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Monday, 8 January 2018

William McGonagall

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Sir William Topaz McGonagall (1825 - 1902)

The nineteenth century Scottish poet William McGonagall was known as "The world's worst poet" with formidable justification. Many of his poems are still very popular and there is a website devoted to his works. There were autobiographies and some anthologies were published. One of the autobiographies begins thus: 
"My Dear Readers of this autobiography, which I am the author of, I beg leave to inform you that I was born in Edinburgh". That book, which sets the standard for what is to follow, was inscribed by the author as "Dedicated to himself, knowing none greater."
The fact that McGonagall has long since departed this life makes me feel a little less cruel at laughing/groaning at his work - but it can be hilarious! He was a contemporary of Queen Victoria and she greatly admired him.
This little snippet from A Tale of Christmas Eve will demonstrate his hopeless ignorance of metre:
'Twas Christmastide in Germany,
And in the year of 1850,
And in the city of Berlin, which is most beautiful to the eye:
A poor boy was heard calling out to passers-by. 

"Who'll buy my pretty figures," loudly he did cry,
Plaster of Paris figures, but no one inclined to buy;
His clothes were thin and he was nearly frozen with cold,
And wholly starving with hunger, a pitiful sight to behold.
This next gem is the opening two stanzas of Beautiful Torquay. Torquay is a resort on England's south coast.
All ye lovers of the picturesque, away
To beautiful Torquay and spend a holiday
'Tis health for invalids for to go there
To view the beautiful scenery and inhale the fragrant air,
Especially in the winter and spring-time of the year,

When the weather is not too hot, but is balmy and clear. 
Torquay lies in a very deep and well-sheltered spot,
And at first sight by strangers it won't be forgot;
'Tis said to be the mildest place in ah England,
And surrounded by lofty hills most beautiful and grand. 
His most famous poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster. The dreadful events of 28th December 1879 somehow made McGonagall famous after his poem was published. I have resisted showing all of the piece but, should you feel strangely drawn, shows all of his works. Here's how it starts:
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. 

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

The thing that makes McGonagall totally ridiculous is his belief that he really was a great poet. He was self-styled as a "poet and tragedian". He loved giving recitals and failed to be put off by much contemporary mockery and derision but the odd thing is that most parodies of his poems fall flat; they just aren't bad enough!
And it's not as if we have only recently discovered how bad he was; his audiences threw rotten fish at him! Rather sadly he died the death of a pauper and ironically his books are all still in print.

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I am listening to some early Elvis Presley recordings. Currently The Girl of My Best Friend is playing. It was recorded 4th April 1960. Listen here for a treat!


Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, The 19th century seemed rife with such poetasters, often called "The sweet singer of X-Place." One wonders how much they were in on the joke--conspiracies to shield them could not have been so 100% effective. When I collected 78rpm records, there was a similar case with the spectacularly non-talented singer Florence Foster Jenkins, who was supposed to be oblivious to her shortcomings. (I understand a movie was recently made about her, but I have not seen it.) Like McGonagall, her effusions were frequently reissued, making one wonder if some quality was present other than the incentive for ridicule.

McGonagall's name also calls to mind The Great McGonigle from The Old-Fashioned Way, one of W.C. Field's greatest roles.

Hels said...

I love tragedians :) Our souls speak to each other, even if they have been dead for 100 years.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I am not surprised he died a pauper. However, there is something to be said for someone who believes in himself and thinks he is doing well, while others tell him otherwise. We have a president like that.

bazza said...

Jim: I don't really think our boy was aware of the figure of fun he projected even in his own day. The knighthood conferred upon him by Queen Victoria must have convinced him that he was a legend in own lunchtime. Those who suffer with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (about which I know a thing or two) rarely are changed by the input of others.

bazza said...

Hels: Tragedians are acceptable if they are decent actors. I am not a fan of Victorian melodrama and that is how I think of McGonagall performing. See the last photo, probably McC as Macbeth.

bazza said...

Arleen: Ha ha, I never made the Trump connection but narcissism is a real link between the two men.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - I see Arlene made that dreaded connection as had I ... but the world is full of amazing people ... rather wish the latest one was back in history!! So fascinating to learn about Mr Topaz McGonagall ... love the name Topaz - had to put it in. I wonder if that was where JKRowling got Professor McGonagall's name? Perhaps that name is wrong as I'm not that familiar with her books ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hilary: I had not made the Trump connection but it is definitely there.
I am not familiar with Harry Potter characters although my friend's daughter was at uni with her and they remain friends!

klahanie said...

Bazza, me old mucker!

As per usual, a thoroughly riveting and informative post. For a fleeting moment, I thought that top photo was actually a photo of Stan from "On The Buses."


bazza said...

Gary: "I 'ate you Butler!" - that one?

klahanie said...

Barry, nope, the one who was the bus conductor.

bazza said...

I meant that Butler was Stan. Sorry Gary, I should have myself clearer.....

Sherry Ellis said...

It is amazing that his work still exists today. Apparently his ego was big enough to make it all stand the test of time.

bazza said...

Sherry: It's a puzzle but he certainly has outlasted some better poets. His ego could float a battleship!

David said...

Hi bazza,
I wasn't previously familiar with McGonagall's poetry, and I'm beginning to wish I had remained so! However, your post gives an interesting insight into the mindset of someone totally unaware of his own badness. I too like the connection people have made with that other famous narcissist, Donald Trump, although whereas McGonagall seemed to be something of a harmless buffoon, Trump might better be described as a very dangerous one! You may be aware that I've tried my hand at writing poetry, but I would never overestimate its literary merits. After all, I'm just, like, a very stable genius.
Best Wishes,

bazza said...

David: That's a lovely comment. I was unaware of your poetry. If you have posted some it must have been a long time ago. I find that, whatever I write, I need to revisit it before considering inflicting it on the world. For a post such as this I probably started it a fortnight ago. If there is no time pressure a few months would be ideal!
I have frequently posted poetry here before of course but it has never been my own.

David said...

Hi bazza,
I did post some poems on my blog, but as you say, it was quite a while ago now. However, I have managed to have some published both as an e-book and a 3-D book, although I have to admit that the latter was a paid for, "print on demand" affair. I believe that both are available via Amazon, though.
Also, as you make no allusion to it in your reply, my comment that I am just a "very stable genius" was a reference to one of Trump's tweets, which he made after some questioned the state of his mental health. Somehow, by trying to profess his sanity, he made it abundantly clear that he's a completely narcissistic fruitcake!
Best Wishes,

bazza said...

David: Yes, I got the Trump remark and forget to acknowledge it. The idea of a 3-D poetry book is mind boggling. Mind you, I did make a pop-up book of dream interpretations for a part of my Arts degree!
I had a bunch of beer-swilling gents here last night (and this morning!) so my whole world is a bit pop-up/3-D right now.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

I'm not the least bit surprised that my grandfather never recited any of this particular Scottish gentleman's poetry. Pop was born and bred in Edinburgh, and he and his brothers could recite just about every Bobby Burns poem by heart... especially after a pint or two. My grandfather is long gone now, but I still have his old poetry books. None, however, by Mr. McGonagall. That dude was seriously delusional. I'm sure he believed his talents were YUGE...

bazza said...

Susan: Here are the two opening stanzas of a poem by McGonagall published in 1897.....
An Ode to the Immortal Bard of Ayr, Robert Burns
Ye sons of Scotland, my heart often mourns
When I think of the treatment of Robert Burns;
Because, while he was living, . . . .
The people unto him were seldom giving.

Alas, by the people, you were neglected,
Which caused your spirits to be dejected,
And made thee in agony, for to groan
With hunger and sorrow, sad and forlorn.

Being prolific may have been his only talent!