The (not so) Great McGonagall
SCOTLAND’S WORST POET
Everybody knows the illustrious name of Scotland’s greatest poet, Robbie Burns. But how many have heard of William Topaz McGonagall -- the worst poet that Bonnie Scotland ever threw up, and arguably the worst poet ever to massacre the English language?
The Victorian era produced more than its fair share of bad poetry. Silly, turgid, melodramatic tripe seemed to be a fashionable mode of expression in those days. Poetic schmaltz was churned out by untalented would-be bards at the slightest provocation. Celebrations, historical events, personal triumphs and tragedies, wars, disasters -- all provided grist for the poetic mill.
Such works were frequently executed (the correct word, come to think of it!) with more enthusiasm than skill. Reams of Victorian doggerel were distinguished by ridiculous, overblown metaphors and foolishly grandiose presentations of commonplace subjects. Awkward, un-natural rhymes forced readers to put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Run-on sentences; painfully contorted sentence structure; and a plethora of ‘twases, ‘tweres, and other abridged or misspelled words abounded. Abject ignorance of elementary rhyme and meter was a cardinal feature of a lot of this stuff.
Hosts of dilettantes, and even some serious poets who ought to have known better were guilty of many of these sins during the Nineteenth Century. However, the nadir of this bad lot was one William Topaz McGonagall, of Dundee Scotland (1825? – 1902). The poet’s birth date is uncertain, as is the place of the great man’s nativity. He presented himself as a native of Edinburgh, although there is a possibility that he may have been born in Donegal, Ireland, and that he emigrated to Scotland as an infant with his parents. The victim of an unhappy childhood, he dropped out of school early and became a weaver. As he described it in his autobiography, McGonagall experienced an epiphany of sorts one evening, hearing voices commanding him to “Write! Write!” Obediently, he started scribbling what has been loosely referred to as “poetry” – an unfortunate habit that he kept up for a quarter of a century.
A (TYPICALLY BAD) EXAMPLE
Unlike the works of clueless poets whose amateurish efforts evoke guffaws of laughter from readers, McGonagall’s output was so consistently dreadful that, for many of us, today it retains no entertainment value, even as unintentional humor. It is merely painful to read this guff. A little McGonagall goes a very long way, so getting to the end of one of his poems requires fortitude and grim determination. We will spare the erudite and sensitive readers of Brigadoonery such an ordeal. A brief excerpt from McGonagall’s most (in)famous work will convince even the most charitable critic that this Heelan’ Laddie should have stuck to his weaver’s loom. You will agree that “The Tay Bridge Disaster” is a poetic disaster as well …
The Tay Bridge Disaster
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say –
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”
It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
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.
‘Twas horrible, wasn’t it? Given the abysmal quality of McGonagall’s work (of which this examples is, unfortunately, entirely representative) it seems scarcely credible that more than two hundred of his dreadful compositions found their way into print during the perpetrator’s lifetime! Serious poets who can’t get their work published may derive consolation from the fact that he never made a decent living from his “craft” (such as ‘twas).
However, Wm. McGonagall did achieve a degree of local renown around Dundee as a thespian, chewing up the scenery in the role of Macbeth, and appearing in other Shakespearean tragedies. A highlight of his career was a voyage to New York City, where he unsuccessfully looked for work in the theatre. Jobless and broke, he managed to solicit funds from a sympathetic patron back home in Dundee for the return fare to Scotland.
Although he managed to eke out a living as an actor, McGonagall’s first love was his poetry. Unfortunately, when he gave public readings of his own work, the results could be frightening. Contemporary newspapers described how the “poet” (their quotation marks, not mine!) was greeted with hoots of derision and showers of missiles including eggs, herrings, rotten potatoes and chunks of stale bread when he appeared for a reading at a circus in Paisley, Scotland. Reading between the lines, one suspects that poor, old McGonagall may have been the only person at the reading who was not in on the joke. It seems entirely within the realm of possibility that the circus had employed him as an unwitting clown whose bombastic readings of his own ridiculous writing presented an hilarious caricature of a self-important man of letters, thereby amusing the lumpen masses!
The poet of Dundee enjoyed a brief resurgence of campy notoriety in the mid 1970s, thanks to a movie, “The Great McGonagall.” This fictional comedy starred Spike Milligan in the title role. It also featured the inimitable Peter Sellers in a cameo as Queen Victoria.
In reality, the Queen never met McGonagall at all. His autobiography details how he made the formidable, fifty mile hike on foot from his home in Dundee to Balmoral Castle in hopes of seeing Her Majesty, only to be turned away by a surly official at the palace gate, and told never to return! Although McGonagall remained unlauded in Great Britain, he did receive honors from foreign royalty. Incredibly, his works came to the attention of the (then) “King of Burmah,” who was mightily impressed. No doubt it helped McGonagall’s cause that English was not that monarch’s first language. Towards the end of his life, McGonagall received a long letter from that obscure, Asiatic potentate, together with a small, silver elephant, informing Scotland’s worst poet that he had been made a Knight of the Order of the White Elephant. Historians assure Brigadoonery that there were few elephants roaming the Highlands of bonnie Scotland, even in ancient Victorian times. Nevertheless, far from being embarrassed or bemused by this most peculiar decoration, McGonagall considered himself to be a nobleman ever after; and “Sir William” used this unintentionally hilarious title until the end of his days.
That’s the short version of the story, but it may be more complicated than that. There are no primary sources for the “White Elephant” episode, except for McGonagall’s own autobiography – and he certainly believed it at face value. However, Chris Hunt, who maintains an authoritative web site about our hero and his works, casts serious doubt on the veracity of McGonagall’s putative “knighthood.” King Theebaw, who was the ruler of Burma when this supposed distinction was conferred in 1894, was in exile in India at the time, having been on the losing end of the Anglo-Burmese War. Another awkward consideration is that Burma had no “knights”in the European sense of the word -- of the White Elephant or otherwise. It is far more likely that some Edinburgh pranksters played a practical joke on old McGonagall, not necessarily to be cruel, but possibly motivated by a charitable desire to let the aging poet believe that his “genius” had finally been recognized by royalty.
THE NIGHTMARE CONTINUES …
It must be testament to a masochistic streak among poetry lovers that McGonagall’s wretched doggerel remains in circulation long after many worthy works of his more skilful contemporaries have disappeared into the oblivion of dusty archives. Dead but not gone, the poet of Dundee was celebrated with a special exhibit in his home town’s museum on the hundredth anniversary of his death, in 2002. Brave theatre-goers in Edinburgh were recently able to spend an evening enduring a professional actor impersonating the legendary bard in dramatic readings of his works.
Perhaps the best explanation for McGonagall’s astonishing staying power was his touching naďveté. In the best tradition of other unappreciated, self-proclaimed “geniuses,” and in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he held an unshakeable belief that he was a truly great artist. If simply staying in print after more than a hundred years is any measure of poetic success, then maybe The Great McGonagall’s hubris had a certain basis in reality, after all!
Fellow Brigadoonians who really want to know more about William McGonagall and his dubious poetic achievements are referred to Chris Hunt’s comprehensive and highly entertaining website,
or to Gordon Bambrick’s scholarly thesis about the man and his times, with some hilarious flash animations.
Background music: Highland Heritage, comp. and arr. by Neil Harding McAlister, © 2002
Revised 17 October, 2004.
© 2004 Neil Harding McAlister