“I present a young person gifted with deep, pure feeling and true penetration, who loses himself in rapturous dreams, buries himself in speculation, until at last, ruined by unhappy passions that supervene, in particular an unfulfilled love, puts a bullet in his head.”
Leave it to J.M. Coetzee, writing in this week’s New York Review of Books, to explain how Goethe‘s early book, The Sufferings of Young Werther (new Norton translation by Stanley Corngold) is “extraordinary, trail-blazing.”
“Goethe claimed that he wrote the first draft of Werther in four weeks, in a somnambulistic trance,” writes Coetzee. That explains it. The book is a testament to bottomless self-pity – am I missing something? I haven’t the patience. Oh, the joys of middle-age … one has survived so many thing worse than a lost love.
But the most interesting passages discuss James Macpherson‘s putatative Ossian, that Scottish bard from misty, mystic early centuries who flavors Goethe’s novella. What a lot of hooey!
The taste for Ossian is a feature of early Romantic sensibility easy to mock. The fact is, however, that until well into the nineteenth century the poems were widely accepted as a great epic of northern European civilization. “The Homer of the North,” Madame de Staël called Ossian. The recovery of the Ossian epic in Scotland became a spur to the recovery—or invention—of other founding national epics: Beowulf in England, the Kalevala in Finland, the Nibelungenlied in Germany, the Chanson de Roland in France, the Song of the Host of Igorin Russia.
Macpherson was not a great poet (pace William Hazlitt, who set him alongside Dante and Shakespeare) nor even a dedicated one: his Ossian project concluded, Macpherson quit the Highlands for London, where he was fêted, then took ship to Pensacola in the new British colony of West Florida, where he spent two years on the staff of the governor. Returning to England, he entered politics; he died a wealthy man. …
In Britain the Ossian poems were tainted by controversy over their authenticity. Were there indeed Highlanders who could recall and recite these ancient lays, or had Macpherson made them up? Macpherson did not help his case by seeming reluctant to produce his Gaelic originals.
In Europe the question of authenticity had no purchase. Translated into German in 1767, Ossian had a huge impact, inspiring an outpouring of bardic imitations. The young Goethe was so smitten that he taught himself Gaelic in order to translate directly into German the specimens of Scots Gaelic he found in The Works of Ossian. The early Schiller is full of Ossianic echoes; Hölderlin committed pages of Ossian to memory.
Well, I had thought better of Hölderlin. Sensible Samuel Johnson concluded that Macpherson was “a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries.” Gives a historical perspective to James Frey, Greg Mortenson, & co., don’t it?