William McGonagall

I learned about this absolutely hilarious historical figure from a post on the Interesting Literature blog here, who posted about him because he died on yesterday’s date in 1902. This is almost entirely a reblog, because the PhD is due tomorrow and I don’t have the energy to come up with much original content today.

William Topaz McGonagall. That’s right. His middle name was Topaz. Where do you even begin with this guy?

He was most famous for being a poet and an actor. What makes him special is that he was largely regarded by contemporaries as the worst poet in Britain. What makes him even more special is that he did not give a single shit what anyone thought about him. I’m not sure if he just really loved his own poetry, or if the badness of it was the whole point–it made him a novelty attraction.

On the Interesting Literature blog, they write, “At one point, he had a job giving poetry readings in a circus: he received fifteen shillings a night on condition that the crowd be allowed to pelt him with eggs and stale food, like a minor criminal in the stocks. McGonagall seemed to like this arrangement, however – the money came in handy – and he was annoyed when the authorities put a stop to it.”

The things an artist must do for his craft.

“Why hasn’t anyone pelted me with an egg yet? I don’t understand.”

Another story, according to that blog, was this: “When he resolved to become a poet, he wrote to Queen Victoria requesting her patronage. She sent back a polite rejection letter, which McGonagall – never one to be blighted by a lack of self-confidence – interpreted as an expression of interest. In 1878 he walked 60 miles from Dundee to the Queen’s castle at Balmoral, in a violent thunderstorm, in order to perform a reading of his poetry in front of Victoria. He was refused entry and had to walk all the way back again.”

Dude, she’s just not that into you.

One of his poems did become fairly famous, because it was in (unintentionally) bad taste. In 1879, the Tay Rail Bridge in Dundee, Scotland, collapsed. The train, carrying 70 passengers, plunged into the sea, killing them all. It was a tragedy on a national level and resulted in a huge inquest to figure out how the bridge failed and who was responsible.

A picture of the bridge before the collapse.

A picture of the bridge after the collapse. As you can see, there is a significant chunk missing.

Illustration of rescue searchers after the disaster.


McGonagall took it upon himself to write a poem of mourning. His “Candle in the Wind”, if you will. Except that he was such a crappy poet and his rhymes were so clunky and ridiculous, it made the poem unintentionally comedic. And, funnily enough, people didn’t really want to laugh about the Tay Bridge Disaster. You can read all of McGonagall’s poem here, but I’m going to provide you with a short excerpt. This is the very end of the poem. Keep in mind this guy, a poet and originally a weaver by trade, has decided in a poem of mourning to give architects some advice on how to build bridges:

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
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,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed

His meter hurts like a hangover.

Much of his poetry served a temperance message. He used to recite in pubs in Dundee, vilifying drink. On one occasion in particular, the owner of the pub was so annoyed by the content of McGonagall’s poems that he pelted McGonagall with peas. However, Dundee locals loved his crappy work and looked forward to hearing his ridiculous verse on a night out. It was said that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius“.

But even loving ribaldry can turn sour. Though a town pet, he was ridiculed so much, and was so poor, that in 1893 he publicly threatened to leave Dundee. When a newspaper got wind of the threat, they wrote that he’d probably stay in Dundee another year if he realised “that Dundee rhymes with 1893.” He did eventually leave, and found much more success in Edinburgh, although he died not long thereafter.

But, lest we forget, McGonagall wasn’t just a poet (or former weaver), oh no! He was also an actor! And from what this story illustrates, he was no better an actor than he was a poet:

When he played Macbeth in a production of Shakespeare’s play, he refused to die at the end. Despite the fact that Macbeth tends to pop his clogs at the end of Shakespeare’s great tragedy – when he is vanquished by Macduff in battle – McGonagall decided a little revision of the Bard’s play was required. He had persuaded a local theatre to let him take the title role in the production, but he was annoyed by the actor playing Macduff, who he reckoned was trying to upstage him. So he resolved not to die at the end of the play, causing consternation to the audience (and to Macduff, one suspects).”

I would give almost anything to have seen that production.

The final fact is that “J. K. Rowling named Professor McGonagall after him. The name of the character Minerva McGonagall in Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a nod to William McGonagall. As Rowling herself stated: ‘William McGonagall is celebrated as the worst poet in British history. There was something irresistible to me about his name, and the idea that such a brilliant woman might be a distant relative of the buffoonish McGonagall.’ This has given McGonagall’s name another lease of life – though again, whether he’d be pleased about that it’s difficult to say.”

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