- “A Very Poetical Town”:Newspaper Poetry and the Working-Class Poet in Victorian Dundee
In the assessment of Victorian periodical poetry, newspaper verse has received comparatively little attention. As Natalie M. Houston comments in her important article on newspaper poems, this is partly due to the “privileging of individual authorship” in literary criticism, meaning that anonymous poems tend to be devalued, and due to the fact that newspaper poems often “function as topical commentary” and are thus difficult to assess once extracted from their original contexts.1 The sheer volume of newspaper verse is daunting: recent work in the field, by Andrew Hobbs, estimates that around five million individual poems were published in the nineteenth-century provincial press.2 Spatially, as Houston notes, poetry is easily identifiable because its layout stands out on the page; but in terms of content and form, the title of newspaper poems alone often gives little clue about their theme, and in terms of authorship, pseudonyms acquire full significance only when situated within the content of the newspaper’s readerly community. James Mussell’s observation that without the “shared cultural resources” which contemporary readers took for granted, “we struggle to realize the meanings and effects such texts had for their readers … the familiarity or novelty of what was under discussion” is as true for the poetry column of the newspaper as it is for reports on contemporary events.3
This article approaches newspaper poetry via the local and (relatively) small-scale, by analyzing the presence of poetry in three newspapers published in Victorian Scotland—the Dundee Courier, the Dundee Advertiser, and the Dundee, Perth and Forfar People’s Journal—in a brief but vital period for their development, 1858–60.4 These were not the only papers published from Dundee. While space precludes detailed consideration of more than three papers, I also reference their closest competitors, The Telegraph and the Weekly News, published by Park, Sinclair and Co., Dundee. All five newspapers had benefited from the repeal of the Stamp [End Page 89] Duty in 1855 (and would do so further from the repeal of the Paper Duties in 1861), and were part of the massive expansion of the Scottish newspaper press after that period; in these two years, the Courier, facing decreased circulation and competition from rivals, merged with the Daily Argus and moved from weekly to Mon-Wed-Fri publication, the Advertiser to daily publication, and the short-lived Telegraph began, failed, and merged with the Weekly News. The two major weekend papers in Dundee, the older Weekly News and the new People’s Journal, which began its run in 1858 and still survives today, were the success stories of this period.
Such expansion and development was mirrored by the general growth of the provincial newspaper industry across Britain. As Aled Jones comments, between 1855 and 1861 “137 newspapers were established in 123 towns in England where there had previously been no local newspaper.”5 By studying publications from the same town and the same years, I argue that one of the most important directions for the study of newspaper poetry is an examination of its relations to the provincial press, which enabled a remarkably strong kinship to develop between newspapers, the working-class poet, and local readership. The significance of the provincial press in creating “a sense of local identity and attachment,” for working-class readers in particular, has been recognized by recent scholars, notably Hobbs in his work on the Lancashire press.6 The role of poetry and the poetry column, however, still remains relatively unexplored.
In publishing poetry, Victorian newspapers frequently relied upon what Meredith McGill, considering a North American context, describes as the “culture of reprinting,” designed to redistribute elite culture “in a variety of mass-cultural formats.”7 Tennyson and Longfellow, who both had an international reputation by 1860, are the most cited poets in the newspapers that I consider, and Tennyson’s 1859 “Riflemen, Form!,” originally published as a newspaper poem in The Times, is the single most reprinted poem. Yet as the regional press underwent rapid expansion in the early-mid Victorian period, newspapers aimed at attracting a readership from a particular area...