In Search of McGonagall

H. V. Morton was a journalist and author whose travel books were immensely popular between the wars. In Search of Scotland, the book from which this passage is drawn, was published in 1929 and must have been important in spreading McGonagall’s fame beyond Edinburgh and Dundee. It’s probably no coincidence that the new edition of Poetic Gems came out not long afterwards.

Every man who writes about Edinburgh is compelled by a regrettable sense of decency to deal at some length with her literary giants. I will not mention one of them: they are too well known. Every other shop in Edinburgh is a bookshop; and they seem to thrive. It is the most intellectual-seeming city on earth. Paris is, by comparison, almost illiterate.

Instead, however, I will remind Edinburgh of a poet who seems to have in some unaccountable way escaped recognition— Sir Topaz McGonagall.

I am a reluctant sleeper. When I go to bed all the past rises up before me, all the things I have done badly and all the things I have not done come and sit on the pillow like the germs of some disease, infecting me with vivid wakefulness. I carry round the world with me such opiates as Thackeray, and Harvey’s Circulation of the Blood, and books called, goodness knows why, “bedside”, obviously written or compiled by people who sleep soundly in order to keep other people awake. Not one of them works. I find myself worrying about omissions in anthologies, becoming furious about inclusions, and, worst of all, I find myself taking an intelligent interest in Thackeray and Harvey. And the clock goes on striking.

The ideal bedside book is one like Alice in Wonderland, which first obliterates the world in which we live and secondly induces a placid, soporific smile. “Alice” obliterates the world, but she makes me laugh! A laugh is as fatal to sleep as a smile is its forerunner. The quickest path to dreamland is to slide into unconsciousness on a smile. Such a lullaby is Sir Topaz McGonagall, born in Dundee, and lately of Edinburgh, poet!

The few who still remember McGonagall refer to him as the world’s worst poet; but in this I cannot agree. He was perhaps merely in advance of his time. In his works we find that splendid disregard for the decencies of literary formulae which has in recent times made many large fortunes, coupled with a gay and cavalier-like habit with the English language — a kind of chuck under the chin — an indignity tolerable only in a great lover or a great master.

McGonagall was at the height of his powers during the South African War. He was, I gather, one of those eccentric characters thrown up now and then by great cities. London was full of them in the time of Dickens. McGonagall wrote poems about anything and everything. National events, natural phenomena, shipwrecks, the birth and death of princes, all fired his muse. His haunt was the magnificent Parliament Hall, where, I am told, he found a ready market for his broadsides among the foremost lawyers in Edinburgh.

He printed them with the Royal Arms above in black type! At some period in his career a band of students held a mock levee and gave him an exotic title from which he never recovered. He then began to sign his work “Sir Topaz McGonagall, Kt. of the Order of the White Elephant”.

In the archives of a Government department in the shadows of St. Giles is a staff magazine which contains a priceless selection of his work. I am indebted to the courtesy of this department for many dreamless nights. Take, for instance, his poem on Glasgow:

O wonderful city of Glasgow, with your triple expansion engines,
At the making of which your workmen get many singeins;
Also the deepening of the Clyde, most marvellous to behold,
Which cost much money, be it told.

O beautiful city of Glasgow, I must conclude my lay
By calling thee the greatest city of the present day,
For your treatment of me was by no means churlish,
Therefore I say, “Let Glasgow flourish!”

There is a lot more; but I have picked out the two best verses.

Another little masterpiece is his poem “Baldovan Mansion”, in which the following occurs:

Stately mansion of Baldovan,
Most beautiful to see,
Belonging to Sir John Ogilvy,
Ex-M.P. of Dundee.

In sterner vein McGonagall could lash out at social evils:

Oh, thou Demon Drink, thou fell destroyer,
The curse of Society and its greatest annoyer,
What hast thou done to Society, let me think?
I answer, thou has caused the most of ills, thou Demon Drink.

Thou causes the mother to neglect her child,
Also the father to act as he were wild,
So that he neglects his wife and family dear
By spending his earnings foolishly on whisky, rum, and beer.

McGonagall would have made an excellent reporter. Nothing escaped his imagination. When the Duke of Albany died in 1884 he wrote eighteen stanzas about it, concluding with a remarkable reference to the grief of Queen Victoria:

Her Majesty was unable to stand long, she was overcome with grief,
And when the Highlanders lowered the coffin in the tomb she felt relief.
Then the ceremony closed with singing “Lead, Kindly Light”,
And the Queen withdrew in haste from the mournful sight.

He exercised his turbulent muse on “The Attempted Assassination of Queen Victoria”, which begins:

God prosper long our noble Queen,
And long may she reign.
Maclean he tried to shoot her,
But it was all in vain.

Long may she be spared to roam
Among the bonnie Highland floral,
And spend many a happy day
In the Palace of Balmoral.

Some of the rarest collectors’ items — McGonagalliana, I suppose, booksellers would call them — deal with ancient battles, Tel-el-Kebir, Majuba Hill, and so forth, and with national sorrows such as the death of “Chinese” Gordon. Unbelievable as these epics are, I much prefer McGonagall when he is interpreting the beauties of his native land, or such remarkable happenings as the Tay Bridge Disaster and the whale that was washed up at Dundee. Take his eulogy of Nairn:

All ye tourists who wish to be away
From the crowded city for a brief holiday,
The town of Nairn is worth a visit, I do confess,
And it’s only about fifteen miles short of Inverness.
And in the summer season it’s a very popular bathing place,
And the visitors from London and Edinburgh find great solace
As they walk along the yellow sand beach, with spirits light as air—
Besides, there’s every accommodation for ladies and gentlemen there.
Then there’s a large number of bathing coaches there,
And the climate is salubrious and very warm the air.

McGonagall was, it seems, the butt of many a rather cruel joke; but, on the other hand, I wonder to what extent he pulled the legs of those who professed to admire him? His vanity appeared to be without limit. He became the licensed buffoon of legal and academic Edinburgh. Men who remember his spare, uncouth figure in a long barn-storming coat tell how they used to hire a room and get “the great” McGonagall to give a reading from his dreadful works, every one, of course, keeping a solemn face.

Once a member of the audience assumed the name of a noted playwright and told the poet that he had a brilliant future on the stage. McGonagall set off for London to interview Sir Henry Irving. This unlucky journey explains the inclusion in his works of a poem called “Descriptive Jottings of London”, which begins:

As I stood upon London Bridge and viewed the mighty throng
Of thousands of people in cabs and buses rapidly whirling along,
All furiously driving to and fro,
Up one street and down another as quick as they could go.

Then I was struck with the discordant sounds of human voices there,
Which seemed to me like wild geese cackling in the air,
And the River Thames is a most beautiful sight,
To see the steamers sailing upon it by day and by night.

And the Tower of London is most gloomy to behold,
And the Crown of England lies there, begemmed with jewels and gold,
King Henry the Sixth was murdered there by the Duke of Gloucester,
And when he killed him with his sword he called him an impostor.

He was also “struck” by Trafalgar Square, and the fountains “where the weary traveller can drink when he feels dry”. On Sunday he went to hear Mr. Spurgeon preach, and he ends his assault on London with the withering remark: “Mr. Spurgeon was the only man I heard speaking proper English, I do declare.”

Perhaps I have given a sufficient taste of McGonagall to explain why I regard him as the perfect bedside book. Some one should sweep up all his mighty conflicts with scansion and put them between covers for the benefit of the sleepless.

He was a genuine relic of Old Edinburgh. He made a mysterious visit to New York, but I can find no one who remembers how and why he went; As far as I can gather his patrons subscribed for his absence. But in an alarmingly short time his gaunt figure turned up in the Law Courts again and his misguided fingers held a new broadside beginning:

Oh, mighty city of New York, you are wonderful to behold!

Nothing, apparently, could stop him! Poor, relentless Sir Topaz!

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