William McGonagall

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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William Topaz McGonagall (1825 – 29 September 1902) was a Scottish weaver, actor, and poet. He is comically renowned as one of the worst poets in the English language.


  • 1 Life and poetry
  • 2 McGonagall in popular culture
  • 3 Honours and Memorials
  • 4 References
  • 5 See also
  • 6 External links

Life and poetry

Born in Edinburgh, of Irish parentage, he was working as a handloom weaver in Dundee, Scotland when an event occurred that was to change his life. As he was later to write:

The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877.

It was with this that he wrote his first poem An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, which showed all the hallmarks that would characterise his later work. Rev. Gilfillan commented "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this."

McGonagall has been widely acclaimed as the worst poet in British history.[1] The chief criticisms of his poetry are that he is deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. And yet whilst this might simply generate dull, uninspiring verse in the hands of lesser artists, McGonagall's fame resides in the humorous effects these shortcomings generate: the inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary and ill-advised imagery combine to make his work amongst the most spontaneously amusing (albeit unintentional) comic poetry in the English language. Of the 200 or so poems that he wrote, the most famous is probably The Tay Bridge Disaster, which recounts the events of the evening of 28 December 1879, when, during a severe gale, the Tay Rail Bridge near Dundee collapsed as a train was passing over it.

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.

(Modern sources give the death toll as 75.) One commentator remarked that "a lesser poet (one should note that the German poet Theodor Fontane did write a poem about this event as well) would have thought it was a good idea to write a poem about the Tay Bridge disaster. A lesser poet would have thought of conveying the shock of the people of Dundee. But only the true master could come up with a couplet like:

And the cry rang out all round the town,
Good heavens! The Tay Bridge has blown down."

McGonagall had previously written a poem in praise of the Tay Bridge: The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay "With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array". Once the new replacement bridge had been built, without the least feeling of irony, he proceeded to compose an ode to the new construction: An Address to the New Tay Bridge “Strong enough all windy storms to defy”.

He also campaigned vigorously against excessive drinking, appearing in pubs and bars to give edifying poems and speeches. These were very popular, the people of Dundee possibly recognising that McGonagall was "so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius".[2]

"Poet-baiting" became a popular pastime in Dundee, but McGonagall seemed oblivious to the general opinion of his poems, even when his audience were pelting him with eggs and vegetables. It is possible, however, that he was shrewder than he is given credit for, and was playing along to his audience's perception of him, in effect making his recitals an early form of performance art.[3]

McGonagall also considered himself an actor, although the theatre where he performed, Mr Giles' Theatre, would only let him perform the title role in Macbeth if he paid for the privilege in advance. Their caution proved ill-founded however, as the theatre was filled with friends and fellow workers, anxious to see what they correctly predicted to be an amusing disaster. Although the play should have ended with Macbeth's death at the hands of Macduff, McGonagall believed that the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him, and so refused to die (see [2] and [3]).

In 1892, following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he walked from Dundee to Balmoral, a distance of about 60 miles over mountainous terrain and through a violent thunderstorm, "wet to the skin"[4], to ask Queen Victoria if he might be considered for the post of Poet Laureate. Unfortunately, he was informed the Queen was not in residence, and returned home.

He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. A grave-slab installed to 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."

McGonagall in popular culture

  • The memory of McGonagall was resurrected by comedian Spike Milligan. A character called McGoonagall frequently appears in The Goon Show, alternatively played by Milligan and Peter Sellers. Milligan also occasionally gave readings of McGonagall's verse.
  • A 1974 movie called The Great McGonagall starred Milligan as a fictionalized William McGonagall. Sellers played Queen Victoria. Milligan further recounted McGonagall's life story in the pastiche novel William McGonagall - the Truth at Last, co-written with Jack Hobbs.
  • A Muppet character named "Angus McGonagle, the Argyle Gargoyle" appeared on one episode of The Muppet Show. As his stage act he "gargled Gershwin".
  • In The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, the Nac Mac Feegle have a battle poet, or Gonnagle, who repels the enemy through the awfulness of his poetry.
  • An episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a McGonagall-esque poet called Ewan McTeagle, whose poems were actually prose requests for money.
  • In the Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling chose the surname of the Professor of Transfiguration, Minerva McGonagall, because she had heard of McGonagall and loved the surname [4].
  • The January 9, 2007 episode of the show with zefrank claimed to have been hosted from the home of McGonagall.
  • Billy Connolly visited Dundee and the Tay bridge during his 1994 World Tour of Scotland, where he talked about McGonagall (he speculated on a passage in one of his books, 'I don't like publicans. The first man to throw a plate of peas at me was a publican', speculating on how popular throwing plates of peas at him must have become after this) and read The Tay Bridge Disaster in the middle of a blizzard.
  • In May 2007, satirical magazine Private Eye printed a parody of McGonagall's work focusing on the recent success of the Scottish National Party and its success in the Scottish Parliament Election, 2007.

Honours and Memorials

McGonagall's home city of Dundee maintains several reminders of his life:

  • The William Topaz McGonagall Appreciation Society held a McGonagall Supper on board the frigate Unicorn on 12 June 1997, during which the courses were allegedly served in reverse order, starting with the coffee and ending with the starters. A short play was performed by local actors.[5].
  • Beginning in 2004, the Dundee Science Centre Education Outreach has hosted an annual Charity McGonagall Gala Dinner, in which guests eat their meal backwards from dessert to starter and hear the welcome address as they depart, "combining traditional and unconventional entertainment, with four-course dinner, complimentary wine and whisky".
  • There is a McGonagall Square in the West End of Dundee (available on Maps)
  • A number of inscriptions of his poetry have been made, most notably along the side of the River Tay on the pavement of Riverside Drive in Dundee. This monument contains a deliberate spelling mistake[6].
  • Dundee Central Library maintains a William McGonagall Collection of his works. [5]
  1. ^ William McGonagall, World's Worst Poet: Selections from "Poetic Gems", Templegate Publishers, 1992.
  2. ^ Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures
  3. ^ The Real McGonagall, by Gord Bambrick [1]
  4. ^ McGonagall, Wm More Poetic Gems Dundee 1962
  5. ^ http://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/centlib/mcgon.htm

See also

  • Scottish literature
  • Lines In Praise of Tommy Atkins, a poem by McGonagall
  • The Cherry Sisters
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Mrs. Miller
  • Jared Smith
  • James McIntyre
  • Julia A. Moore
  • William Hung
  • Wesley Willis
  • Ed Wood
  • Paul Neil Milne Johnstone
  • Amanda McKittrick Ros
  • Pedro Carolino
  • Vogon poetry
  • The Real McGonagall gives a different interpretation of McGonagall's work, suggesting he was a deliberate satirist.
  • Bard of the Silv'ry Tay A profile by James Campbell
  • "The Great Mc Gonagall" A Skitful verse on his life written in his style!
  • The Life and Death of William McGonagall @ Ward's Book of Days
  • William Topaz McGonagall Appreciation Society
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