Summer-time Serendipity – Catriona Macdonald



I like the word serendipity, and as I get older, instances of such become more common. Coincidences seem to emerge in direct proportion to age!

Anyway, this is just a short summer-time reflection on how personalities and poetry often intertwine in interesting ways.

In search of political poems and songs, I’ve recently been revisiting Paisley – a place I knew very well in the 1990s when undertaking my PhD. Access to historical materials has certainly improved over the years: the Heritage Centre in the Library on the High Street is a great place in which to work.

In early June, working through Robert Brown’s two volumes of Paisley Poets (1889), the approach and the format began to feel very familiar. Something I’d been reading recently was very similar: but could I put my finger on it? (As well as serendipity, age also nurtures forgetfulness!)

Got it! Another project which is occupying a lot of my time introduced me recently to Charles Rogers (1825-1890), founder of the Royal Historical Society. It was his Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855) which echoed with Brown: both offer brief biographies followed by a selection of poems. The MSM was Rogers’ attempt to celebrate the Scottish poetic tradition following Burns. In several volumes, he sought to rescue poets that seemed both inspired by Burns but also cloaked by the shadow of Burns’s posthumous following.

But the approach of both authors also went deeper than that. Brown regularly eschews printing the political poems of Paisley’s poets: so, we are denied James Paterson’s ‘Queen Caroline’, and when illustrating the work of Andrew Leiper (who died in Paisley poorhouse around 1862), Brown clarified that he would print only a selection ‘free from the extreme political and even seditious opinions held by him.’ (Leiper was a member of the Republican Club in the town.)

In like fashion, Rogers, when introducing the poetry of Alexander Rodger (1784-1846), a writer closely associated with the Reformers’ Gazette, notes: ‘Many of his poems, though abounding in humour, are disfigured by coarse political allusions.’

Victorian anthologisers ought to be thanked for their preservation of Scottish poetry in the nineteenth century when few scholars seemed interested in the phenomenon, but they did so selectively and in ways that tended towards the de-politicisation of the form.

Hence the need for this project!

Note: For more on Rogers, see Catriona M.M. Macdonald, ‘Rogue Element: Charles Rogers and the Scotching of British History’ in Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd, Literature and Union (OUP, forthcoming).