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The New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Highland fling

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Posted: Friday, July 12, 2013 5:00 am

When Gioachino Rossini wrote his opera La donna del lago in 1819, he was plugging into an international fad for the kilted climes. Scotland was very hot indeed in cultural circles in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The person most responsible for this was James Macpherson, a prolific Scottish poet who in 1761 announced that he had discovered an epic produced by a third-century bard named Ossian. Over the course of several years, he published various works by Ossian, which he translated into English from what he said was the original Scots Gaelic of the manuscript. Scholars almost immediately protested that the texts were a hoax, as indeed they were, and Macpherson never countered their charges.

To the reading public it made little difference; they were hooked by these verses ostensibly recited by an old blind poet of yore. His tales were filled with evocative descriptions of nature and stirring scenes of battle, and they often detailed unhappy attachments of the heart. It was poetry perfectly crafted to align with the aesthetics of the incipient Romantic movement. Painters — even famous artists like Girodet and Ingres — produced canvases depicting Ossianic tales and composers reinterpreted his presumed writings into tones. Fake though he was, Ossian became a literary phenomenon, and his works were quickly translated into all the principal European languages. He was proclaimed as a northern European equivalent to Homer, and writers began to honor him by penning direct parodies of the poems or creating entirely original works built on Ossianic themes.

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