Poetry, Song and Community in the Industrial City: Victorian Dundee

Lead Research Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Department Name: English


This project explores the workings of the 'bardic community' (a term coined by Brian Maidment) in a rapidly industrializing Victorian city, questioning how poetry and song operated to foster a sense of community in an environment undergoing major expansion, immigration and development. Using the outstanding and little-researched resources of Dundee Central Library, especially the A. C. Lamb Collection, it will investigate how poetry and song were utilized by writers and performers, whether in the street, in shops such as the Poet's Box, in the meetings and events of Dundee's many literary societies, in factory outings and celebratory dinners, or in the newspaper columns of Dundee's famous Saturday papers aimed at a working-class readership, the People's Journal, the Weekly News and the People's Friend. As a jointly conceived PhD, an integral part of the student's remit will involve working with Dundee Central on community engagement projects relating to the library's internationally significant holdings in Victorian Scottish poetry and song, and reflecting, in the final part of the thesis, on the survival of verse culture in the 21st century, and on the use of archival resources to engage today's citizens of Dundee with this aspect of the cultural heritage of their city.

Lamb's Temperance Hotel was one of the city's most popular entertainment venues in the mid-Victorian period, and A. C. Lamb not only knew most of the important citizens of Victorian Dundee, he also collected vast amounts of material (the library has 45 boxes) about the popular and literary culture of the city, including many examples of rare poetic ephemera. The Lamb collection, as Blair's own recent research indicates, supplies strong evidence of the vitality of verse culture in Dundee, as does the popularity of original poetry by local poets and the frequent mentions of poetic performances in the columns of the local press: Dundee Central also has an important collection of hard copy Victorian newspapers, including some unavailable elsewhere. Such 'local' verse makes strong appeals to a sense of community within the city or its outlying districts, yet it also reflects upon the relationship between events in Dundee and the wider - and contested - imagined communities of Scotland, Britain, the colonies and the Empire. Much of this poetry and song was written by artisan poets and produced to order, or to celebrate or critique current affairs in Dundee and beyond. This PhD project, informed by recent work in 'new formalism' and historical poetics, will ask how it revises traditional Scottish forms and genres, such as the ballad, as a means of connecting past histories of the Scottish bard or 'makar' with the artisan poet, and will consider how (or whether) these forms survive and evolve in Victorian modernity.

By enabling a focus on oral and performance culture as well as reading communities, the project will have a joined-up, interdisciplinary approach to poetry and song, querying whether these can be regarded as distinct genres in the period. The exact period and material covered by the thesis and the balance between discussion of oral and written cultures will be for the student to decide, and we anticipate that he or she may also make substantial use of the Wighton Heritage Centre at Dundee Central and its major resources in the field of Scottish song and musicology. This will be an innovative thesis which, while grounded in in-depth archival research, will have potential to shape an emerging field of study and suggest key directions for future research in Victorian studies and Scottish studies, while offering opportunities for the student to develop transferable skills in librarianship, information management, public engagement and knowledge exchange.


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