William McGonagall is the most famous ‘bad’ poet in Scottish history. But he was not a one-off. Stirling’s Chair in English Kirstie Blair restores him to his own publishing context, and asks whether he was really so exceptional.
In his essay on ‘The Great McGonagall,’ Hugh McDiarmid commented that:
McGonagall is in a very special category, and has it all to himself. There are no other writings known to me that resemble his. So far as the whole tribe of poets is concerned, from the veritable lords of language to the worst doggerel-mongers, he stands alone.
And indeed, McGonagall does stand alone today. Of all the ‘scores of utterly worthless rhymers’ that were operating in Victorian Dundee and elsewhere, he is the only poet we remember. Yet while MacDiarmid may not have known of any writings resembling McGonagall’s, a substantial body of such writings did exist, and would unquestionably have been known to McGonagall’s Dundee audiences and to the poet himself. For the enormously popular weekend newspapers of mid-late Victorian Dundee, the People’s Journal and the Weekly News, home of McGonagall’s first publications, both fostered a lively culture of bad poetry. This is a culture that has entirely disappeared from view, but it is well worth recovering, not simply because it presents McGonagall’s work in a different light, but because he was arguably neither the worst nor the best bad poet of his times; he was simply the one most prepared to relinquish anonymity and pursue a career in performance as well as in print.
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Professor Kirstie Blair is Stirling’s Established Chair in English, and an authority on Victorian poetry. She is currently researching Scottish working-class poetry and the local newspaper press. She has two articles forthcoming in the field in 2014, ‘“A Very Poetical Town”: Newspaper Poetry and the Working-Class Poet in Victorian Dundee’ (in Victorian Poetry) and ‘“Let the Nightingales Alone”: Correspondence Columns, the Scottish Press, and the Making of the Working-Class Poet’ (in Victorian Periodicals Review).