William McGonagall Obituary

from a Special Correspondent

Poor old McGonagall has gone the way of all flesh, and the world is certainly the poorer in some respects. Whatever might be thought of his “poetry”, there never was any difference of opinion as to the amusement it afforded; and if the world did not always take him at his own valuation , it could never be disputed that he believed in himself, and sincerity is the first requisite in men, even of “poets”. He was born in Edinburgh about 80 years ago of Irish parents. His father was a handloom weaver, and the future poet learned the same business, and wrought at it for many years in Dundee. But, as he himself has told us in his autobiography the trade grew so bad he found it impossible to make a living out of it. But, lux in tenebris, it is always darkest before the dawn, and it was while out of work and in inprovident condition that he made the grand discovery that he was a POET. This memorable event cannot be better told than in his own words —

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 trees and 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!” I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– “I know nothing about poetry.” But still the voice kept ringing in my ears – “Write, write,” until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem

The four stanzas appeared in a local newspaper and the great and wonderful McGonagall school of poetry flashed upon an astonished world. Thenceforth McGonagall was a name to conjure with. Still, that was only a start. The second poem he wrote was entitled the “Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay“, and caused a great sensation. In fact we have his own word for it that it was the only poem that made him “famous universally”. But not only was he inflamed to write, but had an irrepressible desire to act. Shakespeare – between whose handwriting and McGonagall’s the writer took the liberty of pointing out the strong resemblance which existed – was his favourite author, and the characters he appeared to most advantage in were Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III and Othello. His first appearance on the stage was as Macbeth in Giles’ Penny Theatre, Lindsay Street, Dundee, during the eighties, to an “overflowing and crowded audience”. As might be anticipated he was received with unbounded applause and called before the curtain several times during the night. Some of the actors were mad with jealousy, and did not scruple to tell him that. When it came to the great combat scene with Macduff, the latter actually had the effrontery to try to spoil the whole show by whispering between his teeth to “cut it short!”. McGonagall saw through this transparent dodge, which was manifestly to damage the great tragedian’s reputation, so he “laid on” all the more lustily , until poor Macduff was quite done up, while the audience yelled “Well done, McGonagall! Walk into him McGonagall!”. The actor shouted to him to fall, but Macbeth took his own time to it, and the number of times the slain Macbeth had to appear before the curtain must have been very galling to the rest of the company. It was indeed a historical event. Then he made appearances in the Grocers’ Hall, Castle Street and elsewhere. Dundee audiences are not likely ever to forget those they were present at. Mr Knowles told the tragedian that he looked the character of Hamlet so well that he should wear the dress regularly. Talking of dress, everyone will recall with lively sensations the appearance of the great man as he walked in procession through the streets of Dundee at certain processions gloriously dight in rodes of office not forgetting the sword. This last was a terror. When he was doing the “Field of Bannockburn“, or any other stirring piece, it was always advisable to keep at a safe distance. Early in his career he had an ambition to see Her late Majesty the Queen, and tramped all the way from Dundee to Balmoral for that purpose. The weather was excrable, considering the importance of the pilgrim, and the result– except in the frequent opportunities of giving way to poetic impulse and introducing himself to some honest people on the way– was nil. This was what he thought of the Spittal of Glenshee–

Oh the Spittal of Glenshee,
Which is most dismal for to see,
With its bleak and rugged mountains,
And clear, crystal, spouting fountains
With their misty foam;
And thousands of sheep there together doth roam,
Browsing on the barren pasture most gloomy to see.
Stunted in heather, and scarcely a tree,
Which is enough to make the traveller weep,
The loneliness thereof and the bleating of the sheep.

He got very comfortable lodgings with a shepherd about the Spittal, however, with “a bed that was suitable for either king or queen.”

And the blankets and sheets
Were white and clean,
And most beautiful to be seen,
And I’m sure would have pleased Lord Aberdeen!

Well, when he arrived at Balmoral, the clock in the tower was just striking the hour of three, but he was rather nervous. A burly policeman asked where he came from, and when he was informed that the personage before him was none other than the only McGonagall, who had tramped all the way from Dundee to give an entertainment before Her Majesty, the man in blue did not seem impressed at all, but on the contrary threatened to have the poet arrested! He then added insult to injury by asking him to give an open-air performance. “No sir,” replied the poet tragedian, “nothing so low in my line of business. I am not a strolling moutebank that would do the like in the open-air for a few coppers. No, sir,” added he with emphasis – a good thing he did not have his sword in his hand – “not if Her Majesty were to request me to do it in the open air, I wouldn’t yield to her request.” So he bade him goodbye and turned away by the River Dee which is magnificent to see. The kindness he received from the cottars and farm people he met was some small compensation for this disappointment. However, he returned to Dundee and became more famous than ever; in fact, except for the “Tay Bridge” poem already referred to nothing ever caused such a sensation, even though he did not get to see the Queen. Dundee, however, was far too small a field for such a man, and he resolved to try America. Before he went, the late Mr A. C. Lamb asked him if any of his pretended friends had offered to pay his passage back should he not succeed. On being answered in the negative, McGonagall was told to write him whensoever he required the money. And a good job, too. Somehow he was never appreciated in the Land of Stars and Stripes the initial mistake, doubtless, was not negotiating with Major Pond beforehand to act as his agent. Look at Irving and Ian Maclaren and all the rest of them. The Yankees would not even buy the twopenny edition of his poems. A friend told him the reason– which was, that they were headed by the royal coat of arms, and he was advised to cut this off. “No,” exclaimed he, “I decline to do so! I am not ashamed of the Royal Coat of Arms, and will still adhere to my colours wherever I go!” Good old McGonagall. True to his colours. What more is expected of anyone? After being three weeks in New York without earning a cent (he had only 8s when he arrived) he wrote to Mr Lamb asking him, “for God’s sake,” to take him home out of the “second Babylon,” which was duly done. It is no wonder, therefore, that he formed a very bad impression of America and wrote poems in that vein. But we cannot follow him through his long and varied career. He was in London, but did not stay there long either. Probably the most momentous event in his life was being created “Sir William Topaz McGonagall Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah”. This came upon him quite unexpectedly in the form of a long letter sent by order of the King of Burmah, together with a silver elephant. From that date the poet was a proud man, and adopted the full title as above. The Fair City was his residence for a while, but some years ago he returned to his native city. He fell into bad health. Death soon claimed him, ending a long and varied career.

People’s Journal, 4th October 1902

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