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GAVIN D SMITH EXPLAINS THE PECULIAR SUCCESS OF SCOTLAND'S WORST POET WILLIAM MCGONAGALL, AKA ‘KNIGHT OF THE WHITE ELEPHANT OF BURMA'
Scotland’s second best-known poet after Burns”, I said to the magazine’s Editor, trying to persuade him to commission a feature about William McGonagall, who died a century ago this year. “Scotland’s second-best poet,” he mused. “No,” I replied, “second best-known. There’s a big difference.”
Robert Burns is acknowledged the world over as a fine writer by any standards – technically accomplished, sensitive and insightful, with an impressive breadth of subject matter and a clear mastery over it.
When it comes to William McGonagall, however, Scottish author William McIlvanney recently described him as the “… foremost poet of banal pomposity, excruciating scansion and rhymes of such numbing impact they could give you cauliflower ears just from silent reading.”
Indeed, if Burns can be judged Scotland’s best poet, then McGonagall is undoubtedly its worst, and to some even the World’s Worst Poet. Yet while Burns societies exist in every corner of the globe, McGonagall appreciation societies have proliferated in almost equal numbers. Some 300 websites are dedicated to McGonagall, including a number in the Russian and Romanian languages. The very awfulness of his work has become its virtue.
McGonagall lived for much of his life in Dundee, and according to the Director of Dundee’s ‘City of Discovery Campaign’, Petra Kydd, “we’ve been working to raise awareness of McGonagall and his poetry in recent years, and the amount of interest abroad is crazy. When we’ve issue press releases about things we’ve done they’ve been picked up by newspapers like the Adelaide Age in Australia and even Canadian radio.
“I like to think of McGonagall as the world’s best worst poet, and people either love him or hate him, there’s no middle ground. His self belief was incredible, and 100 years after his death his appeal has endured. He is, perhaps, more widely read than Burns. A case has even been made by some American academics that his poetry may have been the forerunner of rap music!”
Counted among McGonagall’s fans are comedian Billy Connolly and the late Spike Milligan. Indeed, the poet’s profile was raised both in Britain and abroad by the release in 1974 of the feature film The Great McGonagall, which starred Spike Milligan in the title role, while fellow ex-Goon Peter Sellers played the unlikely part of Queen Victoria.
So who was William McGonagall, self-styled ‘Poet and Tragedian’? Born in Edinburgh, probably in 1825, he was the son of an immigrant Irishman. Much of his childhood was spent on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay, where his father peddled hardware to the crofters and fishermen, but when McGonagall was 11 years old his family moved to Dundee to find work, and he lived there for virtually the rest of his life. He worked with his father as a hand loom weaver in one of the city’s many jute mills, and in July 1846 married Jean King.
As a young man, McGonagall was bitten by the acting bug, and his first performance was at Mr Giles’ Theatre in Dundee. He was only allowed to perform after a whip-round among his intrigued fellow workers at Seafield Hand loom Works had secured sufficient cash to persuade the management to allow him to take the stage. During the play he got so carried away in his role of Macbeth that when it came to the final fight scene where Macduff kills Macbeth, McGonagall refused to die, much to the fury of the actor playing Macduff! Of his emergence as a poet, McGonagall himself later wrote: “The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year
1877… I seemed to feel, as it were, a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord
Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry …” Once started, there was no stopping McGonagall, who proceeded to publish more than 200 poems in the quarter century after that “strange kind of feeling”. His first collection was published in 1878. Despite the fact that McGonagall was quite obviously a technically appalling poet, whose work was riddled with sentimentality, he was to scrape a living by selling poems in broadsheet format and by giving public readings during the following years.
Many of the items of his personal correspondence preserved by Dundee Central Library in its McGonagall archive are, however, uncomfortably close to being begging letters, and there was something tragic about the much-derided poet, whose love of poetry was certainly sincere.
The year 1878 saw McGonagall make the long walk to the royal family’s Highland residence of Balmoral on Deeside to see Victoria, but he was refused entry by the Lodge Keeper, who took exception to his description of himself as ‘Poet to Her Majesty’. In 1880 McGonagall set off in the opposite direction and visited London, encouraged by forged invitations to perform. Seven years later he even ventured to New York. He arrived in the USA with just eight shillings to his name, and was only able to get home when a Dundee benefactor paid for his return passage.
All things considered, McGonagall’s self belief was extraordinary – even when audiences openly mocked him, he failed to be deterred. Only McGonagall, one feels, could have written “ … the first man who threw peas at me was a publican.”
McGonagall never doubted the sincerity of even the most outrageous flattery, and was the unwitting victim of a number of hoaxes. Later editions of Poetic Gems contain An Ode to William McGonagall written by three Glasgow university students, alongside which appears a copy of their accompanying letter to him, asking for poetic guidance. This includes the question: “Is the most intellectual benefit to be
derived from a study of the McGonagallian or the Shakespearean school of poetry?” Still he failed to smell a rat.
According to his obituary in the Dundee Courier (30th September 1902), when he went to live in Edinburgh… he met with a great reception. During his sojourn there he received the title of Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant of Burma, which title he assumed to the end of his days.
McGonagall’s Poetic Gems – including his best-known poem The Tay Bridge Disaster – was published in 1890, and has been much reprinted. Indeed, McGonagall’s work has for many years been far more widely available than that of the very best of his contemporaries
McGonagall is often mocked today for writing so many poems relating to contemporary disasters and battles, but such commemorative verse was very much a feature of Victorian literature. McGonagall merely did it worse than everyone else. Tennyson’s epic Charge of the Light Brigade was really just McGonagall with a competent rhyme scheme and effective scansion!
Feeling unappreciated by the people of Dundee in his later years – even McGonagall could not interpret the ‘poet-baiting’, stone throwing and abuse as affection and respect – he moved initially to Perth and then to Edinburgh, where he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 29th September 1902.
He ended his days in a pauper’s grave in Greyfriars Churchyard, and it was not until 1999 that a memorial was erected there under the joint auspices of the City of Discovery Campaign and the McGonagall Appreciation Societies of Dundee and Edinburgh.
Even in Dundee there has long been an ambivalence about McGonagall, and until very recently there have been precious few tangible reminders of him. Working on the basis that there is no such thing as bad publicity, however, the city has begun to embrace its most famous literary resident.
Last year a commemorative plaque was erected in Paton’s Lane, where McGonagall lived for much of his life, and the current anniversary year has witnessed a number of diverse initiatives. These have included an exhibition featuring McGonagall artefacts and manuscripts at Dundee Central Library, while a CD featuring readings of McGonagall’s work by various luminaries of the literary and theatrical worlds has also been produced.
McGonagall Suppers have been held, tending to differ from the better-known Burns’ Supper by being staged in reverse order. The meal begins with the master of ceremonies wishing the participants ‘safe home’, and ends with the entrées and a welcome to guests!
One enduring element of the current commemorations is that the City of Discovery Campaign has commissioned the etching of the first verse of McGonagall’s The Railway Bridge over the Silvery Tay into a pavement walkway on the north bank of the river – ‘The McGonagall Walk’ – close to the bridge itself.
It is perhaps ironic that the city forever associated with bad writing, thanks to McGonagall, has now blossomed into a centre of literary talent.
Since 1999 more than 20 books either by Dundee-based authors or writers with Dundonian credentials have been published. For the last four years there has been a keenly-contested Dundee Book Prize, jointly funded by the City of Discovery campaign and Dundee University. This year Claire-Marie Watson scooped the £6,000 award for her novel about the last woman to be burnt as a witch in Dundee, I Am Grissel Jaffray.
Whether any of Dundee’s current crop of talented writers will be commemorated in a century’s time remains, of course, a moot point. What is incontrovertible is that William opaz McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian, has a permanent place in Scotland’s literary history and in the heritage of Dundee – whether we like it or not …