Words Upon the Greatness of William McGonagall

Was he truly the world’s worst poet?

“Is there not an Art of Diving, as well as of Flying?” Such was Pope’s question in his celebrated essay Peri Bathous, or “The Art of Sinking in Poetry.” He provided what seemed, at the time, a compleat guide to descending “many fathoms beyond Mediocrity,” with instructive illustrations from his contemporary poets. Yet even Pope might have fallen silent, perhaps in awe, had he been privileged to read the works of William McGonagall (1830-1902), quite possibly the world’s worst poet.

So, at least, the latest edition of his poems boldly proclaims him (The World’s Worst Poet: Selections from “Poetic Gems” by William McGonagall, Templegate Publishers, 1979.) There have been, to be sure, other candidates for that title. In England, in 1965, there was even a competition organized, with Peter Sellers as one of the judges, to see if anyone could write as badly as McGonagall. Many were called, but none was chosen.

The results need not surprise us. The last few generations have been sheltered ones, and our idea of the bathetic is likely to have been formed by such fustian as is preserved in The Stuffed Owl, that sobering compendium of the aberrances and abysms of otherwise respectable poets. (“Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands,” is a notorious contribution from Wordsworth.) But even a close study of The Stuffed Owl, or of Pope’s Peri Bathous, would hardly be adequate training for a contest with McGonagall. Consider, for instance, his meditation on the death of Emperor William of Germany:

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.

Now there is a mark worth shooting at.

McGonagall, of course, had disadvantages not shared by many pretenders to his title. His formal schooling—eighteen months—had ended when he was seven. He seems to have been an autodidact, reading prodigiously, but with an uninstructed eye. Of Irish parentage, he grew up in Dundee, Scotland, where he was a weaver, as was his father. Not until 1877, when he was forty-seven, did he discover that he had not only a gift but a calling. According to the “Brief Autobiography” prefixed to his poems, he had an epiphany of sorts: “A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry. . . . I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying ‘Write! Write!’ So I said to myself, ruminating, let me see, what shall I write?” The Muse had descended, and, one might say, it continued to descend for the next twenty-five years.

Once launched, McGonagall was unstoppable. He gave recitations incessantly in pubs, though his efforts were not always welcomed. “The first man that threw peas at me was a publican,” is the ingenuous opening of his “Reminiscences.” Peas were but the light artillery. On other occasions he was assaulted by waiters with wet towels, or was pelted with fruit. But though bloodied, he remained unbowed, ascribing the attacks upon him not to the quality of his verse but to the publicans’ resentment of his attacks upon “the Demon Drink.” He performed also in theaters, but so incendiary were his appearances that the local constabulary forbade the theater owners from indulging him further. Forced to the streets, his recitations caused near riots, and the authorities declared that they could no longer be responsible for his safety. Undaunted, he departed Dundee for the greener fields of Edinburgh.

McGonagall possessed—or was possessed by—what Henry James, in a somewhat different context, labeled “the imagination of disaster.”His favorite themes were catastrophes—train collisions, drownings, funerals, shipwrecks, fires, assassinations. Even cannibalism, in his account of the survivors of a shipwreck:

And the two survivors were exhausted from exposure, hunger, and cold,
Which caused the spectators to shudder when them they did behold;
And with hunger the poor men couldn’t stand on their feet,
They felt so weakly on their legs for want of meat.
They were carried to a boarding-house without delay,
But those that were looking on were stricken with dismay,
When the remains of James and Angus M’Donald were found in the boat,
Likewise three pieces of flesh in a pool of blood afloat.
Angus M’Donald’s right arm was missing from the elbow,
And the throat was cut in a sickening manner, which filled the villagers’ hearts with woe,
Especially when they saw two pieces of flesh had been cut from each thigh,
’Twas then the kind-hearted villagers did murmu and sigh.

Probably the best known of McGonagall’s verses are those devoted to the bridge over the River Tay. When built, it was the longest railway span in the world, and McGonagall had duly saluted this architectural triumph:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed alone en route to Inverness.

The bridge, unfortunately, collapsed in 1879, but the event brought out the best in McGonagall. The opening verse of his valediction is a poignant echo of his earlier panegyric:

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.

The poem goes on from strength to strength, much as the Tay Bridge did:

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.

With consummate, though perhaps uncalculated, art, McGonagall arranges this, his concluding stanza, to collapse almost as spectacularly as the bridge itself. Could even Pope have asked an unhappier blend of matter and manner?

McGonagall rather specialized in disasters, but he was also a poet to be reckoned with in the descriptive mode. Some of his most stirring work was occasioned by a visit to America in 1887. (He had the prescience to declare himself a weaver to the customs men, fearing that if they knew him to be a poet they would not admit him.) Though New York, with its rum-sellers and its dancing on the Sabbath, distressed him, he still managed to find some redeeming features:

Then there’s the elevated railroads, about five storeys high,
Which the inhabitants can see and hear night and day passing by.
Oh! such a mass of people daily do throng,
No less than five hundred thousand daily pass along,
And all along the City you can get for five cents,
And, believe me, among the passengers there are few discontent.

Niceties of rhythm, meter, and grammar seem not to have interested McGonagall greatly: perhaps we should say that he transcended them. But rhyme was a serious business. Clearly, he had learned that a poet was someone who could make the last words in a line approximate each other, however grotesquely. Even in his prose account (with McGonagall it is well to be clear about such fine distinctions) of the Muse’s first visitation, there are clues as to what he considered essential to a poet: “The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877. During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room. . . .”

McGonagall’s rhymes are not always so predictable. Anyone who, without qualm, can rhyme “distress” and “Cannes,” “mute” and “foot,” “ill” and “girl,” or “vice” and “unwise” has a bit of explaining to do. But usually his verse endings are harmonious enough, and he rarely scrupled at what Pope had termed “the sure return of oft expected rhyme.” To achieve his ends, he was prepared to throw in, as a kind of debased Homeric formula, such phrases as “I do declare,” or “I’ll venture to say,” or “without fail,” or “no one can deny.” Occasionally, of course, he ran into trouble with proper names—but he could rise to the occasion:

A heroic story I will unfold,
Concerning Jenny Carrister, a heroine bold,
Who lived in Australia, at a gold mine called Lucknow,
And Jenny was beloved by the miners, somehow.

But what is most remarkable about McGonagall’s rhymes is neither their customary predictability nor their occasional eccentricity. Rather, it is the lengths, literally, to which he will go to insure them. He resembles a happy inebriate, quite unable to walk a straight line, but staggering somehow to a familiar home, no matter how far afield his feet have taken him:

He was a public benefactor in many ways,
Especially in erecting an asylum for imbecile children to spend their days.

The late Sir John Ogilvy was the man thus honored. But the couplet (loosely speaking) might better stand as a memorial to McGonagall’s own volumes, the fit asylum for his lunatic poetic offspring.

H. L. Mencken said of President Harding, “He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” The same sort of grandeur not only creeps into but inhabits the work of McGonagall. His lack—lapses would be too kind a word—of technique was matched only by his lack of imagination. Many of his poems read like a kind of hypnotic journalism:

’Twas in the year of 1887, which many people will long remember,
The burning of the Theatre at Exeter on the 5th of September.
Alas! that ever-to-be remembered and unlucky night,
When one hundred and fifty lost their lives, a most agonizing sight.
The play on this night was called “Romany Rye,”
And at act four, scene third, Fire! Fire! was the cry;
And all in a moment flames were seen issuing from the stage,
Then the women screamed frantically, like wild beasts in a cage.

Despite the editorializing, what more concise lead paragraph could a newspaper editor demand? But, in viewing it as verse, one can only fall back again upon Pope:

Or he, whose fustian’s so supremely bad,
It is not poetry, but prose run mad.

McGonagall was not a prophet without dishonor in his own time. Forced to leave Dundee by his obstreperous audiences, he moved to Edinburgh, where his reputation flourished. Edinburgh was a university town, and the students, once they had discovered McGonagall, were not about to let such a National Treasure remain obscure. They lavished upon him their most outrageous attentions. They held dinners in his honor, where they crowned him the World’s Greatest Poet, an honorific McGonagall felt no need to question. On one occasion they presented him with a flattering letter, supposedly from the king of Burma, and accompanied by a topaz as mark of the king’s esteem. The topaz, a semiprecious stone, was intended as a comment upon the title of McGonagall’s first volume of verse, Poetic Gems. But McGonagall was as oblivious to the satiric intent of the gift as he was to that of the title that accompanied it: “Knight of the Order of the White Elephant.” Henceforth he signed himself “Sir William Topaz McGonagall,” much as if a woman were to take the name “Rhinestone” rather than “Ruby.”

The man became famous, or at least notorious. His career seems not unlike that of Florence Foster Jenkins, who, with her accompanist, Cosmo McMoon, used to fill Madison Square Garden by the sheer awfulness of her singing. Still, Florence Foster Jenkins never received the treatment that McGonagall did. The students, a mean and unlovely lot, often flattered him into appearing upon the boards simply as an excuse to pelt him with vegetables. An account of one of his performances is preserved by a contemporary, William Power, in his book My Scotland:

He wore a Highland dress of Rob Roy tartan and boy’s size. After reciting some of his own poems, to an accompaniment of whistles and cat-calls, the Bard armed himself with a most dangerous looking broadsword, and strode up and down the platform declaiming “Clarence’s Dream” and “Give me Another Horse— Bind up My Wounds.” His voice rose to a howl. He thrust and slashed at imaginary foes. A shower of apples and oranges fell on the platform. Almost before they touched it, they were met by the fell edge of McGonagall’s claymore and cut to pieces. The Bard was beaded with perspiration and orange juice. The audience yelled with delight; McGonagall yelled louder still, with a fury which I fancy was not wholly feigned. It was like a squalid travesty of the wildest scenes of Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso. I left the hall early, saddened and disgusted.

McGonagall had come a long way since his modest reception in Dundee pubs. To be sure, he had always invited such abuse. His conceit was as intractable as it was insufferable. Long-haired and solemn, he dressed even in midsummer in what he imagined was the poet’s proper garb, an actor’s black cape and spreading black hat. “William McGonagall poet, and Tragedian” was his signature, and he advertised himself as the greatest poet in the language since Shakespeare. An uncouth parody of his work, produced by the Edinburgh students, was fittingly dedicated “To Himself, knowing none Greater.” McGonagall would not have found the tribute extravagant.

In his life, as in his verse, McGonagall was spectacularly lacking in any sense of proportion or of humor. And as Oscar Wilde has reminded us, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing; a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” In 1878—the year after his revelation that he was a Poet— McGonagall set out to visit Queen Victoria, confident that once he had presented his credentials he would be named the next Poet Laureate. He made his way to Balmoral Castle on foot, an exquisitely appropriate gesture to his pedestrian Muse. The guards turned him away, telling him that “Tennyson’s the real poet to Her Majesty.” The shock was somewhat softened, though, when they bought a copy of his poems for twopence, and told him kindly “to go straight home and not to think of coming back again to Balmoral.”

But the man was indomitable. “So ends my ever memorable trip to Balmoral” is his innocent summation of his absurd venture. Though Victoria, unaccountably, never did recognize his genius, he bore her no animus. A handsome ode saluted the fiftieth year of her reign:

And as this is her first Jubilee year,
And will be her last, I rather fear—

and an attempt upon her life moved him to perfect transports of patriotic awe:

God prosper long our noble Queen,
And long may she reign!
Maclean he tried to shoot her,
But it was all in vain.
For God He turned the ball aside
Maclean aimed at her head;
And he felt very angry
Because he didn’t shoot her dead.
There’s a divinity that hedgeth a king,
And so it does seem,
And my opinion is, it has hedged
Our most gracious Queen.

McGonagall’s career, innocent and absurd, was the fit mate to his verse. Provided that he got to Balmoral Castle, however ludicrous the outcome, he was happy. Provided that his performances were attended, even by his tormentors, he felt vindicated. And provided that he could bring a line of verse, whatever its vagaries, to some ghastly conclusion, he was content.

And perhaps, after all, McGonagall has had the last laugh. His poems have gone through some twenty-odd printings, and sold over 500,000 copies. In Eastern Europe and the Far East he is, apparently, admired and translated widely —perhaps even widely enough to give the lie to Chesterton’s dictum, “Nothing improves by translation, save a Bishop.” Best of all, McGonagall’s sales now surpass those of the envied Tennyson, “the real poet to Her Majesty.”

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