The Real McGonagall

William McGonagall is best known as the world’s worst poet. His unique style of versification breaks the laws of rhythm, rhyme and common sense in a manner that has eluded his thousands of imitators for more than a century. According to “The Autobiography of Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian, Knight of the White Elephant Burmah,” the bard was lucky recipient of the “divine inspiration”.

…Dame Fortune has been very kind to me by endowing me with the genius of poetry. I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June, when the flowers were in full bloom. Well, it being the holiday week in Dundee, I was sitting in my back room in Paton’s Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn’t get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears–“Write! Write!”

Legend has it that the fiftyish weaver and amateur actor gave up his job to spend his last twenty-five years combing the streets of Dundee and central Scotland for buyers of his incompetent verses, which he sold on single sheets called broadsides and various collections he saw fit to call Poetic Gems.

Although McGonagall appeared convinced of his own genius and utterly devoid of humour, his public was composed largely of those who enjoyed laughing at him. By the 1880s, “Poet baiting” had become something of a national pastime, with McGonagall frequently being invited to give readings from his own works and those of Shakespeare (whom he claimed as his greatest “influence”). At one such gathering in 1894, McGonagall was treated to an elaborate ceremony by representatives of King Theebaw who had evidently traveled all the way from Burmah to name him “Sir Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant”–a title which McGonagall immediately affixed to his broadsides.

Of course, there have always been the skeptics–those who think McGonagall was merely “playing along” with his tormentors because it provided a living. Perhaps it is no coincidence that McGonagall’s divine inspiration arrived when most handloom weavers had been replaced by the cheaper labour of machines, women and children. In fact it was less than a year after the closing of over thirty jute mills in that McGonagall had so suddenly decided to “turn pro”. At a brief appearance in debtor’s court a year later McGonagall explained that his poverty could be attributed to “scarcity of work”. The memoirs of a number of first-hand witnesses, including William Power, Lewis Spence, Neil Munro and Lowden MacCartney all confirm that there was, during McGonagall’s time, some question as to whether he was “‘fooling them to the top of their bent’ because of the profit attached”. As one letter to the editor of the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch recalled in the early thirties, McGonagall was “not so daft”:

So long as you bought you were at liberty to humour him to the top of his bent. We young fellows used to pretend to take his poems seriously, and, after buying, he would “let himself go” for our benefit, but all the time he had an eye to the main chance.

In an early essay, Hamish Henderson recalls a story of how McGonagall had once been spotted leaving a performance with what appeared to be a “satiric smile” sneaking out from the shadow of his egg-spattered cleric’s hat.

And yet, it seems odd that the one place no one seems to look for this satiric smile is in McGonagall’s writing, itself. Herein I would argue that we can catch a glimpse of “the real McGonagall”– someone who merely uses the mask of stupidity in order to humorously victimize himself. Consider if you will McGonagall’s “Tribute to Dr. Murison,” a piece in which the poet explains how his life had been saved by the physician’s humorous prescription:

He told me at once what was ailing me;
He said I had been writing too much poetry,
And from writing poetry I would have to refrain,
Because I was suffering from inflammation of the brain.

On the surface of course these lines merely highlight the connection between McGonagall’s defective brain and the incompetent poetry. He doesn’t even seem to realize that in the very act of immortalizing Murison he is defying the doctor’s orders and risking his own life. But just as the clown’s art is one of making accidents look unintentional, McGonagall’s self-deprecating humour must also be disguised as unintentional. Of course the real McGonagall’s intentions of perpetuating an economically profitable hoax are only thinly disguised in this example, as he draws attention to his key selling points: obliviousness and stupidity.

Another key ingredient of McGonagall’s reputation– a feature which made him truly worthy of his audience’s ridicule– was of course his unparalleled conceit. In his self-written introduction to an early collection of Poetic Gems we again find McGonagall broadcasting his services as a most deserving victim of his audience’s hoaxing: is only recently that he discovered himself to be a poet. the desire for writing Poetry came upon him In the Month of June 1877 . . . the first piece he wrote was An address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, to the Weekly News, only giving the Initials of his name, W.M.G. Dundee which was received with eclat, then he turned his muse to the Tay Bridge, and sung it successfully and was pronounced by the press the Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge then he unfolded himself to they [sic] public . . . then he wrote an Address to Robert Burns. Also upon Shakespeare, which he sent copies of to her Majesty, and received her Royal Patronage for so doing.
[printed from uncorrected manuscript of Summary History of Poet McGonagall]

On the surface, McGonagall tries to look like the humble recipient of everyone else’s praise, referring to himself in the third person as though in a legitimate editor’s introduction. Of course, his first work was not “received with eclat,” nor was McGonagall exactly “pronounced by the press the Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge”: his anonymously submitted “Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay” had found its way into the local correspondence column along with the editor’s comment that the writer “styles himself Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge”. McGonagall did not receive “Royal Patronage” either. While he had in fact sent verses to Victoria humbly imploring her patronage, these had been returned immediately with due thanks and a polite explanation that “it is not usual for Her Majesty to receive manuscript poetry”. The wording of the above-quoted passage is subtle, articulate and funny enough to make us wonder if he were being burlesqued by some other, more intelligent writer, but the manuscript, the style and the ridiculously inflated persona are indeed his own. McGonagall sets himself up as the kind of person everyone loved to hate, someone who made it worth the price of admission for the right to shower him with derisive laughter and rotten vegetables.

McGonagall’s ironic style, with its tongue-in-cheek emphasis on what is precisely not the truth reappears in much of his material. The beauty of such irony is that it gives McGonagall’s readers the feeling that they are genuinely creating the real story from events and “mistakes” in wording that the author himself cannot understand. Hence, the “real” McGonagall’s art lies in his ability to speak with two voices: while one voice establishes a naive perspective, usually in praise of some lofty person or object, the other voice cleverly subverts and undermines the surface meanings with “unintended” information. This duplicity is particularly apparent in “The Beautiful Moon“:

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou seemest most charming to my sight;
As I gaze upon thee in the sky so high,
A tear of joy does moisten mine eye.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the Esquimau in the night;
For thou lettest him see to harpoon the fish,
And with them he makes a dainty dish.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the fox in the night,
And lettest him see to steal the grey goose away
Out of the farm-yard from a stack of hay.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the farmer in the night,
and makes his heart beat high with delight
As he views his crops by the light in the night.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the eagle in the night,
And lettest him see to devour his prey
And carry it to his nest away.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the mariner in the night
As he paces the deck alone,
Thinking of his dear friends at home.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the weary traveller in the night;
For thou lightest up the wayside around
To him when he is homeward bound.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the lovers in the night
As they walk through the shady groves alone,
Making love to each other before they go home.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the poacher in the night;
For thou lettest him see to set his snares
To catch the rabbit and the hares.

While the sentimental “nature poet” attempts to enumerate each of the moon’s benefits, his ornate diction and innocent sentimentality are undermined by less romantic images of those who use the light to take advantage of the sleeping world: the eskimo harpoons the fish, the fox steals the goose, the eagle devours its prey, the lovers enjoy the shady groves, and the poacher poaches.

McGonagall pronounces every aspect of the world around him “most beautiful to be seen”– to use his favourite phrase–but his poems very often become an explanation of that which is not beautiful. In so doing he succeeds not only in setting himself up as the humorous victim of his poetry, but also in embarrassing the many people and objects of his lofty praise. McGonagall’s ode to the “beautiful” Prince Leopold makes a sarcastic mockery of the late prince as well as those who naively scapegoated alcohol for all of Britain’s troubles in the late nineteenth century:

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience’s hearts with glee,
With your charming songs and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think.

Another tragic victim of McGonagall’s compulsive eulogizing was the Tay Bridge, which was for a short time the world’s longest bridge. Less than two years after its completion, the bridge collapsed, killing seventy-five passengers. McGonagall celebrates the bridge’s opening as an aesthetic accomplishment that will attract people from everywhere, chanting “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!” in the first line of each stanza.

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.
And a great beautification to the river Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen
near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

But in the sixth stanza, “beautiful” takes on rather ironic connotations, for McGonagall draws attention to the fragility of the bridge in what was to become an unfortunate prophesy:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that Providence 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.

Of course, McGonagall, like many Dundonians, was fully aware of the bridge’s frailty, since its central girders had already been blown down once by high winds during construction. This is probably the reason McGonagall’s eye moves immediately in the first stanza to the central girders which appear “towering to the sky,” a boast that might have worried some prospective passengers.

McGonagall’s incompetent attempt to praise bridge also casts those responsible for building it in a suspicious light. Provost Cox, as head of the largest jute industry in the world, stood to gain directly from greater access to southern markets. The naive McGonagall wishes “prosperity” to both Cox and his builders and commends the former’s generosity, yet the poet’s seemingly careless wording makes the deal sound like patronage by emphasizing the size of the donation– “Thirty thousand pounds and upwards” (“most handsome to be seen”)– and the fact that it was “given away”.

Indeed, McGonagall’s reputation as a “fool” who is too engrossed by the process of getting to another precious end-rhyme to realize what he’s actually saying gives him considerable freedom as a social critic of sorts. He could never have outright condemned the Thames Ironworks Company for building a grandstand that would collapse, killing some two hundred people at the christening of the Albion Battleship, but he could ridicule the company’s attempt to buy off the relatives of the deceased with a gift of five pounds, which “will help to fill the hearts of the bereaved with glee”

Just as McGonagall’s portrayal of “the sublime and the beautiful” in such poems as “The Moon” and “The Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay” becomes an opportunity to reveal an uglier side, his attempts to draw a moral that contradicts the events and actions of the story he tells us serve to reveal what is precisely not the moral in such pieces as “The Famous Tay Whale”, “Funeral of Ex-Provost Rough” and “The Christmas Goose.” In “Famous Tay Whale,” McGonagall recounts the true story of how a “monster whale” swam up the Tay estuary and offered itself to a fleet accustomed to chasing whales in the treacherous waters off Greenland. At first, the task must have seemed ridiculously simple, but the whale taunted his pursuers for almost two months. After the fatal harpoon finally landed, the whale “sped off to Stonehaven with all his might”:

And was first seen by the crew of a Gourdon fishing boat.
Which they thought was a big coble upturned afloat;
But when they drew near they saw it was a whale,
So they resolved to tow it ashore without fail.
So they got a rope from each boat tied round his tail,
And landed their burden at Stonehaven without fail;
And when the people saw it their voices they did raise,
Declaring that the brave fishermen deserved great praise.

Although the whale obviously turned up quite dead at Stonehaven, McGonagall seems to be of the same mind as those whom he depicts on shore, “declaring that the brave fishermen deserved great praise.” This choice of words could not be more sarcastic since there is nothing heroic about towing home a corpse. Furthermore, The Dundee Advertiser states that the crew that first spotted the whale returned for a tug, but the information leaked, and another crew beat the tug back to the scene. Lest the skeptics should have any stray thoughts, Reverend McGonagall enters to clarify the lesson:

And my opinion is that God sent the whale in time of need,
No matter what other people 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.

From a Dundonian perspective– especially if one happens to be a whaler– McGonagall’s misappropriation of praise to the “brave fishermen” aggravates a fresh wound. God did not “send” the whale; the fishermen took it, not only from those who first spotted it’s floating corpse, but also from the Dundonian whalers who risked their lives to provide it. While readers in McGonagall’s original audience might have seen the poem as a reflection of the poet’s utter stupidity, reading it no doubt with a just a hint of sarcasm, it is important for us to recognize how cleverly the sarcasm has been “smuggled” to readers by a more intelligent author.

In “The Funeral of Ex-Provost Rough, Dundee” the naive Mcgonagall tells of Rough’s heroism in the face of temptation, yet the poem’s events speak to us with a different voice:

And when the good man’s health began to decline
The doctor ordered him to take each day two glasses of wine,
But he soon saw the evil of it, and from it he shrunk,
The noble old patriarch, for fear of getting drunk.
And although the doctor advised him to continue taking the wine,
Still the hero of the temperance cause did decline,
And told the doctor he wouldn’t of wine take any more,
So in a short time his spirit fled to heaven, where all troubles are o’er.
I’m sure very little good emanates from strong drink,
And many people, alas! it leads to hell’s brink!
Some to the scaffold, and some to a pauper’s grave,
Whereas if they would abstain from drink, Christ would them save.

McGonagall wrenches precisely the wrong moral. His choice of words emphasizes that fact that Rough’s refusal to drink led to his death. Whereas the real lesson would seem to be that temperance can be taken too far, McGonagall’s moral, that “very little good emanates from strong drink,” offers itself to the audience as an ironically inverted lesson against the dangers of “teatotalitarianism.”

In “The Christmas Goose” McGonagall again sarcastically emphasizes the wrong moral in order to reveal the absence of morality the poem’s “heroes”. The poem, a parody of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” leads us to expect a similarly heart-warming, but after “the naughty boy” has been sentenced to ten days in jail for trying to steal a goose from the Scrooge-like Mr. Smiggs, the hero of our tale concludes:

“No matter how the poor are clothed,
Or if they starve at home,
We’ll drink our wine, and eat our goose
Aye, and pick it to the bone.”

Smiggs’s knowledge that others are starving and cold only enhances the taste of personal luxury and whets his appetite. On the surface, McGonagall does not appear to see any fault in Smiggs, whose name fittingly combines “smug” and “pig.” And although Smiggs’s wife’s name, Peggy, sounds a lot like “piggy” she is “a good kind soul.” The two are introduced as the typical protagonists of a Christmas story:

Mr. Smiggs was a gentleman,
And lived in London town;
His wife she was a good kind soul,
And seldom known to frown.
’Twas on Christmas eve,
And Smiggs and his wife lay cozy in bed,
When the thought of buying a goose
Came into his head.

While McGonagall repeatedly alludes to Peggy not frowning, it soon becomes apparent that her melancholy is indeed the source of much distress in the story, and Smiggs is up with the sunrise the next morning, apparently in a great hurry to alleviate her condition:

So the next morning,
Just as the sun rose,
He jumped out of bed,
And donn’d his clothes,
Saying, “Peggy, my dear,
You need not frown,
For I’ll buy you the finest goose
In all London town.”

After Smiggs has been fortunate enough to purchase the “finest” goose in London for a mere crown, McGonagall injects some melodrama with the entrance of a villainous urchin:

When Smiggs bought the goose
He suspected no harm,
But a naughty boy stole it
From under his arm.
Then Smiggs he cried, “Stop, thief!
Come back with my goose!”
But the naughty boy laugh’d at him,
And gave him much abuse.

But a policeman captur’d the naughty boy,
And gave the goose to Smiggs,
And said he was greatly bother’d
By a set of juvenile prigs.
So the naughty boy was put in prison
For stealing the goose,
And got ten days’ confinement
Before he got loose.

But the crisis has not yet passed, for Smiggs is still in a hurry to relieve the distress of “his dear Peggy”– and to get a meal on the table:

So Smiggs ran home to his dear Peggy,
Saying, “Hurry, and get this fat goose ready,
That I have bought for one crown.
So, my darling, you need not frown.”

Of course, it is only upon hearing news that the “fat” goose was purchased for a mere crown that Peggy courageously resolves to stop her frowning:

Dear Mr Smiggs, I will not frown:
I’m sure ’tis cheap for one crown,
Especially at Christmas time–
Oh! Mr Smiggs, it’s really fine.”

Lest Peggy should have a relapse, Smiggs reminds her yet again to take heart:

“Peggy, it is Christmas time,
So let us drive dull care away,
For we have got a Christmas goose,
So cook it well, I pray.

In place of the stanza where we are led to expect a last-minute change of heart and a “god bless everyone,” we are presented with an image of greed and indifference in Smiggs’ twisted moral. But, even more disturbing, there is a note of melodramatic perseverance, as though Smiggs and his wife ironically believed they were being oppressed by the poor. The poem’s details and events are balanced on an economy of injustice that would have been painfully obvious to an impoverished audience, such as McGonagall’s: Smiggs and his wife are the heroes of an inverted melodrama. The Smiggs are “cozy in bed;” Mr. Smiggs will comfort his wife with the “finest goose,” later described as a “fat” goose, which, interestingly enough, turns out to be a great bargain at the price of one crown. The key irony, of course, is that the “gentleman,” and his wife act as though they are oppressed by both poverty (ie. their concern with “dull care” and saving money) and the poor who are responsible for crime. To an audience that could not afford such luxuries as a “a blanket to their bed” or a fat goose, let alone a goose that cost a crown, the Smiggs’ melodramatic self-depiction (ie. the mock emergency surrounding Peggy’s frown) is merely the most antagonistic reminder of all of the things that are absent from Christmas. The audience’s sense of injustice is further heightened by the fact that the narrator sympathizes with the Smiggs’ rather than the boy. McGonagall reminds us four times in as many stanzas that the boy is “naughty” and, significantly, leaves out any explanation as to why the boy stole the goose. If it were not for the fact that Smiggs alludes the starving poor in the last stanza, we would be left with a crime motivated simply by evil.

Having considered how McGonagall’s irony and satire are created on the page it is useful to return the question of how McGonagall acted when on stage. His career as an amateur “Tragedian” seems to have begun as early sometime before 1858, the year in which he and his shopmates bribed the manager of Dundee’s Theatre Royal in order to let McGonagall play the leading role for a two act version of Macbeth:

[The] two acts of Macbeth were gone through in a manner more like a farce than a tragedy. In the combat scene however, McGonagall had evidently made up his mind to astonish the gods, for instead of dying when run through the body by the sword of Maduff, he maintained his feet and flourished his weapon about the ears of his adversary in such a way that there was for some time an apparent probability of the performance ending in a real tragedy. The gentleman who was playing the part of Macduff, having repeatedly told him, in tones quite audible, to go down, became at length so incensed that he gave him a smart rap over the fingers with the flat of his sword. This had the effect of making McGonagall drop his weapon; but he evidently had no intention of going down, for he kept dodging round and round Macduff, as if he had made up his mind to have a wrestle for it– The representative of that character however, becoming tired of such tomfoolery, flung his word to a side, and seizing hold of McGonagall, brought the sublime tragedy of Macbeth to a close in a rather undnigified way, by taking the feet from under the principal character.

This episode seems to have set the stage for McGonagall’s career in comedy. The numerous records of his performances in pubs and rented halls always point to the same kind of “split personality” that we have seen in his writing: on one hand McGonagall appears completely serious and sincere while on the other he dresses and performs in ways that hilariously undermine the seriousness of his intentions.

McGonagall’s choice of costumes reflects a flair for the absurd. He was notorious for appearances in ridiculous highland outfits. Of course, Highland regalia was exploited for humour by many Scottish comedians, and it was the trademark of Scotland’s most successful music-hall entertainer, Harry Lauder. Neil Munro remembered how McGonagall “turned up in a most fantastic Highland costume” and he “looked as if deliberately made up for a part in opéra bouffe”. Another writer recalled the great uproar caused by McGonagall “at a smoking concert where he appeared in a kilt, under which he wore a pair of workman’s coarse knitted woollen drawers covering his knees and legs.” Similarly, William Power writes that McGonagall “wore a Highland dress of Rob Roy tartan and boy’s size.” The highland garb was ostensibly worn for his impersonations of Macbeth and Robert the Bruce, but McGonagall often wore it to recite or sing, complemented by a pair of spectacles. One reporter commented that “A kilted chieftain, armed with broadsword and dirk, looked rather droll in a pair of ‘specs,’ but though the audience laughed M’Gonagall rattled on with his ditty.” Lewis Spence recalled McGonagall making a “theatrical entrance” at a Dundee newspaper office “attired in a garb so utterly outrageous that every pen was dropped simultaneously”:

A web of the very largest and most kenspeckle check had been tailored into a suit resembling a clergyman’s uniform, with frockcoat and square-cut waistcoat complete. To this was added a pair of gauntlets of lambskin, with the curly white wool outside…

All accounts emphasize the fact that McGonagall’s manner of performing was as ridiculous as his choice of costumes. McGonagall combined “daftness” with serious roles in such a way as to undermine any attempt to impress. McGonagall did not merely play the serious poet, he was also the tragedian who performed sketches from Hamlet, Richard the Third and MacBeth. A standard part of McGonagall’s routine (dating back to his first appearance as Macbeth) was to get carried away in role and attack his audiences with sword in hand during such pieces as “Bruce at Bannockburn.” While appearing with “Mr Scott, conductor of a star company of vocalists and company,” in the Trades Hall, Arbroath, McGonagall slew 128 imaginary foes during a battle scene that resulted in a total evacuation of the stage area: “At first the fiddles made their escape from the front or got down under their seats, and the little boys who were clustering behind the orchestra also retired to a safe distance.” Similarly, McGonagall “turned the whole room into a very battlefield” during his recitation of “The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir” and, “in his enthusiasm inadvertently hit the Chairman a stunning blow on the head which, however, did not prove fatal.”

McGonagall may have been quite willing to follow any absurd requests: at one of two performances in which he shared the spotlight with a rival “Worthy” named “Pace,” the bellman (of Broughty Ferry). Both entertainers were requested by the chairman to recite simultaneously as a condition of receiving their pay. Lewis Spence described what followed as “a doleful dual chanting which fulfilled my notions of a Druidic incantation.” Unfortunately, the dual was ended when “suddenly, as if at a prearranged signal, a row of urchins in the front seats let loose on the poetic pair a terrific fusillade of flour, pease-meal, and washing-blue.”

Richard the Third was seen to be played “with an air of tragic comedy.” McGonagall’s portrayal of MacBeth elicited the comment from a reporter that “His intonations of the voice, his dramatic positions, and his facial expressions all marked him as on who had formed his own idea of the part.”

Scenes from MacBeth sometimes involved playing more than one character simultaneously:

To describe this performance and do full justice to it would be impossible, as no amount of description could convey to the reader the marvellous style of gesture and rapid transition from one character to the other by the actor.

The above report also states that McGonagall cast the performances of eleven other entertainers “completely into the shade,” owing to the writer’s conviction that “it is utterly impossible for any one to approach Mr M’Gonagall in that command of facial expression which … he has made peculiarly his own.”

Few reports fail to remark upon the fact that McGonagall appeared perfectly oblivious to the insults and laughter. Some writers, such as Lewis Spence interpreted it as a sign that McGonagall was sincere. Recalling that his fellow journalists at Dundee’s Weekly News believed McGonagall was “more knave than fool” Spence explained why he did not agree:

I had seen [McGonagall] declaim his “Battle of Tel-el-Kebir” at a smoking-concert to the accompaniment of outbursts of ribald laughter, which seemed to pass him as idle as the wind. Was he insensible to insult?

Of course, Spence did not seem to realize that McGonagall’s very livelihood depended upon him being “insensible to insult.” Morevover, in the details of the following report McGonagall’s deadpan expression, obliviousness and nonchalance all reveal the timing of a professional comedian.

Several reading and recitations were then given by Mr. McGonagall from his own works, which were received in a most uproarious manner, altogether past description. Every now and then, and particularly when the performer was uttering some choice bit and giving it the sweetness long drawn out, the audience would burst out with the chorus of John Brown’s Body, in a manner that completely shut up the gifted artiste. Notwithstanding all this irreverence on the part of the audience, the bard remained perfectly calm, and seemingly not in the least disturbed by the riotous proceedings around him. And whenever the noise ceased he resumed where he left off with the greatest nonchalance.

This humorous antagonism between McGonagall and his audience often got out of hand:

Matters came to a thorough climax when the Chairman intimated that Mr. McGonagall was to give selection from Hamlet. The intimation was received with howls and laughter, several voices shouting for well known individuals in the hall to perform the part of the ghost. Mr. McGonagall however had not proceeded far with his recitation when a number of the audience who were seated near the platform rose from their seats and ascended the platform rose from their seats and ascending the improvised stage they forcibly seized hold of the Poet to Her Majesty and notwithstading his frantic struggles carried him shoulder high to the street. A scene seldom, if ever paralleled in the history of the village then ensued. A tremendous crowd thronged the street almost the whole of whom seemed to be in a very frenzy of amusement. Mr. McGonagall had ultimately owing the great crowd to take shelter in a shop nearby. The excitement although not so intense continued to prevail for a considerable time afterwards. The general impression of the audience seemed to be that they never in their lives were so thoroughly entertained as they were by the celebrated McGonagall.

Things did not always go so well for McGonagall. He was banned from performing at Baron Zeigler’s Circus (a circus turned music hall) by the magistrates of Dundee because his audiences were becoming just a little too uproarious. McGonagall threatened to leave Dundee. He had been making fifteen shillings a night.

There is nothing “new” about an author or an actor deliberately playing the fool for humorous or satiric purposes. But for the Great McGonagall the difference was that his disguise was not a costume that could be simply removed after the show: he had to live with it. For this reason the “real McGonagall” is someone who only occasionally makes the briefest of appearances in a vast body of otherwise very ordinary broadside balladry. All that can be seen of him through the foggy lens of history is the occasional glimpse of a satiric smile.


This article is reproduced, with permission, from Gord Bambrick’s own website – William McGonagall – World’s Worst Poet.

Comments (3) »

  1. Jim R.
    In the year 2011, on the 1st day of December at 2:43 am

    Mr. Bambrick makes a compelling argument, but I’m not convinced. Given McGonagall’s performances alone, one could argue that he was a clever satirist, but the rest of his behavior points in the other direction. McGonagall walked all the way from Dundee to Balmoral to recite for the Queen, only to be given the proverbial boot as soon as he got there, and so started the long journey back the next day. He traveled all the way to New York in hopes of finding work and came up completely empty. A friend had to wire him the money to get back. He went through towns and villages all around Dundee for very little gain, if any. Are these the actions of a clever, brilliant social satirist?

    By all accounts McGonagall’s life as a poet was a continuous battle with hardship, disappointment and poverty. Mr. Bambrick contends that McGonagall was “perpetuating an economically profitable hoax,” yet there is scant evidence of profitability. If McGonagall were so clever a satirist, why would he put himself and his family through such hardship for two and a half decades? Couldn’t he have gained a position with a newspaper, or perhaps written books, rather than hitch his wagon to outrageous poetry and absurd costumes?

    There is also the matter of his lack of formal education. Up to the point in his life where he began writing poetry, did he give any hint of being a social critic or satirist?

    Mr. Bambrick will need to broaden his argument to encompass more of McGonagall’s life and character before his assertions will be entirely convincing.

  2. Murray
    In the year 2014, on the 27th day of March at 7:14 pm

    Yes, I agree with the points Jim brings up; I can believe that McGonagall might enjoy playing the fool and having a private laugh at his critics’ expense, but it is difficult to believe he would suffer through decades of poverty just for this reason.

    I would propose another line of evidence against Mr. Bambrick’s interpretation. His claim, basically, is that McGonagall was outfoxing his critics by presenting seemingly naive, straightfaced poems which contained veiled social satire. However, it should be noted that even in a naive reading of some of McG’s poems, a note of satire is evident. For instance, the last line in “The Christmas Goose” is unambiguously critical of what up to then appeared to be, in a naive sense, the ‘heroes’ of the poem. If the piece was intended as veiled satire, why include this jarring and clumsy piece of outright satire at the end?

    A somewhat similar example is seen in “Jottings of New York”. Of course McG made no secret of disliking New York following his visit there and the piece certainly contains some unambiguous satire, e.g. “And there’s also ten thousand rumsellers there–
    Oh, wonderful to think of, I do declare! To accommodate the people of New York therein,
    And to encourage them to commit all sorts of sin”, mixed in in a singularly tone-deaf way with what appears to be some lines of genuine praise (e.g. his line about Central Park and the Burns statue). It seems hard to reconcile this clumsy satire with a McGonagall who is ‘in on the joke’, without appealing to some fairly convoluted logic.

    I agree that it boggles the mind that McGonagall could have taken himself seriously while being pelted with rotten eggs; but I don’t think the claim of ‘McG as subversive satirist’ holds water.

  3. Geoff C.
    In the year 2014, on the 26th day of May at 11:44 pm

    Mr Bambrick may well carry his point that McGonagall was capable of the occasional satirical dig in his verse, but I’m much less convinced that his whole project was subversive and that his execrable technique was an intentional comic device.

    Take his poem “The Burning of the Exeter Theatre”. This was a truly ghastly event where 150 lives were lost. The poem strikes this reader as genuinely heartfelt, but still contains the signature McGonagall awfulness, for example:

    It was the most sickening sight that ever anybody saw,
    Human remains, beyond recognition, covered with a heap of straw;
    And here and there a body might be seen, and a maimed hand,
    Oh, such a sight, that the most hard-hearted person could hardly withstand!

    For a professed Christian to write in this mode for deliberate comic effect in the immediate aftermath of such an event would surely be unthinkable. He wrote over 30 disaster poems in this vein, and if Mr Bambrick is correct that his technique was a knowing comic device, we would have to conclude that McGonagall was something of a monster.

    I think it’s much more likely, not to mention more creditable, that McGonagall’s work was sincere and his comedy unintentional. If we’re looking for a reason for his lack of affect and his obsessional behaviour, I find the theory that he suffered from some form of Asperger Syndrome more credible than the idea that he was a deadpan comedian.

    But in the end the man is and will probably remain a mystery. And none the worse for that, I feel…

Leave a comment