The Great McGonagall

Share with me the spiritual uplift that I felt, when glancing through a Scottish rural newspaper, at coming upon this illuminating quotation:

The hen it is a useful beast,
And struts about the yard also;
It sometimes lays an egg or two,
Or three or four or more or so.

Authorship was ascribed to one McGonagall, “the Dundonian doyen of doggerel.”

McGonagall! Where had I met that name previously in a rhyming connection? Meditation provided an answer: McGonagall had been “discovered” and acclaimed by H. V. Morton. When journeying “in search of Scotland” the wandering author had found, in the archives of a Government department in Edinburgh, a staff magazine that contained selections from the work of the forgotten genius of Dundee. A reading of the verses provoked much Mortonian merriment, and in the book that developed the Poet was quoted over several pages and applauded as a genuine soporific.

Research on the part of the appreciative Morton did not go quite far enough. Had it been continued in the bookshop of John Knox’s old house, a hundred yards farther down the Canongate, the world’s knowledge of “McGonagalliana” would have been considerably improved. For my own part, it seemed improbable that the Poet who had hymned the hen had been denied special publication, and so I made inquiry on the subject of a bewhiskered bookseller in the John Knox shop.

“McGonagall?” he said. “Aye.” He went off and presently returned with a booklet labelled, “Wm. McGonagall, Poet. A Choice Selection of His Best Pieces. With a Sketch of His Life and Work, Critical and Biographical. By Lowden Macartney.”

“Saxpence,” said the bookseller. He looked at me dubiously. “Mind ye,” he said, “it’s ter-r-rible stuff.”

“That’s all right,” I assured him, holding out sixpence.

The conscientious bookseller gazed at the booklet and the coin. Then he looked at me again.

“Ah, weel,” he said, “I’m war-r-nin’ ye – it’s ter-r-rible stuff!”

Published in Glasgow without date, the McGonagall booklet offers at the outset an assurance that it was issued in response to a “growing and insistent demand, not only in this country but also in the Colonies and various parts of America,” for a collected edition of the work of “the peculiar and extremely interesting individual known to his contemporaries and admirers as ‘The Great McGonagall’.”

Having chuckled himself into the appropriate mood by that proclamation, the editor proceeds to point out that McGonagall’s “greatness” -manifest in his lofty disregard of all the principles of rhyming – was freely recognised by McGonagall himself. “I bow the knee,” he declared, “to Shakespeare, but to no other poet, living or dead!”

That comfortable altitude doubtless was the salvation of the good McGonagall. It enabled him to face poverty with proper hauteur, and, scarcely less useful, it persuaded him to regard every instigator of hoax or jest as an authentic admirer. He was, it appears, a hand-loom weaver before turning to the weaving of verse. Inspiration developed in the early 1880’s. A Dundee weekly paper having offered mild encouragement, the weaver-rhymster “discovered” himself; then, a queer figure in shabby suit, ever-present overcoat, and broad brimmed hat above a sallow and solemn face, he shuffled about the town and district peddling his “poems” at a penny a copy.

The verses were well worth the money! Modest in theme at the outset, they became more ambitious under the stimulus of public applause, and when the Bard got fairly into his stride he trumpeted every national and international occasion. Wars, shipwrecks, floods, cyclones, and calamities in general were his specialities. Imagine, if you can, the gratification of a soldier on finding his deeds of the battlefield immortalised in such lines as these:

Ye sons of Britain, I think no shame
To write in praise of brave General Graham
Whose name will be handed down to posterity without any stigma,
Because at the battle of El Teb he defeated Osman Digna.

Early in 1885, the Battle of Abu Klea having happened along, the Bard again went into action: mounting his panting Pegasus he charged at the gallop, bearing a wreath of rumpled but victorious verse for the brows of Sir Herbert Stewart. This time, however, “Ye Sons of Britain” were omitted from the invocation in favour of more martial figures:

Ye sons of Mars, come join with me,
And sing in praise of Sir Herbert Stewart’s little army,
That made ten thousand Arabs flee
At the charge of the bayonets at Abu Klea.

An elaborate description of the fight follows and several warriors are awarded honourable mention:

For ten minutes a desperate struggle raged from left to rear,
While Gunner Smith saved Lieutenant Smith’s life without dread or fear;
When all other gunners had been borne back,
He took up a handspike and the Arabs he did whack.

Not the least valuable feature of most of the “poems” is that they contain dates and other practical details. Especially was the Bard attracted by events of September, November, and December. It seemed, indeed, that the high gods had arranged for calamities to occur in these months in order to provide a rhyme for “remember.” Thus when a great flood occurred in China:

’Twas in the year 1887, and on the 28th of September,
Which many people of Honan in China will long remember,
Especially those that survived the mighty deluge,
That fled to the mountains and tops of trees for refuge.

Similarly, a cyclone obligingly visited Scotland on the 17th and 18th November.

Which the people of Dundee and elsewhere will long remember.

In no circumstances did “the great McGonagall” follow the practice of certain lesser writers among his countrymen and lapse into dialect. Nor did he deign to be wilfully humorous. Occasionally, however, he neglected tragedy and geography in order to touch upon a political or social topic. He issued a “poem” on “The Great Franchise Demonstration of 1884,” and in the same year he discussed “Women’s Suffrage.” It seemed to his sympathetic soul that the Home Secretary of the day was not playing the game by women:

Because they haven’t got the Parliamentary franchise,
That is the reason why he does them despise.
And that in my opinion is very unjust,
But the time is not far distant, I most earnestly trust,
when women will have a Parliamentary vote,
And many of them, I hope, will wear a better petticoat.

But the heaviest broadsides, of a social nature, were those aimed at “The Demon Drink,” the remarkable fact being that, either in spite or because of the staggering quality and quantity of verse he achieved, this forthright Scot was a strict teetotaller. For a taste:

Alas! Strong drink makes men and women fanatics,
And helps to fill our prisons and lunatics;
And if there was no strong drink such cases wouldn’t be,
Which would be a very glad sight for all Christians to see.

From the writing to the declaiming of verse is an easy transition. The trouble with William McGonagall, however, was that he was too great a success as an elocutionist – his public appearances, especially when he dressed in Highland costume and presented “Macbeth,” caused near-riots and so had to be banned in Dundee.

A more distant sortie was a visit to New York. H. V. Morton describes this journey as mysterious and says he could find no one who remembers how and why the Poet went to America. The “mystery” is dispelled by my booklet. . McGonagall himself conceived (in 1887), the idea of enlightening the uneducated Americans, and the lads of Dundee subscribed the five pounds or so required for a steerage passage. Moreover, a local inn-keeper, one A. C. Lamb, invited the Poet to write him for his fare home if matters went amiss in America. That was a wise precaution. Within a few months the promise was redeemed and the wanderer was home again.

And with regard to New York, and the sights I did see,
One street in Dundee is more worth to me;
And, believe me, the morning I sailed from New York
For bonnie Dundee – my heart it felt as light as a cork.

In later years, as his verses witness, the Poet lived variously in Perth and Edinburgh. Also, he made a memorable appearance in Glasgow. Neil Munro describes this adventure (which occurred in 1897) in his gossipy book of 1931, “Brave Days.” He does so, he says, in order to put the incident on record before McGonagall becomes “wholly a creature of myth, his authentic works confused with those of a score of imitators.”

A group of Glasgow revellers having tendered a fee, McGonagall arrived in a fantastic Highland costume, with a long feather in the bonnet and an old sword in lieu of a claymore, and having a general aspect of being “kippered like an East Coast herring.” Following the reading of letters of apology, allegedly from the Poet Laureate, Kipling, and others, various bright speeches were made, the chairman’s in particular being a masterpiece of sly mockery. The genius of Burns was admitted, but only as secondary to “the Bard of the Tay.” McGonagall, in reply, admitted that Shakespeare wrote “quite a good poem.” So, he conceded, did Burns. But what distinguished his own verses above all was that they were read and approved by the highest in the land. It was only the stupidity of a lackey, he added, that had prevented him from meeting the Queen.

William McGonagall died, it would seem, early in the present century. The date is not available. Nor does it matter. His work remains (for the diligent and discerning) in all its freshness and novelty; and in considering this we may fairly apply to its author the tribute he paid to a brother bard:

You were a mighty poet – few with you could compare,
And also an honour to Scotland,for your genius it is fair.

Published in the Sunday Herald, a Sydney Newspaper, on 13th February 1949

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