May 18th, 2008 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Speaking at his father’s funeral, the English master who had flown in for the occasion described the yachting days he remembered from his boyhood and his father’s propensity for writing “sub-MacGonagallian doggerel” in the boat’s log.

At the ensuing family gathering, where the liquid refreshment on offer was whiskey in crystal tumblers or tea in china cups (having seen the size of measures poured, I chose the latter, I had to drive home), I asked, “Was William MacGonagall really that bad?”

“He was”, replied the man, “and my father was worse”.

The following week a mysterious package arrived from England, a copy of the collected works of MacGonagall. The book had a price label from the bookshop of the exclusive public school where the man was English master.

I smiled, not only was MacGonagall still in print, he was readily available in a school bookshop. How many other poets would have found a place in the school bookshop?

On Friday, a collection of thirty-five of MacGonagall’s poems sold for $12,840 at auction in Edinburgh (a figure that exceeded the $12,000 paid for a collection of rare Harry Potter editions inscribed by their author).

MacGonagall’s best known poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster included the lines

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.

Andy McSmith writing in yesterday’s Independent writes that MacGonagall is remembered not because of his poetry, but because of the British love of heroic failures. But, if it means being newsworthy, if it means that even the Financial Times carries news of the auction, more than a century after your death, maybe being a heroic failure is not so bad.

The William MacGonagall website will even send a “gem of the day” to MacGonagall fans. Looking at today’s poem The Death of the Queen in which MacGonagall writes on the death of Victoria,

Twas on January 22, 1901, in the evening she died at 6.30 o’clock,
Which to the civilised world has been a great shock;
She was surrounded by her children and grandchildren dear,
And for the motherly, pious Queen they shed many a tear.

It might be preferable to keep MacGonagall as an occasional nugget, rather than a daily gem.

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  1. Once a year might be enough for me!

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