The Great McGonagall

This essay by art historian and critic Johnathan Mayne appeared in the 1953 edition of The Saturday Book, an annual literary and artistic omnibus published each year between 1941 and 1975.

There can be few poets whose work stands in less need of the delicate re-interpretation and rubber-gloved exegesis which are normally employed for the purposes of literary exhumation — and yet the inescapable fact remains that William McGonagall has now been dead and buried for fifty years, and, outside of a small, scattered audience of aficionados, he has been forgotten. If he were alive today (which would make him exactly a hundred and twenty—three years old), all that you would want would be for him to stand up and recite his poems; this is what he used to do in Dundee, in pubs and public halls and sometimes even at the circus, in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties of the last century. As it is, he needs a compére, and if I can perform that service without getting in the way of his performance, and without seeming to make fun of the performer — which is far from my intention, but, as you will see, may yet prove a little difficult — then I shall feel that some kind of justice has been done. During his life the best honour that he achieved, either in Dundee, Edinburgh or New York, was to be enjoyed as a harmless eccentric. For the fifty-first anniversary of his death, I think that we can contrive something a little better.

McGonagall was born in 1830 in Edinburgh, of Irish émigré parents. After moving about a bit in Scotland, looking for work, the family settled in Dundee, sometime in the late ‘thirties. It was here that the young McGonagall was sent to work, as a handloom weaver — his father’s trade. And it was here that his talents began to flower. He remained a handloom weaver by profession throughout his life; but by vocation he was, in his own words, “Poet and Tragedian”. He was, in fact, a tragedian first; this is how he describes his awakening as a poet.

“The most startling incident in my life,” he wrote, “was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877. During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room (the rhymes can hardly be accidental), I sat thinking about the thousands of people who were away by rail and steamboat, perhaps to the land of Burns, or poor ill-treated Tannahill, or to gaze upon the Trossachs, in Rob Roy’s country, or elsewhere wherever their minds led them. Well, while pondering so, I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and I remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry . . . It eas so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my hand, and a voice crying “Write! Write!” So I said to myself, ruminating, “Let me see, what shall I write?” Then all at once a bright idea struck me to write about my best friend, the late Reverend George Gilfillan: in my opinion I could not have chosen a better subject, therefore I immediately found paper, pen and ink and set myself down to immortalize the great preacher, poet and orator. These are the lines I penned, which I dropped into the box of the Weekly News office, surreptitiously, which appeared in that paper as follows:

W. M’G., Dundee, who modestly seeks to hide his light under a bushel, has surreptitiously dropped into our letter-box an address to the Rev. George Gilfillan. Here is a sample of this worthy’s powers of versification:

Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
There is none you can excel;
You have boldly rejected the Confession of Faith,
And defended your cause right well.

The first time I heard him speak
’Twas in the Kinnaird Hall,
Lecturing on the Garibaldi movement,
As loud as he could bawl.

My blessing on his noble form,
And on his lofty head,
May all good angels guard him while living,
And hereafter when he’s dead.

P.S. This is the first poem that I composed while under the divine inspiration, and is true, as I have to give an account to God at the day of judgement for all the sins I have committed.”

The poetic fire, when it lights, normally lights upon the young. It is worth observing that McGonagall was forty-seven when he composed this first poem, amid all the circumstances of a mystical experience. But you would be mistaken to suppose that in his earlier life he had been a stranger to poetry. In his youth he spent most of his spare time reading; and his favourite reading consisted of what were called Shakespeare’s “penny plays,” and more especially, he tells us, Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet and Othello. Literary source-hounds will, no doubt, attribute his later relish in the death of kings and other large-scale disasters to the type of these early influences. But he had not only read these plays; for like a better-known Shakespearean weaver he acted them, too. When he wrote his Brief Autobiography, some time in the ‘nineties, he could not be sure how many years ago it was that he made his public début as a tragedian. But he remembered that it was at Mr Giles’s theatre in Lindsay Street quarry, Dundee, and he remembered quite a lot more about the occasion, whenever exactly it was. The play was Macbeth; McGonagall considered it rather hard that he had to give Mr Giles one pound in cash for the privilege of playing in his theatre — but then he went on to relate how his shopmates at the handloom clubbed together to raise the money for him. And so he was able to triumph. “When I appeared on the stage,” he wrote, “I was received with a perfect storm of applause, but when I exclaimed “Command they make a halt upon the heath!” the applause was deafening, and was continued during the entire evening, especially so in the combat scene. The house was crowded during each of the three performances on that ever—memorable night . . . What a sight it was to see such a mass of people struggling to gain admission! Hundreds failing to do so, and in the struggle numbers were trampled under foot, one man having lost one of his shoes in the scrimmage . . .”

This was the scale on which McGonagall worked; and when he suddenly became a poet in his own right it was not long before he found his proper scale in that department too. He was only trying his hand on the Rev. G. Gilfillan, sincere and genuine though his tribute was. But what he needed was a larger, more breathtaking subject; and very shortly after he had discovered his powers, a thoroughly worthy theme presented itself to him, almost literally on his doorstep. Dundee has not much to offer in the way of imposing architecture, for it is a grey, sullen-looking, hardly beautiful city, and its setting is uninteresting. But it has got the Tay Bridge — or rather, just about now it had it for the first time. The Tay Bridge was, and for all I know may still be, the longest railway bridge in the world; and it proved exactly what was required to stimulate McGonagall’s eloquence. Together with its partner, the Newport Railway, it inspired four poems which are as effective as anything that he wrote. Here is part of the first of them, called “The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay.” (Incidentally, McGonagall loved Homeric epithets, and for him the Tay was always “silvery,” just as Dundee was traditionally “bonny”; in cold fact, the Tay is about as silvery as the Danube is blue.)

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
By Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

The next poem in the series is a panegyric on the Newport Railway – that is, the railway that led up to and over the bridge. It is a kind of lyrical scherzo after the solemn and important first movement. The poet thinks of the housewives of Newport, who to Dundee will often resort, which will be to them profit and sport, by bringing cheap tea, bread and jam, and also some of Lipton’s ham, which will make their hearts feel light and gay . . . And he also thinks of the people of Dundee who will cross over to Newport, where they can have excellent sport, by viewing the scenery beautiful and gay, during the live-long summer day . . . .

But the first poem, though joyful and triumphant, carried a prophetic hint of doom; for as we know now, God was not to protect all travellers by night and day. And in the third poem McGonagall was able to write at the full stretch of his narrative powers, with horror and pathos as well as majesty, of “The Tay Bridge Disaster.”

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.

’Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say —
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say —
“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And he shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking how they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way
And down went the train and the passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known,
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge· is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which filled all the people’s hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale,
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silvr’y Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silvr’y Tay,
I must now conclude my lay,
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Then he winds up the sequence with a fine passacaglia, a lengthy piece in which he is able to praise — not without a touch of self-congratulation, perhaps — the strong brick piers, the thirteen central girders and the buttresses of the New Tay Bridge, which has lived up to his testimonial and has lasted intact to the present day. Between them these four poems call forth most of the qualities and most of the emotional attitudes which distinguish McGonagall’s work during the next twenty years. Here are the delight in the grandiose, the exclamatory superlatives, the effective repetitions, the topographical and chronological exactness, the pathos and the bathos, and the local patriotism. This last quality stirs him, in one of the poems that I have not quoted, to introduce a favourite comparison between the Tay and Brooklyn bridges (to the shameful disadvantage of the latter)

because thou spannest the silvery Tay,
A mile and more longer I venture to say;
Besides the railway carriages are pulled across by a rope,
Therefore Brooklyn Bridge cannot with thee cope.

But the poet’s impressions of New York are more satisfactorily to be seen in another poem, which we shall come to in due course.

I mentioned earlier McGonagall’s relish for gigantic disasters, and now that you have seen one of its fullest expressions, it is hardly necessary to draw attention to it once more. But what we have not yet demonstrated — unless the Emperor of Brazil can be held to count — is the intensity of his Royalism. I must qualify that word; what I mean is his devotion to an idea of greatness, which is perhaps most typically called forth by Kings and Queens, but when none are to hand, Princes, Dukes, Generals, Explorers or Philanthropists will do almost as well. As you would expect, he seemed happiest of all when these ideas could be associated with catastrophes — there are poems on “The Death of Prince Leopold” for example, and “The Funeral of the German Emperor”; or with near-catastrophes, such as “The Attempted Assassination of the Queen.”

The aged Queen Victoria was the source for the most potent magic of all. McGonagall gives a touching account in his Autobiography of his pilgrimage — for it was just that — to Balmoral, where the Queen was in residence. This happened in 1878, after he had received what he called “Her Majesty’s royal letter of patronage for my poetic abilities.” But after two nights on the road, which he described in a long and vivid passage of prose, heightened by a landscape poem which is set in the middle of it, he got no further than the policeman at the gate.

It is at this moment, more than at any other in the Autobiography, that the reader feels a human being standing simply in front of him. In much of what remains, McGonagall postures — or seems to posture — and over-dramatizes himself, so that he tends to make us giggle when he would strike us dumb. But here he is just a rather tired pilgrim whose Saint, or Goddess, is too busy to receive him. He fully realized that the policeman was his inferior and was not taking him as seriously as he deserved. But he also realized that, in spite of the letter, he was asking a great favour in requesting to be admitted to the Royal Presence; and when he was told “They cannot be bothered with you,” “Well,” he replied, “it cannot be helped.”

At this point the constable started to tease McGonagall — though he does not use that word. He asked him to recite some of his verses. But with perfect composure and dignity, McGonagall stated his terms, which were unshakeable. “When I give specimens of my abilities,” he explained, “it is either in a theatre or some hall, and if you want to hear me, take me inside of the lodge, and pay me before I begin; then you shall hear me. These are my conditions, sir; do you accept my terms?” But the constable did not, and the poet returned the way he had come, and arrived back in Dundee three days later, “foot-sore and weary, but not in the least discouraged.” He concludes his account without a touch of irony, and with one of his favourite adjectives, “So ends my ever-memorable journey to Balmoral.”

Four years later the Queen was nearly assassinated on the platform of Windsor station by a lunatic named Maclean. It was an occasion of great popular sympathy, and McGonagall, whose allegiance had been in no way shaken by the rebuff at Balmoral, rose heartily to the event. He produced the best — and unconsciously the funniest — of his “royal poems,” and here it is:

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.

There’s a divinity that hedgeth a king,
And so it does seem,
And my opinion is, it has hedged
Our most gracious Queen.

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

Victoria is a good Queen,
Which all her subjects know,
And for that God has protected her
From all her deadly foes.

She is noble and generous
Her subjects must confess:
There hasn’t been her equal
Since the days of good Queen Bess.

Long may she be spared to roam
Among the bonnie Highland floral,
And spend many a happy day
In the palace of Balmoral.

Because she is very kind
To the old women there,
And allows them bread, tea and sugar
And each one to get a share.

And when they know of her coming,
Their hearts feel overjoy’d,
Because, in general, she finds work
For men that’s unemployed.

And she also gives the gipsies money
While at Balmoral, I’ve been told,
And, mind ye, seldom silver,
But very often gold.

I hope God will protect her
By night and by day,
At home and abroad
When she’s far away.

May He be as a hedge around her,
As He’s been all along,
And let her live and die in peace
Is the end of my song.

The next important event in McGonagall’s career provides also the best illustration of another, coherent department of his oeuvre — his topographical poems. This is his visit to New York, in the year 1887. And like the narrative of his first poetic experience, it is best told in his own words:

“My next adventure was going to New York, America, in the year 1887, March the 10th. I left Glasgow on board the beautiful steamer “Circassia” and I had a very pleasant voyage for a fortnight at sea; and while at sea, I was quite a favourite among the passengers, and displayed my histrionic abilities, to the delight of the passengers, but received no remuneration for so doing . . . When I arrived at Castle Garden, New York, I wasn’t permitted to pass on to my place of destination until the officials there questioned me regarding the place in New York I was going to, and how old I was, and what trade I was; and of course I told them I was a weaver, whereas if I said I was a poet, they wouldn’t have allowed me to pass, but I satisfied them in their interrogations, and was allowed to pass on to my place of destination. During my stay in New York with a Dundee man, I tried occasionally to get an engagement from theatrical proprietors and music-hall proprietors, but alas! ’twas all in vain, for they all told me they didn’t encourage rivalry, but if I had the money to secure a hall to display my abilities, or a company of my own, I would make lots of money; but I am sorry to say that I had neither, therefore I considered wisely it was time to leave … “

I cannot discover exactly how long McGonagall stayed in New York, but I think it can only have been a few weeks. Nor do I know what he did when he was there, except for what he has told us himself lt is likely, however, that he attempted to sell his poems in the streets, in the form of penny broadsheets — and perhaps some of these are lying concealed in lumber-rooms and cupboards to this day. But when he returned to Dundee, he put his impressions of his visit into a poem which has some of the innocent particularity of a painting by the Douanier Rousseau or Grandma Moses, and which demands to be quoted in full.

Oh mighty city of New York! you are wonderful to behold,
Your buildings are magnificent, the truth be it told,
They were the only thing that seemed to arrest my eye,
Because many of them are thirteen storeys high.

And as for Central Park, it is lovely to be seen,
Especially in the summer season when its shrubberies and trees are green;

And the Burns statue is there to be seen,
Surrounded by trees, on the beautiful sward so green;
Also, Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott,
Which by Englishmen and Scotchmen will ne’er be forgot.

There the people on the Sabbath-day in thousands resort,
All loud in conversation and searching for sport,
Some of them viewing the menagerie of wild beasts there,
And also beautiful black swans, I do declare.

And there’s beautiful boats to be seen there,
And the joyous shouts of the children do rend the air,
While the boats sail along with them o’er Lohengrin Lake,
And the fare is five cents for children and adults ten is all they take.

And there’s also summer-house shades and merry-go-rounds,
And with the merry laughter of the children the Park resounds,
During the livelong Sabbath-day,
Enjoying the merry-go-round play.

Then there’s the elevated railroads, about five storeys high,
Which the inhabitants can see and hear night and day passing by,
Oh! such a mass of people daily do throng,
No less than five hundred thousand daily pass along,
And all along the city you can get for five cents,
And, believe me, among the passengers there are few discontent.

And the tops of the houses are all flat,
And in the warm weather the people gather to chat,
Besides on the house-tops they dry their clothes,
And also many people all night on the house—tops repose.

And numerous ships and steamboats are there to be seen,
Sailing along the East River water so green;
’Tis certainly a most beautiful sight
To see them sailing o’er the smooth water day and night.

And Brooklyn Bridge is a very great height,
And fills the stranger’s heart with wonder at first sight,
But with all its loftiness, I venture to say,
For beauty it cannot surpass the new Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay.

And there’s also ten thousand rumsellers there,
Oh! wonderful to think, I do declare
To accommodate the people of that city therein,
And to encourage them to commit all sorts of sin.

And on the Sabbath—day, ye will see many a man
Going for beer with a tin can,
And seems proud to be seen carrying home the beer,
To treat his neighbours and family dear.

Then at night numbers of the people dance and sing,
Making the walls of their houses to ring
With their songs and dancing on Sabbath night,
Which I witnessed with disgust, and fled from the sight.

And 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.

In a demonstration of this kind, we cannot hope to do more than to give an approximate idea of the scope and detail of McGonagall’s performance. There are several types of subject that I have not even mentioned; his fancy-dress historical poems, for example, about the Battle of Bannockburn, the Battle of Culloden, and so on — but in this sort of poem he is at his least vivid. It is very different with his minor narrative poems of contemporary, or near-contemporary, events. I doubt if anyone could resist reading of Jenny Carrister,

a heroine bold,
Who lived in Australia, at a gold-mine called Lucknow,
And Jenny was beloved by all the miners, somehow.

Or old Angus McDonald who, having suffered shipwreck with three companions, and being cast adrift in a little boat,

must have felt the pangs of hunger before he did try
To cut two pieces of flesh from James McDonald’s thigh.

Or of the tragic death of the Rev. A. H. Mackonochie, when

on a visit to the Bishop of Argyle,
For the good of his health, for a short while:
Because for the last three years his memory had been affected,
Which prevented him from getting his thoughts collected.

Such poems, while lacking the authoritative subject-matter of public events, nevertheless show no slackening of McGonagall’s precise grasp of his material, no lessening of power in expression. For although he could never resist a great abstraction, it was with the observed detail (the “summerhouse shades” and the “merry-go-round play”) and the concrete circumstances of life that his eye was always at its sharpest.

In conclusion there are several general observations which perhaps ought to be made about McGonagall — his debt to the ballad, for instance, or perhaps even more, his debt to the Industrial Revolution. One admirer goes so far as to suggest that his debt to Tennyson might be a worthy topic of discussion. But I think that such ideas (along with the contemporary parallel of the West Indian Calypso) will have already suggested themselves to you, and do not need to be emphasized. There is one point, however, which is perplexing, and which I doubt whether we can now solve. It is precisely to what extent McGonagall was serious in all that he wrote, or allowed to be printed, about himself. The whole tone of his autobiographical fragments is touchingly solemn, without a hint of humour or self—satire. (One of them begins with the obscurely surrealist remark, “Like most great men, I was born at an early period of my existence…”). With the straightest of faces he relates how he was teased by the policeman at Balmoral, and by “a few ignorant boys” in Dundee; how he was cheated by publicans and all but assaulted by three ruffians whom he faced with his umbrella — he described them as “glaring at me as the serpent does before it leaps upon its prey.”

In his last years he liked to be known as “Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant and Bard of Tel-el-Kebir,” which was a title conferred on him by the students of Edinburgh University. He even went so far in naiveness as to print, with some of his poems, a transparently cynical “Tribute from three students at Glasgow University,” in which, among other questions, they asked him, “Is the most intellectual benefit to be derived from a study of the McGonagallian or Shakespearian school of poetry?” Or was it just naiveness? I cannot help suspecting that among his peasant gifts, McGonagall numbered the peasant’s cunning; that without for a moment doubting the high seriousness of his genius, he may have found it convenient and effective to exaggerate his simplicity. He may even have encouraged, in a subtle way, the manufacture of spurious McGonagallian poems — a popular pastime in Dundee to this day. But this is pure supposition. Of one thing, however, I feel sure; that is that when writing his poems, he always felt that he was genuinely possessed, exactly as he had been on the first occasion, and I think that this conviction shines through them all, however much they may incidentally make us laugh.

McGonagall would have been well advised to publish a definitive edition of his work, an Urtext — what today would be described as “all the poems that he wished to preserve.” During his lifetime two incomplete collections were issued, and most of the individual poems were printed in the form of the penny broadsheets which he sold at street corners. Fortunately for him, and for us, the final task of critical assembly was performed some ten years ago by Mr McLean, now a foreman printer in Dundee, one of whose first jobs as an apprentice was to set up the type of a McGonagallian broadsheet. Thus, his modern editor is one of the few people living who remember him well. The volume is called the Poetic Gems, and it is still in print, though you have to write to the publishers in Dundee, Messrs. David Winter & Son, Ltd., to get a copy. Apart from the poems — almost two hundred pages of them — it contains two autobiographical essays, the satirical tribute from Glasgow, and a charmingly sincere tribute from a soldier in Zululand called Fred Rollo; also a testimonial from the poet’s old friend and earliest inspiration, the Rev. George Gilfillan, and a portrait frontispiece showing the poet’s appearance as something midway between Sir Henry Irving and Oscar Wilde. Handsomely bound in tartan, it is an excellent three-and-sixpenceworth.

Further Reading

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  1. In the year 2016, on the 12th day of September at 2:19 pm

    […] 19th-century Scottish weaver who, sometime around his 52nd birthday, had an epiphany. According to mcgonagall-online.org.uk, McGonagall described his experience as: “I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of […]

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