William McGonagall

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"Well, I must say that the first man who threw peas at me was a publican, while I was giving an entertainment to a few of my admirers in a public-house in a certain little village not far from Dundee but, my dear friends, I wish it to be understood that the publican who threw the peas at me was not the landlord of the public-house, he was one of the party who came to hear me give my entertainment." (William McGonagall Reminiscences)

William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902) is widely regarded as Scotland's (and possibly the world's) worst poet, but some have suggested that he might rather have been a satirist of genius.[1] A self-educated hand loom weaver from Dundee (although he was born in Edinburgh) he discovered in 1871 an ability to write poetry of striking banality, in a manner that systematically confounded conventional notions of metre. This led to considerable fame in his lifetime, throughout which McGonagall apparently retained the honest belief that his talent was comparable only to that of William Shakespeare. Many since have written in the style that McGonagall made famous, but few have come close to replicating the sense of honest, naive incompetence that characterised almost every line of more than two hundred published poems.[2]

Recently, a previously unpublished play written by McGonagall was discovered. The play, "Jack o' the Cudgel" is, according to one literary critic, "dreadful....as bad as anything else McGonagall wrote".[3] Apparently written as a tribute to Shakespeare, the play is set in the court of Edward III. Jack, the hero, is a noble Saxon who rises from pauper to knight, vanquishing his enemies by hitting them on the head with an enormous cudgel, and is apparently an expansion of a poem of the same name (...."Then the fist of the giant descended in a crack/But Jack dealt Croquard a heavy blow upon the back/With his cudgel, so that the giant's hand fell powerless down by his side,/And he cursed and roared with pain, and did Jack deride."...)

In 1877, McGonagall had a wife and six children, and was working as a handloom weaver in Dundee, entertaining his fellow-workers by recitations from his favourite Shakespeare plays (especially Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet, and Othello). That year, as he relates in his autobiography, he received "the divine inspiration". Hearing a voice calling him to "Write! Write!" he composed his "Address to Rev. George Gilfillan" and submitted it anonymously to Dundee's Weekly News. The poem was published in the "Correspondence" column on 7 July 1877, where the editor observed that the writer "modestly seeks to hide his light under a bushel." Thus encouraged, McGonagall turned professional "Poet and Tragedian" and spent the next twenty-five years trying to prove his greatness.

In recent times some of his work has been used in rap records.

"The Tay Bridge Disaster"

McGonagall's most famous poem is possibly "The Tay Bridge Disaster". On the evening of 28 December 1879, the Tay Rail Bridge near Dundee collapsed during a severe gale while a train was passing over it, resulting in 75 deaths. McGonagall's poem concludes:

"Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed."

This building of that ill-fated bridge had earlier been celebrated by "The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay":

"Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting the Railway
Bridge of the Silvery Tay,"

and when a new bridge was built, this was a further occasion for McGonagall to celebrate, in "An Address to the New Tay Bridge":

"BEAUTIFUL new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy."

Style

The extracts above are typical of the McGonagall style. The classic form of the English poem, (and the form in which Shakespeare wrote virtually all of his poems), is in iambic pentameters with a formal rhyming system. An iambic pentameter is a line with five stressed syllables, alternating with five unstressed syllables and ending on a stressed syllable, giving the poem a regular and distinctive rhythm. McGonagall's lines never have this classic form, but instead the natural accents give his lines the rhythm of waves, variable in size, swelling and then breaking, to fade out almost always anti-climactically. It is a rhythm that seems almost inevitably to have comic effect when read aloud, and one that has been exploited by other writers of overtly comic verse

"One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be more restricted employment by authors of simile and metaphor."
(from Very like a Whale by Ogden Nash)


Whether McGonagall was sincere in his declared belief in his genius, or whether he was a clever clown who sustained a joke for 25 years is a question that has vexed critics. Most believe that he was honestly misguided; if it was a mask, it was a mask that he was careful not to let slip. The subjects of many of his poems (deaths, disasters and funerals) were such that any deliberately humorous treatment would indicate a degree of insensitivity that few have been willing to acknowledge as a possibility. And yet, his poetry is just so uniformly bad in so many different ways, that the tantalising possibility remains that McGonagall knew exactly what he was doing in making his poetry memorably awful.

Memorial

McGonagall is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, where a memorial stone, installed in 1999, is inscribed:

William McGonagall
Poet and Tragedian
"I am your gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee."

References

  1. The Real McGonagall
  2. McGonagall online
  3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/tayside_and_central/6120910.stm Critics pan play by 'worst poet', BBC News
    Sorry to say, someone has found a McGonagall play Times on-line, November 6, 2006.