McGonagall Plain and Coloured

This piece by Scottish journalist and politician William Power first appeared in his book My Scotland.

“And did you once see Shelley plain?” No — but I once saw McGonagall plain — and coloured.

It was in the Albion Halls in Glasgow, many years ago. The audience — by whom convened I cannot tell — included very few ladies, and most of the gentlemen were smoking thick black. The Bard of Dundee held the stage alone. He was an old man, but, with his athletic though slightly stooping figure and his dark hair, he did not look more than forty-five; and he appeared to have been shaved the night before. 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 thrust and slashed at imaginary foes. A shower of apples and oranges fell on the platform. Almost before they touched it, they were met by the fell edge of McGonagall’s claymore, and 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.

McGonagall’s Glasgow visit was a come-down from his Edinburgh triumph, a contemporary account of which is quoted by Mr. Lowden Macartney in his introduction to the Select Poems of McGonagall. It was like Voltaire’s apotheosis in Paris. When he arrived in Princes Street the moon was shining and somebody remarked that here was a theme for his Muse. With a lofty gesture he replied, “I immortalized this scene years ago.” At the tea-table he informed his entertainers that Shakespeare and Burns were no more than his equals. The company consisted entirely of patricians, with titles more resounding than any to be found in Burke or even Hare. The poet recited some of his warlike and patriotic pieces, and finished up with that touching — though, alas! spurious — effusion, “The Water of Leith”:—

Oh, Water of Leith! Oh, Water of Leith,
Where the girls go down to wash their teeth;
And o’er the stream there is a house right knackie,
Of that grand old man, Professor Blackie.

Thereafter, the Order of the White Elephant was conferred upon the Bard, an illuminated address in Latin was presented to him, and a large drawing of him, as “The Genius of Poetry”, was placed on the steps of the throne.

William McGonagall (it is interesting to note that he had the same Christian name as his great English compeer) was in his youth a handloom weaver in Dundee. Like Tannahill, Alexander Wilson, Watty Watson, and many another Scots minstrel, he had wooed the Muse at the loom; and, when times became hard, he wooed the Press, a much stiffer job. A Dundee weekly saw the possibilities of McGonagallism and published some of his verses. Having acquired a local vogue, he exploited it by having his poems printed on slips of paper, and vending them himself He was no precursor of the Scots Renaissance; and, though of humble origin, was strongly aristocratic in sympathy. His well of English was the evening paper, his favourite personages were Royalties and Generals, and his favourite themes were of an Imperialist and even jingoist nature.

The man that gets drunk is little else than a fool,
And is in the habit, no doubt, of advocating Home Rule.

He was a Conservative working-man — who never worked — with a leaning towards Prohibition, and Votes for Women. In his verses on the latter subject he foreshadowed subsequent developments both in politics and in costume:—

But the time is not far distant, I most earnestly trust,
When women will have a Parliamentary vote,
And many of them, I hope, will wear a better petticoat.

McGonagall, one fears, would have had little use for the League of Nations. He revelled in battles; celebrated Britain’s triumphs over Arabs and Egyptians, and lamented her set-back at Majuba.

Oh! it must have been a gorgeous sight
To see Sir Garnet Wolseley in the thickest of the fight,
In the midst of shot and shell and the cannons’ roar;
While the dead and the dying lay weltering in their gore.

Lord Wolseley good-naturedly acknowledged receipt of the poem on Tel-el-Kebir, and “the incident”, says Mr. Macartney, “was never allowed to be forgotten”. We are not aware whether Queen Victoria had the felicity of perusing the poem on her attempted assassination by a madman:—

God prosper long our noble Queen,
And long may she reign,
Maclean he tried to shoot her,
But it was all in vain.

For God he turned the ball aside,
Maclean aimed at her head,
And he felt very angry
Because he didn’t shoot her dead.

Our Poet had visions of setting the Thames on fire, but the river proved not only uninflammable but very cold, and he returned to Dundee. He also paid a visit to New York, for what exact reason was never known. Regarding the English Metropolis he notes:—

St. Paul’s Cathedral is the finest building that ever I did see;
There’s no building can surpass it in the town of Dundee.

New York did not please him:—

On the Sabbath day you will see many a man
Going for beer with a tin can.

Then at night numbers of the people dance and sing.

With regard to New York and the sights I did see,
One street in Dundee is more worth to me;
And, believe me, the morning I sailed from New York
For bonnie Dundee — my heart it felt as light as a cork.

McGonagall was really always a home-bird, and his most characteristic verses are on Tayside scenes and happenings:—

It is a very magnificent spot the Den of Fowlis,
And where oft the wintry wind it howls
Among its bare and leafless withered trees,
And with fear would almost make one’s heart to freeze.

Stately Mansion of Baldovan,
Most beautiful to see,
Belonging to Sir John Ogilvy,
Ex-M.P. of Dundee.
The scenery of Baldovan
Is most lovely to see,
Near by Dighty Water,
Not far from Dundee.

Like Moses and Homer, the Bard of Dundee had a love of eloquent particularity in regard to numbers. During “The Terrific Cyclone of 1893”,

The gale swept everything before it on its way,
No less than 250 trees and 37 tombstones were blown down at Balgray.

I have a vague recollection of a large tent near the Cowcaddens of Glasgow; a flare of lamps ; and a weird odour, in which very bad meat contended with kerosene and carbolic, permeating a whole district, and taking away all relish from kippers or ham and eggs. In the tent, filling its whole length, was the Tay Whale, the capture of which inspired what some critics regard as McGonagall’s masterpiece. When the boats went out to harpoon the monster in the Tay, it lashed its tail and splashed the water high in the air:—

Then the water did descend on the men in the boats,
Which wet their trousers and also their coats.

The harpooned whale dived, came up dead near Stonehaven, and was towed ashore:—

So Mr. John Wood has bought it for 226 pound,
And has brought it to Dundee all safe and sound;
Which measures 40 feet in length from the snout to the tail,
So I advise the people far and near to see it without fail.

Then hurrah for the mighty monster whale!
Who’s got 17 feet 4 inches from tip to tip of a tail;
Which can be seen for a sixpence or a shilling,
That is to say if the people all are willing.

The mental condition of the Melancholy Dane is not more debatable than that of McGonagall. Was his madness real or feigned? I imagine that at first it had been no more than harmless conceit; that it was a rather deliberate pose for a time, when the poet found it paid; and that finally he became, like the “Sobieski Stuarts”, the victim of his own inventions. He was a decent-living old man, with a kindly dignity that, while it need not have forbidden the genial raillery that his pretensions and compositions provoked, ought to have prevented the cruel baiting to which he was subjected by coarse ignoramuses. Not many of those who laughed at him were so kind as Mr. Lamb, of Lamb’s Hotel, who paid his passage to America, and sent him passage-money and pocket-money for his return voyage. McGonagall deserved well of his day and generation, and Time has dealt handsomely with him. He added to the gaiety of at least one nation, and, as the Ossian of the ineffably absurd, he has entered upon immortality.

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