The Poet McGonagall Interviewed

Last Saturday night, the “nobility, clergy, and gentry” of Newport were asked through the medium of posters to assemble in the Free Church Schoolroom to signalise the occasion of the first professional visit to “the kingdom” of the “Queen’s Poet,” McGonagall. The Poet was announced to recite from Shakespeare’s, his own, “and other great poets’ works.”

Entering the hall a little before eight o’clock, we found a very demonstrative audience of about 70 persons assembled to welcome the “Laureate.” Amongst these were some “hopefuls,” with penny whistles and crowmills, each discoursing popular airs on their own account and relieving the stillness of expectancy. Desiring to rub shoulders with a “poet” in the flesh, your correspondent, through the kindness of one of the “poet’s” managers, received the honour of an audience with the “son of song.”

Darkness was setting in as we were ushered through a door in the panelled partition into a room off the hall, where the Poet was in waiting ready for the commands of the prompter. As we entered, there stood the bard, his left hand leaning on a table, and his right pressed against his side, like the handle of a Grecian vase. When we were announced his hand was stretched forth in the most generous and condescending manner, which put us quite at our ease. We raised our hat and “bow’d” as genteelly as we could, for like Macsycophant, we could never stand “straicht in the presence o’ a great man.” We immediately expressed the sense of the honour we had in being introduced to a bard of whom we had heard and read so frequently.

“Oh yes,” he replied, that was certainly a great gratification.

“Do you find poetry to pay?” we inquired, “for it is often said that poets are always poor generally die in a garret;” and we instanced the case of poor Burns, whose last moments were embittered by the craving of a “wretched haberdasher” for some paltry five pounds.

With an ominous shake of the head, which spoke volumes, he replied, “Ah yes, like Burns I too have often been craved.”

“What is the first part of your evening’s performance?” we then asked.

“Oh, the tent scene from Richard the Third comes first. I’ll play that well.”

I then expressed a preference for a recital from his own works rather than from those of Shakespeare.

“Oh yes,” was the reply, “I always find that those who come to hear me do that. You see I am much more versatile than Shakespeare. The only man I ever knew who could come up to me in versatility was Edmund Kean. He could tell a story, he could sing a comic song, and declaim a tragedy.”

“Did you ever think of writing a tragedy with yourself as the hero?” “No,” was the reply, “but I have all the tragic feelings within me.”

Being curious to know what period of time those gifted with the “divine affiatus” took to compose some of their great works, we inquired of the Poet how long he was engaged on his wonderful poem “The Bridge of the Silvery Tay.”

He was unable to say how long he had dreamed over this great poem, but as it was no ordinary production, he knew it took him “a long time.”

“The Dundee newspapers,” we then remarked, “give your public appearances considerable prominence.”

“Oh yes, they are very kind in that way, and I am proud to learn that there are two members of the Edinburgh press here tonight to write notices of my appearance in Newport. This night in Newport is the greatest step in my life.”

The audience was now getting impatient for the Poet’s appearance, and we retired from our interview.

In a few minutes more the Poet appeared on the platform, heralded by a torrent of applause.

He bowed his acknowledgements, and immediately struck an attitude, and with an air of comic tragedy he recited something, if we might judge from the movements of his mouth, for little could be heard above the music of the whistles and the tumult of enraptured voices. When finished with his oration he retired to his “dark room,” and in answer to the continued uproar he reappeared on the platform and bowed to his audience for their encore.

A few minutes more, and he appears as the “Rattling Boy from Dublin Town,” with his “shillalagh” over his shoulder, and hung on the end of it what was supposed to be a pack, but which looked like a window blind extemporised for the occasion. During an exciting portion of the “boy’s” story the pack got loosened, and sliding gently down the “shillalagh,” covered the Poet’s back like a mantle. But the great “draw” of the evening lay in his own “Bannockburn.” Slowly he emerged from “the wing,” and in a thoughtful mood stepped on the platform. Immediately his left leg flew forward in advance of all other limbs, as if it smelt the battle afar, and was eager for the fray. The suddenly his right hand was raised in the attitude of a pump handle, his mouth was formed into a circle as round as a cannon’s mouth, and with the ardour of a warrior who fights for glory, he plunged into a description of that terrible day in June when Bannockburn was lost and won. How he thrilled the audience with Edward’s command –

“Now archers draw your arrows to the head,
And make sure you kill them dead.”

And then a little further on we were charmed with the way he described how –

“Edward turned his horse afar,
And never stood till he came to Dunbar.”

But then came the sad sequel to all Edward’s misfortunes when –

“The English all fell into the pits,
And the Scotch took their swords and cut them to bits.”

After this part of the “exhibition” the entertainment soon came to a close, and the Poet bowed his farewells amidst continued howling and music from whistles of muscle and tin.

We were somewhat disappointed with the personal appearance of the Poet. There was no evidence of a face “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” no dreamy lineaments, no sad expressive eyes, and no dome’d forehead. His “crowning glory” consists of jet black hair with two locks projecting slightly in front of his ears, and the remainder thrown behind, and terminating at the back of his head like the curls of a drake’s tail. Adieu McGonagall!

Dundee Courier, 27th April 1880

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