Among English-language poets this rare title has been held for well over a century by William McGonagall. Many people who enjoy literature will know his name and be aware of the accolade. But who was he? What poetry did he write and why is it so bad? And why is he regarded as the greatest of the bad poets? Here I shall try to answer the questions.
I – McGonagall’s life and creative process
William McGonagall was born in 1825, to impoverished cottage weavers who had come over to Scotland from Donegal. First they tried Edinburgh, where William was born, then Glasgow, and then Paisley, finally settling in Dundee. In 1846 William married Jean King, a lady of Stirling, thereafter spending most of their lives in Dundee. Jean was illiterate (she had to sign William’s death certificate with a cross) so she was perhaps not the obvious partner for an aspiring litterateur; and there is not one mention in William’s writing of Jean or of the seven children they had. So the marriage is hard to fathom.
While working in the family weaving business William became smitten with the theatre, above all with Shakespeare. He began to think of himself primarily as an actor, eventually going freelance and giving performances that, in his own description, were tumultuously received. As a thespian, William was not short of self-confidence: he once rewrote Macbeth in order not to be killed off in the final act because in his view the actor playing Macduff (Macbeth’s murderer) was merely trying to upstage him.
Once he had mastered Shakespeare, William went on to write poetry of his own, and then to declaim his verse in public, perhaps aiming to emulate Dickens, whose public readings had been lucrative sell-outs.
In 1878 William walked the sixty miles from Dundee to Balmoral with the intention of asking Queen Victoria to appoint him “The Queen’s Poet”, apparently unperturbed by the fact that Tennyson was already Poet Laureate. The Queen did not receive William, but he was treated kindly, fed and watered, and politely sent packing.
He then tried performing further afield, travelling by boat to London in 1880. Touring did not make him any money, but in 1887, at the age of 62, he tried again, this time in New York. What made him think that New York audiences would comprehend him, let alone flock to hear him, is hard to imagine. Unsurprisingly his misjudgement cost him dear, so much so that he had to cadge the fare home from a fellow Dundonian in the city.
Throughout his career, William was roundly mocked, and nowhere more hurtfully than in Dundee. At some of his appearances fruit and eggs were thrown, and for a while the city magistrates made him refrain from performing. Regardless, William kept his head down and continued writing. His apparent ability to shrug off denigration and turn in on himself has prompted one psychologist to suggest that William perhaps lay somewhere on the Asperger’s to Autism spectrum.
In 1890 a letter unexpectedly arrived advising that the King of Burma had appointed William a Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant, with the title Sir William Topaz McGonagall. Whether William saw this as a hoax or simply ignored is not recorded; but thereafter he took to advertising himself under his new honorific.
Nevertheless, his money problems kept mounting. Friends bailed him out in 1890 by financing the first publication of his work, a volume wordily entitled Poetic gems selected from the works of William McGonagall, poet and tragedian, with biographical sketch by the author and portrait. Poetic Gems contains the first 32 poems of the 258 that William eventually composed.
In 1893, tired of Dundee, he declared that he was intending to leave the city forthwith. Mockery still followed him, though; for someone on the local paper wrote waspishly that because Dundee rhymed conveniently with 1893 William was unlikely to leave that year – and indeed he didn’t depart until 1894.
In his final years, having moved to Edinburgh, William must have cut a very sad figure. He remained poor and became increasingly ill. He died in 1902, at the age of 77, of a cerebral haemorrhage. He is buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard.
I turn now to William’s poetic process. He writes that in June 1877, when he was 52, some form of divine combustion consumed him, turning him instantly into a fully-fledged poet. Here is how he describes his transformation:
“A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so happy, so happy that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, ‘Write” Write!’ So I said to myself, ruminating, let me see; what shall I write?…”
He then proceeded “while under the divine inspiration” to write his first poem, a piece in praise of his recently deceased friend, the Reverend George Gilfillan (1877). Signing his poem “W.M’G., Dundee” he dropped it through the letterbox of the Dundee Weekly News, which published it. After that there was no holding William back. He carried on writing in an unbroken stream, covering events great and small, for twenty-five more years, right up to his death.
So why is his verse regarded as so bad? What are its hallmarks?
The short answer is his determination to make his lines rhyme – no matter what. If it rhymed it was poetry. It didn’t matter how long each line turned out to be nor whether the stressed syllable in each word fell in the right place. He either had no respect for, or did not understand, metre. Worse, his vocabulary is of the most banal.
Now see for yourself!
II – Extracts from his poems
It is arguably The Tay Bridge Disaster that brought William to prominence both in and beyond Dundee. On December 28th, 1879, the railway bridge across the Firth of Tay collapsed in a severe gale as a train was crossing on its journey to Dundee. The entire train fell into the Firth, with the loss of all lives. This horrifying event got William’s creative juices flowing. Here are the first and last verses of the poem he completed a month after the event.
The Tay Bridge Disaster (1880)
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.
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.
These lines pick up characteristics from William’s first poems, and they reappear time and time again through to his last. Note:
- reference to the Firth of Tay as “silv’ry”. The Tay occurs often in his poems, and it is always silver, never blue or angry or sparkling, or anything else
- the widely differing lengths of the two verses
- William’s readiness to ride roughshod over grammatical correctness in order to force a rhyme, as in the two lines beginning “Had they been supported…”
- the banality of “Which will be remember’d for a very long time”, which occurs four times
These self-same features – cliché, lack of metre, and forced rhyme – figure prominently in the extracts below, taken from two further poems written ten years apart:
The Inauguration of the College of Dundee (1883)
I hope the ladies and gentlemen of Dundee will try and learn knowledge
At home in Dundee in their nice little College,
Because knowledge is sweeter than honey or jam,
Therefore let them try and gain knowledge as quick as they can.
Lines in Memoriam Regarding the Entertainment I Gave on the 31st March, 1893, in Reform Street Hall, Dundee
’Twas on the 31st of March, and in the year of 1893,
I gave an entertainment in the city of Dundee,
To a select party of gentlemen, big and small,
Who appreciated my recital in Reform Street Hall.
The meeting was convened by J. P. Smith’s manager, High Street,
And many of J. P. Smith’s employees were there me to greet,
And several other gentlemen within the city,
Who were all delighted with the entertainment they got from me…
For sheer banality, as well as lack of metre, the line beginning “The meeting was convened…” strikes me as verging on genius.
That same year William wrote up his decision to leave Dundee:
A New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee (1893)
Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
‘There goes Mad McGonagall’
In derisive shouts as loud as they can bawl,
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me;
And such actions are shameful to be heard in the city of Dundee…
Nevertheless, he couldn’t keep away altogether, for here he is, three years later, covering the Dundee Flower Show:
The Dundee Flower Show (1886)
The Industrial School Boys Band were there on Saturday
And played most eloquent music both plaintive and gay
Which met with the appreciation of the people there
And for the time being helped drive away dull care
For beauty such plants and flowers here have been seen
That were displayed in the Flower Show on the Magdalen Green
Especially plants in pots, were most lovely to see
Belonging to W. P. Laird & Sinclair, Dundee
On top of everything else, the second verse betrays a shaky grasp of punctuation.
Finally, here is his poem on the coronation of Edward VII.
The Coronation of King Edward VII (1902)
And as the Archbishop approached to put the crown on his head,
A silence fell on the great congregation, as of the dead,
Because they saw the Archbishop seemed pale and shaky with dread,
And felt unable to put the crown on the King’s head,
But the King saw what was wrong, but he didn’t frown,
And with the aid of his own hands he put on the crown.
When Queen Alexandra was being crowned she looked lovely and gay,
And the ceremony took only a few minutes’ delay,
And the King permitted the Archbishop to retire to his chair,
Likewise the Primate felt very weak, he was well aware.
The sameness of William’s output throughout his life is remarkable. You cannot pick up an undated piece of MacGonagall and say, “Well, that’s an early one” or “That’s from his middle period” because in twenty-five years of writing William developed his technique not one bit.
That is why, perhaps, he is regarded as the greatest of the bad poets, and why he will be remember’d for a very long time.
Having been consumed by the same fiery poetic spirit that consumed William, I round off this piece with two verses of my own of which I hope he would approve.
To the beautiful town of Settle (in respectful acknowledgement of the Tay Bridge Disaster)
Elegant ladies and gentlemen of the beautiful town of Settle,
Which is set so fair on the banks of the silv’ry Ribble,
Your tow’ring crags and tea-rooms little, most nourishingly the Naked Man and the Singing Kettle,
Do cast a wondrous spell and cause a poet to scribble
By the beautiful banks of the silv’ry Ribble!
But many sensible men does say
That even poets must learn to call it a day
Along the beautiful banks of the silv’ry Ribble.
So now I must end my modest little article,
Which among English letters is but an insignificant little particle,
For the more I do make my verses shorter,
At any rate to be no longer than they ought to,
The less I shall make the elegant citizens of Settle to be bored,
And the less chance I have of being ignored.
For those who would like to know more about William McGonagall and his work, I recommend the McGonagall online website. It contains much detail about his life, and most of his works. If you would like to hear Scotsman Roy Macready recite The Tay Bridge Disaster, it can be found on YouTube. It runs for 3½ minutes.
North Yorkshire County Council libraries hold one copy of William McGonagall – Collected Poems, 2006. Also available is a CD narrated by Scottish actor David Rintoul, entitled William McGonagall…the world’s worst poet? (2016).
Appendix – metre, rhyme and vocabulary in poetry
While most people can recognise and appreciate poetry when they hear it, the technical terms that define it are perhaps less well known, so a short explanation may be helpful.
English words are heavily stressed, so, for example we always say “bacon” with the stress on the first syllable and “about” with the stress on the second. Stressed syllables falling in a regular pattern are what makes poetry poetry. Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, but it does need the regularity that stressed syllables provide, and the pattern of regularity that poets use is known as metre, or sometimes scansion.
To quote Wordsworth:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils…
Here there are eight syllables to each line, and the natural stress in each word provides a steady rhythm.
The use of rhyme – or not – is entirely up to the poet. Shakespeare, for example, uses relatively little rhyme, quite often reserving a couple of rhyming lines to round off a lengthy speech. On the other hand, in the daffodils piece above, Wordsworth is keen to rhyme, and he keeps it up through the whole poem. In the short extract above rhyming words occur at every other line: cloud/crowd in lines 1 and 3, and hills/daffodils in lines 2 and 4.
Down the years, the combination of rhythm and rhyme have made Wordsworth’s verse both memorable and enjoyable to countless readers.
To be memorable, poetry often places together – juxtaposes – words that we wouldn’t normally see together. Here is the opening to Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s Kubla Khan:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Unexpected juxtapositions that stick in the mind here are stately/pleasure; caverns/measureless; and sunless/sea. The rhythm and rhymes too are as regularly patterned as in Wordsworth.
Incidentally, what can be said about poetry can also be said about music. Music doesn’t have to have a tune to be music, but it does have to have rhythm.