20 October 2013

William McGonagall– One Really Bad Poet

William McGonagall
William McGonagall
Imagine a poet so bad, so awful, so lacking in metaphoric skill and seemly imagery, that he left audiences appalled, unable to absorb the shock of the abuse of the English language. When he recited his works in pubs, patrons pelted him with fish and flour, rotten eggplants and eggs. Unsurprisingly, he died a pauper.

I hasten to add that this poet (and actor, tragedian, and weaver) was not North American or even Australian, but British, Scottish to be precise, known as the poet of Dundee. In 1893, he felt so abused, he wrote a poem threatening to leave his fair town, whereupon a newspaper wrote he'd probably stay for another year once he realised "that Dundee rhymes with '93".

But as bad as this poet was, his works live on and remain in print to this day. Web sites and encyclopedia articles appear in his honour. A few years ago, a collection of his poems sold for £6600, more than $10,000. Nearly a century after his death, fans erected a grave marker in his honour. One of his contemporary admirers wrote without irony "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this." This is William McGonagall.

Marked for Greatness

Hoping to secure a royal patron, he wrote to Queen Victoria with a sample of his work. A clerk for VR returned a polite thank you note, which McGonagall misinterpreted as praise. He trekked on foot to Balmoral Castle in a driving storm, soaked to the skin. Upon arrival, he announced he was the Queen's Poet, which surprised the guards and greeters who well knew Alfred, Lord Tennyson. They sadly turned him away, leaving him to trudge back to Dundee, a 200km round trip.

Author Stephen Pile explains it this way: McGonagall "was so giftedly bad, he backed unwittingly into genius." So like Edward Bulwer-Lytton and William Spooner, William Topaz McGonagall became famous for actions in the breach rather than talent. Or maybe they were all smarter than we.

Before we turn to his most (in)famous poem, I should mention 'Topaz' was not his middle name. Rather, acquaintances constructed an elaborate joke and 'punked' him, so to speak. They sent the poor poet an official looking letter from the Burmese King Thibaw Min, appointing McGonagall Burma's poet laureate and knighting him Topaz McGonagall, Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant Burmah. Thereafter, McGonagall referred to himself as "Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant."

Frankly, I'm starting to think McGonagall may have been a mad genius.

Less than Serious Portrayals

I'm grateful to our SleuthSayers fans. Shortly after this went to press, a reader sent a link to a discussion of the poet and a partial reading by the actor Billy Connolly.

That, in turn, led to this comic skit from four decades ago. The web page doesn't elucidate, but Spike Milligan of The Goon Show and Q5-Q9 fame appears to play McGonagall. I'm not 100% certain, but I believe Peter Sellers is playing Queen Victoria.

And now, a reading…

In the following poem, most readers content themselves with the first and last stanzas without further torturing themselves with those in between. Feel free to do the same.

The Tay Bridge Disaster

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.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say–
"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say–
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

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!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

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.


  1. The remnants of the original Tay Bridge are still visible as one trains into Dundee today.
    FOrtunately, the city had lots of better writers than their distictive poet!

  2. My favorite line has got to be "The Storm Fiend did loudly bray." And give the guy credit--it's the rhyme and scansion of poems like these in the 19th century, surely, that led to free verse coming into fashion in the 20th. ;)

  3. (laughing) Liz, I hadn't thought of that! But I should be careful lest I reveal my own inadequate poetic skills.

    Janice, I noted his gift for the obvious: If the bridge had been better built, the less likely people would have been killed.

  4. Interesting article, Leigh. I'd never heard of the poor man. It's too bad people took such delight in mocking him.

  5. Wow. I mean ... wow.

  6. There is actually a service that will send one of the divine Mr. M's poepm's to your email box every day. Come to think of it that sounds more like a threat than a service.

    There is a minority opinion that McG was what we would today call a performance artist, that he was doing it on purpose and people never realized that the joke was on THEM. I think that is wishful thinking.

    What interests me is that some of his stuff resembles Ogden Nash's, not ON's little quips, but his long rambling stuff. But Nash was a genius and McG was - what? The anti-genius?

  7. Here's a metaphor that works, I think: he was the Ed Wood of poetry.

  8. Leigh -- An amazing column. I have never seen anything like that poem.

  9. I never heard of the man, and that is not at all surprising.

    And Rob, anyone who would slog through bad weather to accept a non-existent post must be taking himself seriously.

    Now my be the time for me to dust of some of my poems. Let's see. What rhymes with "atrocious"?

  10. Leigh, it's nice to see that someone writes...er, uh...wrote poetry the way I do. LOL

    And, thanks for a great idea. I think I'll write a series of mysteries that McGonagall solves -- while pretending to do research for his poetry. After solving the crime, he and his manservant can retire to a pub where McG recites the poem he "researched" -- after which the patrons pelt him with rotten fish, etc. But, the joke's on them: his manservent is a french chef, well-versed in whipping culinary delights from rotted food, topped by a creamy sauce! Yum! LOL

  11. Gloriously awful! But is it any worse than the self published crapola clogging Amazon? I think the motives are the same, blind egos without discipline.

  12. Ain't that true, Vicki, Anon #1, and Dale.

    Herschel, you hit upon hinge factor in Rob's note. Who in their right mind would make a 60-mile trek through terrible weather and continue to believe he'd been welcomed? Something's not right in the ol' brain box.

    (laughing) Dixon, you've got something there. Give it a try!

    Anon #2, I hadn't thought of that but it's an excellent point. A lot of vanity press authors are stone deaf to both their work and criticism.

  13. Me thinks the "poor" man was clever like a fox. At least he believed his own greatness we must have big egos and strong confidence to write. To honestly think someone would.like to read what we write.
    And Dixon a marvelous idea to write a mystery series with the Poet solving the crimes.


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