William McGonagall

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William McGonagall

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Review of "William McGonagall"

published 03/04/2003 | Schmutzie
Member since : 30/11/-0001
Reviews : 126
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Excellent
Pro Hilarious
Cons You could hurt yourself laughing
very helpful

"Great Scot"

(Plenty of different editions of McGonagall on amazon, all at very modest prices).

I sometimes wonder how many billions of unpublished writings are floating about in Manuscript Heaven. It’s so easy to write poorly, to have your work rejected, and even easier never actually to get around to submitting something. I’ve had my share of rejection slips, and binned a lot of stuff I knew was poor.
But imagine this : your writing is so very bad, so totally appalling, so ludicrous, banal and demented, that it makes you famous. It’s a fate which befalls very few, but one who was destined for fame because of the vast quantities of mind-numbing tripe he produced was William McGonagall.

McG was born in 1825 in Dundee. He went to work as a weaver, and conceived a passion for the tragedies of Shakespeare. Convinced he was a great actor, he committed to memory great chunks of his favourite parts : Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet and Othello, and would recite these to entertain his fellow workers. The din in Victorian mills was intense, so it’s possible that his efforts went mercifully unnoticed. Encouraged by persons malicious, he began to appear regularly on the amateur stage, where he was rapturously received. What McG never realised was that all the applause was mad glee at his absolute lack of any talent whatsoever. But worse was to come.

It wasn’t until 1877 that Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry, decided to pay him a visit. He describes in his journal how inspiration struck, (it took the form of hearing voices, which is somehow not too surprising) and he sat down to write his first poem, which begins:
‘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.

The first time I heard him speak,
‘Twas in the Kinnaird Hall,
Lecturing on the Garibaldi movement,
As loud as he could bawl.’
(Note how just that one word ‘bawl’ makes a bad poem absolutely ludicrous).

What makes a good poem is impossible to define. Over the centuries many poets and critics have tried, with little success. What makes bad verse is all too easy to explain, and McG knew it instinctively. He keeps all these rules unswervingly:
1. Pick a subject which is banal, prosaic and can hold no interest for anyone at all.
2. Make sure as often as possible that your verse breaks the metre you select for it.
3. Go for strained rhymes.
4. Insert ‘do’ and ‘did’ wherever possible. Thus, don’t say, ‘It’s June, the birds sing’. It must be ‘the birds do sing.’
5. Never use one word when you can use ten.
6. Give dates, times, names and other irrelevant details whenever you can.
7. Have every confidence that you’re brilliant, and never revise a word.

To illustrate these principles in action, here’s an extract from his near interminable The Battle of Waterloo :
‘’Twas in the year 1815, and on the 18th day of June,
That the British cannon, against the French army, loudly did boom,
Upon the ever memorable bloody field of Waterloo;
Which Napoleon remembered while in St. Helena and bitterly did rue,’
(Try scanning that last line, and see what it does to your head).
If you enjoyed that, you will be pleased to hear that it goes on for another 26 verses. The punctuation is his, not mine. He seems to have something against fullstops, and it’s several verses before he comes to a gasping, temporary halt with one.

He began reading in public, usually in pubs. He himself was a teetotaller, but to encourage him in his idiocies patrons often laced his soft drinks with hard booze, and as he became drunk his rantings and ravings increased. Word spread, and people came from miles to hear him. The jeers and catcalls never bothered him at all. He had total, unshakeable confidence in himself. At times he did notice a certain hostility, but he put it down to ignorance and jealousy. An entry in his journal tells us that publicans in particular seemed to take exception to his recitals :
"I must say that the first man who threw peas at me was a publican." The first man ? How many were there ? Was throwing peas a generally popular Scottish way of showing disapproval? It’s a bit odd. He must have been pleased that they didn’t hurl swedes or marrows. But some publicans were more vicious :
"He told the waiter to throw a wet towel at me, which, of course, the waiter did, and I received the wet towel full in the face, full force, which staggered me."
"Staggered" as he might have been, never once did it occur to him that it was his acting and poetry readings which made people behave in this way, because they thought his performances were rubbish.

Those with the wit to see it realised that it was a glorious, inimitable rubbish, with its own mad logic and crazed momentum. His fame spread. Students at the universities wrote fulsome letters to him, letters arrived from abroad; he even had fan clubs among the British soldiers stationed in India and what was then called Zululand. All these tributes he took as a matter of course. I have read some of them, and you can’t imagine how anyone could swallow the gross flattery, or ignore the blatant fun-poking. Three young men at the University of Glasgow ask him, in a very long epistle, advice on writing poetry, including the question :
"Is the most benefit to be derived from the McGonagallian or the Shakespearean school of poetry?"
An army officer in India sent him a letter purporting to come from a maharajah, awarding him the Order of the Elephant, and the title Grand Topaz. McG was pleased by this, and boasts about it at length, though he obviously takes it as no more than his due.

In 1878 he set off on an epic journey, his personal odyssey. Some wag had sent him a letter praising his work, and had signed it ‘Queen Victoria’. It had occurred to him that patronage from the Queen might do him some good, so he set off to walk to Balmoral, where she was in residence. It was a journey of some 50 miles which he covered entirely on foot, and en route he entertained the astonished populace. Of course, the beauties of the countryside through which he passed inspired him to verse, which sinks to new and abysmal depths:
"And Balmoral Castle is magnificent to be seen,
Highland home of the Empress of India, Great Britain’s Queen,
With its beautiful pine forests, near by the river Dee,
Where the rabbits and hares do sport in mirthful glee,
And the deer and the roe together do play
All the livelong day,
In sweet harmony together,
While munching the blooming heather,
With their hearts full of glee,
In the green woods of Balmoral, near by the river Dee."
Notice the hallmarks of a McGonagall epic : the impossibility of scanning the second line, the uses of ‘do’, the repetition of ‘glee’, the grotesque anthropomorphism; and that ludicrous, in this context, word ‘munching’.

After all this physical and intellectual effort he must have been disappointed when the keeper of the lodge at Balmoral not only told him to clear off, but invited him to give the keeper and his grinning daughter a free recital, and then offered him 2p for his collected works. He waved his letter at the man, and was most indignant when he was told, "Her Majesty never wrote that." To the end of his life he believed that the letter was genuine.

It now struck him that perhaps his reception would be better in America. It was doubtless the huge success of Dickens there in the previous decade which put this idea into his head, though he never says so. With one exception, I can find no trace at all of any reference to any of the literary figures in what I think is the greatest period in any literature. Perhaps he felt they weren’t quite in his class. And he was right about that.
He was not by any means well off, and when he got to America he didn’t even have his fare home. America did not take to him. Indeed, with his Dundee accent it’s possible they didn’t even understand him. He was obliged to ask an acquaintance in Dundee to send him some money so that he could return. The wonder is that the money was sent.

In spite of these disasters, his confidence in himself remained quite undented, and he continued to churn out both prose and verse at an alarming rate. Everything was grist to his poetic mill. Bridges collapsed, steamers sank, the populace caused trouble in India and Africa, famous people died, battles were fought, women chained themselves to railings : it was all happening, and he wrote about it all, showing a remarkable ignorance of politics, geography, natural history, scansion, grammar, punctuation and just about everything else.

In 1892 the Poet Laureate, Tennyson, died. Now it was time to break his rule about ignoring other writers. I am not at all sure that Tennyson would altogether have cared for the tribute :
"He was a man that didn’t care for company,
Because company interfered with his study,
And confused the bright ideas in his brain,
And for that reason from company he liked to abstain."
(Pity McG didn’t ask himself if all the company in pubs might have addled his own brain).

He died in 1902, leaving behind an immense following of people who love to laugh. He never married, and seems never to have had in any sense a woman in his life. All his energy went into his writing, of which there is lots, and lots, and lots. He’s not so well known today, which is a pity. Spike Milligan loved his rubbish, and produced some great parodies both in writing and in TV sketches. It goes without saying that Billy Connolly is a big fan. If you need cheering up, Wullie McGonagall is the man for you.

The Scots are a clever, brave race who have given the world a great deal. It’s no exaggeration to say that this crazed son of Scotia is one of their most remarkable offerings. Very few writers have me laughing out loud with any frequency. Dickens can do it, and so can Bill Bryson .... and William McGonagall.
Somehow, the mad poet of Dundee has taken his seat up there on Olympus with the other literary gods.

© Schmutzie 2003
This opinion is dedicated to the Scots I know here :
borntoloaf, carolscotland, lorrmid, MadeinScotland, maglette, Proxam,tartangal, tartantribe, thecatsmother and weemam.


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Comments on this review

  • drewish published 12/12/2004
    Petersmyth - you don't understand. McGonnagal is crap - but this is wonderful, gloriously bad excrement of the highest order. It is really hard to write stuff this bad - many have tried, but only McGonnagal could rise to such depths of talentlessness.
  • chuntuk published 15/01/2004
    A good summary of the man's life, style and works - but not entirely accurate. He DID marry, and had six children with Jean, his long-suffering wife. If you're interested, you can read more of his poems and find out more about him at http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk - they'll even email you a McGonagall "poetic gem" every day!
  • dobieg published 22/04/2003
    A well researched opinion on what is genuinely my favourite poet.
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Type: Writer's corner

Genre: Authors

Author: William McGonagall

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