Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 February 2006
This article examines the scholarly recovery and popular reception of ‘ancient poetry’ in later eighteenth-century England, with a view to elucidating the relationship between cultural primitivism and more overtly politicized discourses of national identity. The publication of the poems of Ossian, in the early 1760s, gave a new prominence to the earliest cultural productions of Celtic antiquity, and inspired the attempts of English literary historians, such as Thomas Percy and Thomas Warton, to provide an alternative ‘Gothic’ genealogy for the English literary imagination. However, both the English reception of Ossian, and the Gothicist scholarship of Percy and Warton, were complicated by the growing strength of English radical patriotism. As popular political discourse assumed an increasingly insular preoccupation with Saxon liberties and ancient constitutional rights, more conservative literary historians found their own attempts to ground English poetic tradition in some form of Gothic inheritance progressively compromised. The persistence of ancient constitutionalism as a divisive element of English political argument thus curtailed the ability of Gothicist literary scholarship to function as an effective vehicle for English cultural patriotism.