McGonagall, 'Poute', and the Bad Poets of Victorian Dundee
In his essay on 'The Great McGonagall,' Hugh McDiarmid commented that:
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.1 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.
The 'To Correspondents' columns of these newspapers, one of their most popular features, had a unique function in publishing and critiquing rejected poems received by readers, and a strong tendency to publish the worst poems received for readers' amusement as well as their education. This, we might assume, is why the editor of the Weekly News thought it worth his while to publish McGonagall's early productions in his correspondence column in 1877. As readers from then until now have testified, they were not simply bad, but hilariously so. Yet in fostering McGonagall's career, it would be very surprising if the Weekly News had not one eye on its main rival, the People's Journal. For over fifteen years, the Journal had made great capital out of its support for 'Poute', a working-class Fife poet whose high self-opinion and poetic ambition, combined with atrocious spelling, grammar and lofty disregard for the rules of verse, had been delighting readers of the Journal since his first appearance in 1861, and had inspired a number of imitators in the Journal and the News. In fact, in 1875, in a period when McGonagall was definitely reading the Journal (he wrote several letters to the editor during the millworkers' strike in August), Poute's volume, A Book of Nettercaps, published by the Journal's sister-paper, the Dundee Advertiser, was being heavily advertised. To make it to a printed volume was a substantial achievement for an artisan poet, and required both patronage by a newspaper editor or other influential community member, and an existing readership who would subscribe in advance for the volume to offset printing costs. Even with these factors in place, it could be hard to shift copies. But according to an unpublished note by 'Poute', who in real life was Alexander ('Sandy') Burgess, a dancing-master and violinist in Fife, his first edition of 1000 sold out.2 His works also reached a posthumous second edition in 1886. Anyone reading the Journal and Weekly News in the 1860s and 1870s would have known that bad poetry sold — if only it were good enough.
The two crucial points about Poute's writings are first, that they are deliberate and self-conscious satires on the kind of poetry that an uneducated Scottish poet might be expected to produce, and second, that this only became clear quite a while after the Journal first started publishing them. When William Latto, the editor, first printed an extract from Poute's 'lines addressed to a water Lily' (sic), he took it at face value:
The comedy is in the contrast of the high-toned language with the discordance of the metre, which goes horribly off-course in lines 4 and 6, and the misspellings and random capitalization. An address to a humble, modest flower, which in its retirement served as a model for the labouring-class poet, was a very clichéd topic. Latto, who received a great deal of poorly written poetry from his enthusiastic working-class readership, had no particular reason to be suspicious. But as 'Poute' responded to his critique with indignant letters asserting his own genius, and with increasingly outrageous poems, Latto and his readers gradually realized that the joke was on them. They were delighted. Poute, like McGonagall after him, graduated from extracts published in the correspondence column to whole poems published separately, such as 'Apostriffe to the rainbow', published January 30, 1864:
Again, this selects a standard topic, praise of nature and God's hand in it, and then mangles it. Rather than meditating on the wonders of nature, Poute interprets the rainbow at a remove through the new visual apparatus of the period, photography and magic lantern shows, and then begins to speculate on how this natural beauty might be converted into hard cash by artists, and adapted — by making the black clouds white — into a more attractive subject. The intentional irony, of course, is that this is what Poute himself is doing. By directing the reader to James Thomson's poem The Seasons (1730) in the final line, a canonical work in this period, he highlights his (and his readers') awareness of how clichéd the topic is. And moreover, he shows us that the working-class poet does not gaze on nature unmediated by art or worldly considerations. This directly contradicts the established view of patrons, as stated a few years later by Dundee's Reverend George Gilfillan, in his preface to Janet Hamilton's volume:
1 Hugh MacDiarmid, Scottish Eccentrics, ed Alan Riach (Carcanet, 1993), pp.57, 64. 2 Alexander Burgess to James Law, 2 December 1884, unpublished letter pasted into Burgess, 'Poute!' Being Poutry, Poetry and Prose (A. Westwood, n.d. ) (author's copy, signed by Law, 1893). 3 First published 2 September 1861, p.2, reprinted in 'Poute!', pp.1-2. 4 People's Journal, 30 January 1864, p.2. 5 Janet Hamilton, Poems and Ballads (James Maclehose, 1868), p.xiii.