McGonagall, Master of Doggerel

This (not wholly accurate) profile by writer and publisher James Leatham was published in the Aberdeen Journal in 1933.

Dundee Tailor’s Priceless Gems of Futility

William McGonagall, tailor, of Dundee, found doggerel verse much more profitable than stitching garments. He knocked around in the Tayside town, selling his preposterous effusions at prices ridiculously out of comparison with the value of any similar quantity of print, unless indeed it were Bradbury notes, of which there were none in his day.

The specialty of McGonagall’s poetry is its unique badness. It is said the Duke of Wellington “spoke French with courage.” McGonagall wrote and published verse with an insouciance the more sublime as he had to sell the stuff as well, and doubtless had first to read it to his patrons!


His distinctive feature is a bold and flatulent ludicrousness. No theme was too prosaic for him to choose; no train of thought was too banal to follow up no rhyme was too desperate or far-fetched for him to use at need, though in point of fact neither his ideas nor his language were far-fetched as a rule. Surely no mind was ever so extraordinarily ordinary, so contentedly non-critical. McGonagall, we may be sure, never bothered. No smoking of pipes over a single line, a la Tennyson, for him. His lack of poetry, combined with his willingness to write rhymes, would amount to genius if genius could be regarded merely as something unusual and apart altogether from any kind of merit.

As a dealer in bathos McGonagall was unrivalled. Of Lord Wolseley’s name he said it-

Will down to posterity without any stigma
Because at the Battle of El Teb he defeated Osman Digna.

Of a flower show at Perth he wrote-

And there were chrysanthemums, some of them short and some of them tall,
And some of them the property of Lord Provost Ballingall.


In the way of anti-climax it would be hard to beat his invocation—

Shine out, fair sun, upon the slates
So that the fishermen may see to catch the skates!

How far simple feeling may dispense with artful aid is exemplified in the story of the fly which figures by another name the following—

There was flea up the Gaed up the wa’,
Gaed up the wa’, gaed up the wa’;
It slipped its fit an’ got a fa’,
An that was a’, an’ that was a’.

Queen Gertrude asks Polonius for “‘more matter with less art.” But there is not much of either there.

Lamb’s Dictum

Charles Lamb said that with Scotsmen all truths were of equal importance, and that the commonest of commonplaces was not only communicated, but was annunciated. As so far proving this charge, McGonagall wrote—

Robert Burns was born in Ayr,
Now he stands in George’s Square,
If you want to see him there
Take the tram and pay your fare.

That he should have considered such stuff worth writing, printing, and even buying are evidences of audacity worthy of the fairly steady reward he reaped. Yet it cannot be said that he took the money of his patrons for nothing. With any literature or sense of humour, they must have got more fun out of his ungainliness, taken in small doses, than they could have got from Tom Hood or Charles Stuart Calverley at their best.

Sheer Delight

Now that William can no longer be a bore in person, his writings are a sheer delight. Collectors who have not the luck to possess his complete “works”‘ seize on every scrap of his that comes their way, and write them down, to be read again and again, and especially to be read aloud to other folk. To share the joy of a McGonagall “poem” is better than sharing a bottle; for the wine flows but once, while McGonagall can be put tap at will.

He does not even need to be written down. His “effects” are speedily produced and the language easily remembered. Thus—

I was walkin’ the road
I met coo—a bull, bigod

It was a happy chance that turned William from the tailor’s board to the service of the muse; for no one surely has created so much mirth without intending it. Greatly daring, he sent some of his effusions to “Truth” in the days of Labouchere’s connection with it. Here are some of the verses, with the editorial comments upon them:—

I was favoured the other day with letter signed “Sir William Topaz McGonagall, K.O.W.E.B.. enclosing a printed copy of a poem on ” The Death of the Queen” [Victoria.] K.O.W.E.B. stands, it appears, for Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah. The knight asks us to “find a corner” for the poem; but might as well have asked us find a corner for the white elephant. My space has, unfortunately, too many claims upon it; but here are a few just to show what a K.O.W.E.B. can do when the spirit moves him:

Of the Queen

She has been model and faithful Queen,
Very few like her have been.
She has acted virtuously during her long reign;
And I’m afraid the world will never see her like again.

The people around Balmoral will shed many tears
Owing to her visits amongst them for many years.
She was very kind to the old, infirm women there
By giving them provisions and occasionally prayer.

Many happy days she spent at Balmoral,
Viewing the blooming heather and the bonnie Highland floral.
Along with Prince Albert, her husband dear;
But. alas! when he died she shed many tear.

The Knight of the White Elephant has been the habit, it appears, of making lyrical offerings like the above to the Royal Family. He prints at the head his latest poem letters of acknowledgment of other verses which has received from the late Queen and from his present Majesty [Edward] when Prince of Wales; and he has had from the King a letter thanks for the above ode. I mention this because I do not think that the trials and afflictions incidental to kingship are always appreciated as they should be.

Like a Corncrake

McGonagall had his well-wishers, perhaps even his admirers. Anyhow, a purse was made up for him, and he was sent to the United States. He sang the praise of New York — sang like a corncrake— but declared with palpable sincerity that he was glad to get back to the banks of the Tav. The kindness of Glasgow also he rewarded with a grandiloquent Ode, of which one verse may be quoted:

The ships which lie at the Broomielaw are most beautiful to see,
They are bigger and better than any in Dundee;
Likewise the municipal buildings, most gorgeous to be seen,
Near to Ingram Street, not far from Glasgow Green.

McGonagall, it is said, was wont to say that he would yield the palm to Shakespeare, but to no other poet, living or dead.

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