Hugh Blair, A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal (1763)

In this essay Blair describes the virtues of primitive poetry, and he praises the poems of Ossian (i.e. Macpherson) as an exemplar of these attributes. On the virtues of ancient poems, he says:

Irregular and unpolished we may expect the productions of uncultivated ages to be, but abounding, at the same time, with that enthusiasm, that vehemence and fire, which are the soul of poetry. For many circumstances of those times which we call barbarous are favorable to the poetic spirit. (848)

Blair later elaborates on the term "barbarous":

Barbarity, I must observe, is a very equivocal term; it admits of many different forms and degrees, and though in all of them it exclude polished manners, it is, however, not inconsistent with generous sentiments and tender affections. What degrees of friendship, love, and heroism may possibly be found to prevail in a rude state of society no one can say.(853)

In the advance of culture, some of the attractions of primitive poetry are lost:

As the world advances, the understanding gains ground upon the imagination; the understanding is more exercised; the imagination, less. (849)


The progress of the world in this respect resembles the progress of age in man. The powers of imagination are most vigorous and predominant in youth; those of the understanding ripen more slowly and often attain not their maturity till the imagination begin to flag. Hence poetry, which is the child of imagination, is frequently most glowing and animated in the first ages of society. (850)

In Blair's description of Ossian, he ascribes the virtues of primitive feeling to the bard, but the terms of the description clearly align this poetic ideal to avowedly contemporary poets of sensibility. Thus, the sentimental tradition is valorized by its access to fundamental, vigorous experience:

When we open the works of Ossian...we find the fire and enthusiasm of the most early times, combined with an amazing degree of regularity and art. We find tenderness, and even delicacy of sentiment, greatly predominant over fierceness and barbarity. (851)

In the following passage, the unstated identity of Ossian with eighteenth-century bards of sensibility becomes stronger:

Ossian...appears to have been endowed by nature with an exquisite sensibility of heart, prone to that tender melancholy which is so often attendant on great genius, and susceptible equally of strong and soft emotions. (854)

Blair comments that

[t]he two great characteristics of Ossian's poetry are tenderness and sublimity.(859)

His monolithic tone is his strength, as:

Ossian is perhaps the only poet who never relaxes or lets himself down into the light and amusing strain.... ...One keynote is struck at the beginning and supported to the end, nor is any ornament introduced but what is perfectly concordant with the general tone or melody. The events recorded are all serious and grave, the scenery throughout, wild and romantic. ...His poetry, more than that of any other writer, deserves to be styled 'the poetry of the heart.' It is a heart penetrated with noble sentiments and with sublime and tender passions, a heart that glows and kindles, the fancy, a heart that is full, and pours itself forth. (859)

Blair's extravagant praise for Ossian goes to the length of comparing him to Homer. Thus Blair prefigures the tastes of Goethe's Werther.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography