William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902), the son of an Irish handloom weaver, was such a bad poet that he has been hailed as a genius. His knack of bungling every subject he ever attempted, of making even the most tragic events seem funny, is almost unique in literature.
Born in Edinburgh in 1825, McGonagall was drawn to the theatre and first tried his hand as an actor. His performance of Macbeth was a classic of improvisation. Having been run through by Macduff, he refused to die and continued declaiming impromptu verses until a well-aimed kick from the assassin finally brought him to the ground.
His true vocation, however, lay with the written word. He received a fatal bite from the muse of poetry one day in 1877, at the age of 52. “A flame,” he said, “seemed to kindle up my entire frame and I felt so happy, so happy I was inclined to dance.”
This inclination to dance did not impede his literary output. Once he began writing, he found it difficult to stop. His themes were as grand as his rhymes were banal. He bathed daily in pathos and bathos, almost drowning in the tub that he enjoyed thumping. He quickly produced over two hundred poems, nearly all of them about battles, shipwrecks or other disasters, the heroes of which were often squashed.
So on comes the iron-horse snorting and rumbling And the mountain-torrent at the bridge kept roaring and tumbling; While brave Carl keeps shouting, The bridge is down! The bridge is down! He cried with a pitiful wail and sound. But, thank heaven, the engine-driver sees the red light That Carl keeps swinging round his head with all his might; But bang! bang! goes the engine with a terrible crash, And the car is dashed all to smash.
Whenever human folly was responsible for a catastrophe, McGonagall was quick to point it out. In ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, one of the most famous of his creations, he rounded on the architects and engineers with astonishing hindsight, his tone a curious mixture of pragmatic pomposity and melodramatic modesty. The ending of that epic, with its engineering advice, is especially poignant.
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…
In the handful of his poems not concerned with violent loss of life, but only with relatively peaceful loss of life and its aftermath, McGonagall plumbed shallows of solemn profundity rarely waded into before or since. His elegiac but often sadly overlooked ‘Funeral of the German Emperor’ contains one of his most remarkable stanzas.
The authorities of Berlin in honour of the Emperor considered it no sin, To decorate with crape the beautiful city of Berlin; Therefore Berlin I declare was a city of crape, Because few buildings crape decoration did escape.
Unable to find a publisher, McGonagall became his own literary agent and publicist. On one occasion, he even tramped all the way to Balmoral Castle to offer copies of his poems to Queen Victoria in person. But the Queen refused to see him and he had to settle for selling them to the policeman at the gates, one of his few occasions in his career when he earned money from his work.
He spent the rest of his life seeking recognition of his talents. At poetry readings in Dundee, he tormented listeners with his lyrics until they had to resort to throwing peas and other vegetables at him. When these items were abandoned in favour of slushier and harder missiles, he decided it was time to leave Dundee.
I intend to leave Dundee, Owing to the treatment I receive, Which does my heart sadly grieve. Every morning when I go out The ignorant rabble they do shout ‘There goes Mad McGonagall’ In derisive shouts, as loud as they can bawl And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me.
In the spring of 1890, McGonagall began to suffer headaches. He went to see a doctor who, in the words of a local journalist, “put a tube up his nose and blew into it as if he were performing solo on the trombone”. The trouble was diagnosed as an air cavity blocked by writing poetry. But McGonagall did not take the hint.
McGonagall seems to have remained undaunted by all the adverse criticism he received in his lifetime. He invariably denounced all his critics as “vendors of strong drink”. He was convinced that the world would one day recognise him as the equal of Shakespeare. In some ways, his faith was justified. He has earned the sobriquet ‘The Scottish Homer’ and all his books are now in print.
Indeed, his poem ‘The Famous Tay Whale’ has actually found its way into a respectable anthology. George MacBeth, editor of the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, defends the poem by insisting that McGonagall “was the first and perhaps so far the only widely known naive poet, and as such he deserves attention”.
McGonagall died in 1902. Many claim that it simply never occurred to him that poetry is an art that demands at least some skill. Others insist that he truly believed he had that skill in abundance. I am inclined to the latter view, but I also sometimes wonder if in fact he knew exactly what he was doing and has fooled us all.
Another consideration: If the purpose of poetry is to entertain, then McGonagall must rank as one of its great masters. There can be no better tribute than the ‘Ode’ composed by the students of Glasgow University in 1891, a deliberate parody of his style.
Among the poets of the present day There is no one on earth who can possibly be able for to gainsay But that William M’Gonagall, poet and tragedian, Is truly the greatest poet that was ever found above or below the meridian.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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