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Issue 5 - WhiteElephant

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002

 

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WhiteElephant

GAVINDSMITHEXPLAINSTHEPECULIARSUCCESSOFSCOTLAND'SWORSTPOETWILLIAMMCGONAGALL,AKA‘KNIGHTOFTHEWHITEELEPHANTOFBURMA'

Scotland’ssecondbest-knownpoetafterBurns”,Isaidtothemagazine’sEditor,tryingtopersuadehimtocommissionafeatureaboutWilliamMcGonagall,whodiedacenturyagothisyear.“Scotland’ssecond-bestpoet,”hemused.“No,”Ireplied,“secondbest-known.There’sabigdifference.”

RobertBurnsisacknowledgedtheworldoverasafinewriterbyanystandards–technicallyaccomplished,sensitiveandinsightful,withanimpressivebreadthofsubjectmatterandaclearmasteryoverit.

WhenitcomestoWilliamMcGonagall,however,ScottishauthorWilliamMcIlvanneyrecentlydescribedhimasthe“…foremostpoetofbanalpomposity,excruciatingscansionandrhymesofsuchnumbingimpacttheycouldgiveyoucauliflowerearsjustfromsilentreading.”

Indeed,ifBurnscanbejudgedScotland’sbestpoet,thenMcGonagallisundoubtedlyitsworst,andtosomeeventheWorld’sWorstPoet.YetwhileBurnssocietiesexistineverycorneroftheglobe,McGonagallappreciationsocietieshaveproliferatedinalmostequalnumbers.Some300websitesarededicatedtoMcGonagall,includinganumberintheRussianandRomanianlanguages.Theveryawfulnessofhisworkhasbecomeitsvirtue.

McGonagalllivedformuchofhislifeinDundee,andaccordingtotheDirectorofDundee’s‘CityofDiscoveryCampaign’,PetraKydd,“we’vebeenworkingtoraiseawarenessofMcGonagallandhispoetryinrecentyears,andtheamountofinterestabroadiscrazy.Whenwe’veissuepressreleasesaboutthingswe’vedonethey’vebeenpickedupbynewspapersliketheAdelaideAgeinAustraliaandevenCanadianradio.

“IliketothinkofMcGonagallastheworld’sbestworstpoet,andpeopleeitherlovehimorhatehim,there’snomiddleground.Hisselfbeliefwasincredible,and100yearsafterhisdeathhisappealhasendured.Heis,perhaps,morewidelyreadthanBurns.AcasehasevenbeenmadebysomeAmericanacademicsthathispoetrymayhavebeentheforerunnerofrapmusic!”

CountedamongMcGonagall’sfansarecomedianBillyConnollyandthelateSpikeMilligan.Indeed,thepoet’sprofilewasraisedbothinBritainandabroadbythereleasein1974ofthefeaturefilmTheGreatMcGonagall,whichstarredSpikeMilliganinthetitlerole,whilefellowex-GoonPeterSellersplayedtheunlikelypartofQueenVictoria.

SowhowasWilliamMcGonagall,self-styled‘PoetandTragedian’?BorninEdinburgh,probablyin1825,hewasthesonofanimmigrantIrishman.MuchofhischildhoodwasspentontheOrkneyislandofSouthRonaldsay,wherehisfatherpeddledhardwaretothecroftersandfishermen,butwhenMcGonagallwas11yearsoldhisfamilymovedtoDundeetofindwork,andhelivedthereforvirtuallytherestofhislife.Heworkedwithhisfatherasahandloomweaverinoneofthecity’smanyjutemills,andinJuly1846marriedJeanKing.

Asayoungman,McGonagallwasbittenbytheactingbug,andhisfirstperformancewasatMrGiles’TheatreinDundee.Hewasonlyallowedtoperformafterawhip-roundamonghisintriguedfellowworkersatSeafieldHandloomWorkshadsecuredsufficientcashtopersuadethemanagementtoallowhimtotakethestage.DuringtheplayhegotsocarriedawayinhisroleofMacbeththatwhenitcametothefinalfightscenewhereMacduffkillsMacbeth,McGonagallrefusedtodie,muchtothefuryoftheactorplayingMacduff!Ofhisemergenceasapoet,McGonagallhimselflaterwrote:“ThemoststartlingincidentinmylifewasthetimeIdiscoveredmyselftobeapoet,whichwasintheyear
1877…Iseemedtofeel,asitwere,astrangekindoffeelingstealingoverme,andremainedsoforaboutfiveminutes.Aflame,asLord

Byronhassaid,seemedtokindleupmyentireframe,alongwithastrongdesiretowritepoetry…”Oncestarted,therewasnostoppingMcGonagall,whoproceededtopublishmorethan200poemsinthequartercenturyafterthat“strangekindoffeeling”.Hisfirstcollectionwaspublishedin1878.DespitethefactthatMcGonagallwasquiteobviouslyatechnicallyappallingpoet,whoseworkwasriddledwithsentimentality,hewastoscrapealivingbysellingpoemsinbroadsheetformatandbygivingpublicreadingsduringthefollowingyears.

ManyoftheitemsofhispersonalcorrespondencepreservedbyDundeeCentralLibraryinitsMcGonagallarchiveare,however,uncomfortablyclosetobeingbeggingletters,andtherewassomethingtragicaboutthemuch-deridedpoet,whoseloveofpoetrywascertainlysincere.

Theyear1878sawMcGonagallmakethelongwalktotheroyalfamily’sHighlandresidenceofBalmoralonDeesidetoseeVictoria,buthewasrefusedentrybytheLodgeKeeper,whotookexceptiontohisdescriptionofhimselfas‘PoettoHerMajesty’.In1880McGonagallsetoffintheoppositedirectionandvisitedLondon,encouragedbyforgedinvitationstoperform.SevenyearslaterheevenventuredtoNewYork.HearrivedintheUSAwithjusteightshillingstohisname,andwasonlyabletogethomewhenaDundeebenefactorpaidforhisreturnpassage.

Allthingsconsidered,McGonagall’sselfbeliefwasextraordinary–evenwhenaudiencesopenlymockedhim,hefailedtobedeterred.OnlyMcGonagall,onefeels,couldhavewritten“…thefirstmanwhothrewpeasatmewasapublican.”

McGonagallneverdoubtedthesincerityofeventhemostoutrageousflattery,andwastheunwittingvictimofanumberofhoaxes.LatereditionsofPoeticGemscontainAnOdetoWilliamMcGonagallwrittenbythreeGlasgowuniversitystudents,alongsidewhichappearsacopyoftheiraccompanyinglettertohim,askingforpoeticguidance.Thisincludesthequestion:“Isthemostintellectualbenefittobe
derivedfromastudyoftheMcGonagallianortheShakespeareanschoolofpoetry?”Stillhefailedtosmellarat.

AccordingtohisobituaryintheDundeeCourier(30thSeptember1902),whenhewenttoliveinEdinburgh…hemetwithagreatreception.DuringhissojourntherehereceivedthetitleofSirWilliamTopazMcGonagall,KnightoftheWhiteElephantofBurma,whichtitleheassumedtotheendofhisdays.

McGonagall’sPoeticGems–includinghisbest-knownpoemTheTayBridgeDisaster–waspublishedin1890,andhasbeenmuchreprinted.Indeed,McGonagall’sworkhasformanyyearsbeenfarmorewidelyavailablethanthatoftheverybestofhiscontemporaries
andsuccessors.

McGonagallisoftenmockedtodayforwritingsomanypoemsrelatingtocontemporarydisastersandbattles,butsuchcommemorativeversewasverymuchafeatureofVictorianliterature.McGonagallmerelydiditworsethaneveryoneelse.Tennyson’sepicChargeoftheLightBrigadewasreallyjustMcGonagallwithacompetentrhymeschemeandeffectivescansion!

FeelingunappreciatedbythepeopleofDundeeinhislateryears–evenMcGonagallcouldnotinterpretthe‘poet-baiting’,stonethrowingandabuseasaffectionandrespect–hemovedinitiallytoPerthandthentoEdinburgh,wherehediedofacerebralhaemorrhageon29thSeptember1902.

Heendedhisdaysinapauper’sgraveinGreyfriarsChurchyard,anditwasnotuntil1999thatamemorialwaserectedthereunderthejointauspicesoftheCityofDiscoveryCampaignandtheMcGonagallAppreciationSocietiesofDundeeandEdinburgh.

EveninDundeetherehaslongbeenanambivalenceaboutMcGonagall,anduntilveryrecentlytherehavebeenpreciousfewtangibleremindersofhim.Workingonthebasisthatthereisnosuchthingasbadpublicity,however,thecityhasbeguntoembraceitsmostfamousliteraryresident.

LastyearacommemorativeplaquewaserectedinPaton’sLane,whereMcGonagalllivedformuchofhislife,andthecurrentanniversaryyearhaswitnessedanumberofdiverseinitiatives.ThesehaveincludedanexhibitionfeaturingMcGonagallartefactsandmanuscriptsatDundeeCentralLibrary,whileaCDfeaturingreadingsofMcGonagall’sworkbyvariousluminariesoftheliteraryandtheatricalworldshasalsobeenproduced.

McGonagallSuppershavebeenheld,tendingtodifferfromthebetter-knownBurns’Supperbybeingstagedinreverseorder.Themealbeginswiththemasterofceremonieswishingtheparticipants‘safehome’,andendswiththeentréesandawelcometoguests!

OneenduringelementofthecurrentcommemorationsisthattheCityofDiscoveryCampaignhascommissionedtheetchingofthefirstverseofMcGonagall’sTheRailwayBridgeovertheSilveryTayintoapavementwalkwayonthenorthbankoftheriver–‘TheMcGonagallWalk’–closetothebridgeitself.

Itisperhapsironicthatthecityforeverassociatedwithbadwriting,thankstoMcGonagall,hasnowblossomedintoacentreofliterarytalent.

Since1999morethan20bookseitherbyDundee-basedauthorsorwriterswithDundoniancredentialshavebeenpublished.Forthelastfouryearstherehasbeenakeenly-contestedDundeeBookPrize,jointlyfundedbytheCityofDiscoverycampaignandDundeeUniversity.ThisyearClaire-MarieWatsonscoopedthe£6,000awardforhernovelaboutthelastwomantobeburntasawitchinDundee,IAmGrisselJaffray.

WhetheranyofDundee’scurrentcropoftalentedwriterswillbecommemoratedinacentury’stimeremains,ofcourse,amootpoint.WhatisincontrovertibleisthatWilliamopazMcGonagall,PoetandTragedian,hasapermanentplaceinScotland’sliteraryhistoryandintheheritageofDundee–whetherwelikeitornot…