Awful Poet who Didn’t Know it

If indeed there was such a thing as poetic justice, this profile would be written in rhyming stanzas, fulsomely praising the man who, with undeniable justification, is known as the world’s worst poet. While many have tried, few have quite caught that which makes McGonagall an original, and far be it from us to attempt the impossible. But indulge if you will the students of Glasgow University who, in 1891, composed an ode to their archetype:

Among the poets of the present day
There is no one on earth who can be possible for to gainsay
But that William McGonagall, poet and tragedian.
Is truely the greatest poet that was ever found above or below the meridian.

Aficionados are not fooled. True, this pallid parody has preserved McGonagall’s banality, the tortuous rhyme and flagrant disregard for metre, but it lacks that quintessential something, the indefinable quality that transforms the bad into the execrable. Therein lies McGonagall’s genius, recognised not least by himself. “Dedicated to Himself, knowing none greater,” he inscribed his Autobiography.

Also dedicated to him this week is a McGonagall supper in the manner (and even the country) of Burns, a sort of prelude to the tribute Dundee bravely plans to pay later this year as part of its anniversary celebrations.

Self-puffery is not unheard of among poets, a profession even more afflicted by the heebie-jeebies than golfing. But McGonagall, as ever, was in a class of his own. With unrestrained immodesty he pronounced his first appearance on stage in Dundee a triumph. “I received unbounded applause,” he recalled. There is in such remarks the hallmark of an innocent abroad. But William McGonagall fooled only himself, in his heyday they came to laugh and stayed to jeer. He was the unwilling recipient of baskets of fruit. Pelted with rotten eggs, he spouted on, oblivious to the mirth he had perpetrated.

Such self-inflicted cruelty reduced Hugh MacDiarmid, the most fiercely intellectual of Scottish poets, to pity rather than rage. “William McGonagall,” he said, “was not a bad poet; still less a good bad poet. He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and bad”.

To MacDiarmid, McGonagall was the ultimate product of the Ploughman Poet syndrome. Thanks to the cult anyone who could rhyme “louse” with “mouse” thought they had the talent to become a poet. By the late 19th century the movement was in spate and McGonagall, encouraged perhaps by mischievous friends, went with the flow. But what marked him out from the myriad of “working-man poets”, said MacDiarmid, “was that he knew nothing of poetry… He was quite incapable of all their stock cliches. their little flights of fancy, any indication whatever of play of spirit, anything of their range of subject-matter, and, above all, of any humour”.

This last is a serious charge. How can it be, McGonagall sympathisers ponder, that a man so capable of rendering others incapable with laughter should be so insensitive to it himself! Is there not a case to be made for McGonagall the Mocker, laughing up his sleeve in the celestial Hall of Fame? Could it be that the last dead syllable in every stanza is deliberately deflationary, an antidote to contemporaries such as Tennyson who had the knack of getting it right?

In a word, no. When McGonagall was born they broke the mould. As Nicholas T Parsons noted in The Joy of Bad Verse: “His depth of ungiftedness is sufficient to deny even the intellectual’s desire to create respectable justifications to enjoy him.” But as Parsons would be the first to admit, no one can ignore him. From Chambers Biographical Dictionary (“His poems are uniformly bad, but possess a disarming naivety and a calypsolike disregard for metre which still never fail to entertain”) to The Oxford Companion to English Literature (“His … unscanned doggerel continues to entertain.”), he is the one Scot certain to be included when the day of reckoning beckons. “Few people,” Parsons remarked, “have acquired a niche in history by producing what nobody applauded.”

McGonagall put his fame down to two events; his visit to Balmoral to pay homage to Queen Victoria, and his Tay Bridge poem. He was a devotee of the Queen and wrote several verses, his quest for rhyme prompting him frequently to pay a back-handed compliment:

“Oh! it was a most gorgeous sight to be seen,
Numerous foreign magnates were there for to see the Queen;
And to the vast multitude there of women and men,
Her Majesty for two hours showed herself to them.”

With this rare instance of Royal indecent exposure to hand, McGonagall went north, to present his personal compliments. “You’re not poet to Her Majesty,” said the well-read constable on duly at Balmoral. “You cannot deny that I am: patronised by Her Majesty,” declared McGonagall unconscious of the irony. Thereafter he styled himself, “Poet to Her Majesty”.

But it was the building of a bridge over the Tay that was to put a torch to his imagination. In three poems he heralded its construction and architects, before his muse plummeted to new depths in his immortal ode in commemoration of its collapse. With Tam o’ Shanter, The Tay Bridge Disaster is one of the few — very few — Scottish poems (“sic”, MacDiarmid) of which natives know more than a line:

“Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879.
Which will be remembered for a very long time.”

After that Dundee and McGonagall were synonymous, which is why some McGonagallites looked askance when they heard that a supper was to be held on Thursday in his honour at the Aberdour Hotel, Dumfries, in the heart of Burns country. Fortified with soup, stovies and Dundee cake, which a spokesman for the hotel says there is a dearth of in Galloway, those attending will be regaled with readings from the poet’s sundry works: Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Yet More Poetic Gems Sylvester Stallone eat your heart out.

Dundee’s turn to honour him comes later this year when its 800th anniversary celebrations include a play, just possibly the unveiling of a plaque, and a proposed appearance by Billy Connolly, who empathises with the way the “funny wee man” was treated by Dundee. “Time after time he warned Dundee that if the city didn’t treat him better he would seek his fortune elsewhere.”

IT’S a different story now. “We very much want to honour McGonagall with several events,” is the official line from Dundee 800. The question on many people’s lips is why? Why associate yourself with the worst in the world? Why hold yourself up to ridicule? Why adopt Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant, so dubbed by students, when he was born in Edinburgh?

They keep very quiet about this in the Festival City, but the facts are indisputable. McGonagall was born in the Grassmarket, either in 1825 or 1830, in penurious circumstances. Both his parents were Irish, and it has been suggested that scholars should look west for peculiarities of the tragedian’s gift, to the Celtic oral tradition. “My parents were poor, but honest, sober. and God-fearing.” he wrote. His father was a hand-weaver. When the cotton-trade in Edinburgh collapsed the family decamped to Paisley, then Glasgow, where he went to school. He came to Dundee when he was 11, starting work in a mill where he “learned to be an expert hand-loom weaver … and began to take a great delight in reading books.”

Shakespeare was his favourite author and when he made his stage debut he played Macbeth, prolonging the fight scene with Macduff. While some actors specialised in dying, McGonagall preferred to give audiences a good duel, and he would swashbuckle interminably, roared on by the crowd.

It is typical of McGonagall that he never grasped the difference between an audience yelling “rhubarb” and “encore”; he carried on regardless of public reaction. His could be a hard role to bear, as he observed in his New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee (“Every morning when I go out/ The ignorant rabble they do shout/ There goes Mad McGonagall”) but this was a rare display of resentment. With more stamina than those who today head straight for the arts council when creditors chap, he made his way by selling his poems on the street. Only once was he paid for a poem, two guineas for a paean to Sunlight Soap:

“You can use it with great pleasure and ease
Without wasting any elbow grease:
And when washing the most dirty clothes
The sweat won’t be dripping from your nose.”

Such effusions seem to adhere to the page; to catch the essence of McGonagall, he should be read aloud. As Clive James said of Shirley Conran, he always tells us exactly what we do not need to know. “He never selects,” says Parsons, “but piles on details of utter banality in awkward rambling dirges which often end suddenly and arbitrarily with a perfunctory moral. The experience is like that of being driven unsteadily down a meandering road in a rattling old banger, which finally turns abruptly into a brick wall.”

They were certainly not the stuff of which fortunes are made, and McGonagall sacrificed much for his art. On good nights he would make 4/9d, once thwarting a mugger who tried to deprive him of his takings. But he was not the only one to suffer. Towards the end of his career, William Power witnessed a performance by McGonagall in Glasgow: “He wore a highland dress of Rob Roy tartan and boy’s size. After reciting some of his own poems, to an accompaniment of whistles and cat-calls the Bard armed himself with a most dangerous-looking broadsword and strode up and down the platform, declaiming Clarence’s Dream and ‘Give me another horse — Bind up my wounds.’ His voice rose to a howl. He slashed and thrust at imaginary foes. A shower of apples and oranges fell on the platform. Almost before they touched it, they were … cut to pieces. The Bard was beaded with perspiration and orange juice. The audience yelled with delight; McGonagall yelled louder still, with a fury which I fancy was not wholly feigned. It was like a squalid travesty of the wildest scenes of Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso. I left the hall early, saddened and disgusted.”

It was what Tam o’ Shanter might have called an “unco sight”, the like of which we will not ever see again.

from Scotland on Sunday, 10th Feb 1991
reproduced by kind permission of The Scotsman

Comments (3) »

  1. Sheilah Mead
    In the year 2013, on the 24th day of September at 2:09 am

    My paternal great-grandmother was from the McGonagall clan of Glasgow. The cousins are doing an ancestry search and I was so pleased to read about our possible distant relative, William. Save me the platitudes, I was in hysterics reading his poem to Queen Victoria. The cousins are coming from Chicago, Massachusettes, and Seattle and are meeting at the Highland Still House in Oregon City, Oregon. There will be 16 of us who haven’t laid sight on each other in 48 years. I plan to memorize this little ditty and recite it in my best Scottish brogue at the table, after we have raised our tankards in a toast to our carrot red-haired and creamy freckled-skinned grandmother, Catherine Cecelia O’Connor, daughter of Catherine McGonagall of Glasgow and Edward O’Connor of County Cork, Ireland, who married Julius Baganowicz (aye, she strayed from the proud path of her heritage). Thank you for your website. It has given me great pleasure.

  2. Sheilah Mead
    In the year 2013, on the 24th day of September at 2:23 am

    Neglected to mention that my two darling daughters and I traveled to Scotland in 1995. One daughter spent a year in England on her high school exchange, and one daughter spent a college semester at the University of Glasgow. What a magnificent building! The plan was to visit Sarah’s host parents in London then drive to Glasgow to meet with Maggie at the university. We drove the M8 straight from London to Glasgow, right-hand drive, in a rain storm. What an adventure. We arrived in Glasgow as the pubs were emptying. Miraculously found Hills Head, but had no idea where to find Maggie. The windows were steamed from the rain. I rolled down the window and looked around. From out of the darkness I heard her giggle. I yelled, “Maggie?” She yelled, “Mother, what are you doing here?” Hard to get away from your mother. Now I know why single-malt Scotch was created for I have never been so cold in entire life. It was the only thing that warmed me. I love the Scottish people. They are in your face, but their arms encircle you with warmth.

  3. In the year 2014, on the 24th day of July at 3:46 pm

    A TRIBUTE TO WILLIAM MCGONAGALL
    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    Just look at how he stops and reposes
    Irregularly on the garden path
    He seems to smell, but he’s rhyming roses.
    He calculates meter, but can’t do the math.
    His middle name was Topaz (not Aquamarine).
    He became the worst poet Britain had seen
    His work so bad it bordered on obscene
    (A tragic fact that he could never glean,
    Since he possessed a thank you letter from the queen).
    As penniless as a church mouse’s fleas
    He had a rough life and was seldom at ease.
    Performing his verse, he was pelted with peas
    Eggs, flour, herrings and such as these,
    But never did he doubt his abilities.

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