According to the radio, it is the Perth Festival of Arts. Such events are hopefully steps towards the return of normal life. Is it possible that they will celebrate one of Scotland’s most memorable poets, William McGonagall?
Speaking at the church of which I was rector, the teacher of English who had flown in for the occasion of his father’s funeral described the yachting days he remembered from his boyhood and his father’s propensity for writing “sub-McGonagallian 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 McGonagall really that bad?”
“He was”, replied the man, “and my father was worse.”
The following week a mysterious package arrived from England, it was a copy of the collected works of McGonagall. The book had a price label from the bookshop of Oundle, the exclusive public school in the East Midlands where the man was English master. I smiled, not only was McGonagall still in print, he was readily available in a school bookshop. How many other poets would have found a place in the school bookshop? Not many that were not on the GCSE or A Level reading list.
McGonagall’s best known poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster includes 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.
It would be easy to laugh at MacGonagall’s writing, but he himself took it with seriousness and wrote with sincerity, and reading his work in that knowledge tends to evoke a feeling of pathos rather than one of humour.
Mocked by the wider public, McGonagall often depended on the generosity of friends simply to have food to eat. He died penniless in 1902 at the age of 77, and was buried in a pauper’s grave, a fate dreaded by almost every poor person. Recent analysis of McGonagall’s work and life suggests that he might have had a condition that would now be regarded as from within the autism spectrum. Despite McGonagall’s work lacking literary quality, one has to respect his bravery as he faced the the ridicule he often encountered, one has to respect his persistence with work that could bring him mockery.
Perhaps William McGonagall is more worthy than most of remembrance: someone with courage to write as he felt; someone prepared to defy convention. He has been described as the worst poet in British history, but, then, how many of his critics will be in print more than a century after their death?