An Odd Fellow

This piece by journalist and author Neil Munro appeared in The Brave Days, a collection of his journalism first published in 1931.

Before “the poet McGonagall” becomes wholly a creature of myth, his lineaments forgotten, his birthplace as much a subject of controversy as that of Homer; his authentic works confused with those of a score of contemporary imitators, and his character the subject of debate in suburban Literary Societies, I feel constrained to describe his first — and probably his last — public appearance in Glasgow.

The historian of the future will look in vain through newspaper files for any mention of this event. It was strictly incognito the poet came to Glasgow, to which he was not entirely a stranger, as may be gathered from his collected works.

On the occasion I refer to, however, he came by special request, and for a specific purpose — to give a lecture on “The Parlous State of Scottish Poetry,” with illustrations from his own poems and songs. It was in the year of the Diamond Jubilee — 1897. What was called a Jubilee Ode of his had been widely quoted in the Press. One stanza, in particular, seemed to concentrate in itself not only the history of a great epoch, but most of the peculiar qualities of the McGonagallian muse.

For sixty glorious, magnificent years has reigned our noble Queen,
And her reign it has been the most beautiful that ever has been seen;
Since she went upon the Throne the world has grown.
For instance, we’ve seen the rise and progress of the bicycle, the telegraph, and the telephone.
Oh, Britons, upon this day of Jubilee let your voices rise in praise.
Sing “God Save the Queen,” and all manner of lays.
Let the poets be not backward, too, in singing with great glee
In the year 1897 from Land’s End to Dundee.

Such were the lines which induced a pseudo-Literary Society in Dennistoun, mainly composed of Forfarshire and Perthshire natives, to invite the poet of Dundee to a symposium in a licensed restaurant.

As a matter of fact, McGonagall never wrote the Jubilee Ode. It was composed in a Glasgow newspaper office by a townsman of his whose occasional recreation it was to parody the bard and gleefully watch with what rapidity a “spoof” McGonagall lyric would go round the semi-comic Press of Great Britain.

The Jubilee Ode had been exceptionally popular with English newspapers; it even passed muster with Dr. William Robertson Nicoll, who quoted it in the British Weekly. McGonagall himself was quite in ignorance whence such fictitious poems came, but never made any fuss about their being accredited to him; indeed, I suspect not a few of them of being reprinted afterwards by himself.

I went to the Dennistoun entertainment as a guest of Robert Ford, the editor of Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland, and author, himself, of many poems and readings. He was chairman. McGonagall, who had been paid a fee for his attendance and his expenses, turned up in the most fantastic Highland costume, with a long feather in his bonnet, and with an old Volunteer officer’s sword in lieu of a claymore.

Of middle height, shaven and puckered visage, long lyart locks, and a general aspect of being kippered like an East Coast herring, he looked as if deliberately made up for a part in opéra bouffe. On his entry there was vociferous cheering, which he gravely acknowledged by repeated bowing. There was not the slightest evidence that he suspected any irony in the ovation. I already felt a little sorry for the poor old man, and wished I hadn’t come. It was not a harmless, innocent “character” I had been expecting, but rather a crafty merry-andrew deliberately playing up to the conception his employers for the time being had formed of him.

There was, I think, a supper of sorts to begin with; certainly there were toasts, all of a loyal or literary hue. At the start of the proceedings the Secretary read a series of telegrams and letters of apology for absence, ostensibly from some of the most distinguished literary men in England — such as the poet laureate and Rudyard Kipling. All of them expressed the loftiest admiration for the guest of the evening, who murmured his appreciation of these compliments.

Every speech of the evening was on the same note of fulsome adulation of McGonagall; the Chairman’s was a masterpiece of sly mockery which would have been unbearably cruel were it not evident that its victim was hypnotised by the unaccustomed glory of these proceedings and incapable of realizing that his leg was being pulled.

The genius of Robert Burns was admitted, but only as secondary to that of “the Bard of the Tay.” Shakespeare himself, it was agreed, had done nothing finer than the “Jubilee Ode” and many other odes and lyrics which assured the guest of the evening of immortal fame.

In his reply to all this nonsense McGonagall forgot all about his lecture on “The Parlous State of Scottish Poetry.” The speeches had evidently shown him that it was not so parlous as he had thought. While not disputing the verdict of the company that his own works were all that had been said of them, he must also plead that Shakespeare undoubtedly “wrote a quite good poem.” So did Burns. What distinguished his (McGonagall’s) poems from all others was that they were read and approved of by the highest in the land.

Thereupon, the guest of the evening, by request, proceeded to narrate how he had on one occasion made his way to London to pay his homage to Queen Victoria, from whom he had had a communication expressing her gratitude for a few examples of his verse which he had sent to her. Only the stupidity of a lackey at Her Majesty’s front door had prevented him from seeing her in person.

The rest of the programme was made up of recitations by the bard of his own most notable poems. For this purpose the tables had to be removed, and an open space left in the middle of the hall. There was a perfect fury in his declamation; when it came to patriotic sentiment, the sword was drawn; the poet plunged up and down the room, and chased visionary Englishmen into the corners with thrusts from his trusty blade. Elocution was not his strong point, but he certainly knew all about broadsword play as it used to be practised in penny geggies.

Alas! the end of the evening was an anti-climax. Of all the company, probably McGonagall was the only total abstainer. To that extent he had the advantage of his gibers. There came a moment when this derisive joke was carried too far, and suspicions were roused in the poor old man that he was the butt of the company.

In a final speech he was made aware that before he left he was to get a presentation. With agreeable expectancy, he stood up to receive it at the chairman’s hands, and there was suddenly produced for him on a salver, an enormous sausage of many pounds weight, all decorated with ribbons! . . . I felt painfully ashamed of myself.

It was pathetic to see the instant disillusionment of one, who a moment before was unsuspicious, at the fact that he was merely a laughing—stock for a convivial company of dubious taste. There was a tremor in his voice when he protested that he felt hurt and insulted by such a presentation as certainly no other poet in history had been offered. It took a little while and much diplomacy to soothe him down; convince him that the Brobdingnagian sausage was not stuffed with sawdust, and was as sensible an offering to a poet as the laureate’s cask of Canary wine.

A few days later McGonagall wrote back from Dundee expressing his contrition for his touchiness about the sausage, which he now handsomely declared was the best he had ever tasted.

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Comments (4) »

  1. In the year 2013, on the 13th day of November at 2:20 am

    It is quite touching to see McGonagill’s self-belief waver and return time and time again. He demanded greatness and acclaim and only recieved it in mocking form. Only the utterly self-deluded have utter self-belief. They build monuments and holy places for those more persuasive pretenders.

  2. Graeme McAllan
    In the year 2017, on the 7th day of May at 7:09 pm

    McGonagall will remain a Genius forever ;)

  3. Tom S. Fox
    In the year 2017, on the 15th day of May at 1:53 pm

    I have noticed something strange: In once instance, “Jubilee Ode” is spelled with a square bracket instead of a J.

  4. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2017, on the 26th day of May at 12:16 am

    Thanks for pointing that out, Tom. It’s not that strange – when scanning old books for inclusion on this site the software sometimes mistakes one character for another. I proof-read the texts to try to eliminate such errors, but inevitably one of two get through.

    It’s fixed now.

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