William Topaz McGonagall, weaver, actor, poet, tragedian and performance artist, died on the 29th of September, 1902.
William Topaz McGonagall was, nay, still is, the undisputed world’s champion poet in the ‘he’s so bad, he’s good’ category. Visit any Website dedicated to this wonderful man and within a few lines of introduction, you will be able to read the comment ‘world’s worst poet’. McGonagall has been widely hailed as the writer of the worst poetry in the English language, but if those Internet sites are anything to go by, he’s the most popular ‘worst poet’ in the World Wide Web. There is even a campaign alive to get a postal stamp created in his honour. His best known poem is probably ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, but there are over two hundred of his published poems to choose from, including a tribute to the Tay Bridge before the 1879 disaster. William Topaz McGonagall was an eccentric figure, but he was no fool and was very well read, being conversant with the works of Shakespeare, Scott, Burns and may other well known writers. He is most closely associated with Dundee, where he spent much of his life, and where there is now a memorial stone emblazoned with his famous poem about the bridge falling down. McGonagall's poetry has the gift of humor, albeit mostly unintentional – probably – and it helps us to see the funny side of things and to not take life too seriously. Aye, Scotland has grown proud of its very own gem, the ‘Jewel frae Dundee’.
William Topaz McGonagall was born in Edinburgh of poor Irish parents, in March, 1825, but his family moved to Dundee when he was still a boy. His father was a handloom weaver and the future poet learned the same trade, which he practiced industriously for many years. However, as he recorded in his autobiography, the trade grew so bad that he found it impossible to make a living out of it. His first foray into public performance came as a result of his enthusiasm for dramatic literature and he was irrepressibly drawn to the stage. Shakespeare was his favourite author and McGonagall delighted in pointing out the resemblance that existed between his handwriting and the Bard’s. He appeared on stage at various times in the character of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III and Othello in the Grocers’ Hall, Castle Street and elsewhere. However, his first appearance was when he played Macbeth in Giles’ Penny Theatre, in Lindsay Street. He had to pay for the privilege, but he was a roaring success in terms of entertainment value. Never was that value more illustrated than when his Macbeth refused to succumb to a jealous ‘Macduff’. When it came to the combat scene, the Macduff tried to spoil the show by whispering, “Cut it short!” But McGonagall saw through the ruse and ‘laid it on’ all the more lustily, until his opponent was knackered and the audience yelled, “Well done, McGonagall!” and called him back for several curtains.
Fatefully, it was in 1877, during the Dundee holiday week, that McGonagall made the discovery that he was a poet. “I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry”, he wrote. “I was sitting in my back room in Paton's Lane,” he continued, “when all of a sudden my body got inflamed and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry. A voice kept ringing in my ears – ‘Write, write!’ – until at last …I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem.” That first poem, which displayed his characteristic style in a local newspaper, was ‘An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan’ and it began thus:
“All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.”
He then embarked on a career as a working poet, writing and performing and delighting and appalling audiences in equal measure across Scotland for the next two decades. He published his first and only book of verse in 1878, entitled ‘Poetic Gems’. It included this preface:
“I earnestly hope the inhabitants of the beautiful city of Dundee
Will appreciate this little volume got up by me,
And when they read its pages, I hope it will fill their hearts with delight,
While seated around the fireside on a cold winter's night;
And some of them, no doubt, will let a silent tear fall
In dear remembrance of William McGonagall.”
William Topaz McGonagall, the bard of Dundee, wrote a tribute to Scotland’s other Bard. It is full of praise, but also conveys his view of Robert Burns' self opinion, which was not unlike McGonagall's own unwavering self opinion – that he was a genius:
“Your ‘Tam O'Shanter’ is very fine,
Both funny, racy, and divine,
From John O'Groats to Dumfries
All critics consider it to be a masterpiece,
And, also, you have said the same,
Therefore they are not to blame.
And in my own opinion both you and they are right,
For your genius there does sparkle bright,
Which I most solemnly declare
To thee, Immortal Bard of Ayr!”
McGonagall became a cult figure; a legend in his own lifetime. Tragically, however, he never gained financial success from his fame and died penniless in 1902. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard, in Edinburgh. McGonagall claimed that he was misunderstood and persecuted by “heretical detractors”. Perhaps he was shrewder than he was given credit for and was simply playing along to his audience? Perhaps he was a genius? Make up your own mind.