William Topaz McGonagall – the world’s best worst poet
William Topaz McGonagall is one of Scotland’s most famous poets and the world’s worst.
The former weaver and actor was notorious during the late 19th century for producing poetry so bad that people actually paid to hear it.
In a literary career which spanned 25 years McGonagall wrote more than 200 poems, including his most famous ode entitled ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ which has been hailed as the worst example of poetry in English literature.
McGonagall started out as an apprentice handloom weaver in Dundee and in 1846 he married local girl Jean King. The couple had five sons and two daughters but continually struggled to get by as the industrial revolution made work as a weaver increasingly precarious.
In an attempt to find a new vocation McGonagall, who had always dreamed of being a performer, tried his hand at acting and famously starred in the title role of Macbeth put on by a local theatre company.
The performance was truly memorable but not so much for McGonagall’s acting ability but rather his refusal to follow the script. Although the play should have ended with Macbeth’s death he thought the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him so he refused to die, much to the amusement of the audience.
However, in 1877 McGonagall found a new calling as a poet and, confident in his own abilities, he wrote to Queen Victoria seeking her patronage.
Unfortunately the letter of rejection he received from one of the Royal aides thanked him for his interest which McGonagall immediately interpreted as praise for his talent. He even walked more than 60 miles over mountainous tracks and through violent thunderstorms from Dundee to the Royal holiday home at Balmoral to give a personal reading of his work. On arrival he announced himself as the Queen’s Poet but was immediately turned away from the castle.
Undeterred McGonagall continued writing and made a reputation for himself reciting his work in pubs, music halls and on the streets of Dundee where he was regarded as being so bad he was good.
In 1880 he went to London to try his luck and when that failed he sailed to New York in 1887 but was again forced to return home with his talent unrecognised.
Over the next few years McGonagall made a living performing his poetry at a local circus for 15 shillings a night while the audience jeered and pelted him with rotten vegetables, flour and eggs. Although McGonagall appeared quite happy with the arrangement the performances became so raucous they city council was forced to call a halt to them.
By the turn of the century McGonagall, who had moved to Edinburgh with his wife in 1895 was again broke and left to rely on the kindness of friends. He died penniless on 29 September 1902 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.
Ironically, more than a century after his death his work is more popular than ever. In 2008 a collection of 35 original manuscripts signed by McGonagall were sold by auctioneers Lyon and Turnbull for £6,600, about the same value as a first edition Harry Potter signed by J K Rowling.
Once laughed at by the residents of his home town of Dundee there is now a McGonagall Square in the West End of the city, Dundee Central Library keeps a William McGonagall Collection of his work and there are a number of inscriptions of his poetry dotted along the Riverside walkway overlooking the Tay.
All William Topaz McGonagall ever wanted was to be recognised as a famous poet and because of a major lack of talent he achieved it.
The Tay Bridge Disaster
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.
Immortal Robert Burns of Ayr,
There’s but few poets can with you compare;
Some of your poems and songs are very fine:
To “Mary in Heaven” is most sublime;
And then again in your “Cottar’s Saturday Night”,
Your genius there does shine most bright,
As pure as the dewdrops of the night.
Jottings of New York
Oh mighty City of New York! you are wonderful to behold,
Your buildings are magnificent, the truth be it told,
They were the only things that seemed to arrest my eye,
Because many of them are thirteen storeys high.