Ginsberg on Blake – Metrics 7 – (Ossian)

James Macpherson (1736-1796)

Ginsberg on Blake metrics continues today with a detour on the mythical figure of Ossian    

Student:  Blake was influenced by the resurgence of interest in Old English poetic forms, and the fakery of a poet who…. (tape ends here, then picks up again) –

Ossian (Ossian Singing His Swan Song), 1787 – oil painting by Nicolai Abildgaard

James Macpherson/Ossian – You take a book of his poems or his poems and philosophy, which is about the mythology of Ireland.  You can read the lines as if they were set in meter lines. They come out very nicely that way, and they have some of the same feeling.  kind of … often of a rush or a rolling, rolling….
AG:  Could you bring in some Ossian?
Student:  Yeah.
AG:  I’ve never heard it read aloud…
Student:  Yeah.
AG:  That would be…
Student:  And a lot of that….
AG:  I’m supposed to write Ossianic verse (I’ve seen that in criticism) …
Student:  Oh, really?
AG:  … whatever I’ve said is “Ossianic”.  (in the sense that Ossian was later rejected in his day as being bombastic).
Student:  Oh, yeah?
AG:  Romantic, bombastic, over-blown.  But Blake thought he was great.

Student:  Well, there’s this guy Macpherson who wrote the poems attributed to Ossian.

AG (turns to poet Helen Adam, who is sitting in in the class):  Do you know Ossian’s verse, Helen?   Do you know Ossianic?
Helen Adam:  (It’s the..?)
AG:  No, the Ossianic..  Do you know Macpherson at all?
Helen Adam:  No.  (no, I really don’t)
AG:  You’ve heard of him?
Helen Adam:  Yes.
AG:  I kept hearing about him for years.

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately sixty-two-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately sixty-three-and-a-quarter minutes in

Addenda – The “Ossianic” put-down continued to dog Allen – most famously, in 1984, in the Boston Review, in Richard Howard‘s dismissive review of the entire Collected Poems! – viz – “The Macpherson de nos jours [sic], this gathered assortment, fragments shored, limbs remembered, adds up to an astonishing confession – it may not be poetry at all [sic], it is always testimony, a kind of processional martyrology – in that martyrs are witnesses to the truth”

Macpherson’s Ossian poems  (like Chatterton’s Thomas Rowley poems) may be “fakes” (as to alleged provenance) but they’re extremely accomplished “fakes”. (Allen’s poems, it need hardly be said, are the very opposite of ‘fake”)

Check out Ossian on line


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