The Great MacGonagall

This article was written by Lewis Spence, a journalist, politician and folklorist who got to know McGonagall well whilst working for Dundee newspapers early in his career. It was first published in Scotland’s SMT Magazine in April 1947.

It would be misleading to say that the Dundee of the ‘nineties regarded the art of poetry with that degree of pious reverence that its practitioners rightly claim for it. Indeed, a certain impatience at the mere mention of the bardic science was usually manifested by its citizenry, caught up as they were in vastly more profitable mysteries associated with jute and marmalade. To be blunt, it might even be said that the ultra-materialistic inhabitants of Juteopolis shied away from anything in the shape of verse, and when they deigned to mention it at all, or referred to those who composed it, it was usually in terms of scathing derision. Poetry didn’t sell, and anything that didn’t sell was, as the current expression had it “a frost.”

I have never been able to explain myself why the county of Angus, which has mothered so many poets of distinction – more than any other Scottish shire, perhaps – should also have been responsible for such an antipathetic sentiment towards the art Parnassian as was to be found in Dundee in that restless individualistic age. Dundee was, of course, at that time greatly under the influence of the American Press. And the Amercian Press was riotous on every page with jokes about the “spring poet” – a personage with luxurious locks, whom comic artists depicted as being propelled down a break-neck staircase by the boot of a fighting editor.

So it was with something of a shock that I found myself face to face one morning with the very prototype of pattern of that much-abused race of poetasters who seemed to thrive on these summary expulsions. The picture was complete. There was the full-brimmed headgear, the falling coiffure, the Parisian necktie, and the seedy frockcoat. And, shades of the Nine, there was actually the bundled ode, bound up with a sable ribbon!

Addicted to the making of verse myself, this was the first person I had ever met who affected similar propensities. I therefore regarded him with the keenest curiosity. About the middle height and evidently stricken in years, his sallow and wrinkled face revealed at once his Hibernian origin. A pair of sparkling black eyesundimmed by age quizzed me sharply. I laid aside my subeditor’s pencil and scissors, and with all the aplomb of seventeen years enquired his business.

With meek gentility which I soon found to be characteristic of him, he unbound the black ribbon. “A new poem,” he announced with a mild flourish. So these were printed wares and not the cramped calligraphy with which we had become so woefully familiar in the newspaper office? I read the superscription”‘Bridget Mahoney’ by William MacGonagall.” Rapidly, I ran my eye over the quatrains:

A man saw a woman lying on the pavement
She was evidently drunk, and very discontent.

And so on, to the shattering concluding couplet:

And Bridget’s repentance was hearty and sincere,
And, by the grace of God, she never again touched whisky, rum or beer.

The person before me was, of course, the great William MacGonagall of whom I had heard so much since leaving school. I had been told that he had performed in the title-rôle of “Macbeth” in Gile’s “penny-gaff” in Lindsay Street. I had noticed the price on the priceless little broadsheet, “one penny”; so taking a sixpence from my pocket I placed it on the desk.

“I have no change,” said the poet sadly. “That,” I replied, “does not matter.” Raising his umbrageous hat with an air quite foreign to Dundee, he graciously thanked me. A discussion on the subject of poetry seemed to be indicated. I asked him what he thought Of Swinburne, my earliest poetic idol.

“A marvellous command of music, young sir, but he fails to touch the heart, as does our peerless Lord Tennyson.” This was the first of many conversations with the bard of Dundee. Frequently I was to marvel at the way in which a man who could perpetrate doggerel so abject could yet assess the abilities of authentic poets so aptly.

But MacGonagall was creature of periodical surprises and crises. One morning when we were hustling out an edition of the weekly journal, with part of whose fate our proprietors had so injudiciously entrusted me, he suddenly made a theatrical entrance attired in a garb so utterly outrageous that every pen was dropped simultaneously. A web of the very largest kenspeckle check had been tailored into a suit resembling a clergyman’s uniform with frockcoat and square-cut waistcoat complete. To this was added a pair of gauntlets of lambskin, with the curly white wool outside. It seemed that a firm of tweed manufacturers had presented MacGonagall with this egregious outfit in exchange for a poem expressive of the excellence of their products. In the street it could be spotted quite easily half a mile away. It was the apotheosis of a Celticism depraved, a foretaste of the flagitious Highlander of the Victorian music-hall. Before we had time to recover from this sartorial shock, the bard, striking an attitude full of noble indignation, advanced upon us.

“Gentlemen,” he exclaimed in tones of sorrowful displeasure, “I have been insulted — grossly, irretrievably insulted. But think not that the miscreant who has offended me shall escape. I am on my way to interview my solicitor.” It appeared that one of the rather too full-blooded wits, of whom sportive and larky Dundee was so lavish, had composed a “Life” of the poet, and had arranged with him to dispose of it at the price of one shilling to the general public. He had proffered it to the rector of a well-known school in the city, who, after reading the first sentence of the work, had cast it aside with contumely. The biography was couched in the first person, and its opening lines declared: “I was born in Edinburgh of poor but bibulous parents.” The adjective, the wrathful rector had explained, did not imply that MacGonagall’s progenitors were addicted to the perusal of the Scriptures, as the poet had supposed, but rather that they were victims of a compelling and unnatural thirst.

“It was a foul trick,” mouthed the bard.

Yes, on your part,” said our mild editor, with a wry smile. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know what it meant.”

My colleagues would have it that MacGonagall was more knave than fool. I did not share their impression. I had seen him declaim his “Battle of Tel-el-Kebir” at a smoking-concert to the accompaniment of outbursts of ribald laughter, which seemed to pass him as the idle wind. Was he insensible to insult? I rather think that the bitter experiences that the poor, gentle old man had undergone had purged all personal resentment from his spirit. With all his nonsense, he was greatly superior in fineness and delicacy to the louts, who guffawed at his barnstorming. It is a pitiful thing that native nobility should betray itself so far as to caricature its own excellences. In this case, I am convinced, it was all unconscious of its lapse into disloyalty toward itself. There is, perhaps. no human figure so utterly pathetic as the tragic buffoon. “On with the motley … the people pay thee and want their laugh, you know,” as the inadequate Grub Street translation. of “Pagliacci” has it. Pathetic beyond words to the man of feeling, the mountebank is merely an Aunt Sally to the mob.

But worse, much worse, was to follow. In my native burgh of Broughty Ferry, MacGonagall had been asked to perform before an audience in the Good Templars’ Hall. His rival, one Pace, the bellman of the burgh, and also a “poet,” had been pitted against him. Pace, a clumsy, bearded man who wrote his verses in alternate black and red inks, and was almost incoherent in reciting them owing to his lack of teeth, had composed a poem on my brother at the time of his birth. All I can recall of it is:

I think he will be a very nice child
And not turn out like most of them – wild.

But a star of ill-omen blazed fuliginously above the heads of the twin bards, for at the conclusion of their performance they were invited by the chairman to recite at one and the same time. Taken aback, they haughtily refused. But when informed that they would not otherwise receive the honorarium due to them, they commenced a doleful dual chanting which fulfilled my notions of a Druidic incantation.

Suddenly, as if at a prearranged signal, a row of urchins in the front seats let loose on the poetic pair a terrific fusillade of flour, pease-meal, and washing-blue. Hastily the victims withdrew, but with loud and raucous yells and cat-calls the audience rushed the stage and hustled the luckless poets from the hall. It was indeed a naïve oddity of MacGonagall’s verse which aroused popular derision, and indeed this is scarcely to be wondered at. In his funeral ode to Lord and Lady Dalhousie, he expressed his sorrow as follows:

Alas, Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead and buried AT LAST!
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast.

But why expand the catalogue of these bathetic utterances? Better to intrude here with a few biographical circumstances, as the chroniclers of lives poetic usually do when at a loss. Our hero was born in Edinburgh in the year 1830. His parents were Irish emigrants of decent and God-fearing character, who removed first to Paisley and later to Dundee. His father was a hand-loom weaver of the old kind, and the exigencies of rearing a large family were so pressing that William was removed from school at the age of seven to work in a local mill. He became an expert hand-loom, weaver and devoted himself to study, reading through the works of Shakespeare, many of which he came to know by heart.

Then he made an appearance as an actor in Gile’s theatre in Lindsay Street, with extraordinary popular éclat, the populace actually fighting for seats, in what was almost a pitched battle, and applauding him to the echo. But, at the age of forty-seven, he suddenly discovered that he was a poet, and dispatched his first efforts to the newspaper on which I was to serve at a later date. The editor published them with humorous remarks. In 1878 he sent a sample of his poems to Queen Victoria, and, encouraged by a mere note of conventional thanks from one of her gentlemen-in-waiting, he walked all the way to Balmoral to present himself to Her Majesty, an honour which was denied him.

In 1887 he sailed to New York, but after offering his services to several theatrical managers there without success, he returned to Dundee, where he continued to write and to vend his verses, occasionally acting or reciting in the circus, or at smoking-concerts.

About 1894 he settled once more in Edinburgh, his native city where I occasionally met him in the streets, and it was about this time that he was made the victim of a famous hoax. Some students of the university wrote to him to say that they had been empowered. by the King of Burma to present him with the Order of the White Elephant of that realm. Whether he believed this to be the case, or otherwise, MacGonagall announced his acceptance of the “honour,” which was duly conferred upon him, at a rowdy smoking-concert, with much ceremoniousness, the bard addressing his grateful thanks to the donors of the bizarre document in a high falutin’ speech.

Not long after this, MacGonagall, greatly reduced in circumstances and in poor health, once more made the journey to Balmoral in the hope of being admitted to the presence of his queen. On arriving there he seems to have been summarily repulsed by a lodge-keeper. His last hopes thus blighted, he subsided into a condition of despair and shortly afterwards made his last exit.

It would be disloyal to the memory of this poor and much-abused man, who suffered so greatly because of his natural eccentricities, were I not to express my frank belief that he was in every sense a good and worthy person. Indeed, a native goodness and strong sense of decency and right conduct revealed themselves in his speech and bearing. He was a militant teetotaller and his private life was without stain. His conversation in private was most rational and not at all self-important or stagy. He expressed himself justly and in an educated voice and manner. He had, like most Irishmen, a marked vein of common sense. But what chiefly impressed me was his invariable meekness and modesty of demeanour, his anxiety for the poor and his warmth of utterance on their behalf.

He was, indeed, an authentic Celt. He believed implicitly in his own genius as a poet. His claims to bardland were, of course, absurd, but that he was the possessor of a considerable histrionic talent I am convinced. He was the old time “ham actor” par excellence the relic of a day when full-blooded declamation was relished by audiences. But in his later years the time and vogue of this antique mannerism was already surpassed and was becoming a thing for public jape.

William MacGonagall was no freak, no mere buffoon. He was a man on whom the great light we know as “genius” had flashed, but flashed obliquely. I admit, with some shame, that his “poetry” inevitably excites my risible faculties. But I reproach myself for this when I consider that his personal virtues made him a far better man than I could ever hope to be, and when I think of his courage, displayed in such circumstances of public contempt and misunderstanding as few men have to endure, I feel that his memory should at the least, be protected from ignominy.

William MacGonagall was something far better than poet. He was a great gentleman – which few great poets are, or have been! We shall continue to read his verses, and if they make us laugh – well, do not let us be ashamed if the laughter sometimes ends a little huskily.

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