Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shakespeare never wrote anything like this


William Topaz McGonagall (March 1825 – 29 September 1902) was a Scottish weaver, actor, amateur poet, and performance artist. His performance art centered on his own belief 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.

Contemporary descriptions of these performances indicate that many of these listeners were appreciating McGonagall's skill as a comic music hall character. Collections of his verse continue in popularity, with several volumes available today.

Born in Edinburgh to Irish parents, McGonagall was working as a handloom weaver in Dundee, Scotland when an event occurred that changed his life. As he was 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.

He wrote his first poem An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, which showed the hallmarks that would characterise his later work. Gilfillan commented, "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this."

McGonagall has been acclaimed as the worst poet in British history. 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 generate merely 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.

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".

"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.

McGonagall also considered himself an actor, although the theatre where he performed, Mr Giles' Theatre, would let him perform the title role in Macbeth only 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.

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. 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.

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."

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