William Topaz McGonagall - Scotland's worst poet -entertained Dundee and the Victorian world with his Poetic Gems

NO SEMI-PRECIOUS STONE, OLD TOPAZ LOVED HIS FOOL'S GOLD

William Topaz McGonagall (1830-1902) - the self-taught weaver from Dundee - is sometimes called "Scotland's Alternative Poet." But more often he is regarded (or celebrated) as the worst poet in the whole world. Like Scotland's bard Robert Burns, McGonagall has arisen from his pauper's grave in Edinburgh's haunted Greyfriar's Churchyard, to be marketed around the Scottish world.

There are McGonagall tee-shirts and mugs, ceremonial plaques and websites, And there are McGonagall societies and infamous McGonagall's Suppers, which are a hoot.  At these upside-down suppers, food is served and eaten in backwards order, beginning with the whisky and speeches and pudding, then moving on to main course, to finish with soup. The entertainment at one of these suppers was a stripper who showed up in the buff and put her clothes on as the entertainment!

As far as we know, there are yet no Topaz Tours leading tourists around Scotland to visit the sites MacGonagle massacred with his awful poems. But with the gobsmacking success of Outlander Tourism in Scotland, anything goes! There could be tee-shirts covered with the worst lines of the worst poems, under images of the places they eulogise: Beautiful Aberfoyle, Beautiful Comrie, Beautiful Crieff, Beautiful Edinburgh, Beautiful Newport on the Braes o' the Silvery Tay, and so on.

 

McGonagall was born three decades after Robert Burn's death, when the cult of The Plowman Poet was in full swing.  Any tradesman who could rhyme louse with mouse was publishing, and there were plumber poets, joiner – carpenter - poets and volumes and volumes of Bad Plowman Poetry. Most of these bad poets at least pretended to be humble, but not William McGonagall.  

Nay, the Bard of the Tay compared himself with Shakespeare and had an ego as bloated as Burns.  Even when people threw rotten fruit and vegetables at him, and mocked him, he didn't flinch.  In July of 1878 McGonagall walked all the way from Dundee to Balmoral to propose to Queen Victoria that she make him her Poet Laureate, instead of Alfred Lord Tennyson.  And then in 1887 he took the steamer Circassia from Glasgow to New York, expecting to be crowned and wooed there.  But wherever he went in Manhattan, all he got was mocking laughter, and more rotten fruit thrown at him.  On stage, dressed in outlandish feathery costumes – he sliced the fruit to pieces with his Scottish claymore as it flew at him through the air!

 


McGonagall hated alcohol and denounced all publicans for causing sin.  Yet most of readings were performed in pubs. When he was broke, he'd go into a bar and ask the publican if he could perform there that night, then knock on doors to get people to come to his show...instead of staying at home and avoiding the evil drink! And people did come to his shows, for the sheer entertainment of making fun of him!


William Power, politician, journalist, editor hilariously described in his book My Scotland  a McGonagall performance in the Albion Halls in Glasgow:

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


In the town of Perth, a shopkeeper is reported to have said to McGonagall:

Common honesty and a sense of fair play compels me to say that your poems are unique. In Scott, Byron, or Burns, for instance, if you omit a line, ten to one you lose the sense. With you it is totally different. I have read a whole production of yours, omitting each alternate line, and getting quite as much sense and literary power out of it as ever. Nay, more, if you read the fourth line first, and work back, the effect is quite as wonderful. 


Of McGonagll's  200 poems - described by critics as “poetry of information”-  the best known is 

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.”


…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.




And of course McGonagall had to honor Scotland’s National Bard - or at least try! 

ROBERT BURNS

Immortal Robert Burns of Ayr,

There’s but few poets can with you compare;

Some of your poems and songs are very fine:

To “Mary in Heaven” is most sublime;

And then again in your “Cottar’s Saturday Night,”

Your genius there does shine most bright,

As pure as the dewdrops of the night.






William McGonagall Collected Poems is a collector's item sure to inform and to entertain. "This edition brings together McGonagall's three famous collections—Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems, and Last Poetic Gems—and contains all the valuable autobiographical material which appeared in the original volumes. It also includes an introduction by Chris Hunt, indexes of poem titles and first lines, and features the first publication of McGonagall's only play, Jack o' the Cudgel, written in 1886 but not performed publicly until 2002."

And McGonagall Online is about everything McGonagall! Start your own local McG society!

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