William McGonagall

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William McGonagall

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Review of "William McGonagall"

published 23/04/2003 | dobieg
Member since : 31/01/2003
Reviews : 256
Members who trust : 34
About me :
I'm a miserable old git. I'm ashamed to say it's been a **** very **** long time since I reviewed my "trusts", have sought to rectify this by going through every review I've written in the past couple of years, if you feel hard-done-by, drop me a note.
Excellent
Pro A true insight of Victorian Values
Cons Hard to take seriously
very helpful

"Grossly maligned and misunderstood"

William McGonagall is one of the 19th century's true life tragic romantic heroes - especially so because he was blissfully unaware of the fact!

His reputation has without doubt been tarnished by the literary prejudices of the age, where snobbery was rife, and discrimination against the Irish community within Scotland was commonplace.

I won't seek to provide a 'beginner's guide' in this opinion, other people have provided this far more eloquently than I ever will, instead I will try to explain why I feel he is worthy of serious study in spite of his limitations.

Although born and died in Edinburgh, he was best known within his adopted city of Dundee. He was a hand-loom weaver by trade, and was largely self taught. In his middle age, when doubtless his employment prospects became limited by increasing mechanisation and de-skilling, he turned to poetry to keep himself and his family from the workhouse.

In a time before the National Health Service and Welfare benefits, if you couldn't get a job there was a real prospect of starvation, illness and death. In an attempt to earn a living, he took to writing poetry in order to receive an income.

I have to admit at this stage that I am never entirely sure whether he was either unaware of his literary limitations, or quite possibly understood that his income was derived largely on his notoriety.

It is all to easy to dismiss him as a purveyor of doggerel - which he was, without realising that he may, all the time, have been playing on this.

Tommy Cooper is a phenomenon we are all familiar with - the hapless bundling conjurer, however everyone was n on the joke, and so he made a respectable living.

I would contend he may well have been aware of this - the whole secret being that you should never EVER admit this in public.

The Victorians were never immune to black irony, Oscar Wilde's comment 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.' Is a prime example of this.

Could our hero simply have cashed in on this in order to make a living?

For those unfamiliar with his works, they fall into four main categories;

Description of national disasters, of which the 'Tay Bridge Disaster' is without question, his most famous poem.

In it, he describes the scene whereby a train fell off the Tay Bridge in 1879 drowning 90 passengers.

Another favourite category are historical ballads, in the same spirit as Robert Burns' 'Scotts wa hae' such as 'Adventures of King Robert the Bruce' and 'The Battle of Bannockburn '

He was not adversed to (putting it simply) romantic nonsense, relying on the notion of romantic folk tales, examples being 'The Rattling Boy from Dublin Town' and 'Forget-Me-Not' are but two.

The fourth, and possibly most historically significant category of poem relates to descriptions of the various localities he encountered throughout his travels; Glasgow, Edinburgh, Pennicuick and numerous other towns 'get the treatment' - he was, in a blatantly commercial way, seeking to sell his poems in-situ, and nothing works better in this case than flattery of the local population.

The final category extoled the virtues of sobriety - the Temperance movement held an almost identical position in society to todays 'Anti Drugs' lobby.

You could consider his attempts to be a one-man 'Big Issue'

Nowadays he is regarded as the subject of ridicule, any badly rhyming couplets in the Scotts vernacular are incorrectly attributed to him;

'In a field there was a coo - it's gone awa it's no there noo' is one such example.

Firstly, he never penned anything quite so eloquent, secondly, he hardly if ever reverted to 'Sunday Post' Scotts dialect - to adopt that style would only reinforce the suggestion that he was provincial, and poorly educated.

His style is unmistakable - instead of finding DIFFERENT words to end a rhyme, he frequently uses the SAME word, or occasionally, and hilariously uses a word which SPELLS nearly the same, but is pronounced quite differently.

He also adopts the same rhymes time and time again, this can be seen if comparison is drawn between the tree poems 'The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay' 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' and 'An address to the New Tay Bridge'

Nowadays his efforts would doubtless be applauded as 'primitive' and he would have without question been nominated the 'People's Poet'

He was a commercial author.

He wrote largely what he thought would sell.

Irrespective of his ability, it provides a record of what was perceived to be important to a society at the time.

Modern day events such as the World Trade disaster, the death of the Princess of Wales, and so on would have been suitable subjects for the bard.

Yes - I can be good for a giggle, for the first couple of hours, but something must have driven him to try for the best part of forty years to continue a profession which everyone else could tell he was quite clearly unsuited to.

What comes over is his irrepressible optimism, humanity and above all unquenchable self belief.

Nearing the age at which the man himself decided to adopt poetry as a second career, and similarly observing my current skill set is becoming increasingly irrelevant, I have great sympathy with the man.

Now then, where was I .....

'New York, your towering Skyscrapers I must salute, Your financial institutions of high repute,
Your reputation for supporting the performance arts, We look upon you with sadness in our hearts
For it is on this day
The Eleventh of September Two Thousand and One
A date which will be remembered without any fun...'

(or possibly in the interests of good taste the world just isn't quite ready for another 'worlds worst poet')

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Comments on this review

  • Kazzay published 15/06/2006
    I had only hear of him via Spike Milligan who perhaps used him as a mentor! For years I thought W.M. was actually made up by him too! Kaz
  • JeffFromPoole published 20/05/2006
    The great man would be proud to read this..
  • Martinscholes published 15/08/2004
    For a really, truly AWFUL poem, read "A Tragedy" by the Victorian poet Theophile Marzials. He makes Billy McG seem like a genius. nd Theohile was a "serious" poet...
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Product Information : William McGonagall

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Product Details

Type: Writer's corner

Genre: Authors

Author: William McGonagall

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Listed on Ciao since: 03/04/2003