William Topaz McGonagall was probably born in Ireland but always maintained he was an Edinburgher, born circa 1825. The son of Irish handloom weavers McGonagall grew up in Dundee and served his apprenticeship as a handloom weaver. He also acted and much later in life took up writing poetry. The main thrust of his work was narrative ballads and verse written about great events and tragedies. McGonagall’s poems were without lyrical or metaphorical gestures and lacked imagery and lapses in rhythm and meter. Despite the inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary, and ill-advised imagery all combined well to make his work amongst the most unintentionally amusing dramatic poetry in the English language. The Dundee’ poet’s style was unique, memorable and instantly recognizable. He wrote about 200 poems and gleefully distributed them as handbills always willing to perform his works to dramatic effect at the mere invitation.
His notoriety grew and recitations by the poet became very popular. "The Tay Bridge Disaster" is widely regarded as his best known and one of the worst poems in English literature.
McGonagall required a patron and wrote to Queen Victoria.
The Queen politely dismissed his request and refused to extend him, her patronage. Undeterred McGonagall took this as Royal acceptance of his works and thought her Royal Highness would change her mind with a live performance. He walked from Dundee to Balmoral in 1878, over mountainous terrain and through a violent thunderstorm. He was refused an audience and had to return home. He continued unabated writing more poetry.
McGonagall constantly struggled with finances and earned money by selling his poems in the streets, or reciting them in halls, theatres and public houses. In times of need his friends supported him with donations. McGonagall campaigned for the Temperance Movement and frequently appeared in city pubs and bars to give edifying poems and speeches. Despite meeting with the ire of the publicans, he was popular with the drinkers who generally regarded his poems so bad as to be the work of genius. Ironically the poet thought alcohol was to blame for his audiences' failure to appreciate his work.
McGonagall was prey to many cruel hoaxes including a fake invitation to meet the actor Sir Henry Irvine in London. He was able to sail to London thanks mainly to the benevolence of a friend but when he arrived at the stage door, he was turned away. The poet described his experience in "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...
In 1887 he sailed to New York but returned unsuccessful. McGonagall captured his visit in 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.
McGonagall rejections went undeterred and he found himself lucrative work performing his poetry at a local circus. As he recited his poems the crowd was encouraged to pelt him with eggs, flour, herrings, potatoes and stale bread. The act proved very popular but when events became so raucous the city magistrates were forced to put a ban on them. Outraged at their action the poet put pen to paper and composed "Lines in Protest to the Dundee Magistrates".
His friends helped fund the publication of a collection of his work, Poetic Gems in 1890. Four years later 1894 McGonagall and his wife left his beloved Dundee and moved to Perth. It was there he received a letter from purported representatives of King Thibaw Min of Burma which informed him the King had knighted him as Topaz McGonagall, Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant Burmah. Obvious to the hoax, henceforth McGonagall referred to himself as "Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah.” By 1895 the McGonagall’s were living in Edinburgh by which time the poet had become popular "cult figure." His only paid commission was an advertisement for Sunlight soap
"You can use it with great pleasure and ease/
without wasting any elbow grease."
Tragically as he aged and became more frail and sickly depending almost entirely on handouts from his friends to exist. William Topaz McGonagall died at 5 South College Street in Edinburgh in 1902 in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. From c.1950 to 1995 a memorial bench stood on the path immediately to the north side of the church commemorating McGonagall and bearing the typically McGonagall-esque inscription
"Feeling tired and need a seat?
Sit down here, and rest your feet".
Unfortunately the bench fell into disrepair and was not replaced. In 2008 a folio of 35 McGonagall poems, the majority signed by the author, fetched £6,600 in the Lyon and Turnbull auction house, Edinburgh.
In 1999 a grave-slab was installed to his memory and is inscribed:
Poet and Tragedian
"I am your gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee."
William McGonagall always assumed his talent matched William Shakespeare although he did acknowledge the other Scottish poet.
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.
McGonagall Nights, like Burns Nights, help keep the poets flame alive with regular recitations and supper. Unlike a Burns Night the course order is reversed and the meal begins with coffee and biscuits before dessert etc.. During the evening devotees declaim vintage McGonagall verses such as:
"Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light
Thou seemest most charming to my sight /
As I gaze upon thee in the sky so high
A tear of joy does moisten mine eye.
To be properly appreciated, McGonagall's poetry should be read aloud in a working-class Scottish accent, so that Edinburgh rhymes with sorrow. As always the evening is completed with a dramatic rendition of "The Tay Bridge Disaster."
Spike Milligan, Jack Hobbs (1978) William McGonagall – the Truth at Last Penguin On-line information
McGonagall on line