William Topaz McGonagall was born of rather poor Irish parents in Edinburgh, Scotland, in March 1825. In his nearly unreadable, rambling biographical notes1, one eventually learns that he sprang from a family of five children and that he worked with his father as a handloom weaver. His education appears to have been patchy, but, in his own words, 'William has been like the immortal Shakespeare he had learned more from nature than he ever learned at school'. The family settled in Dundee while William was still a boy, and he lived there for the rest of his life. He died in 1902.
As a grown man, he continued to work in the family trade, and married one Jean King in 1846. At about this time he also began to participate in amateur theatrics, acting in Shakespearean drama at the Dundee theatre. The Muse of Poetry appears to have captured his imagination, if not his talent, in the 1870s, beginning with a paean to a new railway bridge over the Tay River at Dundee in 1877. By McGonagall's own account, the poem was '... received with eclat and [he] was pronounced by the Press the Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge...'.
And after that he never stopped. His first collection of Poetic Gems was published in 1878, and he published several more Collected Gems during his lifetime as well as many broadsheets. He also toured Scotland, England, and New York in the United States, giving public readings for which he charged admission. At these readings he would dress in full Scottish Highland costume. He is reported to have been a cult figure in his lifetime, although his audiences were often rather stormy with those in attendance given to catcalling.
Dundee City Council, in claiming McGonagall as a favourite son, describes him as the World's Best Bad Poet, and it is hard to disagree. Not too many verses will be needed, to prove the point. Although followers of McGonagall all have their favourite poems, the first two stanzas, from his ode The Ancient Town of Leith is a wonderful example of his indifference to practically everything but rhyme:
Ancient town of Leith, most wonderful to be seen,
With your many handsome buildings, and lovely links so green,
And the first buildings I may mention are the Courthouse and Town Hall,
Also Trinity House, and the Sailors' Home of Call.
Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,
They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.
In this sample, adherence to fact was also obviously of great importance. McGonagall lovers will have instantly recognised the phrase 'most wonderful to be seen', for, like the epic writers of yore, McGonagall used certain phrases and couplets with great regularity. The Silvery Tay, for example, about which McGonagall wrote numerous lyric poems, features prominently in the opening lines of his delightful work, The Newport Railway:
Success to the Newport Railway,
Along the braes of the Silvery Tay,
And to Dundee straightway,
Across the Railway Bridge o' the Silvery Tay,
Which was opened on the 12th of May,
In the year of our Lord 1879,
Which will clear all expenses in a very short time
Because the thrifty housewives of Newport
To Dundee will often resort,
Which will be to them profit and sport,
By bringing cheap tea, bread, and jam,
And also some of Lipton's ham,
Which will make their hearts feel light and gay,
And cause them to bless the opening day
Of the Newport Railway.
Was William McGonagall truly aware of the grand sweeping awfulness of his works? He vowed he was misunderstood and persecuted by heretical detractors, and called his persistence an act of courage. For a poor handloom weaver, any income generated by public readings, however showered with abuse, would surely have been welcome. He did not earn very much from his poetry, in any case, and had to be helped back home from the New York tour, which foundered early on.
McGonagall always yearned to become Poet Laureate, and, upon the death of Alfred Lord Tennyson he actually walked all the way to Balmoral Castle to ask Queen Victoria for the title. He was turned away at the gate. But who has heard of Lord Tennyson's successor, Alfred Austin?
The image of the bad poet, trapped by his Romanticism and inspired by a muse with a tin ear, appealed mightily to Spike Milligan of The Goon Show; Milligan appeared as McGonagall in the movie The Great McGonagall, which also starred Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria.
In 1965, a competition was organised, along the lines of the famous Bulwer-Lytton contest2. Poets of McGonagall's calibre were sought, and cash prizes were offered by the oil company sponsors. Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan were among the panel of judges. But in the end, all entries were rejected, and it was declared that no poet can yet compare with William McGonagall.
The poetry of McGonagall is still in print today, not just in English but also in Russian, Japanese, Thai, Bulgarian, Romanian and Chinese, among others. An Appreciation Society thrives online. His Poetic Gems are reprinted every year, at least in English.