by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. I first became aware of William McGonagall in 1967 when I was a student at Scotland’s oldest and proudest university, St. Andrews. “You must read McGonagall” people said with a twinkle. “He’s undoubtedly Scotland’s worst poet… indeed, quite possibly the single worst poet who has ever lived.”
Every person who told me — and there were many — offered their fervent recommendation, tongue firmly in cheek, with high good humor… but there was (odd mixture) more than a dollop of respect in their words, even admiration… and never, ever derision. McGonagall compelled their respect, and so while everyone smiled at his execrable verses… there wasn’t a soul who begrudged him a hard-earned encomium for his persistence, his tenacity in pursuing his evanescent, shimmering dream, and most of all his unyielding determination, a potent combination which made him an unlikely celebrity and a man about whom I now say to you in my turn “You must read McGonagall.”
For the incidental music to this article I have selected a tune from the 1954 musical “Brigadoon”, that magic place in the sweet-smelling heather, the pertinacious flower of Scotland; a place that emerges once every 100 years to remind you of a people, their unquenchable zest and undeniable genius. McGonagall deserves his hard-won place amongst the revelry and pageantry of Brigadoon… it would no doubt have inspired him to another (admittedly God-awful) effusion.
You will find my selection — “Heather on the hill” — in any search engine. Go now… for at this party we shall eat, drink, be merrie… and if we compel a tear, then it’s a willing tribute we pay to a land we revere and remember fondly too… and because McGonagall shared that sentiment he is always and forever one of us.
Born in Edinburgh, in 1825, or maybe 1830.
Like many aspects of McGonagall’s checkered career, his basic facts are either unknown or in dispute. He was, for instance, born in the Greyfriars Parish in Edinburgh in March, but just what date is not known… indeed the very year itself of his birth cannot be determined. What of it? He came to his Irish parents on a particular day… and it’s sufficient that he did so… and so began his race, a race for which he was well equipped in only one thing — true grit and assiduity.
… And sad to say, that wasn’t enough to win, as he wanted to win. But he refused to recognize this fact, and that’s the point of this tale…
The Weaver Poet.
If he were born today, McGonagall, hard-working weaver of long-wearing cloth, would no doubt qualify for a grant from some well-meaning foundation of liberal tendencies… but such like did not exist then… and so, despite the wife and 7 children he acquired along the way, he left his uncertain craft… in pursuit of… what? Different people said very different things about what he did. He never heard them, didn’t care, and didn’t let their advice, however earnest and sensible, determine his direction… and that, too, is the point of this tale.
And so his quest for himself and for the words that always eluded him began…
… appropriately enough with a role in “Macbeth” where he played the title role… embellishing it in this way: having paid Mr. Giles for the right to play this role at his theatre, he understandably wished to get his money’s worth. And so at Macduff’s great moment, McGonagall, as Macbeth, refused to die and stayed on the stage, extemporizing, to the consternation and amusement of all. Ah, this was most assuredly a portent of things — and poetry — to come.
A pivotal moment in 1877.
There comes to all people with a mission a moment of epiphany, a moment when they know beyond a shadow of doubt what they will do, what they must do to fulfill their destiny and high purpose. This moment occurred in 1877 for McGonagall, and it determined his fate. “I seemed to feel a strange kind of feeling stealing over me and remained so for about five minutes.” Another man must have seen it as dyspepsia brought on by a too fine dinner… McGonagall saw it as destiny…. his fate, poetry.
And now, then, we must unveil some of this poetry, ultimately about 200 works, perhaps the worst ever written, God bless him.
McGonagall, fervent royalist that he was, wrote often about his sovereign princess and lady, Queen Victoria. Indeed, on one well-known occasion he thought nothing of walking about 60 miles from Dundee to Balmoral where Her Majesty then resided. Undaunted by her failure to receive him, drenched to the skin though he was, not even gifted with a wee, warming dram, he still revered, for his loyalty was abiding and profound.
Thus for her Golden Jubilee of 1887, celebrating 50 years upon the throne, he wrote:
“Therefore let all her subjects rejoice and sing, Until they make the welkin ring; And let young and old on this her Jubilee be glad, And cry, ‘Long Live our Queen!’ and don’t be sad.’
Sadly such loyal sentiments so rendered did not enrich this most unpoetic of poets, no indeed. Thus his expedients were many. For instance, he took a job at a circus where he gave readings from his oeuvre and allowed his discriminating listeners to signify their disapprobation by pelting him with offal, dead cats, rotten tomatoes, lamb carcasses and other disagreeables. It was never enough, not even close, to making a living.
…. But still the torpid words, the wrong words, the words that mangled and hurt to hear kept coming, for this was a man possessed, though not gifted.
Until the collapse of the great Tay Bridge, one of the great engineering marvels of the age, gave him his great opportunity — and he seized it.
“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.”
And so he rendered the catastrophe of 28 December 1879 when the bridge collapsed, taking with it the fast-speeding express and every passenger. McGonagall’s words were the high point of his bathetic career.
Let us leave it so, for now you know of McGonagall and his works, each one you can read, savor, and enjoy… though never, ever deride. For though he was a bad poet, perhaps the worst ever known, he was adamant in pursuit of his dream; perhaps more adamant than you. And so in the end, he endures; his awkward verses, every one of them, still in print…
“I am your gracious Majesty ever faithful to Thee, William McGonagall, the Poor Poet, That lives in Dundee.”
… And in our hearts.
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About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses. Services include home business training, affiliate marketing training, earn-at-home programs, traffic tools, advertising, webcasting, hosting, design, WordPress Blogs and more. Find out why Worldprofit is considered the # 1 online Home Business Training program by getting a free Associate Membership today. Details at worldprofit.com