Home History Vile Verse and Desperate Doggerel

Vile Verse and Desperate Doggerel

by Enochadmin

William McGonagall, nineteenth century © GL Archive/Alamy Inventory Photograph.

Regardless of his long-running standing as ‘the worst poet in historical past’, William McGonagall has hardly lacked appreciation in literary tradition since his dying in 1902. Raised in Dundee by a working-class household with deep non secular convictions, McGonagall adopted in his father’s footsteps and have become a weaver. His creative inclinations have been obvious at an early age; he dedicated the verses of his idol, Shakespeare, to reminiscence and appeared in native theatre because the titular character in Macbeth. As he would later write in his inordinately self-dramatising autobiography, his fellow thespians have been jealous of his appearing, so he refused to die by the hands of Macduff within the remaining combat scene as penance for his or her bitterness.

When work turned scarce in 1877, the 52-year-old McGonagall was struck by a ‘divine inspiration’ to write down poetry. He recalled this second with vivid theatricality: ‘It was so sturdy, I imagined {that a} pen was in my proper hand, and a voice crying, “Write! Write!”’

His first work was a commemorative poem devoted to his buddy, the Reverend George Gilfillan, with the irregular, doggerel rhythm and clumsy rhyming that may come to outline his repertoire:

Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
There may be none are you able to excel;
You’ve got boldly rejected the Confession of Religion,
And defended your trigger proper effectively.

Verse that honoured the deceased was his forte; his most well-known poem is a tribute to the victims of the Tay Bridge Catastrophe of 1879, which claimed the lives of 75 individuals. The poem makes an attempt to convey McGonagall’s honest despair, however is a jumbled mess of misused phrases and metrical disarray:

The passengers’ hearts have been mild and felt no sorrow,
However Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And most of the passengers with concern did say-
‘I hope God will ship us secure throughout the Bridge of Tay.’

McGonagall’s works mirror his private oddities. Showing to lack self-awareness, he carried out himself with wholehearted honesty, by no means wishing to censor his nonconformist attributes. He loved performing recitations in garish costume to unsuspecting crowds and appeared largely oblivious to their opposed reactions. In 1889, he wrote an epistolary verse of criticism to Dundee magistrates, who had banned his performances on the native circus as a result of disturbances created by audiences who have been inspired to hurl meals at him (‘Why ought to the magistrates attempt to punish me in such a merciless kind? / I by no means heard the like since I used to be born’). The general public disdain for his works couldn’t have been extra apparent, but McGonagall appeared impervious to criticism, even when it got here within the type of eggs and rancid bread.

His profession would by no means attain the heights he so dearly desired. Even a 60-mile trek over the Scottish mountains from Dundee to Balmoral Fortress in a bid to grow to be Poet Laureate for Queen Victoria did not grant lasting glory.

But it was by way of his feats of dedication within the face of failure and mockery, coupled with how unhealthy his poems have been, that McGonagall would earn his immortality.

In 1931, the literary critic Neil Munro associated his expertise in 1897 of witnessing a very callous prank being performed on an aged McGonagall. Invited to a literary society symposium, the ever-theatrical poet got here in Highland gown, wielding a sword with which, whereas reciting his works, he pantomimed the act of slaying Englishmen. In the course of the remaining speech of the night, the chairman introduced McGonagall with a present of an outsized sausage adorned with ribbons. Initially offended, McGonagall was rapidly reassured that it was ‘as wise an providing to a poet because the laureate’s cask of Canary wine’. McGonagall later apologised to the organisers for taking offence, writing that it was in reality the most effective sausage he had ever tasted. Munro, for his half, felt ashamed to have been celebration to this imply trick.

Equally, in a 1947 essay, the author and scholar Lewis Spence fondly remembered how, on the age of 17, he met McGonagall and instantly turned enamoured along with his ‘pure eccentricities’. Spence insisted that regardless of the poet’s delusions of grandeur he was a considerate and mild man, which made watching audiences hurl insults at him painful. Spence admitted that, whereas the unintentional hilarity of the poems nonetheless tickled him over 50 years later:

William McGonagall was no freak, no mere buffoon … once I consider his braveness, displayed in such circumstances of public contempt and misunderstanding as few males need to endure, I really feel that his reminiscence ought to, as a minimum, be shielded from ignominy.

In dying, McGonagall’s renown as a comically unhealthy poet has solely grown bigger, partially as a consequence of writers resembling Munro and Spence persevering with to resurrect his work for brand spanking new generations. For all his foibles, McGonagall could possibly be thought-about a postmodernist visionary who, nevertheless inadvertently, foreshadowed how artwork actions of the twentieth century would search to deconstruct concepts round creative validity. When modern critics dubbed him the worst poet in historical past, they may by no means have predicted that over 100 years later, countercultural filmmakers resembling John Waters and Tom Inexperienced, deliberate purveyors of the wonderful vulgarities of kitsch, would view such condemnations as a badge of honour. Nor would they’ve anticipated McGonagall himself to grow to be a cult determine, whose poems make frequent cameo appearances at Burns Evening celebrations. As an ironic antidote to the verse of Robert Burns, McGonagall’s rhyming of ‘superb’ with ‘elegant’, by no means fails to deliver the home down. Some Burns Evening suppers have even been devoted solely to McGonagall, one notable occasion being in 1982 as a part of a fundraiser for the Dundee Rep Theatre after its destruction by hearth. The comic Billy Connolly recited his poems to an viewers of round 300, all dressed as McGonagall with bonnets and shawls. His fan membership has continued to thrive into the twenty first century. In 2008, a signed assortment of his poems fetched £6,600 at public sale, surpassing that of a Charles Dickens first version.

On the query of why supposedly unhealthy artwork will be so beloved, the Museum of Dangerous Artwork’s co-founder, Marie Jackson, has mentioned that to take pleasure in unhealthy artwork is to understand the human ubiquity of failure. It could be that the affectionate emotions evoked by McGonagall’s poetry mirror our personal relationship with failure, to which we will relate way over the concept of prodigious success. It’s a disgrace that McGonagall by no means noticed how his poems would deliver such pleasure to others, however maybe his skills have been destined to solely be really understood posthumously.


Ellen Walker is a contract author and illustrator, and a PhD researcher on the Royal Faculty of Artwork in London.

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