly wand'ring o'er the Bothnic ſtream.

On Sevo's ſounding ſides ſhe bent the bow,

And rouſ'd his foreſts to his head of ſnow.

Nor moved the maid alone, &c.


One of the chief improvements, in this edition, is the care taken in arranging the poems in the order of time; ſo as to form a kind of regular hiſtory of the age to which they relate. The writer has now reſigned them forever to their fate. That they have been well received by the public appears from an extenſive ſale; that they ſhall continue to be well received, he may venture to propheſy, without the gift of that inſpiration to which poets lay claim. Through the medium of verſion upon verſion, they retain, in foreign languages, their native character of ſimplicity and energy. Genuine poetry, like gold, loſes little, when properly tranſfuſed; but when a compoſition cannot bear the teſt of a literal verſion, it is a counterfeit which ought not to paſs current. The operation muſt, however, be performed with ſkilful hands. A tranſlator who cannot equal his original, is incapable of expreſſing its beauties.


London, Aug. 15, 1773.