William McGonagall: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

William Topaz McGonagall (1825 or 1830 - 29 September 1902) was a Scottish weaver, actor, amateur poet, and performance artist, today famous for being arguably the worst poet in the English language.[1] His performance art centered on his own belief (apparently held sincerely and in good faith) that his verse showed a high degree of verbal skill and talent. Groups throughout Scotland engaged him to make recitations from his works; these performances drew large audiences which responded enthusiastically to McGonagall's poetic lines.[2]

Contemporary descriptions of these performances indicate that a significant proportion of these listeners were appreciating McGonagall's skill as a comic music hall character, rather than his poems as such.[2] His reputation as a versifier has not improved with time. In 1992 a selection of his works was reprinted under the title of World's Worst Poet.[3]


Life and poetry

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.[3] 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. However, his is a long tradition of verses written and published about great events and tragedies, and widely circulated among the local population as handbills. In an age before radio and television, their voice was one way of communicating important news to an avid public. His way of expressing himself attracted at the time sneering criticism from the upper classes, an attitude which rather surprisingly, survives to this day.

Tay Bridge Disaster

Original Tay Bridge (from the north).
Original Tay Bridge (from the South) the day after the disaster.

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".[4]

"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 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.[1]

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, 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.[5][6]

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", to ask Queen Victoria if he might be considered for the post of Poet Laureate.[7] Unfortunately, he was informed the Queen was not in residence, and returned home. In 1894, representatives of King Thibaw Min of Burma knighted him as Sir Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah, a title he used in his advertising.[1]

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:

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, alternately played by Milligan and Peter Sellers. Milligan also occasionally gave readings of McGonagall's verse.
  • McGonagall's poem The Famous Tay Whale[8] was set to music by Matyas Seiber for the second Hoffnung Music Festival in 1958. The arrangement calls for a narrator (at the premiere the narrator was Edith Evans), full orchestra, a fog horn, and an espresso machine.
  • 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,[9] 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.[10]
  • 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 and recited a passage from his book Scottish Gems: "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. Connolly also read The Tay Bridge Disaster in the middle of a blizzard.
  • Satirical magazine Private Eye has printed a number of McGonagallesque poems concerning great events of the day, usually under the byline William Rees-McGonagall, a portmanteau of McGonagall's name and that of William Rees-Mogg. For example, in 2007, they covered the success of the Scottish National Party and its success in the Scottish Parliament election.
  • McGonagall was the subject of the newspaper column Ripley's Believe It or Not! on October 11, 2007, saying he "was often considered the world's worst poet, even by his own publisher, yet his writings are still in print a century after his death!"
  • A collection of 35 broadsheet poems of McGonagall, the majority signed by him, was bought for £6,600 (including commission) from Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh auctionneers, on 16 May 2008.[11][12]

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.[13]
  • Beginning in 2004, the Dundee Science Centre Education Outreach has hosted an annual Charity McGonagall Gala Dinner,[14] 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.[15]
  • 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.[16]
  • Dundee Central Library maintains a William McGonagall Collection of his works.[17]

See also


  1. ^ a b c "The Real McGonagall, by Gord Bambrick". Geocities.com. http://www.oocities.com/williamtopazmcgonagall. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  2. ^ a b McSmith, Andy (2008-05-17). "The story of William McGonagall, the worst poet in the history of the English language". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-story-of-william-mcgonagall-the-worst-poet-in-the-history-of-the-english-language-829993.html. Retrieved 2009-12-12.  
  3. ^ a b William McGonagall (1992), World's Worst Poet: Selections from "Poetic Gems", Templegate Publishers  
  4. ^ Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures
  5. ^ "White Elephant : Scotland Magazine Issue 5". Scotlandmag.com. 2002-11-04. http://www.scotlandmag.com/magazine/issue5/12006249.html. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  6. ^ "McGonagall the Heroic Failure". McGonagall Online. 2007-04-03. http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/articles/failures.htm. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  7. ^ McGonagall, Wm More Poetic Gems Dundee 1962
  8. ^ "McGonagall Online: The Famous Tay Whale". http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/poems/pgwhale.htm. Retrieved 2008-06-19.  
  9. ^ As listed. "The Poet McTeagle". Orangecow.org. http://orangecow.org/pythonet/sketches/mcteagle.htm. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  10. ^ "1999: Accio Quote!, the largest archive of J.K. Rowling interviews on the web". Quick-quote-quill.org. http://www.quick-quote-quill.org/articles/1999/1099-connectiontransc.html. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  11. ^ BOOKS, MAPS & MANUSCRIPTS - SALE 208 - LOT 298 - LYON & TURNBULL at www.lyonandturnbull.com
  12. ^ "'Worst poet' outsells boy wizard". BBC News. 2008-05-16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/tayside_and_central/7402920.stm. Retrieved 2008-08-06.  
  13. ^ "William Topaz McGonagall Supper - June 12, 1997". Taynet.co.uk. http://www.taynet.co.uk/users/mcgon/bglink1.htm. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ "Google Maps". Maps.google.co.uk. 1970-01-01. http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&hl=en&q=McGonagall+Square&sll=56.463818,-2.99381&sspn=0.0085,0.013454&layer=&ie=UTF8&z=18&ll=56.455489,-2.990878&spn=0.002125,0.005123&t=h&om=1. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  16. ^ "Rampant Scotland Newsletter - 5 April 2003". Rampantscotland.com. http://www.rampantscotland.com/let030405.htm. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  
  17. ^ "Dundee City Council, Scotland - Central Library, Local History Centre, William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian". Dundeecity.gov.uk. http://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/centlib/mcgon.htm. Retrieved 2009-07-03.  

External links

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From Wikiquote

William Topaz McGonagall (1825September 29, 1902) was a Scottish weaver, actor, and poet. Born in Edinburgh of Irish parents, he settled in Dundee. He is comically renowned as one of the worst poets in the English language; his distinctive verse style is often imitated in Private Eye and Spike Milligan was among his many "admirers".



Lines in praise of the Rev. George Gilfillan (1877)

  • All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan, of Dundee,
    He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
    He preaches in a plain, straightforward way,
    The people flock to hear him night and day,
    And hundreds from his church doors are often turned away,
    Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
    • McGonagall's first poem.

A Requisition to the Queen (1877)

  • Most Mighty Empress, of India, and Englands beloved Queen,
    Most Handsome to be Seen.
    I wish you every Success.
    And that heaven may you bless.
    For your Kindness to the poor while they are in distress.
    I hope the Lord will protect you while living
    And hereafter when your Majesty is ... dead.
    I hope the Lord above will place an eternal Crown! upon your Head.
    I am your Gracious Majesty ever faithful to Thee,
    William McGonagall, The Poor Poet,
    That lives in Dundee.

The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay (1878)

  • 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.
    • Written before the disaster.

The Tay Bridge Disaster (1880)

Wikisource has original text related to:
  • 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.
    • The death toll was actually 75.
  • I must now conclude my lay
    By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
    That your central girders would not have given way,
    At least many sensible men do say,
    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses

The Battle of Bannockburn

  • Then King Edward ordered his horsemen to charge,
    Thirty thousand in number, it was very large;
    They thought to o'erwhelm them ere they could rise from their knees,
    But they met a different destiny, which did them displease;
    For the horsemen fell into the spik'd pits in the way,
    And, with broken ranks and confusion, they all fled away,
    But few of them escap'd death from the spik'd pits,
    For the Scots with their swords hack'd them to bits

Other works

  • But I may say Dame Fortune has been very kind to me by endowing me with the genius of poetry. I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877.
    • "The Autobiography of Sir William Topaz McGonagall", published in the Weekly News
      • McGonagall's "knighthood" was an honorary one conferred on him by King Theebaw of the Andaman Islands: "Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah".
  • I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears –

    "Write! Write"

    I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– "I know nothing about poetry."

    • "The Autobiography of Sir William Topaz McGonagall".
  • Well, I must say that the first man who threw peas at me was a publican ..
    • "Reminiscences".

External links

Wikipedia has an article about:

Simple English

William McGonagall (born Edinburgh? 1825?; died Edinburgh, 29 September 1902) was a Scottish poet. He thought he was good at writing poetry, but his poetry was often considered to be the worst poetry in the English language. He became famous because he was such a bad poet.

Life and poetry

William McGonagall was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His family were originally Irish. McGonagall worked as a weaver in Dundee.

In 1877, when he was probably 52 years old, he suddenly found that he liked writing poetry. He wrote a poem about a local vicar and sent it to the Dundee Weekly News. The editor thought it was a joke, and he published it as a jokey poem.

McGonagall continued to write poetry. He read his poems in public and lots of people came to hear him. However, his audience had really come to laugh at him and throw rotten vegetables at him.

Mc Gonagall's poems have stupid rhymes, the words he uses are often silly and he mixes his imagery in clumsy ways. One of his most famous poems is about the The Tay Bridge Disaster. It tells of a real event in 1879 when the bridge over the river Tay in Scotland collapsed and a train that was going over the bridge crashed, killing many people. Part of McGonagall's poem goes:

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.

McGonagall did not seem to realise that people thought his poems were bad. He became disappointed that the town of Dundee did not recognize him as a great poet, so he went to Perth and then to Edinburgh. He continued to write poetry. He travelled to London because he had been given an invitation to meet the famous actor Sir Henry Irvine. However, someone had been playing a trick on him: the invitation was not a real one, and he was not let into the theatre.

McGonagall wrote some poetry about London while he was there. He wrote:

As I stood upon London Bridge and viewed the mighty throng
Of thousands of people in cabs and busses rapidly whirling along,
All furiously driving to and fro,
Up one street and down another as quick as they could go....

McGonagall was teetotal and often spoke against drinking alcohol. He thought that his audiences did not like his poetry because they had been drinking too much.

When he died in 1902 he was a very poor man.

McGonagall in popular culture

People still remember McGonagall's poems today and continue to make fun of them. The comedian Spike Milligan had a character called McGoonagall in The Goon Show. One episode of The Muppet Show had a character called Angus McGonagle. 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 name.

There is a McGonagall Appreciation Society in McGonagall's home town of Dundee.


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