William Topaz McGonagall.
McGonagall was an actor and a poet, the worst poet in the English language, or indeed in any language.
McGonagall was a weaver in Dundee, when at the age of fifty-two discovered a talent that was to change his life. He wrote ‘The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877’. His first poem was An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, a work that portrayed all the hallmarks of the McGonagall style. An extract reads as follows:
‘The first time I heard him speak,
‘Twas in the Kinnaird Hall
Lecturing on the Garibaldi movement,
As loud as he could bawl.
My blessing on his noble form,
And on his lofty head,
May all good angels guard him while living,
And hereafter when he’s dead.’
Gilfillan wrote in reply “Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.” The characteristics of the McGonagall style, which never varied, were contrived and outrageous rhymes, inaptness of poetic metaphor and disregard of the trappings of scansion and verse form.
McGonagall is particularly famous for his Tay Bridge poems. In 1877, an immense railway bridge was built across the Tay and McGonagall was impelled to write a poem in its honour. The lines follow the poet’s invariable style.
‘Beautiful railway bridge of the silvery Tay
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he pass along en route to Inverness.’
In 1879, the bridge fell down in a storm and McGonagall penned another verse on the 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….
And the cry rang out all round the town,
Good heavens! The Tay Bridge has blown down.’
McGonagall also had a career as an actor but earned little from this occupation. In fact, on some occasions, he was obliged to pay the theatre for the privilege of performing. He was finally dismissed form Mr Giles’ Theatre, Dundee, when, while playing the title role in Macbeth, he thought that the actor playing McDuff was trying to upstage him and so refused to die.
McGonagall’s best-paid piece of work was his Ode to Sunlight Soap, for which he was paid two guineas. The most poignant lines of this verse run:
‘You can use it with great pleasure and ease
Without wasting any elbow grease:
And when washing the most dirty clothes
The sweat won’t be dripping from your nose…
And I tell you once again without any joke
There’s no soap can surpass Sunlight Soap.’
McGonagall was so pleased with the generous commission paid by the manufacturers, that he wrote a verse of thanks ending with the lines:
‘And in conclusion, gentlemen, I thank ye
William McGonagall, Poet, 48 Step Row, Dundee.’
In 1892, after the death of the poet laureate Tennyson, McGonagall walked from his home to Balmoral, hoping to persuade Queen Victoria to appoint him as the next laureate. Unfortunately, Her Majesty was not in residence and McGonagall was obliged to walk home in disappointment.
McGonagall is buried in Greyfriars Kirk, [1 Greyfriars Place, Edinburgh EH1 2QQ], near to Greyfriars Bobby, and not as he wished in Westminster Abbey.