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Ossianic Unconformities

Bardic Poetry in the Industrial Age
Eric Gidal

BUY Cloth · 240 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813938172 · $39.50 · Aug 2015
BUY Ebook · 240 pp. · ISBN 9780813938189 · $39.50 · Aug 2015

In a sequence of publications in the 1760s, James Macpherson, a Scottish schoolteacher in the central Highlands, created fantastic epics of ancient heroes and presented them as genuine translations of the poetry of Ossian, a fictionalized Caledonian bard of the third century. In Ossianic Unconformities Eric Gidal introduces the idiosyncratic publications of a group of nineteenth-century Scottish eccentrics who used statistics, cartography, and geomorphology to map and thereby vindicate Macpherson's controversial eighteenth-century renderings of Gaelic oral traditions. Although these writers primarily sought to establish the authenticity of Macpherson's "translations," they came to record, through promotion, evasion, and confrontation, the massive changes being wrought upon Scottish and Irish lands by British industrialization. Their obsessive and elaborate attempts to fix both the poetry and the land into a stable set of coordinates developed what we can now perceive as a nascent ecological perspective on literature in a changing world.

Gidal examines the details of these imaginary geographies in conjunction with the social and spatial histories of Belfast and the River Lagan valley, Glasgow and the Firth of Clyde, and the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, regions that form both the sixth-century kingdom of Dál Riata and the fabled terrain of the Ossianic poems. Combining environmental and industrial histories with the reception of the poems of Ossian, Ossianic Unconformities unites literary history and book studies with geography, cartography, and geology to present and consider imaginative responses to environmental catastrophe.


Ossianic Unconformities is an original and imaginative contribution to our interdisciplinary understanding of the importance of James Macpherson in world literature. Its eclectic combination of material and ideas drawn from a range of disciplines offers a new approach to one of the oldest preoccupations of Ossian studies—that of influence—and allows Gidal to identify innovative ways of understanding the appeal and significance of Macpherson's work.

Dafydd Moore, Plymouth University, author of Enlightenment and Romance in James Macpherson’s "The Poems of Ossian"

Eric Gidal’s Ossianic Unconformities is a persuasive and innovative reading of ‘Ossianic space,’ its eighteenth-century emergence, and its implications for modernity and geopoetics. Gidal unearths the world making encoded in Ossianic poetry and its dissemination: if we had thought of Ossianic poems and phenomena via antiquarianism, or cultural nationalism, or emergent poetics, Gidal insists we see them too through stratigraphic, geographic, geologic, and environmental lenses. Both theoretically sophisticated and historically astute, this book opens up new zones for the archipelagic imagination—both for the long eighteenth century and for our own moment. ‘Discredited and marginal literature’ has rarely looked so central to the irruptive, unfinished project of modernity.

Maureen N. McLane, New York University, author of Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry

Undoubtedly the most original and imaginative account of the topic published to date, Ossianic Unconformities brings the Ossian phenomenon--at last--to the center of the historical field of Romanticism. It also sets invigoratingly high standards for both environmental criticism and media studies-inflected book history.

Modern Philology

"Eric Gidal's book is a highly original contribution to the ‘new wave’ of Ossian scholarship pioneered by Howard Gaskill and Fiona Stafford back in the 1980s.... Gidal demonstrates how a literary text often deemed unpromising (to say the best) can be made the occasion for a sparkling performance of critical originality, and of far-reaching, interdisciplinary reflection."

Journal of Historical Geography

In his thoughtful and insightful Ossianic Unconformities: Bardic Poetry in the Industrial Era, Eric Gidal tracks the way in which the Ossian poems and their reception attempted to mediate between a bardic past, a world imagined as one of organic community and its oral recitation and song, and a present bereft of such a tightknit model of society and its supposedly unmediated expression.

Journal of British Studies

About the Author(s): 

Eric Gidal, author of Poetic Exhibitions: Romantic Aesthetics and the Pleasures of the British Museum, is Professor of English at the University of Iowa.

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