The Rousseau of Poetry

Alan Bold was a poet, critic and writer who wrote biographies of Robert Burns and Hugh McDiarmid, as well as editing several anthologies of poetry and prose. This short extract is drawn from the first chapter of his 1983 book Modern Scottish Literature (I’ve given it my own title).

While Davidson was in London writing assertively about Greenock, a Dundee weaver was joining together crude rhymes in a way that laid him open to mockery and malice. Ironically, though, his work has survived, indeed flourished.

William McGonagall (1830-1902) suffered more than most from the calamities his hero Shakespeare summed up as ‘outrageous fortune’. His vivid prose writings — like the ‘Brief Autobiography’ and ‘Reminiscences’ that preface his Poetic Gems — tell of his treatment at the hands of the various insensitive louts who tormented him. At school a teacher ‘beat him unmercifully about the body and face, until his face was blackened in many places, with his hard Taws’; as a performing artiste was a target for insults and ad hoc guided missiles; as a royalist he was mocked by one of Victoria’s lackeys practising Balmorality; as a prominent Dundonian he was ‘treated unkindly by a few ignorant boys and the Magistrates of the city’. For all that, the posthumous treatment of McGonagall has been more malicious than anything that happened to him in his immensely productive and emotionally eventful life.

The orthodox opinion of McGonagall is that he was a sublimely bad poet: a posturing clown who got the hostility he deserved. His name is now a synonym for doggerel and many students seek to establish their intellectual superiority by declaiming his words with suitably knowing smirks. McGonagall has been parodied atrociously, has been used as the charismatic man in one-man theatrical shows, has inspired comics like Spike Milligan to attempt to improve on what they think of as blatant badness. McGonagall’s achievement has been ridiculed by those who despise his lowly origins and humble verse. The joke, however, is on the anti-McGonallites for McGonagall himself was not really an unforgettably bad poet. He was an absolutely outstanding primitive poet.

McGonagall’s poetic limitations are obvious enough and indicative of a primitive approach. He was totally indifferent to euphony, absolutely ignorant of imagery, quite unaware of the possibilities of verbal texture, unconcerned with the seductive power of rhythm. McGonagall was a narrative poet who constructed all his poems to a simple formula: all the lines had to be linked by obvious and emphatic rhymes (and his rhymes were no more eccentric than some of those used by a master like Gerald Manly Hopkins, e. g. boon he on/Communion). This concept he shared with the first poets to avail themselves of rhyme, for the technique evolved as an aid to the memory of the reciter or ballad maker. McGonagall’s poems may read like metrical tabloid journalism — full of hard facts, editorial comment and gossip — but they are recognisably the work of a man adhering to a metrical tradition and abiding by a rigid set of rules.

In his ‘Brief Autobiography’ McGonagall recalled the first visitation of his muse in 1877. He wrote,

During the Dundee Holiday week 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 . . . Well, while pondering so, I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and 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.

Obviously McGonagall is anxious to establish an impressive poetic pedigree so drops some celebrated literary names. However, there is little evidence in his poems to show the influence of poetic virtuosos like Burns and Byron (though doubtless he was responsive to the monotonous march of Scott’s couplets). McGonagall’s style is entirely based on the broadside ballad formula.

Francis James Child described broadside ballads as ‘products of a low kind of art … from a literary point of view, thoroughly despicable and worthless.’1 Because the broadside balladists were artisans, not literary elitists, they relied on hand-me-down rhymes and everyday subjects; like the makers of the traditional ballads they aimed at a popular style accessible to all and not at aesthetic originality. In the early nineteenth century most of the ballads emanated from London’s seedy Seven Dials district and this quatrain comes from a typical broadside, ‘Waterloo Fashions’, printed by John Pitts:

But a few months ago we were taught to rejoice
And sing and give thanks with a loud cheerful voice
For a victory great, if the tale be told true,
That was won by a Duke, at or near Waterloo.

The do-it-yourself syntax (complete with inversions to force the sentences into the rhyming pattern), the metrical padding (‘at or near’) to drag out the linear movement, the matter-of-factual tone: all these elements reappear in McGonagall and explain what poetry-buffs regard as the mystery of his style. Here, in ‘Beautiful Crieff’, is the real McGonagall:

Ye lovers of the picturesque, if ye wish to drown your grief,
Take my advice, and visit the ancient town of Crieff;
The climate is bracing, and the walks lovely to see,
Besides, ye can ramble over the district, and view the beautiful scenery.

We can imagine the young McGonagall, from garrulous Irish stock, positively rejoicing in the broadside ballads — the street literature that shaped his imagination. With his lack of formal education (‘all the education I received was before I was seven years of age’) and his teetotalitarian attitudes he readily absorbed the broadside idiom and became a conscientious master of it. Self-styled men (and women) of letters appear in an unflattering light when we consider what they have made of McGonagall. In the history of painting Henri ‘Douanier’ Rousseau is treated as an admirable and earnest artist who made meaningful pictorial statements despite his primitive manner and lack of aesthetic sophistication. What Rousseau is to painting, McGonagall is to poetry.

  1. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (5 vols), Houghton, Mifflin: Boston 1882-98; reprinted New York (1965) Appendix p. 757 []

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