An interesting article on the BBC News website on Friday profiled Jessie Pope, a poet today’s schoolchildren (apparently) love to hate.
Ms Pope’s verse is not quite in the McGonagall class – it’s quite competent in fact – but the sentiments she expresses aren’t quite what we’ve come to feel about the first world war:
Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much-
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?
The above being typical of the jingoistic verses she published in the Daily Mail and in three wartime anthologies between 1916 and 1917. Poor Jessie suffers rather by comparison with the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the latter being inspired to pen Dulce et Decorum Est in response to her work.
One shudders to think what a certain poet and tragedian would have made of the Great War had he lived to see it.
Readers’ Gems have been appearing in The Spectator today, in response to their weekly writing competition. Asked to “give William Topaz McGonagall a chance to comment on Scottish independence,” the competitors responded with some excellent (if that’s the right term) efforts:
Bounteous Heavens, let us all rejoice!
For the People of Scotland have been given a Choice
And there is to be a National Referendum
For which we must thank the Scottish Nationalists and London.
But how many will vote No and how many will vote Yes
Only God knows though other clever People may guess
And I think a terrible Excitement will have mounted
Until all the Votes of the People have been carefully counted.
The article also sported a neat summary of the Poet and Tragedian for those poor benighted souls as yet unacquainted with him:
The deluded handloom weaver from Dundee built his reputation on appalling yet beguiling works of inadvertent comic genius. Unhampered by self-awareness, and buoyed up by uncrushable self-belief, he forged ahead with his art in the face of universal mockery and derision. Here is a particularly awful line from his most famous poem, ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ of 1880:
‘And the cry rang out all o’er the town, Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down.’
McGonagall has had the last laugh, though: while most of his Victorian contemporaries have slid into oblivion, the Tayside Tragedian still has devoted fans more than a century after his death and several volumes of his work remain resolutely in print.
If anybody feels the urge to make their own entry to the independence debate, you know where to send it…
Professor Kirstie Blair, a contributor of content to this site, has written an article entitled McGonagall, ‘Poute’, and the Bad Poets of Victorian Dundee for the latest edition of The Bottle Imp – a journal published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.
In it, she describes the “lively culture of bad poetry” that was fostered by the Dundee newspapers in the years running up to the start of McGonagall’s poetic career, particularly the works of “Poute” who satirised the efforts of working class poets with his deliberately bad efforts. To quote from the article:
Reading through the newspaper poems of these years makes it evident that far from being ‘in a special category’, McGonagall was contributing to a pre-existing poetic culture that hovered between the satirical and the serious, and that caused difficulties for editors faced with deciding which was which.
This throws a new light on the question of whether McGonagall was “for real”, or whether he was writing bad verse on purpose. Personally, I remain in the former camp – but the Professor’s article offers considerable food for thought.