The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 25 Jan 2018

Samuel Johnson and Ossian

For me, a little of Samuel Johnson goes a long way, because he was a tremendous asshole, and the draught is too strong for me to take much at once. But he is at his best when he is in opposition to someone who is an even bigger asshole, in this case James Macpherson.

Macpherson was a Scottish poet who perpetrated a major hoax for his own literary benefit. He claimed to have discovered and translated a collection of 3rd-century Gaelic manuscripts, written by a bard named Ossian, which he then published, with great commercial and critical success.

Thomas Bailey Saunders, in The Life and Letters of James Macpherson (1894), writes:

[Macpherson] was six-and-twenty, and flattered to the top of his bent. What happened with him was only what happens with most literary adventurers whose success is immediate and greater than their strict deserts; he contracted the foolish temper in which a man regards all criticism as ignorant and impertinent, and declines to take advice from any one.

Ossian and Macpherson did receive a great deal of criticism. Much of it was rooted in anti-Scottish bigotry, but many people at the time correctly suspected that Macpherson had written the "translations” himself, from scratch or nearly so. There was a great controversy, in which nobody participated more forcefully (or impolitely) than Johnson, a noted anti-Scottish bigot, who said that not only was the poems’ claimed history fraudulent, but that the poems themselves were rubbish.

The argument raged for some time. Johnson took up the matter in Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), in which he said:

I believe [the poems] never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. The editor, or author, never could shew the original; nor can it be shewn by any other; to revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt. It would be easy to shew it if he had it; but whence could it be had?

Macpherson was furious to learn, before it was published, what Journey to the Western Islands would say, and attempted to prevent the passage from appearing in the book at all. When he discovered he was too late for this, he suggested that a slip of paper be inserted into the printed copies, apologizing and withdrawing the paragraph. This suggestion was ignored, and Johnson's book was published with no alteration.

Macpherson then challenged Johnson to a duel, and then, Johnson having declined, sent him a final letter, now lost, which a contemporary described as telling Johnson:

as he had declined to withdraw from his book the injurious expressions reflecting on Mr. Macpherson's private character, his age and infirmities alone protected him from the treatment due to an infamous liar and traducer.

(John Clark, An Answer to Mr. [William] Shaw's Inquiry, p. 51. Reprinted in Works of Ossian, vol. 1, 1783.)

Johnson's famous reply to this letter, quoted by Boswell, was:


I RECEIVED your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.

“What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the publick, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable; and what I hear of your morals inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.

“SAM. Johnson.”

Both Macpherson and Johnson are buried in Westminster Abbey. Some say Macpherson bought his way in.

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