On this day in 1902 William McGonagall, poet and tragedian of Dundee, died. Today McGonagall is a cult figure, his many collections of poetry translated into over a dozen languages and selling well to those wishing to investigate a reputation for "the worst poetry ever written, in any language, at any time." The middle-aged weaver was contemplating the beauties of a June day when he felt "a flame as Lord Byron has said" telling him to "write, write, write." McGonagall's Muse stayed for the next twenty-five years, granting him a carnival popularity, guiding him through ridicule -- forged invitations lured him to non-existent public readings, rotten vegetables greeted him at real ones -- and inspiring him to tour America in full Highland dress. The "tragedian" side of McGonagall's fame is not equal to the poetry, but he has the distinction of being the only double entry in Stephen Pile's Book of Heroic Failures, as both "The Worst British Poet" and "The Worst Macbeth." The latter derives from a performance made possible by McGonagall's shopmates at the Seafield Handloom Works in Dundee, who anted up a cash guarantee to a local theater owner and attended the premiere in great numbers. According to McGonagall's autobiography, their enthusiasm encouraged his Macbeth to push Macduff to his limits in Act V, and beyond:
I continued the combat until he was fairly exhausted, and there was one old gentleman in the audience cried out: "Well done, McGonagall! Walk into him!" And so I did until he (Macduff) was in great rage, and stamped his foot, and cried out "Fool! why don't you fall?" And when I did fall, the cry was "McGonagall! McGonagall! Bring him out! Bring him out!" Until I had to come out and receive an ovation from the audience.
McGonagall's contemporaries report that they could find no irony in him, or any awareness of what was going on. Today, he is recognized as favorite son and official "Best Bad Poet" of Dundee. So bad that when Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers held a Worse-Than-McGonagall contest they were unable to find a winner, and so good that they made the movie The Great McGonagall (1974), with Milligan in the kilt.
So how bad? Many have tried to capture this. Some cannot get past his spelling and grammar; Chambers Biographical Dictionary refers to his "calypsolike disregard for metre": the editor of The Joy of Bad Verse likens the feeling of reading a McGonagall poem to "that of being driven unsteadily down a meandering road in a rattling old banger, which finally turns abruptly into a brick wall." Such judgements, placed against the poems themselves, show once again how poor a thing literary criticism can be. On the lesson provided by the collapse of the Tay Railway Bridge:
...Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
On the funeral of the German Emperor, an occasion when the city fathers
...in honour of the Emporer considered it no sin
To decorate with crape the beautiful City of Berlin;
Therefore Berlin I declare was a City of crape,
Because few buildings crape decoration did escape.
On the statue of Robbie Burns (first in the ploughman-poet line and so, some say, to blame for McGonagall):
Fellow-citizens, this Statue seems most beautiful to the eye,
Which would cause Kings and Queens for such a one to sigh,
And make them feel envious while passing by
In fear of not getting such a beautiful Statue after they die.
And so to conclude, with lines that are usually attributed to Milligan-McGonagall rather than the real poet, but too good to pass up:
A chicken is a noble beast,
The cow is much forlorner;
Standing in the pouring rain,
With a leg at every corner.