The Book of the Lamentations of the Poet Macgonagall

This document is not a genuine autobiographical work, but was written by one John Willocks in 1885. McGonagall was so infuriated by the insults it contains, both to himself and to his family, that he threatened to sue. Willocks hastily wrote a letter of apology, and withdrew the booklet from publication (though he would publish an expanded version three years after the poet’s death).

However, the Lamentations contains many details that would later appear in William’s own accounts of his life – leading one to suspect that this began as a joint venture, with Willocks interviewing the poet with a view to writing up a biography. The fatally misjudged tone of the finished volume then led to a falling out between the two men.

So this spurious biography appears here with a warning to the reader not to believe everything it says – but such a caveat would apply to McGonagall’s own work too!

My Birth and Parentage

Like most great men, I was born at a very early period of my existence, in that odoriferous portion of the globe yclept the Grass Market of Edinburgh — sacred to the memory of Burke and Hare and the rest of the Covenanters. This important circumstance occurred somewhere about fifty-five years ago, and I am thus particular in notifying the fact because of the many discussions that have always succeeded the demise of eminent men as to the exact spot of their nativity. My parents were both poor, but bibulous — the latter fact accounting in no small measure for the former. That they were intelligent to a degree goes without saying, since I, their sole surviving and orphan son — by a remarkable and eclectic natural process, have had conserved in my own stupendous cranium the best parts of both, the baser instincts having been eliminated by the sheer force of the perverfidum ingenium Scotorum, which I, although a Milesian on both sides of the house, possess in a much higher degree than that terribly overpraised and far more immoral than immortal Burns.

My male parent was no classical scholar, neither was he a profound theologian, inasmuch as he never could be made to understand the difference between ‘meum and tuum‘ while his hazy and indistinct, not to say primitive and liberal, views with regard to the eighth commandment frequently led him into unsatisfactory debates with a gentleman in a horse-hair wig, which usually terminated in the question being referred to some dozen uninterested spectators, who almost invariably recommended the retirement of my venerable sire from the arena of discussion for periods varying from 4 to 14 weeks.

With these trifling exceptions, the moral character of the older Macgonagall was fairly passable, and calls for no further notice in this veracious history, the initial threads of which I must now resume. Strange as it may appear, my boyhood was principally remarkable from the fact that nothing remarkable developed itself in me, either internally or externally, beef steaks and poetical visions being alike strangers on my path. Still, like ordinary mortals, I plodded upwards and onwards, until I at length arrived at quite as prosaic a manhood as that of the majority of those who now peruse this remarkable production. Poetical portents may have illumined the horizon; Eolian harps may have sung in sweet and weird-like symphonies that the lyre of Apollo was soon to be struck by a master-hand. Forerunners and precursors may have sighed in every breeze, fluttered in every leaf, and swelled from the throats of multitudinous feathered warblers, but I knew it not, for the goddess of poetry still stubbornly refused to unlock her mighty secret, even to me. Prosaically therefore I courted, prosaically I married, and, more prosaically still, I begat sons and daughters without anything anywhere to indicate the slumbering volcano of Genius which lay hid beneath my placid breast.

I must, however, confess to an ardent love for poetry at and before this period, especially the works of Shakespeare, passages and scenes from which I used to declaim to the late lamented George Gilfillan, who always pronounced my rendering perfect.

Praise from such a quarter naturally so stimulated and gratified me that a friendship, which lasted until his death, sprang up between us, and every Friday evening found me at the manse in Paradise Lane, receiving and imparting stores of poetical lore.

Besides these stores and numerous half-crowns, I on one occasion received a full suit of his cast-off garments, and now mark the mysterious ways of Providence, and note the remarkable issue, in the vision of the genius of poetry.

At the time of the Dundee Fair, on a bright summer’s day towards the end of leafy June, the rest of the family having gone their several ways of enjoyment, clothed in the great man’s garb, I sat hungry, penniless, and moodily alone on the ground floor of my room in Paton’s Lane, the bright sun and the waving trees mocking and augmenting the poignancy of my grief, until my waking mind could bear the strain no longer, and sinking back in my chair, I resigned myself to a drowsy, dreamy condition, which speedily stole over my senses. Presently I felt a delightful sensation of heat all around the soles of my feet, which increased so in intensity that I started up wide awake, amazed at the peculiar feeling. By and by, in circling sinuosities, like the twining of a warm snake, the strange—like caloric percolated upwards, and encircled my loins as with a girdle.

Pausing there for a brief space, and filling my wondering soul with a never-to-be-forgotten awe, it speedily monopolised my entire frame, which anon glowed like a furnace. On looking towards the roof, mid—way between it and my head right in the middle of the room, and suspended in space, a hand holding a quill pen appeared, and a voice cried out three times distinctly and audibly, “Write! Write! Write!” and, on looking once more, I saw a shadowy form, draped diaphanously, holding a scroll of music in its hand.

That this was the Genius of Poetry I had not now the slightest doubt; that I had received my commission there could be no room for the smallest question; but still the problem to be solved was, what shall I write?

All at once the inspiration, by a process peculiarly its own, directed my attention to the garments I wore, and vanished, voice and pen and all; Like a thunder-clap the theme dawned upon me, as the name Gilfillan rose involuntary to my lips, and here I must pause a brief space to elucidate my theory with regard to inspiration, a theory which has been so amply confirmed in my experience that it has ceased to become one. This inspiration always comes in heat, and when it never rises higher than the knees the inspiration is still there, but the inspired one can only in such a case write regarding feats of running, walking, &c. When it reaches the loins an intense desire to indite amatory poetry is the result, as in my “Bonnie Broon-Haired Lassie.” When it seats itself in the loins and arms in equal proportions, love and fighting find meet expression in such productions as “The Rattling Boy from Dublin Town.” When the breast, arms, legs, and head are all aglow (the most usual manifestation with me), war songs are the dreadful issue; but on this, the date of its first visitation, the head and heart alone being most palpably affected, the Genius called to me in accents I could no longer misunderstand to write in praise of some man great in head and heart; but whether the wearing of the clothes suggested the theme, or even incited the genius to visit me at all, I leave for future generations to wrangle over. Suffice it to say, I wrote a poem that same afternoon in his praise, and without signing any name to it put it into the letter box at the Weekly News office, and anxiously awaited the result.

With what eager avidity I unfolded the ensuing Saturday’s sheet, and with what tears of joy I read my first production in extenso, all this can be better imagined than described; and to add to the full cup of my ecstatic delight the editor appended the remark that “this contribution to the literature of the nineteenth century was evidently the work of a modest genius, who was unwarrantably hiding his light under a bushel.”

My next, and in many respects, greatest effort was my Tay Bridge effusion. This beautiful poem, which was the means of giving me first rank as a poet, was written under considerable difficulty, as we shall see presently. Happening to be in the house on the occasion of this, the second visit of the divine afflatus, I seized a pencil and scrap of paper, and, spreading out on my knees a pair of bellows, began to write vigorously. I had only got the first stanza three parts completed when in rushed my infuriated and unsympathetic spouse, and, seizing hold of my improvised desk, began to belabour me most unmercifully. Fearing that the inspiration might cool down or evaporate altogether, I stayed not to retaliate or even to remonstrate, but, rushing wildly from the house, I made for the first open door, which happened to be that of a place sacredly dedicated to odoriferous deposits in the second-hand porridge line, and there on the ledge of that privy I had the privilege of finishing in aromatic peace that piece which has since so astonished the literary world, and of which my friend Gilfillan said, “Shakespeare never wrote anything like this,” and, mark you, I think he really meant it. Although I at that time considered his paeans of praise too highly pitched, and attributed the exaggeration to a friendship-begotten prejudice in favour of one with whom he had so often held sweet poetic communion, time and experience, however, have taught me since that the great critic, so seldom wrong in his literary judgement, erred very little on this occasion. At all events, his criticism opened the poetic sluices of my bosom, and allowed the long, pent-up waters of metrical imagery to run down the streets of Dundee like a veritable river.

To enumerate them all, and the circumstances which led to their creation, would fill many volumes, and be after all a work of supererogation. Content am I to state that here, in this country, they have never been appreciated as they ought to have been. To the everlasting disgrace of the nation, all, or nearly all the praise has had to be imported from abroad.

A foreign gentleman, a distinguished ornament in the musical world, writing to the Delhi Thug, pays this splendid and pathetic tribute to one of my beautiful songs — “I have heard,” he says, “in a cathedral in St Petersburg, aided with the soul-calming scenic effects of elaborately-stained windows and flower-decorated aisles, the glorious strains of the “Messiah” by a thousand selected performers. At Berlin on the occasion of a great Imperial fete in the August presence of the Emperor and Empress, I have heard the ‘Watch on the Rhine,’ on golden harps and silver trumpets; I have drank in with raptured ears the telling vocal strains of the ‘Marseillaise’ by moonlight; have, in fact, heard every musical effect from that produced by the Indian tom-tom to the great organ of St Paul’s, and wedded to all sorts of words, both secular and divine; but the most enchanting and harmonised blend that ever vibrated through the inner recesses of my grateful soul was Macgonagall’s ‘Rattling Boy,’ to the homely but effective strains of a butcher’s mincing machine.” Just fancy that, and picture to yourself the utter astonishment of Sir Garnet Wolseley, when sent by the British Government to annex the Fiji Islands, on calling for a native song, to be regaled by one of the mahogany-coloured chiefs with the “Bonnie Broon-Haired Lassie,” and to be told that the only British literature known in these islands was Macgonagall’s poetry, which was admitted duty free. Whether this had led to the request for annexation or not, the Liberal Government have, up till now, persistently refused to say, but I have my own opinion, and I mean to stick to it, and to trust for a fuller recognition of merit at the hands of the Tories. But I need not grumble at this, a grievance quite as flagrant having occurred to me much nearer home in connection with my Newport Railway poem, which, I might be allowed to say in passing, no religious household or Young Men’s Christian Association should be without. I offered this valuable contribution, which contains not a single immoral line or prurient suggestion, to the British Messenger, the Gospel Trumpet, and the Christian Treasury, by all of whom in succession it was “declined with thanks.” Now I am credibly informed that, but for this descriptive masterpiece, that railway would have been one of the most disastrous investments of modern times. The directors know this, and yet, up till now, I have never received a single copper from this quarter. They say they will subscribe liberally to my monument when I am no more ; but I speak the words of soberness and truth when I say here I would much rather have half the money now. All intending memento mori subscribers please note and act upon. It may not be entirely out of place, as marking the full extent of this railway ingratitude, to give this beautiful descriptive poem in its entirety here.

The Newport Railway

Success to the Newport Railway,
Along the braes of the Silvery Tay,
And to Dundee straightway,
Across the railway bridge o’ the Silvery Tay;
Which was opened on the 12th of May,
In the year of our Lord, 1879,
Which will clear all expenses in a very short time;
Because the thrifty housewives of Newport
To Dundee will often resort,
Which will be to them profit and sport,
By bringing cheap tea, bread, and jam,
And also some of Lipton’s ham,
Which will make their hearts feel light and gay,
And cause them for to bless the opening day
Of the Newport Railway.

The train is most beautiful to be seen,
With its long, white, curling cloud of steam,
As the train passes on her way
Along the bonnie braes o’ the Silvery Tay.

And if the people of Dundee
Should feel inclined to have a spree,
I am sure ’twill fill their hearts with glee
By crossing o’er to Newport,
And there can have excellent sport,
By viewing the scenery beautiful and gay
During the livelong summer day,
And then they can return at night,
With spirits light and gay
By the Newport Railway,
By night or by day,
Across the railway bridge o’ the Silvery Tay.

Success to the undertakers of the Newport Railway,
Hoping the Lord will their labours repay,
And prove a blessing to the people
For many a long day,
That lives near by Newport,
On the bonnie braes o’ the Silvery Tay.

Discerning public, kindly judge betwixt them and me. Poor Homer, singing and begging through the Seven Cities, who afterwards quarrelled as to which of them he belonged, how thy melancholy fate depresses and yet cheers me – depresses me to note the poor rewards the contemporary generation bestows on genius, and cheers me to think that it was genius that was so treated after all. I wonder if Homer was simply neglected by the men of his time; if so, comparatively happy, oh ancient minstrel, wert thou, for thy grievances in such a case were simply of a negative kind — mine, I grieve to say, are of a more positive character, as wounds and bruises and rotten eggs can testify. I have never been devoured by wild beasts at Ephesus, but this apart, I question if the Apostle was “taking it all in all,” as the immortal William says, ever half so harassed as I have been. Starvation, my chronic condition, aggravated by offerings of gallows buckles for medals, pelted with pease, rotten apples, treacle, flour, and all sorts of abominable and unmentionable offal. Lord! such a life I have led! Such a horrible reward for a blameless soul throbbing with heaven-born genius. When shall such incongruities cease? When, alas! shall pluck and meteoric ability have its fitting reward? Gladstone gave Tennyson a peerage; now is the chance for one plucky genius to honour another, for Lord Randolph Churchill to remember me! For, goodness knows, I have tried every legitimate move to enforce my due meed of appreciation. I have threatened; I have cajoled; I have walked thousands of miles; I have taken halls and given entertainments in every conceivable sort of edifice, but all of no avail. The curse of all the poets, from Homer downwards, seems to have settled on and abidden in me. I have written scores of times to Her Most Gracious Majesty, have addressed Gladstone, Wolseley, and all the other big “bugs” in the land, and have awaited in vain for enclosed answers, with a deferred hope which has nearly driven me sane. I have walked on foot to the Deeside home of the Queen, with anything but a decided success. Leaving Dundee one glorious summer morning I determined to go to Balmoral and lay all my grievances at the foot of the Throne in person, resolved firmly after reading (as I myself modestly aver I only can) such pieces to Her Majesty of my own composition as seemed to me to be best calculated to stir the royal emotions to the boiling-over benevolent point, to put the question plainly whether or not she, in her royal wisdom, deemed it in accordance with the eternal fitness of things that the compiler of so much sublimity should be grovelling in a two-roomed den in a veritable hot-bed of Radicalism, while minor stars not fit to be named in the same breath as Shakespeare and myself revelled in a luxuriousness painful to witness, especially from a platform of ventilated boots, arrangements which, when they gaped to start with, the reader may easily imagine how desperately they yawned after walking in them through a dreary wilderness of heath and heather for nearly sixty miles, with nothing to vary the painful monotony of the march but thunderstorms and waterspouts, which, first reducing my venerable paper collar to a black streaky pulp, speedily ran down inside my garments and obtained free exit at the aforesaid cracks, the utility of which I never comprehended before.

Tired, hungry, and wet, I at length arrived at the gates of Balmoral, which were opened by one who demanded in a Southern accent what the nature of my business was, I told him point blank that I had called to see the Queen on a most important matter, a matter which, in fact, threatened the literary well-being of her vast empire. The fellow, who was presently joined by another, smiled, and examined me from head to foot, an examination which he repeated more critically when I unfolded my tale to him. Judging, however, from his puzzled expression, he did not seem to see the point of it, and no wonder, after the drenching hardships I had undergone. He, however, recovered himself so sufficiently as to ask for a specimen of my powers. This I told him I specially reserved for Her Majesty, and that, being no ordinary strolling mountebank, I would not do this, even to the Queen, in the open air. At this the gentlemen grew irate, and peremptorily ordered me from the premises, knowing as I verily believe that, had I succeeded in obtaining an audience of his royal mistress, his reign as favourite attendant would have been seriously endangered. It is to this feeling of jealously that I attribute all my misfortunes. Had my poems, which I sold him a copy of for twopence, been rank, illiterate doggerel, the fellow would probably have facilitated my access to Victoria; as it was, being an Englishman, and a countryman of Tennyson’s, he kept the Scoto-Milesian bard from the first rung of the ladder of promotion.

A reception like this would have daunted and disheartened any mortal of ordinary calibre, but adversity, that patent case-hardener, had so long and so persistently followed me that I was schooled to bear the rebuff with that philosophical equanimity which distinguishes genius from the ordinary herd. Still, being hungry, penniless, and footsore, I must confess to a momentary temptation to shake the dust from my feet in indignant anger against the palace gates; nay more, I would have done so but from fear that the soles might have parted in the process and compelled me to proceed on my homeward march, more like a mediaeval friar than a modern poet. Moreover, I had already used up all the lemonade wires I could lay hands on to supply the place of lost buttons, that I had absolutely none to spare for impromptu cobbling purposes. Therefore, with a careful sigh, I turned my back on Balmoral, disgusted at my failure, and hopeful if I could only keep from coughing and sneezing that I and as many of my garments as possible would eventually arrive at Paton’s Lane together. Thanks to the partial strike of Jupiter Pluvius, we all got home in company, “bar one,” as the sporting phrase goes, and that was the paper collar, which nothing under heaven by this time could have nursed up to the remotest semblance of respectability, and as the original cost, even in its palmy days, was far from considerable, there was at least something in the dismal situation to be thankful for. Arrived at home, I was not allowed to lie long in obscurity or inaction. No! All the disappointments and soporifics in creation could not long lull my energetic soul into common, clod—hopping, drivelling mediocrity. After three days’ rest, I was destined to see another goal quite as promising, if not more so, than the last. Hope this time shewed me a brilliant future, and hope with me has always been, and even yet is, an extraordinary strong point. As my friend, the other William, he of Avon, beautifully puts it –

“Kings it makes Gods
And meaner creatures kings.”

And so, from assurance of popularity received, I determined to engage the Thistle Hall on my own responsibility. Bills were posted all over the town. Tickets were printed, and visions of future greatness, consequent on coming success, permeated my hope-stricken brain. Between the time of leasing the hall and the single night of its occupancy, I could~ neither eat nor sleep, for I felt by intuition that a full realisation of my long—deferred programme had at last entered on its initial stage, and that Paton’s Lane and Avon would henceforth divide histrionic natal honours in equal proportions. Lord! How I did long for the opening of that hall door on that memorable evening, and how anxiously I looked for the besieging crowds. But when the hour came and the man, ” Oh! where, tell me where, that seething mass has gone. But echo with a mocking laugh unearthly answered on. “Yes, siree, right down Union Street to catch the Fife boat, or Tay Bridge trains — everywhere or anywhere but into that blessed hall. The place was seated for over a thousand, but the programme commenced with only about three score of an audience all told; but, by jingo, the lung power of that sixty was something to remember, aided and abetted as it was with penny trumpets; in fact, nothing in this world could compare in extent with the noise they made, save and except the tobacco smoke they emitted in the intervals between their trumpet performances. Not a vestige of a sound could be heard all night, except a wail of mortal agony from myself on proceeding to the ante-room to find all my togs swimming in six inches of water, and the man at the door away with the coin. As the editor of the Lochee Lubricator, a bit of a rhymster in his way, tolerably fairly put it –

Not a verse we heard, not a single line,
Though we strained our ears, eager to catch it.
But we knew from his shapes that his muse was divine,
And few were the bards that could match it.

They drowned him completely on that awful night,
Those rogues with their trumpets and smoke.
They cared not a fig for the brave Bruce’s fight,
And took Richard the Third for a joke.

No useless trouser encircled his groin,
But in bonnet and tights we found him.
And he stood like a modest tobacconist’s sign,
With his tartan curtain around him.

Few, few were the shillings that sat in that hall,
And the tanners, I ween, were right rare;
But we wondered no longer at Jericho’s fall,
And we wished all the trumpets were there.

Ah! little he thought as he glared at the rogues,
The words of his masterpiece quoting,
That the whole of his garments and best pair of brogues
That moment in water were floating.

Lightly they’ll talk of the Bard of the Tay,
And say, Oh, how doubly we drowned him;
But little he’ll reck if their money they pay,
Though with trumpets they nightly surround him.

Not half of his heavy task was done,
And the bard had no thought of retiring,
When the voice was heard of his sailor son,
For his parent loudly inquiring.

Profanely and quickly the story he told
Of the wreck of his hat, coat, and vest
The side room was flooded, the bard was twice sold,
For the man at the door was non est.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the scene of this pitiful story ;
Dejected and sad, in his pouch not a brown;
And we left him alone minus glory.

As I before remarked, this describes pretty fairly the melancholy and unlocked for state of affairs. God help me, I was of all men the most miserable on that bitter, beastly night. Wet and coinless, deep in debt, and the whole thing a miserable fiasco, I could have buried my head in a dung heap, but from the unalterable conviction that I deserved a better fate. This idea has always sustained me, and so after a few weeks of keener starvation than usual I was induced to creep again from obscurity, and appear at the Weavers’ Hall, Lochee. But if Dundee was bad, to what can I compare Lochee? They actually baked gingerbread on my face — one diabolical imp springing on to the platform, and spreading about a pound and a half of treacle all over my classical frontispiece, converting me with one fell swoop into a passable Othello. This unwarrantable procedure was speedily followed from all sides of the house by well directed missiles in the shape of thin paper bags filled with flour, which burst like bombshells where they struck, turning Othello in a trice into a Hamlet’s father’s ghost. As soon as the treacle permeated the flour, a few eggs were added. The gingerbread completed, and my utter discomfiture accomplished, for I must say that I lost my temper on this occasion, and had to be run incontinently into the ante-room by two stalwart policemen, leaving the brutal mob of Low-he men clamouring at the door like the ruffians of Sodom for Lot’s visitors.

I tell you the treatment I have received exceeds all belief. And why have I been so treated? The same old story — envy; and yet surely by this time the louts ought to have learned that I am simply irrepressible; that I am to poetry what Mrs Weldon is to law — what Sir Wilfred Lawson is to local option — what General Booth is to humbug — or Lord Randolph Churchill to political romance; and here, at the risk of digressing, why has the latter personage succeeded, and why am I still a beggar? I am sure I have persisted quite as much as he has done, have had quite as much faith in myself as he has had, while as to actual ability, any one who cares to compare carefully his recent speech on Indian finance with my Jack o’ the Cudgel in four cantos, cannot fail to be struck with the similarity of our natural attainments. Why then, I ask again, is he rewarded; and why am I left out in the cold? Goodness knows; unless it be that poetry and politics act exactly in opposite ways; or, perhaps, it may be that because I am poor; when I get incomprehensible they say I am simply ununderstandable, whereas, when his Lordship pitches into the transcendental, the bewildered Tory Democrat accepts it as an utterance beyond his weaker intellect. This may or may not be the case. I do not dogmatise on the point, but leave the matter to the individual judgement, or more properly speaking to the political bias of each of my numerous readers. What more immediately concerns me is again to let the howling world know that though I have been discouraged ten thousand times I have never once been thoroughly beaten. I have nailed the colours of my poetical genius to the mast of my own appreciation, and twenty thousand demons in shape of adverse critics cannot rend them asunder. I say, like Martin Luther, on some of his friends trying to dissuade him from going in for a Diet of Worms, “If every tile on every housetop was a devil, I must go on.” It was this dare—devil feeling in me that enabled me once more to rise bouyant from the Lochee stroke and hold a series of entertainments all over the town, with very varying success. One Queen’s birthday I drank Her Majesty’s health in a flowing bumper of champagne in the Council Chamber amongst the city magnates in full Highland costume. A few nights thereafter I was nearly murdered with rotten eggs in an obscure pub. One day I was knighted on the Links of Barry by Colonel Sandeman, and nearly drowned in the baths the week after.

I have ridden in a carriage with a drawn sword at a Liberal procession, and have been hooted in the Perth Road on the way home by a lot of ill-mannered idiots, howling out to irritate and annoy me, “Whaur’s yer shuttle, Willie,” an expression which I hate abominably and beyond measure; but none of those things seriously move me. Like friend Luther, I must go on.

After a series of mishaps too numerous and varied to mention, a remarkable thing befell me, which I must recount to the best of my recollection. A few wags with more time than brains at their disposal, persuaded one of their number to personate Dion Boucicault, and so ensconcing themselves in the back parlour of a well known restaurant, they sent for me, and introduced me to the sham playwright. He asked my terms for a starring tour in London and the provinces, and after getting specimens of my powers he engaged me at a salary of £123 10s 0d per week, bed, board, and washing.

This dreadful hoax getting into the columns of the local press, it eventually reached the ears of the great Dion himself, and he, by way of solatium, as he expresses it, sent me £5 to heal my wounded feelings. Need any one who knows me guess the brilliant thoughts which now assailed me. The finger of Providence was surely here this time. London! Dion Boucicault!! Five pounds!!! To London I resolved to go, and wrote to my patron, Dion, that I would call on him personally and thank him for his kind encouragement to a poor but meritorious poet and player, that he need not be at the trouble to meet me at Wapping, as I could call at his theatre and give him a few specimens, and that I would be greatly I astonished if he was not, concluding a remarkable epistle with a sample of native, poetical genius, to the effect that when the Governor among the nations at the great day examined every man’s record, that —

“With thy soul he would find no fault,
My own dear Dion Boucicault.”

This I imagined would fetch him, but we shall see. With the aid of few a friends I got up a farewell entertainment, which came off in the Argyle Hall, which was crowded in every part. On that occasion I was presented with a ham, in the centre of which was inserted a brass plate bearing the inscription “A meat offering from Dundee to Macgonagall.” I understand the Inscription Committee quarrelled as to the correct spelling of the second word, some holding that it should have been meet, instead of meat. However, the meat party, after some dreadful rows, ultimately carried the day, but they separated over this orthographical business to meet no more. On this occasion I was also presented with a poetical address, which, as near as I can remember, ran as follows:—

Macgonagall, the Silvery,
Before you leave these walls,
Before you go to London town
To join your tragic pals;

We feel constrained to tell thee,
Before this raging crowd,
That you’re a bard, and no mistake,
Of whom Dundee is proud.

And if for two or three bob you act
So marvellously here,
How will you soar in Drury Lane,
With thousands every year.

Fare-thee-well, thou gifted bard,
May Fortune cheer thee ever,
And send, at least, when famished hard,
A bellyful of liver.

But if neglected thou should’st roam,
No bed, however hard,
Take this farewell advice and seek
The nearest casual ward.

And write a letter to Dundee,
Though you a penny lack,
And willing friends around you here
Will pay your passage back.

And when you roach Victoria Dock,
Let this dispel your gloom;
Though hard up here, you’re better far
Than in a London tomb.

This entertainment, bar the animal and vegetable curiosities which were showered on me, ·proved a tolerable success; for besides the ham, which was well matured, as all Mr Wood’s generally were, I got 20s, part of which I had to invest in astringents for self and all who partook of the lively present. One thing which came like a refreshing oasis at this meeting, and condoned in a great measure the drawbacks incidental to all my entertainments, was a plebisite taken to decide whether Shakespeare or myself was the more popular in Dundee, the flattering result being a dead tie, the Chairman refusing, on the score of the exceeding gravity of the question, to give a casting vote. I understand, however, after careful consideration and research, he issued an interlocuter to the following effect:—

“It is with a feeling of over-weighting responsibility that I approach these mighty names, Shakespeare and Macgonagall. Ye gods! Such names commingled reminding one forcibly of the passage of the elephant and a smaller, though more active animation, into the Ark, on the same plank — it is a momentous question — and yet why should I touch it. The verdict of the meeting was just, for had Shakespeare lived in the days of Newport Railways and Tay Bridges he would have undoubtedly far excelled Macgonagall, and although this was more his misfortune than his fault, it must score a point against him. On the other hand, the Dundee bard, whose lines are longer and harder than Shakespeare’s, freely admits the superiority of he of Avon, which just exactly squares them. On the whole they are very much alike, especially Shakespeare.” For this clear and sensible utterance I take this opportunity of publicly thanking the gentleman, and also of informing him that he did well in thus leaning a little in favour of Shakespeare, whom I consider about the ablest and wisest man who ever lived. I do not deny that had I lived before him he might have been even greater than he was — even as I am now greater because he lived before me. Be that as it may, however, I was glad to have it in my power to tell proud Dion on my arrival in London of the very near squeak our mutual friend William had had for it. Not knowing it would be long enough before I got another, I purchased a new secondhand short surtout and pair of unmentionables, and in due time presented myself at the London boat about an hour and a half before the advertised time of its departure, my only luggage consisting of a few paper collars and visiting cards, which a friend in Dundee kindly hand-printed for me, and which consisted of pretty large envelopes with the flaps cut off, something like this:

successor to

Poetry Executed on the Shortest Notice.

After waving a thousand adieus to Bonnie Dundee and my native land in general, my congregated friends, and poverty in particular, the gallant vessel steamed off, and the bard “was alone on the unconscious sea;” alone to meditate on coming greatness and grandeur, now that he had immediate prospects of a helping hand from a living and successful play-writer. Having nothing to disturb the calm serenity of my soul, not even the gnawings of hunger, I gave full rein to my imagination, and allowed it ample scope to soar whithersoever it would. I saw in my mind’s eye copies of my Newport Railway stuck all over the North Pole. I heard the parrots in the torrid zones of the sunny south whistling, in melodious accents, “The Bonnie Broon-Haired Lassie” I felt the sough of the barren pines of Kamschatska as they swayed to the low and mournful cadences of my Funereal pieces, while the bird of paradise, in heavenly hues arrayed, warbled in orange groves, amid seraphic splendour, my glorious “Ode to the Moon.” The Bul—bul, amidst the thousand glories of the primeval forest, whistled in my raptured ears to the tattooed Indian chief and his dusky squaw, all the glorious symphonies of the great Macgonagall. I saw the Bruce of Bannockburn blot out, as a recitation, for ever the “Half-a-League” of my weaker English rival, while I myself starred the London stage with the plaudits of press and people ringing in my ears like the roar of the sea around me. These sights and sounds soon lulled me to sleep, to be present with me in dreams in a more exaggerated form; for in those dreams I imagined that the advent of the Millenium was to be mainly due to the sublime literature which emanated from my fertile brain. Alternately thus between waking and sleeping visions, Wapping drew nigh, and I heard a sound of music on the shore. Thinking that my friend had been at the expense of a brass band to welcome me, I asked one of the passengers, an intelligent-looking man, if he could detect the tune they were playing. My thoughts were confirmed when he stated that it was “Lo, he comes to Wapping,” a tune I never heard of before, but thought it most appropriate, the only thing which puzzled me being why the composer had styled me Lochee instead of Dundee, if I was the central idea in the flattering programme. If it was the village near to Dundee of treacle celebrity, of course it had quite as good a right to come to Wapping as Birnam Woods had to Dunsinane, and the author of the Shaughran had as much right to make cities kiss mutually as the compiler of Macbeth had to make woods and mountains miles apart to visit and hug each other. Wondering sore which was the true elucidation, we arrived, and landed; but no Boucicault was there, only a German band blowing away like blazes, “Oh, why left I my Hame.” This my first sell in London, was both appropriate and prophetic, and the precursor of many others of a more virulent sort. But, as the poet somewhere remarks, “’Twere long to tell and sad to trace each step from splendour to disgrace,” from the aforesaid visions aboard ship, from the myrtle groves of Arcadia, to that beastly buggy dungeon of a common lodging house called the “White Horse,” in Fetter Lane, surrounded by drunken blackguards and squalor of the lowest London type; but I suppose I must go on with it, although I am anticipating. Well, then, save the booming of some big clocks, nothing striking occurred until I reached the aforesaid “bunk,” and showed the landlord (a burly English varlet) my card, at which the undiscerning idiot actually laughed. Smothering any indignation with the cheering thought that the laugh would soon be on my side, I engaged a bed, for which I paid the fellow sixpence in advance, and set out for the Adelphi Theatre to see my friend. Arrived there, I sent up my card, but the manager appeared presently, tearing it up, and telling me sternly all the while that “Mr Boucicault was too busy at any time ever to see me,” and before I could explain he disappeared, and as John Bunyan would say, “I saw him no more.” This was a caution and no mistake, so dreadfully different from what I had anticipated, such a horrible bathos, that I actually burst into tears, and departed to seek Henry Irving at the Lyceum. Again sending up my card, another managerial-looking specimen appeared, and, after looking at me from head to foot, asked if I really thought Mr Irving would speak to me? This terrible question was asked in such scathing and contemptous tones that I could not resist striking my most tragic attitude and belching in my deepest thunder, “Tell Henry Irving that I consider myself a far greater man than he is, and I hope we will both live long enough for him to acknowledge it.” Screwed off at the meter in this abrupt and unceremonious manner, my spirits fell below zero, and I turned my back on those two jealous actors with mixed feelings of pity and indignation, and sought the solitude of my chamber at the “White Horse.” Did I say solitude? Well, I thought I was alone till I ventured between the sheets, and then I was painfully undeceived. The only thing I was thankful for was that they were not all of one mind, as Charles Lamb puts it, or they might have pulled me on to the floor. What a restless night I did have, and yet it had its ludicrous aspect after all. One enormous fellow, shaped somewhat like a flounder, had fallen overboard into a vessel he had not calculated on, and swimming on to a raft, consisting of a spent lucifer match, he kept circling round and round in this miniature China Sea, walloping his arms sailor-like, and singing lustily “A Life on the Ocean Wave.”

The situation had a serious bearing as well, in as much as that night’s experience entirely changed my political views. Before this I was a Radical, holding, as one of the cardinal points of my political creed, that tenants should be allowed to destroy their own game. I am now a Tory in this respect, and strongly believe in the exclusive right and bounden duty of the landlord to decimate his own vermin, and leave his tenants unmolested. This explanation I heartily commend to Mr Jenkins as quite as true, less prolix, and more practical than his mundane evolution theory. The metamorphosis can be explained in far fewer words than he uses. It was a big bug in Belfast which converted him. It was a big bug in Babylon that changed me. After passing a miserable night, I arose, cooked my own breakfast, and set out to purchase writing materials, and immediately thereafter indited two peppery epistles, one to Irving, the other to Boucicault, telling them plainly my mission in London, my expectations of assistance from them, and the disappointing result, asking them plainly whether or not it was by their directions that their subordinates had so snubbed me, and requesting a reply in due course to the “White Horse;” but no answer ever came. I felt furious, but gradually cooled down in the exact ratio of the diminishing of my funds. Beef, you know, from its inflammatory nature, is well calculated to keep up red hot choler; but an occasional red herring, with dry bread and terribly wet, weak, tea, at most irregular intervals, takes the high falutin’ out of a fellow wonderfully. Well, then, it was after a sustained regimen of this sort that I even got so tame as to make allowances for the extraordinary conduct of those two men. They were already at the top of the tree, I argued, and could rise no higher, even with my assistance; while on the other hand the chances were, that if the public saw and appreciated me, I might have gone up and forced them to come down. Be this as it may, I never got the chance, or I would not now be under the necessity of covering so much paper for a sixpence. They know and I know it, and it is not my fault now if the whole world does not know it. It was a strong combination, perhaps the strongest which could have been arrayed against me; but it did not break me. At the present moment sufficient funds provided, I am as willing as ever to try my fortune again in London. Dion, after all, did not make Lochee and Wapping kiss, but he made my backbone and abdomen meet (a poor enough feat after all, as they were never tremendously far apart), and this, too, in the wealthiest town in the world, so that I was glad, having nothing to feed the fishes with, to commit myself once more to the briny, and leave the inhospitable hulk of a town, en route for Bonnie Dundee, a poorer, a hungrier, but not a less hopeful, man.

Arrived in Dundee, as usual, I was soon in request, a letter being sent to me, asking my presence at a restaurant called the Lorne Bar, in Bank Street, and intimating that besides a silvery subscription I would be presented with my portrait in oil, in appreciation of the extraordinary pluck under adverse circumstances which I had displayed in London.

Decorating myself to the best of my ability, I wended my way thither at the hour appointed, and full of hope and bridies awaited the presentation. Fancy my utter disgust when instead of an oil painting by Millais, a pencil sketch the size of an ordinary carte-de-visite, swimming in a pickle bottle full of whale oil, was offered for my acceptance. I grasped my trusty oaken cudgel, and in tragic tones belched out “Hence, horrible shadow, unreal mockery, hence!” and refused to touch the greasy concoction. The Chairman thereupon muttered something as to its being impossible to apportion the gift amongst the subscribers, and suggested that in accordance with an ancient custom, which made it imperative in Eastern climes to anoint their prophets, priests, and kings, the honour might profitably be extended to poets, concluding a long oration by calling on someone in the audience to volunteer as high priest anointer for the nonce. Quick as thought one of the bold villains collared the bottle, and approached me; but before he got the bung extracted I was on my guard, and we wrestled up and down the room, the oil scattering impartially over the entire audience, not a single soul being able to escape, as the gas had by this time been screwed out. I left the place minus my hat and stick, but consoled myself with the idea that the garments of most of these practical jokers did not become splatches of oil quite so well as mine did. I resolved after this to be more cautious, but the mischief of the thing was this, how was I to know a hoax from a genuine affair? If I treated them all as hoaxes I might miss my golden opportunity of success. On the other hand, if I treated them all as genuine, two years of it would murder me. This was a dreadful quandary to be in, and I had to be very wary, indeed, for the former meant sheer neglect and poverty, and the latter amounted to rotten eggs and a few coppers; and yet for all my watchfulness and observation up till now I have run the whole gamut of the four in equal proportions. As a specimen, after this stupid affair I received a letter from Downfield expressing the sincerest sympathy with me for the way I had been treated in Dundee, and asking me out to that village to receive what they termed a consolation present. This time it was to be a watch; however, to make a long story short, it was only the case of one made of pinchbeck, with not the vestige of a wheel inside. I had faith this time, but if faith without works be dead, verily a watch without works is deader.

But this is all vain repetition. To tell how I emerged from one series of scrapes to another for years and years would fill ten large volumes. To mention one half of the hairbreadth escapes I have made would be to issue a treatise on Providence; to recount a tithe of the rough handlings I have received would be a second edition of the Book of Martyrs. I have had my lemonade drugged with whisky until I was helpless. I have had my head cut in a vile attempt to elevate me on to the Burns Statue pedestal; I have been on more than one occasion over three hours cleansing my garments from rotten eggs administered as an antidote to rotten egotism. Poinding for rent has become so common with me that I begin to experience a sense of neglect if somebody is not hunting me for coin. Verily history repeats itself painfully often in my case. I trust, however, the
publication of this work will alter all this, and cause a new and happier era to set in on the fortunes of,

Yours truly,


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