Why Ossian? Why Comala?

Howard Gaskill


The publication of James Macpherson’s Ossianic poetry in the 1760s proved to be a sensation of the first order, coming to exert an extraordinary impact all over Europe and beyond. This paper will attempt to demonstrate that Ossian’s popularity should not be dismissed as a short-lived eighteenth-century aberration, and provides evidence of recent revival of both critical and more general interest in the work. The nature of the phenomenon, its relation to authentic tradition, and some of its intrinsic literary qualities are discussed. The premise that we are dealing here with a worthless hoax which made dupes of its admirers is emphatically rejected. After sketching the pivotal influence on the great German literary flowering of the last third of the eighteenth century the essay moves to a con- sideration of the appeal of Ossian for composers, making use of the recent findings of James Porter. There appear to be more settings of ‘Comala’ than any other Ossianic poem (listed in an Appendix), and reasons are advanced for this. At the same time it is shown that staged Ossian, whether musical or not, was by no means unusual in the decades following its appearance.

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