McGonagall in the Penny Post?

This article was written by Professor Kirstie Blair of Stirling University, a well-known scholar in the field of Victorian poetry with particular interests in working-class poets. As part of her research for a project on Victorian Scottish poets, and particularly the poetry columns in the newspapers, she came across possible evidence of the great poet’s early rejection notices…

On 1 August 1868, in its ‘Notices to Correspondents’ column, the editor of the Glasgow weekly Penny Post observed:

W McG – Your third attempt to gain a niche in our corner is creditable to your perseverance although not to your poetry, which we must again reject.

Two weeks later, there was another note:

W J McG – Your determination to gain a niche in our ‘celebrated corner’ is very creditable to your perseverance, but your ‘Lines to Margaret’ are still deficient.

McGonagall’s eldest daughter was called Margaret, though of course it was far from an uncommon name. And there would have been many “W. McG’s” in Scotland. Other than the reference to ‘perseverance’, there’s also no suggestion that these two McG’s might be the same person, and indeed the middle initial in the second instance may suggest otherwise. But how many ‘W McG’s, we might wonder, would continue to send their poems to a poetry column in the face of determined rejection? There is no way of proving whether this would-be poet is McGonagall of Dundee. But we have only McGonagall’s word for it that he was suddenly struck by poetic inspiration in 1877, and if he had a long history of being rejected by newspaper poetry corners prior to then, why would he have wanted to highlight it? After all, it’s a much less appealing story.

From my perspective, studying the newspaper poetry columns that McGonagall unquestionably encountered in the 1860s and 1870s, it’s very easy to imagine that an enthusiastic literary artisan who fancied himself a tragedian would have found their lure impossible to resist. Being published in these columns brought with it local fame and reputation – and anyone who read the Penny Post in the mid-late 1860s would have seen how the paper championed another Dundee poet, Ellen Johnston, the ‘Factory Girl’, to the extent of raising subscriptions to enable her to publish a volume and supporting a benefit concert for her in April 1868, when she was in ill-health and living in Glasgow.

The Scottish weekly papers, according to their own accounts, were deluged with poetry, much of it from working-class, self-taught authors. When McGonagall later became well-known, no editor would have remembered whether poems by a ‘W McG’ had crossed his desk. We can only speculate about whether further reading of the best-known Scottish papers would turn up a ‘W McG’ trying his luck elsewhere – in the years before, perhaps, he developed a style irresistible to editors looking to entertain their readers with both the worst and the best from their postbag.

Comments (2) »

  1. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2013, on the 23rd day of August at 6:06 pm

    I think we can safely dismiss W J McG. In all the documents (official and otherwise) by and about William McGonagall no mention is ever made of a middle name or initial (no, not even “Topaz”). So whoever W J was, he wasn’t our man.

    As to W McG, a quick search of the 1871 census on Scotland’s People yields just 2110 people with those initials. How many of them are likely to have been thwarted poets?

    According to McGonagall’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription needed), “an estimated 200,000 people were regularly writing poetry in Victorian Scotland”. This from a population rising from 2 to 4.5 million over the course of the century.

    If we assume that the 200,000 is a total for the whole century, maybe a tenth of that number were writing at any one time. Applying that number as a proportion to the 3 million Scots of the 1860’s, we should expect around 14 W McG’s to be regular poets (of whatever level of quality or success). So it’s not unreasonable to see two people so-named being referred to in the People’s Journal and for neither of them to have been our man.

    We’ll never know for certain, though, unless somebody unearths a miraculously preserved 150-year-old waste paper bin from the Journal offices. Until then, we’ll perhaps have to fall back on that distinctive feature of the Scottish legal system and say “Not Proven”.

  2. Dan E
    In the year 2015, on the 3rd day of December at 9:08 pm

    I rather like the idea that the poet rejected might possibly have been William, he may have added an extra initial on a whim after all didn’t he sign his supposedly first poem to the Rev Gilfillan with just his initials W McG. His daughter Margret his first born would have been the apple of his eye and most probably a daddy’s girl even in those hard times, he would have been very proud of her as most good men would.
    He says that he was interested in Shakespeare from an early age and interested in the theatre, it seems that he might have been frustrated amateur Thespian just chopping at the bits. The bit that I find odd is how he never quite got the hang of the tone or rhythm of poetry, his individual talent has in the long run made him more(famous) and remembered than others more worthy.
    Oddly enough I have learned things from his (poetry) that I never knew before, the disaster in Sunderland with all those children crushed or suffocated at Christmas time. That was something that really brought a lump to my throte.

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