“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
The hero of our story is one of those” some” who have greatness thrust upon them, not because he was born great nor he achieved greatness, but he was so keen on doing something for which he had a zero talent, something that ultimately made him great for being the worst. We used the wise words of the great Wiliam Shakespeare, one of the greatest poets that the world has seen, to introduce you with Wiliam McGonagall, the worst poet in English literature. Widely criticized as being deaf to poetic metaphor, using poor vocabulary and not having the skill to scan correctly, The “Ed Wood” of poetry, Wiliam McGonagall, wrote more than 200 poems, and every single one them is regarded as some of the worst in the English literature.
It’s not that he was born with no skills whatsoever; on the contrary, Wiliam McGonagall inherited great skills for weaving from his father and worked as a handloom weaver in Dundee. Despite the industrial revolution, he was very prosperous as there was still need for skilled workers to perform tasks of great complexity. In 1846, McGonagal married a fellow Dundee girl, Jean King, and had five sons and two daughters.
By all means, our skilled handloom weaver from Dundee was leading a decent life. Eager to achieve greatness, Wiliam wanted more than mediocrity and showed a great interest in acting. He found a theater where he was to play the title role in Macbeth, the only condition being that he pay for the privilege. The weaving business was still doing well, so he paid for the role in the Mr. Giles’ Theatre and invited all of his friends and fellow workers to watch him shine on the stage. The theater was filled with people anxious to see what they expected to be an amusing disaster. McCoangall was not exactly a person who stuck to the rules or cared about being inappropriate; despite the will of Shakespeare, at the end of the play this Macbeth refused to die because he believed the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him. Shortly after this fiasco, McGonagall and his family began to struggle financially. Weaving had lost the war with the industrial revolution, and it was impossible to find a job in this field, especially after the McGonagal name was “shamed” after Wiliam’s oldest daughter gave birth to an illegitimate child.
In those dark times for the McGongall family, an “unfathomable force” overtook Wiliam McGonagal when he “seemed to feel a strange kind of feeling stealing over [him], and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron said, seemed to kindle up [his] entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry.”
“The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877.“
He wrote his first poem, “An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan”, displaying the hallmarks that would characterise his work. Gilfillan, himself an untrained and poorly-reviewed polemic Christian preacher who occasionally dabbled in poetry, commented admiringly “Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.”
McGonagall, the wise man that he was, realised if he were to succeed as a poet, he required a patron, and as modesty was not one his characteristics, the first person that he wrote to with the flattering proposition was Queen Victoria.
As the Queen was not amused, he received a polite letter of rejection written by a royal functionary thanking him for his interest. Every other person with an ability to read between the lines would get the point, but not the hero of our story, there was no such thing as “between the lines” for McGonagal, who took the polite letter as praise for his work.
During a trip to Dunfermline in 1879, he was mocked by the Chief Templar, who told him his poetry was very bad. McGonagall told the man that “it was so very bad that Her Majesty had thanked [McGonagall] for what [the Chief Templar] had condemned.”
The letter gave McGonagall confidence in his “poetic abilities”, and he felt his reputation could be enhanced further if he were to give a live performance before the Queen. In July 1878, he walked from Dundee to Balmoral, a distance of about 60 miles (97 km) over mountainous terrain and through a violent thunderstorm to perform for Queen Victoria. When he arrived, he announced himself as “The Queen’s Poet”. The guards informed him “You’re not the Queen’s poet! Tennyson is the Queen’s poet!” (Alfred Lord Tennyson was the poet laureate). McGonagall presented the letter but was refused entry and had to return home. Undeterred, his poetry writing continued, and he reported events to the newspapers, earning some minor recognition.
Throughout his life McGonagall campaigned against excessive drinking, appearing in pubs and bars to give edifying poems and speeches. These were popular, the people of Dundee possibly recognising that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius.” He met with the ire of the publicans, on one occasion being pelted with peas for reciting a poem about the evils of strong drink. In 1883. he celebrated the official opening of University College, Dundee with the poem “The Inauguration of University College Dundee” which opened with the stanza:
Good people of Dundee, your voices raise,
And to Miss Baxter give great praise;
Rejoice and sing and dance with glee,
Because she has founded a college in Bonnie Dundee
McGonagall constantly struggled with his finances and earned money by selling his poems in the streets, or reciting them in halls, theatres, and public houses. When he was in periods of financial insecurity, his friends supported him with donations. In 1880, he sailed to London to seek his fortune, and in 1887 to New York. In both instances, he returned unsuccessfully.
He found lucrative work performing his poetry at a local circus. He read his poems while the crowd was permitted to pelt him with eggs, flour, herrings, potatoes and stale bread. For this, he received fifteen shillings a night. McGonagall seemed happy with this arrangement, but the events became so raucous that the city magistrates were forced to put a ban on them. McGonagall was outraged and wrote a poem in response entitled “Lines in Protest to the Dundee Magistrates”:
Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee
Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me?
Nay, do not stare or make a fuss
When I tell ye they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus,
Which in my opinion is a great shame,
And a dishonour to the city’s name
Throughout his life McGonagall seemed oblivious to the general opinion of his poems, even when his audience were pelting him with eggs and vegetables.
In 1890, McGonagall was in dire straits financially. To help him, his friends funded the publication of a collection of his work, Poetic Gems. The proceeds provided McGonagall with enough money to live on for a time. By 1893, he was annoyed by his mistreatment in the streets and wrote an angry poem threatening to leave Dundee. One newspaper quipped that he’d probably stay for another year once he realised “that Dundee rhymes with 1893”. After trying his hand at writing prose and endorsements for local businesses for a short time, in 1894, he and his wife were forced to move to Perth.
Soon after, he received a letter purporting to be from representatives of King Thibaw Min of Burma. In it, he was informed that the King had knighted him as Topaz McGonagall, Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant Burmah. Despite the fact that this was a fairly transparent hoax, McGonagall would refer to himself as “Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah” in his advertising for the rest of his life.
In 1895, McGonagall and his wife moved to Edinburgh. Here, McGonagall met with some success, becoming a “cult figure” and was in great demand. It did not last long, and by 1900 he was once again destitute, and now old and sickly. Though he was now too frail to walk the streets selling his poems, donations from friends, as ever, kept him afloat.
The long odyssey of our hero came to end when he died penniless in 1902 and was buried in unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.
A grave-slab installed in his memory in 1999 is inscribed:
- William McGonagall
- Poet and Tragedian
- “I am your gracious Majesty
- ever faithful to Thee,
- William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
- That lives in Dundee.”
I personally find people like McGonagal utterly fascinating because, although he maybe wasn’t born great – he was born mediocre -he was so keen and willingly to do something that fulfilled him even though he was so desperately bad at it. Despite being mocked and rejected practically by everyone, he still did it. One century later, here we are talking about him, so, he ultimately achieved greatness anyway.