The Great McGonagall

This essay by Scottish poet and writer Hugh MacDiarmid is taken from his book Scottish Eccentrics published in 1936.

Contrary to the general opinion — in Scotland at all events, for I am not sure that he is much known in the English-speaking world outside Scotland — William McGonagall 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 of bad. There is so much that is bad in all the poetry that Scots people know and admire that it is not surprising that for their pet example of a good bad poet they should have had to go outside the range of poetry, good, bad, or indifferent, altogether. McGonagall is in a very special category, and has it entirely to himself. There are no other writings known to me that resemble his. So far as the whole tribe of poets is concerned, from the veritable lords of language to the worst doggerelmongers, he stands alone, “neither fish, flesh, nor good red-herring,” and certainly his “works” will be searched in vain for any of those ludicrous triumphs of anti-climax, those devastating incongruities, which constitute the weird and wonderful qualities of bad verse. This, of course, is recognised by experts in this peculiar department of literature. Hence, although it may be true enough of McGonagall that, in his own way,

O’er all the Bards together put,
From Friockheim to Japan,
He towers above, beyond dispute,
Creation’s greatest man,

he, rightly, does not figure in such an anthology as The Stuffed Owl. As Wordsworth says:

Yet, helped by Genius—untired Comforter,
The presence even of a stuffed owl for her
Can cheat the time. . . .

But McGonagall had no such help, and the last thing his incredible sincerity sought to do, or succeeded in doing, even to the tiniest extent, was to cheat the time.

It is laid down in the above-mentioned anthology that “good Bad Verse is grammatical, it is constructed according to the rubrics, its rhythms, rimes, and metres are impeccable. Generally the most distinguished poets — from Cowley to Tennyson — provide the nicest pieces in this anthology. The first quality of Bad Verse which the compilers have aimed at illustrating is bathos; other sure marks are all those things connoted by poverty of the imagination, sentimentality, banality, anaemia, obstipation, or constipation of the poetic faculty . . . and what Mr Polly called ‘rockcockyo’.” McGonagall stands outside all these requirements. His productions know nothing of grammar, the rubrics and the accepted devices of versification. Bathos is a sudden descent from some height — a manoeuvre of mood of which McGonagall’s dead levelness of utterance is quite incapable. Poverty of the imagination is a different thing altogether, and produces quite different effects, from that utter absence of anything in the nature of imagination at all in which he stands sole and supreme. His invariable flatness is far below mere banality; sentimentality and “rockcockyo” of any sort are entirely foreign to his stupendous straightforward seriousness alike of intention and expression; and anaemia is a term that suggests a human character of which his inspired work is completely devoid. So we find nothing at all in any of the Scottish examples given in this Anthology which resembles McGonagall’s effects or suggests his singular signature. John Armstrong may write:

For from the colliquation of soft joys
How changed you rise, the ghost of what you was,

or describe Cheshire cheese as

That which Cestria sends, tenacious paste
Of solid milk . . .

or tell, in his Advice to the Stout, how

. . . The irresoluble oil
So gentle late and blandishing, in floods
Of rancid bile o’erflows.

Boswell may report the explosion of mirth which greeted the reading aloud at Reynolds’ house of the apostrophe,

Now, Muse, let’s sing of rats,

with which the poet, James Grainger, pompously began a fresh paragraph. Grainger, too, it was who, in the lines which begin, “And pity the poor planter”, describes the dangers of blight to which the crops are subject and ends his passage thus:

The greenest garlands to adorn their brows
First pallid, sickly, dry, and withered show;
Unseemly stains succeed; which, nearer viewed,
By microscopic arts, small eggs appear,
Dire fraught with reptile life; alas, too soon
They burst their filmy gaol, and crawl abroad,
Bugs of uncommon shape. . . .

And Grainger’s was the Call to the Muse:

Of composts shall the Muse disdain to sing?
Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacred Muse
Nought sordid deems, but what’s base; nought fair
Unless true Virtue stamp it with her seal.
Then, planter, wouldst thou double thine estate,
Never, ah, never, be ashamed to tread
Thy dung-heaps.

Then there is Robert Pollok, author of The Course of Time, who now and again vouchsafes choice fragments such as the following:

And as the anatomist, with all his band
Of rude disciples, o’er the subject hung,
And impolitely hewed his way, through bones
And muscles of the sacred human form,
Exposing barbarously to wanton gaze
The mysteries of nature, joint embraced
His kindred joint, the wounded flesh grew up,
And suddenly the injured man awoke
Among their hands, and stood arrayed complete
In immortality—forgiving scarce
The insult offered to his clay in death.

Burns might have been much better represented than he is in this collection, where all that is given is Verses on the Death of Sir James Hunter Blair, but the anthologists justly observe that “though the genius of Robert Burns is but grudgingly admitted by his countrymen, whose passion for their national poets Dunbar and James I tend perhaps to blind them to his undoubted merits, it must be allowed that Burns was a poet far above the average, a keen Freemason, a delightful table-companion, and a father whose habit of christening his daughters, legitimate and otherwise, by the name of Elizabeth, shows some appreciation of official or Whig history”. And they add, very appropriately, that “a modern critic has well observed that when Burns unwisely discards the vernacular his efforts resemble ‘nothing so much as a bather whose clothes have been stolen’ “.

Scottish poetry is undoubtedly relatively very poor in the particular kinds of effects these anthologists are concerned with — largely because the poetic pretensions of Scotland have never soared so high, or been therefore susceptible of such falls, as those of England. My countrymen cannot vie with their Southern neighbours in the production of such gems as

He cancelled the ravaging plague
With the roll of his fat off the cliff;

or Chatterton’s

The blood-stained tomb where Smith and Comfort lie;

or Wordsworth’s

Spade, with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands;

or Scott of Amwell’s

Methinks of friendship’s frequent fate
I hear my Frogley’s voice complain.

Even in this department, however, the Scottish production is far richer than is commonly realised. We have, for example, those lines in James Hogg’s The Wife of Crowle, when the ghost

Has offered his hand with expression so bland,

and the same poet’s quatrain in Young Kennedy.

Who wept for the worthy MacDougal? — Not one.
His darling Matilda, who, two months agone,
Would have mourned for her father in sorrow extreme,
Indulged in a painful delectable dream.

Scotland’s Cornelius Whur, however — its prince of bad poets — is the eminent divine and religious writer, Zachary Boyd (1590-1653). Boyd was a scholar of very considerable learning; he composed in Latin and his qualifications in that language may be deemed respectable; his works also bear the evidence of his having been possessed of a critical knowledge of the Greek, Hebrew, and other languages. “He has”, says one writer, “great fertility of explication, amounting often to diffuseness, and, in many cases, it would have been well had he known where to have paused.” This is a very considerable understatement. He continually lapses into the ludicrous. He celebrated the fight at Newburnford, 28th August 1640, by which the Scottish Covenanting Army gained possession of Newcastle, in a poem of sixteen octavo pages. It opens with a panegyric on the victorious Lesley, and then proceeds to describe the battle:

The Scots cannons powder and ball did spew,
Which with terror the Canterburians slew.
Balls rushed at random, which most fearfully
Menaced to break the portals of the sky.
In this conflict, which was both swift and surly,
Bones, blood, and brains went in a hurly-burly.
All was made hodge-podge. . . .

The pistol bullets were almost as bad as the cannon balls. They

In squadrons came, like fire and thunder,
Men’s hearts and heads both for to pierce and plunder,
Their errand was (when it was understood)
To bathe men’s bosoms in a scarlet flood.

In The Flowers of Zion he has a long grotesque description of Jonah’s situation and soliloquy in the whale’s belly:

What house is this, where ‘s neither coal nor candle,
Where I nothing but guts of fishes handle?
… I sit still in such a straitened roome
Among such grease as would a thousand smother. . . .
In all the earth like unto me is none,
Far from all living I here lie alone,
Where I entombed in melancholy sink,
Choked, suffocated. . . .

In the vast mass of Boyd’s unpublished manuscripts there must be many wonderful gems of absurdity. There is, for one thing, his preposterous ichthyology of which Mr John Buchan gives us a taste (from the MS. of Boyd’s The English Academie) in his anthology The Northern Muse:

There is such great varietie
Of fishes of all kind
That it were great impietie
God’s hand there not to find.

The Puffen Torteuse, and Thorneback,
The Scillop and the Goujeon,
The Shrimpe, the Spit-fish, and the Sprat,
The Stock-fish, and the Sturgeon . . .

The Periwinkle and Twinfish—
It’s hard to count them all;
Some are for oyle, some for the dish;
The greatest is the Whale.

This, however, though somewhat akin, has a pedantic quality, an insistence on trifling detail, which McGonagall would have disdained. His very different angle of approach to such a subject is shown in his stanzas on The Famous Tay Whale:

’Twas in the month of December, and in the year of 1883,
That a monster whale came to Dundee,
Resolved for a few days to sport and play
And devour the small fishes in the silvery Tay.

He describes the efforts made to harpoon the whale, and how it was finally towed ashore at Stonehaven, and ends:

And my opinion is that God sent the whale in time of need,
No matter what other people may think or what is their creed;
I know fishermen in general are often very poor,
And God in His goodness sent it to drive poverty from their door.

So Mr John Wood has bought it for two hundred and twenty-six pound
And has brought it to Dundee all safe and all 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,
Which has 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 are all willing.

What this amounts to, of course, is simply what quite uneducated and stupid people — the two adjectives by no means necessarily go together, for many uneducated people have great vitality and a raciness of utterance altogether lacking here — would produce if asked to recount something they had read in a newspaper. It is almost exactly of material of this kind that the consciousness of current events consists so far as most people are concerned. In their retailings of, or comments upon, such matters, the hoi polloi would also reflect their personal feelings, as is done here, by the tritest of emotional exclamations. If this is not quite all they are capable of “carrying away” of what they hear, see, and read, it is, at any rate, a very fair specimen of their powers of articulation.

The deviations from this stuff of common consciousness, or rather common conversation, are two. In the first place, there is the organisation of the material not only into some regular succession of sentences but into verses if only of the crudest kind. This is to be explained partly by the fact that McGonagall was trying to write up to a very vaguely conceived, or misconceived, level; he was trying to be “litt’ry”. A similar laboriously unnatural organisation manifests itself very often when uneducated people try “to talk polite” rather than in their natural, much racier, if quite ungrammatical and disjointed way — and partly by the fact that a kind of rude rhyming is a very common knack and comes much more easily to many such people than any similar attempt to “rise above themselves” in prose would do.

In the second place, there is the insistence on giving the exact figures. This was a special characteristic of McGonagall’s. It is just possible that it was due at the outset to a vague Biblical reminiscence, but his constant use of it is due to his incorrigible laziness. In these circumstances the precise numbers were a veritable stand-by to him. They fascinated him; there was something so incontestable, so convincing about them; there was no getting past them — they clinched the whole matter. If his work gave him a real thrill at all it was when he came to such figures. Apart from that, however, his use of them was due to his laziness because he found them where he found his themes — in newspaper reports, which he did little but hammer out till he got rhymes at the end of his sprawling lines. What set McGonagall off on this tack was a combination of three factors — his laziness, his peasant conceit (carried, of course, to an absolutely abnormal length), and the fact that he lived in Dundee. Dundee was then and has since been the great home and fostering centre of the cheapest popular literature in Scotland, and huge fortunes have been built up there on precisely the chief ingredients of McGonagall’s art — mindlessness, snobbery, and the inverted snobbery of a false cult of proletarian writers. So far as literature has been concerned, the idea of Burns as a “ploughman poet” has been fatal. Scotland has suffered since from an endless succession of railwayman poets, policeman poets, and the like. The movement was in full swing when McGonagall was caught up in it. It culminated in the collection and publication by a gentleman who lived near Dundee of the work of scores of utterly worthless rhymers, in no fewer than sixteen volumes, with a table showing the occupations of the contributors. It is not surprising that McGonagall thought — or was easily persuaded by one of his friends or more likely one of his tormentors — that he could do as well as any of these. Having once performed the miraculous feat of knocking a bit of journalese into rough rhyming verses, he naturally conceived an inordinate admiration for his own powers — and so far as any question of comparative worth arose it naturally seemed to his type of mind, with its almost inconceivably complete absence of intellectual background, that this was only a question of one man’s opinion against another’s, and McGonagall was not the man to cry stinking fish. He was, indeed, genuinely incapable of realising or being persuaded that his poems were not at least as good as any ever written — with the possible exception of Shakespeare’s — and he did not hesitate to proclaim the fact. It may have been his persistence in this, the realisation that he really believed it and was prepared, if need be, to become a martyr for genius’s sake, that led to his subsequent shameful baiting. For though the great majority of his contemporary Scottish rhymsters were exceedingly vain, and believed, no matter how belauded their contemptible productions might be, that far greater praise was their real due and would be accorded by posterity, it was their fashion to pretend to be humble. There was no pretence about McGonagall — a fact which in no way runs counter to his cunning understanding that most of those who praised him so egregiously did not believe what they said, though for the sake of a few coppers it paid him to accept their bogus attentions and finally allow them to “give him the bird” to their hearts’ content. Where McGonagall differed from all these other working-men poets was that he knew nothing of poetry — nothing even of the execrable models they copied, nothing of the whole debased tradition of popular poetry in which they operated. He was quite incapable of all their stock clichés, their little flights of fancy, any indication whatever of play of spirit, anything like their range of subject matter, and, above all, of any humour. He, in fact, heartily despised them and all the common attributes and graces of their verses, which he regarded as trivial and unworthy of his portentous Muse. But he stuck fast by the fundamental ingredients of the great Dundee recipe for sound family literature — a love of battles and an incontinent adoration of kings, queens, members of the royal family, the nobility, and the leading officers of the army and the navy; in short, the recipe which has made modern Scotland what it is. Knowing his own perfect loyalty and integrity in these great matters, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” to which he was continuously subjected were incredible to him. He deserved better — in fact, there was nothing that he did not deserve. He was sustained through all his miserable career by this unwavering consciousness of his high deserts and enabled to regard all his calamities as a series of monstrous and inexplicable injustices. His “poems” were, in truth, little worse than those of the vast majority of Scottish poets whom the very type of people who baited him regarded with affectionate interest and approval; his “poems” were, in truth, little worse than those the vast majority of the Scottish people, now as then, regard as very poetry — but, in both cases, the little and yet how much it is! If, however, “extremes meet”, there is no little justification for McGonagall linking his name with Shakespeare’s, and indeed the course of literary history shows countless such linkings with that great name.

The connection between versification and mendicancy is a very old one. The writers of the old broadsides required a livelier turn of language, some faculty of satire or invective, and a sense of news values, all of which McGonagall conspicuously lacked. Neither had he the social address which was such an asset to Duncan Graham, the Skellat Bellman of Glasgow, for example. His affiliations are rather with the melancholy individuals, purporting to be ex-soldiers, who hawk terribly bad sets of verses from door to door to-day. I have no idea how this line pays these gentlemen, but a slightly higher type of tramp poet, selling little pamphlets of verse, seems to do fairly well, judging by several of these men I have known personally, who, little though they made by it, at least wrung a livelihood out of it and in so doing made a great deal more than all but one or two of the genuine and really gifted poets of our time. Even in Scotland to-day some of these tramp poets are faring none too badly. McGonagall would have been exceedingly glad to have had a tenth of what they earn.

Others before McGonagall, much abler men, have tried in vain in Scotland to make a living by peddling their verses. Alexander Wilson, who subsequently became the great American ornithologist, for instance. “His muse was so busy that, in 1789, he began to think of publishing. As he could get no bookseller, however, to risk the necessary outlay, he was compelled to advance what little gains he had stored up, and getting a bundle of prospectuses thrown off, he set out with his pack for the double purpose of selling muslins and procuring subscribers for his poems. In the latter object he was grievously disappointed; but Wilson was not a man to travel from Dan to Beersheba and say all is barren, even although foiled in the immediate purpose of his heart. Upon his return home, he obtained the publication of his poems by Mr John Neilson, printer in Paisley, when he again set out on his former route, carrying with him a plentiful supply of copies for the benefit of those who might prefer poetry to packware. His expectations were soon resolved in the present instance. The amount of his success may be gathered from a passage in one of his letters from Edinburgh, wherein he says: “I have this day measured the height of a hundred stairs, and explored the recesses of twice that number of miserable habitations; and what have I gained by it? only two shillings of worldly pelf.” In short, poetry and peddlery proved equally unsuccessful in his hands; he had neither impudence, flattery, nor importunity enough to pass off either the one or the other upon the public, and he returned, mortified and disappointed, to Lochwinnoch, where necessity compelled him to resume the shuttle.

McGonagall had also been a weaver, but once he abandoned that trade to follow the Muse he never “resumed the shuttle”. There was no turning back for this indomitable spirit, who might, in all seriousness, have declared in Henley’s words:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

His head was often enough literally bloody. At first  — living in one of the vilest slums of Dundee — he secured a regular clientele for his penny poems, but he also fancied himself as a tragic actor. His appearances in various public halls in the city led to his being pelted with refuse of all kinds and generally mishandled, and the police warned the lessees that he must be given no further engagements. McGonagall justly enough protested against this, declaring that he was the innocent party and yet he was being punished and deprived of a source of livelihood. The police would not listen to his complaints, however. His appearances on the streets next became signals for all manner of baiting and hooliganism. It became impossible for him to try to sell his broadsides at street corners or in the shops, or even to go round his regular clientele. He was made the prey of practical jokes and hoaxes of all sorts and sent off on wild-goose chases to London and to America. Forced to leave Dundee, he lived for a little in Perth; but Perth was too small to yield even the minimum number of poem-purchasers at a penny a time to keep him (and his wife) in the barest necessities. So he went to Edinburgh (where he died), and there, and in Glasgow, was subjected to extreme ill-usage and baited unmercifully by students and others who organised mock dinners at which he was crowned as the world’s greatest poet and decorated with bogus honours. The small collections taken up at these affairs, as the price of his ignominy, and frequently of his acquiescence in physical assault and battery, were his main — almost his only — source of income. He became a national joke. His claims to be superior to every other poet, with the sole exception of Shakespeare, were in all the papers — with samples of his indescribable doggerel. Ludicrous incidents were invented — like his attempted interview with Queen Victoria at Balmoral; and most of his alleged sayings and poems (certainly all of these which show the slightest wit or advance his claims in a super-Shavian fashion) were invented by his baiters.

The way in which McGonagall’s effusions were thrown off in penny broadsides makes anything like a collection of authentic examples at this time of day impossible. But the genuine McGonagall article is fairly easily distinguishable from the far too farcically funny efforts fathered upon him. There is nothing superficially funny about his authentic productions at all — they are all dead serious.

Through it all McGonagall remained a perfect Micawber, always looking for something to turn up, and believing that at any moment he would be translated to his rightful place in the enjoyment of world-wide fame. The only little tokens he ever got which he could construe as the smallest advance instalments of the meed of praise that was his due were the formal acknowledgements he got from various distinguished people to whom (as is the custom of Scottish poetasters) he sent copies of his productions. These acknowledgments enabled him to have an elaborate headpiece set at the top of his broadsides -— with the Royal Arms, the Lion and Unicorn, and V.R. in heavy type; extracts from the letters flanking the poem which occupied the centre of the page; and, under his own name beneath the title of the latest effort, the magical phrases “Patronised by Their Majesties, Lord Wolseley of Cairo, H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge, the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, and General Graham, etc.”

As his latest editor, Mr Lowden Macartney, says: “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.”

Nothing in the history of modern Scotland is more discreditable than the treatment accorded — and allowed by the authorities to be accorded — to McGonagall. It is without a single redeeming feature. Certainly the type of “humour” it gave rise to does nothing to redeem the brutal baiting to which he was subjected; it is more deplorable than McGonagall’s poems in every way and has been one of the most widespread and powerful influences operating in Scotland, for upwards of a century, amongst all classes of the population. It is a wholly vicious and unintelligent facetiousness — the flower of which is the “Scotch coamic” and the typical “Scotch joke”. It is displayed at its very worst, perhaps, in the bogus autobiography of McGonagall, entitled The Book of the Lamentations of the Poet McGonagall, and sold at a shilling a copy. This is now exceedingly rare, although it was published as recently as 1905 — and naturally, of course, in Dundee. Its only really valuable feature is its magnificent frontispiece photograph of McGonagall, an appalling portrait, a fish-belly face, as of something half-human struggling out of the aboriginal slime. All the incurable illiteracy, the inaccessibility to the least enlightenment, and the unquenchable hope of the man are to be seen in the eyes. It is, indeed, a face to make one despair of humanity. What passes almost universally for wit in Scotland is splashed all over these unspeakably nauseating pages. The book is “Dedicated to Himself, knowing none Greater”. The chapters are headed by fake quotations, like this, from the Delhi Thug:

Rejoice, Edina, shout and sing,
And bless your lucky fates;
McGonagall, the lyric king,
Was born within your gates.

We are given harrowing pictures of the ill-used bard “cleansing my garments from rotten eggs, ostensibly administered as an antidote to rotten egotism”. Writing of the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, we find him quoting Mark Twain’s statement about a city in Italy, “The streets are narrow and the smells are abominable, yet, on reflection, I am glad to say they are narrow — if they had been wider they would have held more smell, and killed all the people”. An alleged gift to be sent to the famous poet by the King of Burmah leads McGonagall’s wife to complain of the idea of sending “an elephant to a man that couldna feed a canary”; and there is any amount of this sort of thing (an alleged dialogue between McGonagall and one of his patrons, following a misunderstanding) — “I am prepared to apologise, poet,” he frankly rejoined; “when I called you by that dreadful name, believe me, I meant the opposite of the reverse”. “Thank you,” I replied, “I can see now that it was only the want of ignorance on my part, and I am fully satisfied with your apology” — and holds out his hand, only to get a copper tack rammed into it. These are the excruciatingly amusing things which delighted McGonagall’s baiters.

“Look here, poet,” a shopkeeper in Perth is reported saying to him, “I do not wish to flatter any man to his face, it is against my creed; but common honesty and a sense of fair play compels me to say that your poems are unique. In Scott, Byron, or Burns, for instance, if you omit a line, ten to one you lose the sense. With you it is totally different. I have read a whole production of yours, omitting each alternate line, and getting quite as much sense and literary power out of it as ever. Nay, more, if you read the fourth line first, and work back, the effect is quite as wonderful. The other night my wife pointed out to me that, in experimenting with a recent issue, she managed to derive even more benefit from it by reading the last line first, the first line next, the penultimate line third, the second line fourth, and so on till its natural conclusion by exhaustion. With this one I have bought just now we are to try another experiment to-night. We mean to clip each word separately, shake them all up in a bag, and paste them together on a clean sheet of paper as they come, and will let you know the result. If it is as I anticipate, I would strongly advise you to take out a patent, and float it in £l shares — ‘The Patent Reversible Poetry Company Ltd.’ — in which I would be glad to invest as a shareholder.”

“I thanked the gentleman cordially,” McGonagall is given as replying, “but told him that such commercial enterprises were not at all in my line, but that I would gladly supply the raw material and sell him the patent rights for a consideration if the result of his next trial justified his anticipations. At our next interview he told me that ‘the test was too severe even for my effusions, so that meantime at least the matter would go no further’. At the same time he answered me that both he and his good lady fully agreed that the individual words were fully up to the Shakespearean standard, the only difference discernible in the completed article consisting merely in the matter of their arrangement.”

A few pages further on, the autobiographer recurs to the matter: “And now, gentle reader, I will give you an object lesson regarding the peculiarities of my poetry, so eloquently referred to in a previous part of this chapter by my Perth shopkeeper friend and his lady. I refer, of course, to the reversible, interchangeable, doublebreasted, universal-jointed nature of my composition. This is the distinguishing mark of my work, to copy which is moral felony. Like the rock we used to buy at the fairs, break it where you will, the hall-mark of excellence stares you in the face. Read the lines in any order you like; begin at the top, middle, or bottom, and continue in any direction you choose, and you receive the same benefit.”

The song given in the spurious autobiography, “I’m the rattling boy from Dublin town,” with its catchy refrain

Wack fal the dooral, ooral, ido,
Wack fal the dooral, ooral, aà,
Wack fal the dooral, ooral, ido,
Wack fal the dooral, ooral, aà,

is not an authentic McGonagall item. He worked in a different vein altogether. His true sort is to be found in the verses on The Attempted Assassination of the Queen:

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.

Maclean must be a madman,
Which is obvious to be seen,
Or else he wouldn’t have tried to shoot
Our most beloved Queen;

or, again, in his Address to the New Tay Bridge:

Beautiful new railway bridge of the silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seems to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou art the greatest railway bridge of the present day,
And can be seen for miles away,
From north, south, east, or west, of the Tay;

or, once more, in his Descriptive Jottings of London:

As I stood upon London Bridge and viewed the mighty throng
Of thousands of people in cabs and buses rapidly whirling along,
All furiously driving to and fro,
Up one street and down another as quick as they could go.
Then I was struck with the discordant sounds of human voices there
Which seemed to me like wild geese cackling in the air;
And the River Thames is a most beautiful sight,
To see the steamers sailing upon it by day and by night.

All these are typical McGonagallese. As Mr Macartney remarks: “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. McGonagall 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 has ever succeeded in successfully copying his style. In that respect he remained the master, unapproached and unapproachable. Another 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 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. … 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.”

In view of current developments in Scotland it is interesting to note that McGonagall was opposed to Home Rule. He sang:

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 I 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.

Mr William Power in his book My Scotland tells how he attended one of McGonagall’s performances in the Albion Halls in Glasgow many years ago. “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.

“The mental condition of the Melancholy Dane”, Mr Power concluded, “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. 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.”

Further Reading


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