William Topaz McGonagall : The Worst Poet in History?
William Topaz McGonagall : The Worst Poet in History?
"The chicken is a noble beast,
The cow is much forlorner,
Standing in the pouring rain,
With a leg in every corner."
Perhaps that little stanza has made up your mind before you read another single word.
Was William Topaz McGonagall the world's worst poet?
Is there anybody else that could offer up a competitive race in appalling verse and tortuous doggerel?
Here is a brief resume of one of the most curious characters in the literary history of Scotland.
William MacGonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1825. Or so we believe as he may actually have been born in 1830. Nobody knows for certain and it is not the only mystery about this remarkable man. His parents were both Irish and his father was a hand-loom weaver. In search of work the family moved to the west of Scotland first to Paisley and then to Glasgow.
William followed in his father's footsteps and also became a weaver. He eventually settled in Dundee and this became the city with which he was most associated. He also got married and had five children.
However by the 1870's the weaving industry was in decline and work was harder to come by. Luckily for McGonagall he experienced an epiphany. He suddenly realised that for all his life he had been missing his true calling. He was born to be a poet and had discovered his muse.
As he himself described that magical moment;
"The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877"
He dedicated his first ever poem to a local minister entitled 'Address to the Reverend George Gilfillan'. The subject of the poem on reading it rather obliquely replied "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this". It is not known how McGonagall felt about the comment but he would assuredly have welcomed it.
He then began touring Scotland performing recitations of his poetry to the public. He even wrote to Queen Victoria to ask for her patronage. All he received was a letter of thanks with a polite rejection. However MacGonagall took this expression of thanks as confirmation that the Queen wished to employ his services. This was a famous example of his obtuseness and lack of self-awareness or insight.
In 1878 he actually walked the 60 miles from Dundee to the royal residence at Balmoral Castle. Along the way he got caught in bad weather and arrived at the castle gates soaked to the skin. He approached the guards and introduced himself as "The Queen's Poet" much to the bemusement of the soldiers who quickly replied "Tennyson's the Queen's Poet".
Don't mention the Scottish play
He was not only a poet but he was an actor too. When he played MacBeth on the boards one night he was convinced that the actor playing MacDuff was trying to upstage him. So, at the end of the play when it came to his death scene he simply refused to die.
He continued with the sword-fight for far longer than Shakespeare had intended but with the audience cheering him on. He was undoubtedly a resolute and determined man in life and in theatre.
The silvery tongue on the Tay
However without a doubt his magnum opus was the celebrated poem 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' about an event in 19th century Scotland. In an appalling tragedy in December 1879 an estimated 75 people were killed as the famous River Tay Rail Bridge collapsed when a train was passing across its rails.
In keeping with the solemnity of the aftermath McGonagall wrote some equally appalling verse to mark the occasion.
"So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!"
And in 'A Paean to Sunlight Soap' he extolled the virtues of the product in what sounds like a bad TV commercial of modern times. Perhaps he was catching the mood of national reform of health, housing and sanitation that was sweeping Victorian Scotland.
"You can use it with great pleasure and ease,
Without wasting any elbow grease,
And when washing the most dirty clothes,
The sweat won't be dripping from your nose"
A three-ring circus
He fell out with his adopted home-town of Dundee at one point. That is with the authorities of the city to be exact who had banned his act at a local circus. During his recitations the audience under the Big Top were encouraged to throw eggs, fruit and vegetables at the performance.
Apparently these were all a feature of audience participation with which McGonagall had no complaints whatsoever. Nevertheless a stop was put to the show and his reaction shows his anger. Words did not exactly fail him but certainly his scansion did;
"Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee,
Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me,
Nay, do not stare or make a fuss,
When I tell you they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus,
Which in my opinion is a great shame,
And a dishonour to the city's name."
Incidentally his middle name of 'Topaz' was not a birth title unsurprisingly. This arrived late in his life in the 1890's when he was the target of a prank letter.
This informed him that he had been appointed by the King of Burma as Sir Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant of Burma. Whether he was taken in by the hoax or not McGonagall thereafter had this title printed on his publicity.
His poetry revision
But the work of McGonagall is much loved today and it was largely thanks to legendary comic Spike Milligan. He introduced the character of McGonagall to a new and appreciative audience in the 1950s when tributes to the Scots poet featured in The Goons classic radio show.
Milligan continued this love affair of the poetry for many years after. This included two novels and even a little known movie released in 1974 in which he starred. There was also a cameo appearance by Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria.
The poetry could also inspire wonderful creativity in critics such as Nicholas T. Parsons who exclaimed that reading the poetry of William MacGonagall was thus;
"The experience is like that of being driven unsteadily down a meandering road in a rattling old banger, which finally turns abruptly into a brick wall"
Another observer Stephen Pile summed him up by saying "He was so giftedly bad that he backed unwittingly into genius". This is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable back-handed compliments ever written in the English language.
Nevertheless some researchers and analysts have speculated that William McGonagall was not quite as innocent as he seemed. It is reckoned that perhaps he was more than aware that his poetry was so awful but that he knew a market was there for his particular brand of naive doggerel.
However others have analysed his life and work and came to the conclusion that he may have suffered from an autistic spectrum disorder such as Asperger's Syndrome. This would explain his lack of awareness of audience reaction and lack of reality concerning his limited talents.
Despite his ups and downs by 1895 McGonagall had became a cult figure in his native town of Edinburgh. Although the success was short-lived at least he eventually achieved the public acclaim for which he had striven so long and hard.
He died penniless in 1902 at his home at No.5 South College in the city and was buried in the graveyard of the Greyfriars Kirk. But his words live on as does his historic status as a great eccentric and Scottish legend.