21 Chapter Seventeen “Too Much of a Modern Beau”: Macpherson’s Iliad and the Nationalist Epic

Noor Shawaf

James Macpherson translated Homer’s Iliad in 1773 “verbatim,” as he claims in his preface, in an attempt to do justice to the epic and to “render [this] version useful to such, as may wish to study the original, through an English medium.”[1] Macpherson emphasizes the value of a literal translation to recover the “original” epic, and so reacts against translations that no more than “paraphrase” Homer, for the benefit of the “less learned part of mankind” whose curiosity stems from Homer’s “high reputation.”[2] He felt that modern taste in poetry, too enamored of florid stylistics, was an impediment to a good translation of Homer and sacrificed the work’s “magnificent simplicity”––a veiled censure of Pope’s Iliad. Macpherson justified his criticism on the grounds that “the best translators have not, in short, occupied the whole ground…They have rendered the father of poetry, in a great measure, their own: And in stripping him of his ancient weeds, they have made him too much of a modern beau.”[3] Such a provocative thrust marks the historical and political relevance Macpherson assigned to poetry (his poetic project being centered on establishing a Scottish literary tradition), and the exertions he felt necessary to restore poetry. What is obscured in Macpherson’s remarks, however, is the extent to which his translation of the Iliad was an effort to vindicate the misrepresentations and poetic project encompassed by his Poems of Ossian, wherein Macpherson transformed himself into the persona of the ancient Celtic bard Ossian by clothing himself in “ancient weeds.” The rejection of modernity and its fripperies and the need to grasp “the whole ground” produced an Iliad that eschewed English literary convention in favor of the “original.” The context of Macpherson’s Ossianic “originals” is necessary to understand his undertaking of the Iliad.

Macpherson purportedly completed his translation of the Iliad in a few months using Samuel Clarke’s 1729 edition of the Greek text, having studied Greek at Marischal College and Aberdeen University.[4] This edition of the Iliad was published in two volumes with a preface but without notes or “critical dissertations,” as Macpherson states in the his own remarks, because Homer is “sufficiently clear” and other authors have “exhausted” further commentary.[5] Although the edition sold well, it was not well received by critics whose curiosity and suspicion was piqued by the scandal of the Poems of Ossian.[6] The critical response prompted Macpherson to release another edition in the same year which included Greek and English on facing pages, as well as excluding thirteen books of the Iliad to make room for a Latin translation and Samuel Clarke’s notes in an effort to enhance the edition’s pedagogical use while also defending his translation. However, the primary significance of presenting the work unadorned bespeaks Macpherson’s investment in the primitivism popular among eighteenth century Scottish intellectual circles, evidence of the influence of his Aberdeen professor Thomas Blackwell’s theory of epic origin. In his Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer, written in 1735, Blackwell claimed that poetry is “the natural language of primitive man…and only among primitive men was genius to be found.”[7]

For the primitivists, who believed modern corrupt society distanced man from his natural and more benevolent state, a historicist approach to literature through the “rhetoric of primitive language and the recovery and rehabilitation of ‘primitive’ literatures via antiquarian research”[8] was put to the service of nationalism. As a socio-political approach, primitivism could make the claim that if genius could be found in ancient Greek culture, then other primitive cultures, as with the Celts, might have produced genius equally worthy of praise; David Hume crystallized this idea in his essay “Of National Characters”: “our island has produced as great men, either for action or learning, as Greece or Italy has to boast of.”[9] The English accusations of Scottish backwardness, then, could be construed as a lack of appreciation for such genius.[10] Establishing, or rather re-establishing, Scottish traditional culture was of paramount importance in the face of England’s forceful suppression, such that in 1760 Macpherson was commissioned by a group of intelligentsia, led by Hugh Blair, to trek the Highlands in order to collect and record Gaelic verse and ballads, “old heroic poetry…as an attempt to repair some of the damage of the Highlands sustained in the wake of the Jacobite Risings.”[11] It was assumed that the oral customs he was meant to document, ostensibly unbroken for centuries, were the products of an observed Highland “veneration for age and tradition” that was in keeping with “antiquarian spirit of the classicists.”[12]

The results of the expedition lead to the publication of the poems Fingal and Temora, considered together as the Poems of Ossian, and Macpherson presented them as translations from ancient Gaelic of an epic poem composed by Ossian, “a Celtic Homer––a blind bard of the third century, whose great epic described the successful defeat of an invading army.”[13] Ossian, in fact, was an affectation of Macpherson and his “translations” were interpretations of the fragments he collected and then interwove into an imaginative, cohering epic. As Fiona Stafford explains in The Sublime Savage, “for Macpherson, ancient poetry was painfully separate from contemporary literature, and should be brought into the modern world with a suitably dignified style.”[14] By dint of his adherence to the primitivist contention of disparate but similar noble ancient cultures, Macpherson believed, echoing Hume, that “Celtic society… was very similar to that of Ancient Greece, so why shouldn’t Caledonia have had her Homer?”[15] Ossian, then, as Macpherson’s alter ego, is a narrator of unblemished wisdom and effective but simple artistry. Macpherson assumed that the fragments he found must have been remnants of an epic so that he viewed his task as “sympathetic restoration” to the supposed original, “rather than as a painstaking translation of the miscellaneous mass.”[16] Some passages of The Poems of Ossian borrowed from the Bible, from Milton, and even from Pope’s translation of the Iliad, which Macpherson would go on to criticize, and the whole composition follows many characteristic plot points of the Iliad; the work is not in verse but in an unorthodox “measured prose” intended to suggest the sound of the Gaelic.

The Poems of Ossian, published over the years 1761 and 1763, achieved instant popularity in Scotland and soon across Europe.[17] Their instant popularity reflected Macpherson’s effective representation of archaic heroism and “uncorrupted civic practices,”[18] which fed into the growing desire for the adventure and imagination of ancient poetry that emerged at the end of the Enlightenment. This widespread resurgence of interest in Greek antiquity was heralded by Pope’s Iliad, such that, “in Scotland, ‘the Grecian Taste’ held sway [exemplified by] Hume’s early preference for Demosthenes over Cicero.”[19] Macpherson was self-conscious of this influence in his prefatory dissertation to Temora: “If…in the form of his poems, and in several passages of his diction, [Ossian] resembles Homer, the similarity must proceed from Nature, the original from which both drew their ideas.”[20] The primitivist urge to view all ancient cultures in the model of classical Greece necessarily allied the epic form with the virtues of originality and liberty, elevated Scotland’s cultural claims, and also foreshadowed the beginnings of Romanticism’s fascinations with classicism and nationalism. National sentiments were central to the debate the Ossianic epic stirred, for “the English were reluctant to credit the ‘discovery’ as significant in any way; the Scots were too eager to see it as significant in every way.”[21] The Poems of Ossian were championed by William Duff, William Hazlitt, and even Napoleon[22] but they also courted swift controversy over the authenticity of the “translations.” Hume, an early supporter of Macpherson, came to consider the epic an “impudent forgery,” and the clamor of skeptics prompted Macpherson to stop responding to inquiries and to refuse access to his source manuscripts.[23]

The dispute culminated in Macpherson choosing to issue a new edition of The Poems of Ossian in 1773, shortly before he published this translation of the Iliad, with a revised sequence of poems and a new preface that highlighted the work’s popularity and attributed all criticisms to politically-motivated bias against the Scots:

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 to have 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.[24]

Macpherson’s stubborn insistence in the authenticity of Ossian reflects the cultural stakes of poetry in the eighteenth century as part of socio-political identity, for a culture with its own Homer could not suffer to be hegemonized by the English. Furthermore, the task of the translator in this context is predicated on preservation of “the original.” Macpherson delineates the role of the translator as steward in the 1773 preface when claiming “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…A translator, who cannot equal his original, is incapable of expressing its beauties.”[25] This contradictory conception of the translator as conduit to the original and, at the same time, as alchemist exposes Macpherson’s duplicity in his “translations” of The Poems of Ossian. His translation of the Iliad,by the same token, suffers too much from “transfusion.”

Macpherson’s impetus for translating the Iliad was to quiet his detractors by proving himself, and thereby his Ossianic sources, up to the task of a “literal” translation; he also wanted to validate the primitivist assertion of commonality between ancient citvilizations. As in The Poems of Ossian, Macpherson chose to employ “measured prose” for his translation, and, so as to avoid the “cadence of English heroic verse…he has measured the whole in his ear…guided by the sound of the original Greek.” He also used the notation invented for The Poems of Ossian to aid the sonic qualities: “To bring the eye of the reader to the assistance of his ear, where the pointing does not occasion a stop, the fall of the cadence is frequently marked, with a short line.”[26] Despite his fastidious efforts, Macpherson was charged with producing an Ossianic Iliad that, “violated the spirit of Homer’s poetry; and by trusting in current poetic diction, he doomed his experiment to failure.”[27] Any comparison between the two texts shows the similarities of syntax, diction, metaphoric structure and reductive tendency:

Wide, in Caracha’s echoing field, Carmal had poured his tribes. They were a dark ridge of waves; the grey-haired bards were like moving foam on their face. They kindled the strife around with their red-rolling eyes.––Nor alone were the dwellers of rocks; a son of Loda was there; a voice, in his own dark land, to call the ghosts from high.[28]

The wrath of the son of Peleus,––O goddess of song, unfold! The deadly wrath of Achilles: To Greece the source of many woes! Which peopled the regions of death,––with shades of heroes untimely slain: While pale they lad along the shore: Torn by beasts and birds of prey: But such was the will of Jove![29]

Hume reacted to Macpherson’s Iliad in a letter to Adam Smith, saying, “it is hard to tell whether the attempt or the execution be worse.”[30] Macpherson’s “design” as stated in the preface, “to give Homer as he really is: And to endeavor, as much as possible, to make him speak English, with his own dignified simplicity and energy,”[31] failed as he renegotiated the terms between author and translator, “original” and modernity.

Macpherson both challenges and lauds Homer in his preface. He praises Homer for having combined “the gravity of the historian with the dignity of the poet, and the orator’s arguments,” as if to frame Homer via the primitivists’ literary-national project. He admires Homer for showing “Nature, rather characteristically, than adorned: And when he ascends to the sublime, he chuses to shine, with an assemblage of great ideas, rather than with the picturesque attitudes of magnificent objects.”[32] Macpherson judges that what “still keeps Homer on the throne of epic poetry, lies in the judgment of his composition, and in the masterly preservation of his characters. He seems to have comprehended, at one view, his whole subject, before he entered, upon his narration.”[33] While the modern epic poet fails to “have graspt, in one thought, the whole fabric of his design,”[34] narrative and primarily structural unity is the test of poetic purity, recalling Macpherson’s simile likening poetry to gold in his 1773 preface to The Poems of Ossian, as well as the ethos behind his decision to unify the ancient Gaelic fragments he gathered into a cohesive epic. However, despite Homer’s position as “father” seated on the “throne of epic poetry,” Macpherson saw fit to enumerate his faults in the Iliad: “[Homer’s] fancy, though great, is still less than his good sense and judgment”;[35] “he is sometimes too minute and talkative…his battles, though varied, are too long”;[36] “his gods are frequently introduced, without a sufficient cause: And they seem, sometimes, to be employed only to deliver the poet himself, from difficulties.”[37] Macpherson defends his claims of Homer’s fallibilities by reminding the reader that “we ought to remember, that our Author was only a man: Had he committed no errors, we should cease to admire.”[38] Macpherson’s fashioning of Homer, as “an untutored singer who embodies the grandeur of his age,”[39] is incongruous with his attempt to instate Ossian as a true bard and not a figment.

As such, the substance of Macpherson’s challenge to Homer, and thereby the history of epopoeia, is based not on the perceived problems with the Iliad but with Homer’s station as “the almost undisputed monarch of verse.”[40] Macpherson lamented that all subsequent poetry has endeavored to emulate Homer such that he has had a hegemonic effect on literature, “an unrivalled despotism…is the regions of poetry,”[41] which he attributed to Homer’s fame born not only of merit but his lack of biography and “his judicious flattery of all the states of Greece [which] induced them to join, in his praise.”[42] Thus, it is Homer’s statelessness and supposedly intentional evasion of nationalist allegiance that Macpherson finds insidious. Macpherson’s rebukes the Romans, “the greatest, the most imitative of all nations…prudent in all their policy,” who in their embrace of Homer had “destroyed that originality of composition, for which even their own native force and elegance have scarce made amends,” rendering Virgil “an imitator.”[43] What Macpherson characterizes as the Roman imitation of the Greeks was so distasteful to him because he equates imitation with the restriction of the possibility of a regional literary heritage. He held to the belief of literature as an indispensable political and cultural tool, and certainly as a record of cultural history, such that the poet’s ambitions must be self-edification over imitation. Macpherson’s vehemence on Homer’s inflated stature contradicts his efforts to legitimize The Poems of Ossian by equating the fictional Ossian to Homer, and yet seems to correspond to his effort to produce a “verbatim” translation––if the translation fell anywhere short of literal, it would be imitative and ahistorical. Macpherson’s coupling of political history and poetry leads to a configuration of the poet as ersatz statesman and the translator as ersatz historian, despite the incredible license that he took with The Poems of Ossian (which he never avowed to), so that the creative impulse must be to both originality and preservation.



Keywords: Bible, Thomas Blackwell, Hugh Blair, Napoleon Bonaparte, Cicero, Samuel Clarke, Demosthenes, England, Gaelic, epic genre, Greece, Greek, David Hume, imitation, interpretation, Italian, Italy, Florence, Padua, Latin, James Macpherson, metaphor, John Milton, commentary, prefatory material, Alexander Pope, Romanticism, Scotland, Edinburgh, Adam Smith, Fiona Stafford, Virgil




Blair, Hugh. A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal. London: Printed for T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt, 1763.

deGategno, Paul J. James Macpherson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Folkenflik, Robert. “Macpherson, Chatterton, Blake and the Great Age of Literary Forgery.” The Centennial Review 18, no. 4 (1974): 378–91.

Gaskill, Howard. “Introduction: The Translator’s Ossian.” In Translation and Literature 22, no. 3 (2013): 293–301.

Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Edited by Eugene F. Miller. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1994.

Hume, David. The Letters of David Hume, vol. 2. Edited by J. Y. T. Greig. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Kraft, Elizabeth. “James Macpherson (27 October 1736–17 February 1796).” In Eighteenth-century British Poets: Second Series, edited by John Sitter, 204–13. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.

Macpherson, James. The Poems of Ossian: And Related Works. Edited by Howard Gaskill. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Moore, Dafydd. “The Ossianic Revival, James Beattie and Primitivism.” In vol. 2, The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, edited by Ian Brown, Thomas Owen Clancy, Susan Manning, and Murray Pittock, 90–98. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Potkay, Adam. The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Sher, Richard. “’Those Scotch Imposters and Their Cabal’: Ossian and the Scottish Enlightenment.” In Man and Nature: Proceedings of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Literature, edited by Roger L. Emerson, Gilles Girard, and Roseann Runte, 55–63. London, ON: University of Western Ontario, 1982.

Stafford, Fiona J. The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988.

  1. James Macpherson, trans., The Iliad of Homer (London: Printed for T. Becket and P.A. De Hondt, 1773), xix.
  2. Macpherson, Iliad, xiv–xv.
  3. Ibid., xvi.
  4. Paul J. deGategno, James Macpherson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989), 140.
  5. Macpherson, Iliad, xx.
  6. deGategno, James Macpherson, 140.
  7. Robert Folkenflik, “Macpherson, Chatterton, Blake and the Great Age of Literary Forgery,” The Centennial Review 18, no. 4 (1974): 384.
  8. Dafydd Moore, “The Ossianic Revival, James Beattie and Primitivism,” in vol. 2, The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, ed. Ian Brown, Thomas Owen Clancy, Susan Manning, and Murray Pittock (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007): 91.
  9. David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1994), 208.
  10. Hume’s ideas in “The Rise of the Arts and Sciences” (1742) on the kinds of society that historically fostered cultural advancement had a great impact on the political aspirations of the primitivists.
  11. James Macpherson, The Poems of Ossian and related works, ed. Howard Gaskill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), x.
  12. Macpherson, Poems of Ossian, xi.
  13. Ibid., xiii.
  14. Fiona J. Stafford, The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1988), 86.
  15. Stafford, Sublime Savage, 97.
  16. Macpherson, Poems of Ossian, xiv.
  17. An Italian translation was published in Padua in 1763, followed by translations into several other languages. See Stafford’s introduction to Poems of Ossian, v–viii.
  18. Adam Potkay, The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 192.
  19. Potkay, Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume, 195.
  20. Macpherson, Poems of Ossian, 206.
  21. Elizabeth Kraft, “James Macpherson (27 October 1736–17 February 1796),” in Eighteenth-century British Poets: Second Series, ed. John Sitter (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991), 206.
  22. Napoleon praised the Poems of Ossian as having “the purest and most animating principles and examples of true honor, courage and discipline, and all the heroic virtues that can possibly exist.” See Macpherson, Poems of Ossian, vi.
  23. Kraft, “James Macpherson,” 206.
  24. Macpherson, Poems of Ossian, 409.
  25. Ibid., 412.
  26. Macpherson, Iliad of Homer, xviii. Homer
  27. deGategno, James Macpherson, 141.
  28. Macpherson, Poems of Ossian, 296.
  29. Macpherson, Iliad of Homer, 1.
  30. Letter 491, Hume to Adam Smith, 10 April 1773, in The Letters of David Hume, vol. 2, ed. J.Y.T. Greig (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 280.
  31. Macpherson, Iliad of Homer, xx.
  32. Ibid., xi.
  33. Ibid., x.
  34. Ibid., viii.
  35. Ibid., xii.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., xiii.
  38. Ibid., xiv.
  39. deGategno, James Macpherson, 142.
  40. Macpherson, Iliad of Homer, ii.
  41. Ibid., ii-iii.
  42. Ibid., iii.
  43. Ibid., iii-iv.


Homer Among the Moderns Copyright © by Noor Shawaf. All Rights Reserved.

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