Everyone, or every reader, I probably should say, in Scotland knows our two national poets. Robert Burns is obviously one of them, and William McGonagall is the other. To outsiders the work of the latter may be unfamiliar. He is rarely referred to without the tag “the worst poet in the English language,” which is a little unfair, though he’s undoubtedly a contender.

Lapham’s Quarterly has an appreciation in which they opine that McGonagall was born in Ireland and moved to Dundee as a little boy. (Link via Lit Hub). The Scottish Poetry Library however tells us he is “thought to have been born in Edinburgh”: keep your hands off our national treasures, Lapham’s! In the “Brief Autobiography” printed in the edition of his works which I have, McGonagall himself tells us he was born in Edinburgh in 1830. He was however a determined self-promoter, and maybe scholars have learned not to trust his words. His dates are usually given as 1825-1902.

After eighteen months’ schooling, at the age of seven he was set to work as a handloom weaver. He would give performances of scenes from Shakespeare to his work mates, and later gave public recitations. He tells us “The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877. [This would make him 47 by his own account, five years older according to Lapham’s.] During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room, I sat thinking about the thousands of people who were away by rail and steamboat, perhaps to the land of Burns, or poor ill-treated Tannahill,* or to gaze upon the Trossachs in Rob Roy’s country, or elsewhere wherever their minds lead them. Well, while pondering so, I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt happy, so happy. . . ” At once the newly fledged poet answered the “voice crying, ‘Write, Write!'” by penning an Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan which he submitted to the Dundee Weekly News who at once published it, as they appear to have been eager to do with the rest of his oeuvre. The poet’s first steps began, somewhat differently from the version linked to above:

Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
    There is none can you excel;
You have boldly rejected the Confession of Faith,
    And defended your cause right well.

Nothing too objectionable in that I think. But the Poet and Tragedian often rises to heights of banality and triteness which end up being quite impressive. His subject matter is often a disaster of one kind or another, so his form might be held to be quite appropriate. A favorite poem of his to have a go at is “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, and the Lapham’s piece goes for it. I rather prefer his earlier celebration of the construction of the bridge. The first two stanzas read:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

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 passed along en route to Inverness.

The rest may be found at McGonagall Online.

What explains the survival of McGonagall’s poetry? There were after all lots of other poetasters getting their stuff published in local newspapers — a phenomenon surviving even into my childhood. Robert Crawford in his invaluable, if immensely long, Scotland’s Books says “his verse is so earnestly and elaborately bad that deservedly, despite all naysaying, it has ensured his immortality”.

For myself, I seek an explanation more in publishing business history than in any badness of the verse. Dundee is a center of traditional non-traditional publishing. Oor Wullie, The Broons, Desperate Dan, in other words The DandyThe Beano and above all The Sunday Post all originate with D. C. Thomson in Dundee and have for generations engendered many spin-off books. Publishing a book of the verses of a local phenomenon would be a logical step in such a business climate. The title page of my copy of Poetic Gems has a double imprint, Dundee: David Winter and Son Ltd., 15 Shore Terrace, and London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.,3 Henrietta Street, W.C.2. The bibliographical history tells us it was first published in two parts in 1890, First published as one volume 1934, and that it enjoyed its Fourteenth impression in 1966. It’s printed on yellowing groundwood, though it’s holding together fine. Mr McGonagall tells us that on his abortive visit to Balmoral in hopes of meeting with Queen Victoria he sold a copy of his poems to a serving girl for the price on 2d (tuppence). In 1966 I had to lay out 5/-, only 30 times more.


*Robert Tannahill (1774 – 1810), another weaver poet, who drowned himself in Paisley Canal.