Job’s Reflections on the “Great McGonagall”

Cities and villages alike have always exhibited a justifiable pride in their great men. Money may make a city beautiful, the almighty dollar may make a village great, but no amount of wealth can produce a poet – rather the other way, for poetry and poverty have in most cases gone hand-in-hand. This, therefore, may be one cause of the great pride which communities take in the intellectual attainments of their citizens, As a something which it is beyond the power of “filthy lucre” to purchase or produce, it is a thing to be coveted and prized when obtained, the very difficulty of its attainment enhancing its value. Dundee has just had an opportunity of being raised to the seventh heaven of poetical fame by the bursting forth of a “bright particular star” of the first magnitude; and, if the opportunity has been missed, it is because Dundee’s attention has been so absorbed with the Eastern Question, the Tay Bridge, and the Bonnybank Job. While the editor of this paper neglects his duty by dealing with unimportant matters, such as the annexation of Bessarabia, cotton strikes, town’s finances, and British interests, be it my privilege, as it is my pleasure, to divert attention to a worthy object – the poet of Juteopolis – the McGonagall

The volume which lies before me while I write is modesty personified in the matter of size. It consists of four pages, and is sold at twopence. This is exactly a halfpenny a page; but every purchaser will have the worth of his money in the title-page alone, so the other three pages go to make up a capital bargain. The title-page states that the book contains “Poems and Song by William McGonagall, Poet to Her Majesty;” and, further, contains the gratifying announcement that “Mr McGonagall holds in his possession an Acknowledgement from the Empress of India, dated Buckingham Palace, sixteenth day of October, anno domini eighteen hundred and seventy-seven, and signed by General Sir Thomas Biddulph.” This statement is gratifying, because it shows that Her Majesty has time, even in the midst of the present increased anxieties of her regal state to recognise literary worth. If the traditional butt of Malmsley has not yet reached Mr McGonagall it may be due to the fact that vested rights must be respected, and while Tennyson lives it would be invidious to abate in favour of another one jot of the privileges of the Laureate, Time will change all that, however, and now when McGonagall is definitely fixed upon as the successor to Tennyson, MGonagall can afford to wait.

Turning to the literary matter which has met the Royal approval I find the first poem has the highly poetical title of “The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay;” and it will arouse a feeling of satisfaction in all interested that though Royalty cannot find leisure to grace the opening ceremony, Royalty has had an opportunity of reading so vivid a description of the great undertaking that its grandeur cannot fail to strike through even the divinity that doth hedge about the wearer of a crown. The poem opens with a description of the appearance of the bridge:-

“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.”

There is a tone and style in the above quotation which is not often met with in our older poets. Students of “Childe Harold,” for instance, will fail to find a similar passage in the whole of that eminently descriptive work. Mr McGonagall alludes – in terms which would probably make the recipients of the eulogium blush – to those gentlemen who have been instrumental in erecting the bridge, and makes a passing allusion to the visit of the Emperor of Brazil as follows:-

“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 for Inverness.”

Towards the conclusion of the poem the author gives eloquent utterance to a prayer which will be echoed by every one, that

“Providence will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And no accident 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.”

That our poet is alive to the benefits of a fresh atmosphere is evidenced by the opening of his effusion on the “Hill o’ Balgay“:-

“Beautiful Hill o’ Balgay,
With your green trees and flowers fair,
’Tis health for the old and the young
For to be walking there,
To breathe the fragrant air
Emanating from the green bushes
And beautiful flowers there.”

List, oh, ye hard-pressed ratepayers! to this testimony to the benefits of a paternal Police Commission:-

“There the lovers can wander safe arm in arm,
For policemen are there to protect them from harm,
And to watch there all day,
So that no accident can befall them In the Hill o’ Balgay.”

Lovers of the picturesque will be glad to notice that nothing escapes the observant eye of the poet, as witness:-

“Then there’s Harry Scott’s mansion,
Most beautiful to be seen.
Also the Law Hill,
likewise the Magdalen Green,
And the silvery Tay,
Rolling on its way,
And the coast of Fife,
And the beautiful town of St Andrews,
Where Cardinal Beaton lost his life;
All to be seen on a clear summer day,
From the top of the beautiful Hill o’ Balgay.”

I suppose the “Beautiful railway bridge of the silvery Tay, near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green” had not been in existence when the above was composed or Mr McGonagall would have seen it also “on a clear summer day from the top of the beautiful hill o’ Balgay.” Fain would I have quoted the graphic description of the Balgay Hill opening ceremonial, but I have already exceeded my space, and the decrees of that awful personage the editor, who knows no law save his own will, must be obeyed. I trust I have quoted enough to show what a treat is within the reach of the people of Dundee. I have no hesitation in declaring that Shakespeare never wrote, poetry like Mr McGonagall’s, and I can find no better words to conclude my notice of Mr McGonagall’s first volume than to quote the last three lines of his own poem to an eminent Dundee clergyman:-

“To write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.”

Alas! they never will.

Evening Telegraph, 6th May 1878

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