Examples of McGonagall’s “Poetry” and a Sketch of the “Poet”

This text formed the introduction to Select Poems of McGonagall – the first posthumous collection of his works. It was divided into two parts, the first being entitled Some Examples of McGonagall’s ‘Poetry’ with the Editor’s Observations Thereon, the second Sketch of the ‘Poet,’ with some account of his travels and adventures in the role of tramp-poet, actor and elocutionist.

The Author was an author and poetry seller, who knew McGonagall personally.

One of the things that go to make a man great is uniqueness. He must in some way be totally unlike anybody else in the world. The subject of our sketch did most certainly possess this qualification. Not only did he excel in the peculiar form of writing with which he clothed his ideas when offering them for the edification of an astonished, if somewhat irreverent, public, but, while others might write a little like him, no one ever succeeded in successfully copying his style. In that respect he remained the master, unapproached and unapproachable.

Another sign of greatness is the easy manner in which an individual can thrust aside any rule or regulation calculated to hamper his movements; and here McGonagall excelled every other singer of sweet song. Literary composition is an art, and, like other arts, is governed by certain rules and limitations-we might even say conventions. So great indeed was our “poet” that he deigned to observe only a few-and that the simplest of these. In rhymed verse a certain amount of harmony is usually considered necessary. It is one of the elements totally lacking in the writings of this wonderful man. Rhythm and measure, also, have been considered from time immemorial as essential to the making of good verse, but rhythm and measure were cast aside when our bard took up his pen.

We here introduce a few examples, the better to illustrate our meaning. First we give a few quotations from some well-known poet. Here are the works of Byron handy, so with the reader’s permission we open the volume at random.

From “Hours of Idleness” :-

“Oh, friends regretted, scenes for ever dear,
Remembrance hails you with her warmest tear,
Drooping, she bends o’er Fancy’s urn,
To trace the hours that never can return.”

These are what are called octosyllable rhymed couplets. The next is a specimen of alternate rhymes;

“Deceit is a stranger as yet to my soul;
I still am unpracticed to varnish the truth;
Then why should l live in a hateful control?
Why waste upon folly the days of my youth?”

To one of the sentiments here expressed, McGonagall always subscribed when he was “composing.” He certainly did not “live in a hateful control.”

Here follow two specimens ot our bard`s own :—

(1) From “The Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie”.

“Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast,
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.”

A pious wish indeed. Let us trust the hint was taken.

(2) From “Baldovan Mansion”.

“Stately mansion of Baldovan,
Most beautiful to see,
Belonging to Sir ]ohn Ogilvy,
Ex-M.P. of Dundee.

. . .

When there the little loch nearby,
Whereon can be seen every day
Numerous wild ducks swimming
And quacking to each other in their innocent play.”

The length of his line did not trouble him, He would write one and leave off at a striking word, commence the next, and go bravely forward till a word resembling it occurred, and then commence another couplet.

Here is the opening stanza of his “poem” on “The Burning of the Exeter Theatre“:-

“’Twas in the year of Eighteen Eighty Seven, which many people will long remember,
The burning of the theatre at Exeter on the 5th of September.
Alas! that ever to be remembered and unlucky night,
When one hundred and fifty lost their lives, a most agonising sight.”

Our “poet” revelled in scenes of terror, war and shipwreck.

“A sad tale of the sea I will unfold,
About Mrs. Lingard, that heroine bold,
Who struggled hard in the midst of the hurricane wild
To save herself from being drowned, and her darling child.

’Twas on the 5th of September the Barque ‘Lynton’ sail’d for Aspinwall,
And the crew on board numbered thirteen in all,
And the weather at the time was really very fine
On the morning that the ill-fated vessel left the Tyne.

And on the 19th of November they hove in sight of Aspinwall,
But little did they think there was going to be a squall;
When all of a sudden the sea came rolling in,
And a sound was heard in the heavens of a rather peculiar din.”

And so on for twenty stanzas.

He published at least a dozen broadsides dealing with shipwrecks, and other “moving accidents by flood and field.” Nor did he confine his attention to his own ‘country or even to Europe. In the Spring of 1887, when the great inundation of the Yellow River occurred in China, the “poet’s” muse winged, her ethereal way to the flowery land and brooded over that, event, resulting in the usual penny sheet. We have space for only a few stanzas here and there from most of these lengthy screeds. A full edition of his “works” is not possible at the present time.

As usual, he is very careful to give us the exact date of all these happenings, no doubt for the guidance of historians:—

“’Twas in the year 1887, and on the 28th of September,
Which many people of Honan in China will long remember,
Especially those that survived the mighty deluge,
That fled to the mountains and tops of trees for refuge.

The river burst its embankments suddenly at dead of night
And the rushing torrent swept all before it left and right;
All over the province of .Honan, which for fertility
Is commonly called by historians the garden of China.

. . .

And the torrent poured into the valley of the La Chia River,
Sweeping thousands before it ere a helping hand could them deliver.
Oh! it was horrible to hear the crashing of houses fallen on every side,
As the flood of rushing waters spread far and wide.”

Then there was “The Terrific Cyclone of 1893“—

“’Twas in the year of 1893, and on the 17th and 18th November,
Which the people of Dundee and elsewhere will long remember,
The terrific cyclone that blew down trees,
And wrecked many vessels on the high seas.

All along the coast the storm fiend did loudly roar,
Whereby many ships were wrecked along the shore,
And many seamen lost their lives,
Which caused their children to mourn, and their wives.

And scores of wooden sheds were levelled to the ground,
And chimney stalks fell with a crashing rebound;
The gale swept everything before it on its way,
No less than 250 trees and 37 tombstones were blown down at Balgay.”

The admiring reader may have noticed how often the month provides a rhyme for “remember” in these happenings. Possibly our “poet” accepted this as a special dispensation of Providence. He certainly lost no opportunity of using the chance to make his lines jingle in it.

When no flood, storm, earthquake or shipwreck was forthcoming in order that he might celebrate their devastations, the bard, nothing daunted, went into battle, and with his mighty pen deep-stained with ink, most valorously slew his tens of thousands.

He sang “The Horrors of Majuba“; he preserved in verse an inimitable account of “The Capture of Lucknow“; he made unforgettable in incomparable lines the glories of “Tel-el-Kebir” and “El Teb“; and saw to it that the Generals concerned in these last affairs should receive free copies of the “poems.”

Imagine, if you can, the exquisite gratification of a noble soldier on beholding his deeds on the battle-field immortalised in such lines as these:—

“Ye sons of Great Britain, I think no shame
To write in praise of brave General Graham!
Whose name will be handed down to posterity without any stigma,
Because at the battle of El Teb he defeated Osman Digna.”

Here we have indeed the “Scrawl of Fame!”

This engagement took place in 1884. Two years previously Tel El Kebir had been fought, and its hero, Sir Garnet Wolseley, had duly received his meed of praise from the same unsparing hand. The whole “poem” in question will be found in another part of this book.

Early in 1885, the Battle of Abu Klea having happened along, the bard again got busy, and, mounting his panting Pegasus, charged at the gallop, bearing a wreath of victorious, if somewhat rumpled, verse for the brows of Sir Herbert Stewart.

This time, however, the “Sons of Great Britain” were given a miss, and—

“Ye sons of Mars, come join with me,
And sing in praise of Sir Herbert Stewart’s little army,
That made ten thousand Arabs flee,
At the charge of the bayonets at Abu Klea.”

And on this occasion, in a very elaborate description of the fight, he gives several other heroes “honourable mention.”

“Then Captain Norton’s battery planted shells among the densest mass,
Determined with shot and shell the enemy to harass,
Then came the shock of the rebels against the British Square,
While the fiendish shouts of the Arabs did rend the air.

. . .

For ten minutes a desperate struggle raged from left to rear,
While Gunner Smith saved Lieutenant Smith’s life without dread or fear;
When all other gunners had been borne back,
He took up a handspike and the Arabs he did whack.”

And this was the noble gunner’s reward! He may not have got any other, but if not, here at least had his meed of praise, or, rather, his whack of it.

“It was an exciting and terrible sight
To see Colonel Burnaby engaged in the fight.
With sword in hand, fighting with might and main,
Until killed by a spear thrust in the jugular vein.

A braver soldier never fought on a battlefield,
Death or glory was his motto rather than yield;
A man of noble stature and manly to behold,
And an honour to his country, be it told.”

Just so! And who could tell it better than McGonagall? The gallant Colonel, reposing in whatever paradise brave soldiers go to, would no doubt have his felicity enhanced by such praise as this.

Having once started on his gory path, the “poet” pressed forward with tireless temerity, “The British Army does not know how to retreat,” the brave drummer boy had answered Bonaparte; and it was equally true of McGonagall. He would not turn back now, but rushed on from battlefield to battlefield. When the supply of modern engagements failed through our soldiers kindheartedly giving the foe time to breed fresh thousands for the slaughter, our bard began to ransack history for fields on which to exercise his Pegasus.

Whatever unreasonable critics might think or say regarding the quality of his work, there could be no doubt about its quantity. He was certainly an industrious writer, for the ” poems ” fairly poured from his pen.

In this respect his screed on the Battle of Waterloo is his masterpiece, being the longest of his battle pieces. It comprises twenty-seven stanzas, each with four lines of indefinite length.

There have been many accounts of this great struggle— Napoleon’s last supreme effort. The British, French and Spanish official reports, made on the ground, were given to the world immediately after the fight. Since these days innumerable writers have dealt with it; but it was McGonagall, sitting in his little tenement, in “the Crib” at Paton’s Lane, Dundee, who gave us the most minute and circumstantial description of the proceedings, and by doing so made the world his debtor.

Soon after this he celebrated the Battle of the Alma and the capture of Lucknow; then, returning to Napoleonic times, button-holed the public concerning the fights at Alexandria and the Nile.

Ploughing his martial way still further back in history we are startled to find him pulled up short at Flodden. He was probably on his way to Bannockburn, but got lost on the road. At any rate he does not show his usual good taste in reminding us of that unfortunate business, when we got so badly knocked about. We are almost tempted to look upon his conduct here as an unfriendly act, to use the language of diplomacy. Now, if instead of stumbling upon Flodden Field he had blundered upon Stirling Bridge, how much pleasanter it would have been — and politer!

Perhaps it was with the kindly intent to soothe our ruffled sensibilities at this unhappy break that he soon afterwards regaled us with broadsides on “Bannockburn,” “Stirling Bridge,” “The Adventures of King Robert the Bruce,”, and “An Adventure in the Life of King James V of Scotland.” This latter piece was a version, in the “poet’s” happiest style, of the well-known “Cramond Brig” affair.

Besides these excursions, he ventured from time to time into the realm of light fiction, in competition with the publishers of boys’ romances, for we find among his works titles such as “Jack o’ the Cudgel” and “Grip of the Bloody Hand,” as well as stories in a milder tone— “The Little Match Girl” and “Bill Bowls the Sailor,” and others.

No, you must not think our “poet” was always wallowing in blood. A softer mood would sometimes overtake him. Nature in her various aspects appealed to him, and he drew in his own inimitable way pictures of the cities he visited, and of rivers, lakes and mountains which impressed his artistic soul. Examples of these will be found in our collection. His travels were extensive, and mostly done on foot — the great exception being his expedition to New York, an episode in his career to be fully dealt with, as it deserves to be, later on. Indeed the record of his wanderings is the most interesting and entertaining part of his biography.

Occasionally our bard condescended to touch on some political topic. Among others he issued a “poem” on the Great Franchise Demonstration of 1884, and, the same year, one on what he terms Women’s Suffrage. This last is an extremely interesting performance. Note this: —

“Fellow-men, why should the Lords try to despise
And prohibit women from having the benefit of theParliamentary franchise?
When they pay the same taxes as you and me,
I consider they ought to have the same liberty.

And I consider if they are not allowed the same liberty,
From taxation every- one of them should be set free,
And if they are not, it is really very unfair,
And an act of injustice, I most solemnly declare.”

Is it not astonishing that the “Lords” could be so callous to the sense of justice and so impervious to the power of logic as to disregard this serious admonition?

There are twelve stanzas, but we have space here for only two more:—

“Yes, the Home Secretary of the present day
Against the working women’s deputations has always said Nay;
Because they haven’t got the Parliamentary franchise,
That is the reason why he does them despise.

And that, in my opinion, is really very unjust,
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.”

It is a generous and pious hope; but (poets are often obscure) it is rather difficult to detect the connections between votes and petticoats. Was the “poet’s” sense of propriety disturbed by the character of the garments worn at the time by the lady agitators, or was he simply in need of a rhyme?

From political questions to social problems is a short step, and McGonagall took it. “The Sorrows of the Blind” engaged his sympathetic attention. Lost children and foundlings brought, if not tears from his eyes, at least ink from his pen. But in this connection his strongest effort was in the cause of Temperance. Here are a few characteristic stanzas from his broadside on “The Demon Drink.”—

“Oh, thou Demon Drink, thou fell destroyer,
The curse of society and its greatest annoyer,
What hast thou done to society, let me think?
I answer thou hast caused the most of ills, thou Demon Drink.

Thou causeth the mother to neglect her child,
Also the father to act as he were wild,
So that he neglects his loving wife and family dear
By spending his earnings foolishly on whisky, rum and beer.”

This is certainly most reprehensible, but wait, there’s worse, much worse, further on in the complaint.

“The man that gets drunk is little else than a fool,
And is in the habit, no doubt, of advocating Home Rule,
But the best of Home Rule for him, as far as l can understand,
Is the abolition of strong drink from the land.

And the men that get drunk, in general, wants Home Rule,
But such men, I think, should keep their heads cool,
And try to learn more sense, I most earnestly do pray,
And help to get strong drink abolished without delay.”

There you have it! These wicked Home Rulers! Who would have dreamed it, had not our inspired one published this revelation?

Hear still further:—

“Alas! Strong drink makes men and women fanatics,
And helps to fill our prisons and lunatics;
And if there was no strong drink such cases wouldn’t be,
Which would be a very glad sight for all Christians to see.”

That filling of our lunatics is really too much. It ought to stop. It is sheer lunacy. However much we may fill our prisons with strong drink, we ought not to give it to our lunatics, no matter how much they may need filling.

So much for McGonagall as a social reformer, not, however, apparently in favour of Home Rule, the demand for which is according to him, due to drink— or was he again in need of rhymes?

When reviewing the “poet” on the various battlefields, we saw him glorying in deed of derring do, and of heroes giving up their lives in violence and blood; dut death in its gentler and more general aspect also drew from him many mournful screeds.

As an elegaic “poet” he is as unapproachable as in his other deliverances. But the subjects had to be worthy of his supreme gifts. No common person, no mere friend or acquaintance, could hope to receive his aid to immortality. Princes and Potentates, great Generals, members of the nobility, and eminent Divines— these and these only would he condescend to sing of when they died; and as surely as they died he sang of them. Such a one, in fact, could no more hope to escape McGonagall than they could hope to escape death itself.

His first effort (as far as we are able le discover) in this sort of thing was a commemoration of “The Death of Prince Leopold.” The subject was the Duke of Albany, one of the favourite sons of Queen Victoria. He died in April, 1884, and a week or so after he had been laid to rest, our “poet” was delivered of eighteen stanzas (without medical assistance), and the world became possessed of a full knowledge of the princeling‘s many gifts and accomplishments, as well as a careful report in the best McGonagall style, of the funeral procession.

McGonagall was not present at the ceremony it is true, but neither was he ever present at a battle. This is no difficulty to either a poet or a reporter, for it is one which one’s imagination easily overleaps.

Here follow a few excerpts from the “poem”:—

“Alas! noble Prince Leopold he is dead!
Who often has his lustre shed,
Especially by singing for the benefit of Esher School,
Which proves he was a wise prince and no conceited fool.

Methinks I see him on the platform singing the Sands o’ Dee
The generous-hearted Leopold, the good and free,
Who was manly in his actions and beloved by his mother,
And in all the family she hasn’t got such another.”

(This is rather a back-handed compliment to the remaining members of Victoria’s numerous family).

Now, about the funeral:—

“When the Duchess of Albany arrived, she drove through the Royal Arch,
A little before the Seaforth Highlanders set out on the funeral march,
And she was received with every sympathetic respect,
Which none of the people present seemed to neglect.

The scene in Georges Chapel was most magnificent to behold,
The banners of the Knights of the Garter embroidered with gold;
Then, again, it was most touching and lovely to see
The Seaforth Highlanders’ inscription to the Prince’s memory.”

But the “most touching” part of the whole “poem” is the reference to the Great Queen herself—

“Her Majesty was unable to stand long, she was overcome with grief,
And when the Highlanders lowered the coffin into the tomb she felt relief,
Then the ceremony closed with singing ‘Lead, kindly light’,
And the Queen withdrew in haste from the mournful sight.”

Two years previous to this event the august Lady had been the subject of one of the bard’s earliest efforts. In 1882 a disloyal wretch named McLean (he was mad, of course), with a meretricious disregard of exalted station and the value of gunpowder, fired a pistol at the Queen as she rode in her carriages He was ultimately placed in an asylum, but this punishment did not satisfy McGonagall, who proceeded to deal with him as he deserved.

The Attempted Assassination of the Queen” will be found on another page, and the reader will agree with us that if McLean could have foreseen such a result of his attempt, mad though he was, he would have held his hand, and saved his powder and shot— for the “poet!”

Another of McGonagall’s elegies commemorates the death and burial of Lord Tennyson. Now, this is rather surprising, for he made no secret of the contempt in which he held almost all other poets. He had once, when being complimented by certain of his admirers, who assured him he had not his equal in the world, modestly admitted the truth of this, but claimed one exception.

“I bow the knee,” he said, ” to Shakespeare, but to no other poet, living or dead!”

Consequently it was a matter of some wonder when the Tennyson broadside appeared, but this unbending of the great man to notice the passing of a contemporary (though inferior) wooer of the Muse may have been due to mere good nature, or it may have been due simply to the fact that Tennyson had died; for, since he was a prominent figure, and a peer, McGonagall was bound to be on his (death) track.

There may have been another and secret reason for his magnanimity. The Laureateship being vacant, who knows what hopes may have stirred in his bosom? Vanity and ambition, do you say? But these genial, venial faults are always pardonable in the great; and seeing he considered. himself the only living man fit for the post, why should he not have aspired to it?

Examination of the “poet’s” works, however, in the set of his broadsides we have fortunately been able to collect, discloses the pleasing fact that he had, previous to this, condescended to bestow a modicum of praise on another fellow-bard—to no less a person than Robert Burns. It is true that the piece sis very short — a matter of twenty lines — whereas his usual length for a screed was anywhere from sixty to a hundred odd. But what of that? Must we not be thankful that our “poet” took the trouble to notice the other fellow at all?

Lest the precious composition should get mislaid before proper arrangements are made to render it permanent, we here transcribe it in full—

Address to Robert Burns

Immortal Robert Burns of Ayr,
There’s but few poets with you can compare,
Some of your poems and songs are very fine.
“To Mary in Heaven ” is most sublime.
And then again in your “Cottar’s Saturday Night”
Your genius there does shine most bright,
As pure as the dew-drops at night.
Your “Tam o’ Shanter” is very fine,
Both funny, racy and divine.
From John o’ Groats to Dumfries,
All critics consider it to be your masterpiece;
And also you have said the same,
Therefore they are not to blame.
And in my opinion both you and them are right,
For your genius there does sparkle bright,
Which I most solemnly declare
To thee, immortal bard of Ayr.
Your “Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon”
Is sweet and melodious in its tune;
And the poetry is moral and sublime,
And in my opinion nothing could be more fine.
Your “Scots wha ha’e wi’ Wallace bled”
Is most beautiful to hear sung or read,
For your genius there does shine as bright
Like unto the stars of night.
Immortal Bard of Ayr, I must conclude my muse,
And to speak in praise of thee my tongue does not refuse,
For you were a mighty poet — few with you could compare,
And also an honour to Scotland, for your genius it is fair.”

In our examination of the bard’s works, it goes without saying that the reading of even his most tragic pieces is rather conducive to hilarity than serious thought. This was certainly not their author’s intention, but was due to his peculiar method of arranging his ideas. Whatever else he accomplished it must be conceded that in his way he added to the gaiety of nations.

But it would be unjust to leave our readers under the impression that this result of reading his works had no exceptions. Their entirely fugitive character has made it somewhat difficult to collect them, and many of his earliest effusions have been lost. This is the more regrettable as there is reason to believe these included many pieces of different quality from most of those that have survived.

One such poem has been rescued from oblivion, and is given the first place in the collection published in this little volume. lt is in praise of the Den of Foulis, one of the beauty spots of Scotland. In the early summer this little valley is literally carpeted with primroses, and on a clear, sunshiny day presents a picture lovely beyond words.

The discerning reader, in perusing McGonagall‘s poems will be conscious of a roused spirit struggling to express itself, and convey to others the wonders and joy of a true lover of nature.

When we consider the limitations imposed by lack of education and other adverse circumstances, it will be agreed that in such a piece as “The Den of Foulis” our bard was more truly successful in expressing himself than in his more ambitious efforts.

Here follows some account of our bard’s personality — his efforts to attract that public attention which usually accompanies the possession of unusual gifts, his journeys to distant parts, including a visit to America. He calls on Queen Victoria, but the lady is not “at home” to him — his stage and platform experiences.

McGonagall honoured Dundee by fixing his residence there, although his wandering proclivities often took him far afield, and in the city of jute and marmalade he was for many years a familiar figure.

The present writer, in his boyhood, often met the “poet,” and to this day retains a vivid impression of him.

He was a strange, weird, drab figure, and suggested more than anything else a broken down actor. He wore his hair long and sheltered it with a wide rimmed hat. His clothes were always shabby, and even in summer he refused to discard his overcoat. Dignity and long skirts are considered inseparable, and a poet is ruined if he is not dignified.

He had a solemn, sallow face, with heavy features and eyes of the sort termed fish-like (I don’t know why). Slow of movement, with a slight stoop, acquired at the hand·loom formerly, but latterly at the desk when he left off weaving cloth to take up the more congenial task of weaving dreams, leaning as he walked on a stout stick, he moved about the street from shop to shop, from office to office, and from house to house in the residential parts of the town, vending his broadsides.

For McGonagall did not wait for an unappreciative public to ask for his wares. The well known business principle embodied in the saying:— “If you want a job well done, do it yourself,” was faithfully followed by him in the circulation of his “works.”

We have mentioned his hand-loom weaving. Yes; it was his original vocation. To-day this form of industry, one of the most ancient and honourable of those occupations which have come to be numbered among the lost arts, is practically extinct. By the time McGonagall had reached middle life, it was already in a dying condition. He experienced the hardships of poverty due to unemployment, a circumstance which will, “in these hard times,” give him many sympathisers.

The exact date when he turned his thoughts to literary composition is not known. His first efforts were submitted to various newspapers, but quietly ignored. In this experience his was certainly no exceptional case. It is questionable if any writer ever “took the types,” until after many disappointments.

There was one Dundee weekly paper that saw certain possibilities in the “poems,” and began to print them. In this case the expected happened. The appearance of a set of verses couched in such a peculiar style attracted attention at once. It also gave occasion for much merriment. The “poet” was for some time encouraged to persevere in his efforts, and each new “poem” was greeted with eager amusement.

McGonagall became famous locally, but the slight pecuniary return did little to ease the grip of poverty, and on the advice of some of his professed admirers he decided to issue his productions in a more remunerative form.

His first essays in this direction were modestly printed on thin slips of common paper, and were timidly offered to a carefully selected circle of likely purchasers. A specimen will be found in the collection, “The Beautiful City of Edinburgh.” After a few such tentative ventures, he issued his first famous battle piece, “Tel El Kebir.” It was grandiloquently “Dedicated to Sir Garnet Wolseley, and the British Army under his command.”

A copy of the “poem” was sent to General Wolseley, who good-naturedly caused an acknowledgement to be returned This incident was never allowed to be forgotten.

Then followed the Battle of El-Teb and the death of Prince Leopold. Copies of these being duly dispatched to various eminent persons, more acknowledgements were forthcoming, and in order to advise his public of these happy happenings, McGonagall caused an elaborate headpiece to be set at the top of all his broadsides. First there was the Royal Arms — the Lion and Unicorn, with V.R. in heavy type. Below this the title of the “poem,” then three sections of announcements, one on either side containing copies of the “letters” from his great correspondents, the centre one reading as follows:—

(His address at the time).

Patronised by Their Majesties,Lord Wolseley of Cairo, H.R.H. The Duke of Cambridge, the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, and General Graham, also the nobility and gentry, etc.

The last etc. we suppose stands for the common rabble, who can only be thus vaguely alluded to in the same breath with such august beings as princes, statesmen and generals.

The ex-hand-loom weaver was an aristocrat at heart, and despised the lower orders.

Soon after these occurrences there happened an event of great importance, differing somewhat from those ordinarily sung by our “poet.” An Arctic whale visited the Firth of Tay. It was probably attracted by the odour of whale oil, which forms one of the principal ingredients of the atmosphere surrounding Dundee, the oil being extensively used in the manufacturing of jute, which, as you may know, is the staple trade of that salubrious city. The strayed monster was immediately set upon and incontinently slain. It was afterwards bought by an enterprising showman of the locality, who exhibited it to the mill folks at so much a head. The mill hands did not mind the smell of the whale. They pass the greater portion of their lives among the odour of — whale.

McGonagall has immortalised the Tay Whale. He gives us a touching picture of it sporting in the water “among the little innocent fishes in the beautiful Tay”; and then goes on to describe the Homeric battle with the ocean mammoth, its wounding with harpoons, its flight out to sea, and its being found near Stonehaven, dead, by some fishermen.

Read it, dear reader, and you will presently acknowledge that this Poem of a Whale is a Whale of a Poem.

This one saw the light in 1884, a year which must be considered as the hay-day of the “poet’s” genius, for during this year he produced more “poems” than in any other similar period.

Shopkeepers, office clerks and other business men, as well as clergymen and the like, soon became familiar with McGonagall, for each new “poem” was assiduously pushed, the town and the outlying districts constituting his “beat.” Besides the “penny a time” which was his regular modest charge, he occasionally received a small piece of silver, as well as gifts of food and clothing.

But he was not content to be a poet only. He affected the play actor and elocutionist, and offered his services to theatre managers as an exponent of the histrionic art, and it was then that he acquired real notoriety.

His appearance on the stage of a “penny gaff” was an event long remembered in Dundee. It resulted in what was very near a riot, and the same thing happened each time he faced an audience. The matter became so serious that the “gaff” proprietor was quietly informed by the town authorities that his appearances must cease, and cease they did.

But you cannot suppress a really great man. Shut out of the “theatre,” he offered to give “entertainments,” and then began a series of events which in their results were even worse than the play-acting scenes; “poet-baiting” with a strong element of horse play became a favourite amusement of the young bloods of the city.

A number of youths and young men would organise themselves, temporarily appoint a committee to interview the “poet,” and arrange with him to give an evening’s “performance” for a liberal fee. A small hall would be engaged for a certain night. McGonagall was the only “artist” on the programme. His repertoire would consist of a selection of his own works, varied by passages from Shakespeare’s plays. His favourite character on these occasions was MacBeth, and he appeared in Highland costume. The result may be imagined. Uproarious does not describe it even faintly. There could never be any possibility of doubt that his audience was “entertained.”

He was often made the victim of cruel and heartless practical jokes. One day he received a letter purporting to come from no less a person than Mr. Dion Boucicault, the playwright, inviting him to call, with the view of arranging an engagement. The “poet” lost no time in proceeding to the address given in the letter. Here he found a number of his local patrons and one gentleman who was a stranger to him. The latter was introduced to him as Mr. Boucicault, and after a few minutes spent in conversation he was asked to favour the great playwright with examples of his abilities. Very willingly he there and then rendered some of his favourite Shakespearean pieces, as well as a few of his own.

The stranger listened with perfect gravity, and at the conclusion of the performance told the “poet” he had never witnessed anything like it, and assured him that arrangements would be immediately made to have McGonagall transferred to London so that the people there might enjoy the felicity of seeing him act. He then took his leave, and McGonagall went home treading on air.

Alas! A few days after he learned that it had been all a hoax. But to make certain, he wrote to Mr. Boucicault in London. That gentleman sent back a sympathetic disclaimer, accompanied by a gift of money, which did much to soothe the “poet’s” wounded feelings.

Now, the idea of going to London having got into his head persisted in staying there, and so worked upon him that at length he determined to go there. And go he did. With some of the money he had received he took a passage on a D.P. & L. steamer, and sailed for the modern Babylon.

His sojourn there was brief, and his experience disappointing. He called on both Mr. Boucicault and Sir Henry lrving, but did not succeed in seeing either. The numerous flunkeys and semi-officials who surround such great persons formed an insurmountable barrier. But the visit was not quite without result; for to this circumstance London owes the glorious fact that she is included in the list of great cities celebrated by a bard whose equal, in his own way, was never seen on the earth.

In was seldom that our bard used in his many journeys any other mode of travelling than the good old-fashioned one of walking. This was especially the case when he went to Balmoral to visit Queen Victoria. This journey was no more satisfactory than the London one had been. The august lady was “not at home” to Mr. McGonagall. So the indefatigable bard trudged home to Dundee and wrote a “poem” about it.

But his greatest adventure of travel —·one might call it his Oddessey — was his visit to America, which took place in the Spring of 1887, about six months after his excursion to London, and which the reader will find has been duly celebrated in a “poem.”

McGonagall conceived the idea of visiting the United States, on being assured by some of his “friends” that in the land of the almighty dollar he would be certain to receive not only a fuller recognition of his gifts, but also a more substantial pecuniary return for his “labour.”

But our bard, as we have seen, suffered from that fell trouble which in all ages has marked the poet — poverty. In those days, when the cost of commodities and of public service was much lower than at present, a steerage passage from Glasgow to New York cost about five pounds. But McGonagall seldom had five shillings to call his own.

A plan was suggested to him which he hastened to adopt: procuring a penny pass book, he went the rounds of his patrons, explaining his desire and soliciting their aid. The appeal met with a generous response. Among the last to whom he applied was Mr. A. Lamb, the proprietor of Lamb’s Hotel in Reform Street. This gentleman was more than a hotel-keeper. He had himself a literary turn, and was an enthusiastic collector of rare editions. When he saw the list he added a generous subscription, and then gave his client a piece of advice.

“McGonagall,” he said, “they are doing this in the hope of getting rid of you. They hope you will not be able to get back.”

To this question the “poet” could reply only by a blank stare, but Mr. Lamb smilingly reassured him.

“Never mind,” he said; “if you don’t get on in America, and you find you would like to come home, write to me, and I’ll see to it that you get.”

So McGonagall set out on this fresh adventure with a light heart. He sailed from Glasgow in the steerage of the “Circassia” of the Anchor Line. It was a slow boat, taking nearly fourteen days to make the run. As is the custom on these boats, concerts were held by the passengers to while away the time, but Ulyssus took part in the first only. There was no profit in them. He kept his own company during the greater part of the voyage.

It is not our intention to dilate on his experience. The fruit of it is to be found in his “Jottings of New York.” He had here a greater disappointment than in London. He was fortunate in finding some friends with whom he lodged during his stay. The Americans simply ignored him, and after a very brief stay he was fain to recall Mr. Lamb’s promise.

The promise was promptly and generously redeemed. His genial benefactor not only sent to the Anchor Line Company at New York the amount necessary for a second cabin passage home, but remitted to the “poet” a sum of money for side expenses. So that our wanderer returned not only richer in experience, but richer in pocket as well.

lt was immediately after his return from the American trip that he moved his residence from Paton’s Lane to Step Row. Here he lived for about six or seven years, turning out his “poems” as new subjects were suggested. Then finding both his practice and his prestige somewhat diminished, he sought a new home in Perth. But the Fair City proved unappreciative of his talents. The area was too circumscribed; the people willing to buy his broadsides were too few in number. Poverty now dogged his steps more closely than ever; and in this emergency he was contemplating a return to Dundee, when his native city claimed him.

McGonagall’s reputation as a fun provoker and “butt” had become known far and wide by this time, and a number of persons, having learned that he was not satisfied in Perth, invited him to remove to Edinburgh. He accepted, and the manner of his return to Modern Athens is described very freely in a letter published some time ago in a paper of that city.

“… He was met by a few admirers at the station. On reaching Princes Street, which looked extremely beautiful in the moonlight, one of the party ventured to remind him that if he cared to dip his pen in the poetic well, here was an excellent subject. With a majestic gesture he replied, ‘I immortalised this scene years ago.’

His opinions regarding Shakespeare and Burns were vastly entertaining. He gravely informed those around the tea table that he considered himself even greater than these celebrities.

His entrance into the large room was an occasion for wild cheering. The chairman introduced McGonagall, and the members of the gathering were in turn presented to the poet. The entire company were patricians for the night, with fictitious titles. During the evening the poet condescended to allow one of his own effusions to be recited. The rendering was inimitable, and the poet complimented the Thespian confrere on his ability.

The star turn was soon provided. McGonagall came forward and gave ‘Bannockburn,’ ‘Stirling Bridge,’ and ‘Wililam Wallace.’ A stout cudgel did service instead of a sword for the purpose of slaying imaginary enemies. This weapon proved dangerous to all around him. By special request the poet was asked to recite one of his minor poems, and he obliged with ‘The Waters of Leith.’ One of the verses ran as follows:—

‘Oh, water o’ 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.'”

(Note.— We have our doubts as to the genuineness of this extract. It has little or no resemblance to McGonagall’s other “works.” It was probably the production of one of his baiters.)

“The fun waxed fast and furious until midnight. ‘Never throughout the entire proceedings was there the semblance of a smile on his sombre countenance. Perhaps he was no fool when he had our guineas in his pocket. Be that as it may, the money so spent was a good investment.

The Order of the White Elephant was conferred on McGonagall in the University Hotel. After the ceremonial an illuminated address in latin was presented. Finally, a large drawing of the poet as ‘the Genius of Poetry’ was placed on the steps of the throne. I wonder what became of these treasures.”

The foregoing extract will give the reader an idea of the manner in which his professed admirers treated McGonagall. In one of the pieces selected for publishing in the present work, to wit, “The Heather Blend Club Banquet,” we are presented with the “poet’s” own view of a similar affair. This took place at Inverness.

It will be seen that the people who interested themselves in him (with few exceptions, like Mr. Lamb) were moved by the desire to make a game of him and amuse themselves with his eccentricities; and it has been suggested that he quite understood this, and “fooled them to the top of their bent” because of the profit attached. This may or may not be true. We do not care to hazard an opinion.

Now that he has left the earthly stage, and gone on a journey from which we cannot expect him to return, we are inclined to think kindly of the strange fellow; and though in perusing his “works” it is impossible to repress the feelings of hilarity and mockery they inspirge, yet we must grant him to have been in his way an extraordinary character and a most interesting study.

In the words of his own favourite poet, we may say:—

“Take him for all in all,
We shall not look upon his like again!”

Comments »

No comments have been entered yet.

Leave a comment