william topaz mcgonagall | rises from the ashes, his critics of yore he doth bashes or oh ye of little faith

18 05 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 235 | May 17, 2008

“THE WORST POET IN BRITISH HISTORY”

POET, WILLIAM TOPAZ McGONAGALL, RISES FROM THE ASHES,
HIS CRITICS OF YORE HE DOTH BASHES
OR
Oh Ye of Little Faith

Norbert Blei

BIO: Born in Edinburgh, of Irish parentage, McGonagall 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. Gilfillan commented

“Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.”


McGonagall has been widely acclaimed as the worst poet in British history. The chief criticisms of his poetry are that he is deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. In the hands of lesser artists, this might simply generate dull, uninspiring verse. However, McGonagall’s fame stems from 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 comic poetry in the English language.

“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. He died penniless in 1902 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. A grave-slab installed to his memory in 1999 is inscribed:

SAMPLE POEM: 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.
Mr. Green was the chairman for the night,
And in that capacity he acted right;
He made a splendid address on my behalf,
Without introducing any slang or chaff.
I wish him success during life;
May he always feel happy and free from strife,
For the kindness he has ever shown to me
During our long acquaintance in Dundee.
I return my thanks to Mr J. P. Smith’s men,
Who were at my entertainment more than nine or ten;
And the rest of the gentlemen that were there,
Also deserves my thanks, I do declare.
Because they showered upon me their approbation,
And got up for me a handsome donation,
Which was presented to me by Sir Green,
In a purse most beautiful to be seen.
Which was a generous action in deed,
And came to me in time of need.
And the gentlemen that so generously treated me
I’ll remember during my stay in Dundee.

LATE BREAKING NEWS FROM THE LONDON TIMES, MAY 16, 2008: McGonagall Proves His Worth After All

From The Times. May 16, 2008. McGonagall proves his worth after all. by David Lister

Acclaim of a sort has finally come to William Topaz McGonagall, otherwise known as the world’s worst poet, after a collection of 35 of his original poems beat expectations to sell for £6,600 to a mystery buyer at auction yesterday.

McGonagall, who has been credited with some of the most heinous crimes ever perpetrated against the English language, found himself in esteemed company at Lyon and Turnbull in Edinburgh, where his poems fetched more than a collection of Harry Potter first editions signed by J.K. Rowling. Dating from 1882 to 1899 the poems, which had a guide price of £4,500-£6,500, were snapped up within minutes by a buyer who asked not to be identified. Sold as one lot, they included 15 originals not held by the National Library of Scotland.

The auction is just the latest proof that the “Tayside Tragedian”, whose public readings were so excruciating that they left audiences rolling on the floor with laughter and even provoked riots, is finally achieving the popularity that the author – despite the derision of the literary establishment – always believed he deserved.

Also at the auction were 27 first and second edition Ian Fleming novels, including a first edition of Diamonds Are Forever and a first edition of From Russia with Love, which sold for a total of £27,000.

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