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William Topaz McGonagall

William Topaz McGonagall (1825 - 29 September 1902) was a Scottish weaver, actor, and poet. He is renowned as one of the worst poets in the English language.

Life and poetry

Born in Edinburgh, of Irish parentage, he was working as a handloom weaver in Dundee, Scotland when an event occurred that was to change his life. As he was later 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.

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

McGonagall has been widely 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. 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 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 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" (Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures).

"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. (However, there is a theory that 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 only let him perform the title role in Macbeth 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 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 (William McGonagall, World's Worst Poet: Selections from "Poetic Gems", Templegate Publishers, 1992.)

In 1892, following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he visited Balmoral, 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.

McGonagall in popular culture
  • The memory of McGonagall was resurrected by comedian Spike Milligan. A character called McGoonagall frequently appears in The Goon Show, alternatively played by Milligan and Peter Sellers. Milligan also occasionally gave readings of McGonagall's verse.
  • A 1974 movie called "The Great McGonagall" starred Milligan as a fictionalized William McGonagall. Sellers played Queen Victoria. The Great McGonagall at the Internet Movie Database
  • A Muppet character named "Angus McGonagall, the Argyle Gargoyle" appeared on one episode of The Muppet Show. As his stage act he "gargled Gershwin".
  • In The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, the Nac Mac Feegle have a battle poet, or Gonnagle, who repels the enemy through the awfulness of his poetry.
  • An episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a McGonagall-esque poet called Ewan MacTeagle, whose "poems" were actually prose requests for money.
  • Dundee held a McGonagall Supper on 12 June 1997, during which the courses were allegedly served in reverse order, starting with the coffee and ending with the starters.
  • The equally awful Vogon poetry from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was possibly inspired by McGonagall.
  • In the Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling chose the surname of the Professor of Transfiguration, Minerva McGonagall, because she had heard of McGonagall and loved the surname.

This biography was taken verbatim from the Wikipedia. We're providing a snapshot just in case the Wikipedia servers were temporarily unreacheable. The original page is not only much more up-to-date, it also features links to other pages and sites. This snapshot was last updated: 08/29/2006. (mm/dd/yyyy)

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