The story of William McGonagall, the worst poet in the history of the English language

In 1877, 40 years into the reign of Queen Victoria, an anonymous letter arrived at the offices of the Dundee Weekly News. It was a message in doggerel rhyme, a tribute to a local vicar who "has written the life of Sir Walter Scott/ and while he lives he will never be forgot/ nor when he is dead/ because by his admirers it will be often read."

The editor thought it jolly enough, and published it in the section for readers' correspondence, with a jokey little note that its writer "modestly seeks to hide his light under a bushel".

Oh dear. There is a saying among journalists that "there is no such type font as Times ironic" – a warning that if you use irony in print, you run the risk that a reader with a sense of humour deficiency will take you literally.

The anonymous author of the solemn "Address to Rev George Gilfillan" was indeed short on humour, and on self-awareness. Modest was not an adjective that suited him either. He was a serious, devout, teetotal family man, with six children, aged either 47 or 52 (he was never clear about his own date of birth) who believed that God had recently spoken to him with a voice that said: "Write! Write!"

The note by the Weekly News editor only helped to solidify the conviction already forming in the mind of William Topaz McGonagall that his vocation was poetry. He followed it with heroic dedication for the remaining 25 years of his life, leaving behind a vast quantity of work, and a reputation that endures more than a century after his death.

Yesterday, a folio of 35 McGonagall poems, signed by the author, fetched £6,600 in the Lyon and Turnbull auction house, Edinburgh – the sort of money you would expect to pay for a first edition Harry Potter signed by J K Rowling.

Dundee, where the poet's career began, has a thriving McGonagall Appreciation Society. Dundee Central Library holds a William McGonagall collection in its local history section. An exhibition of art works based on McGonagall's poetry, by Edinburgh art teacher Charles Nasmyth, was published as a book last year.

Yesterday, the writer and comedian Barry Cryer went on the Today programme to pay tribute to the Dundee bard, and recite the only poem McGonagall was ever paid to write, which was an advertisement for Sunlight soap – "You can use it with great pleasure and ease/ without wasting any elbow grease."

As the excerpt demonstrates, it is not the quality of his poetry that has immortalised McGonagall, but rather the British love of heroic failures. We adore the little fellow with oversize ambition who won't give up even when it is blindingly obvious to everyone around him that he is bound to fail.

In his lifetime, he was a music hall joke – the Mr Bean of the Scottish cultural scene. He was paid five shillings for a public recital so that his mostly working-class audiences could jeer at his bad poetry or pelt him with rotten vegetables.

Unable to sell published poetry, he lived partly off the generosity of benefactors, who may have shared his almost insane belief in his talent, or may simply have enjoyed the joke. Though he had grown up in poverty, his verses are full of respect for his social betters, and for the Victorian mission to civilise the poor. He apparently thought that alcohol was to blame for his audiences' failure to appreciate his work.

When Dundee refused to recognise him for the poet he thought he was, McGonagall tried Perth, then Edinburgh, where he died in poverty in 1902. And yet, according to his illustrator Charles Nasmyth, the clumsiness of his verse can stimulate the imagination. "The lines of some of his poems are quite picturesque. They may not be good poetry but they create images in the mind," he said.

"When I read those lines from 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' which went 'When the train left Edinburgh/ the passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow/ but Boreas blew a terrific gale/ which made their hearts for to quail...', I had a vision of Victorian ladies and gentlemen sitting in a train, their chests bursting open and their hearts turning into quails and flying off.

"I think he was a man before his time. He was a 19th-century wannabe. I'm not one of those who think he was a great poet, but he actually lived out the part. He suffered for his art."

To be properly appreciated, McGonagall's poetry should be read aloud in a working-class Scottish accent, so that Edinburgh rhymes with sorrow – which is all that his efforts seem to have brought him.

He managed to travel, taking a boat trip to New York, subsidised by a wealthy benefactor. When he travelled, he reacted to what he saw in the manner of a poet, and recorded his thoughts in verse.

Mr Nasmyth, for instance, sees a parallel with Book VII of The Prelude by William Wordsworth, describing the sense of wonder and isolation he experienced after moving to London, where "The face of everyone that passes by me is a mystery."

McGonagall's visit to London was reputedly the outcome of one of many cruel hoaxes played on him. He was sent a fake invitation to meet the actor Sir Henry Irvine, but having made the 480- mile journey, he was turned away at the stage door. The experience gave rise to his "Descriptive Jottings of London", with its immortal opening verse:

As I stood upon London Bridge and viewed the mighty throng

Of thousands of people in cabs and busses rapidly whirling along,

All furiously driving to and fro,

Up one street and down another as quick as they could go...

"Here, you see, he has the same thoughts as Wordsworth," said Mr Nasmyth. "He just doesn't know how to express them well."

Verses such as these have given McGonagall the reputation as "the world's worst poet". But there is another way of looking at his life. Being a handloom weaver in Dundee must have been dull work, with no great financial security. The last 25 years of McGonagall's life must have been more interesting than the first 50, for all the hardship and ridicule.

"He is very much a heroic failure," said Mr Nasmyth. "And ultimately, to some extent, he has overcome failure... and achieved a sort of posthumous success."



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.

To The Rev George Gilfillan
He is a liberal gentleman
To the poor while in distress,
And for his kindness unto them
The Lord will surely bless.

Robert Burns
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.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'