Sunday, 15 May 2016

William McGonagall: The Worst Poet in History?

by Helen Jackson



William McGonagall:
laughing stock or comedy genius?
Recently, we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the most critically acclaimed playwrights and poets in history, William Shakespeare. In this article, however, I am going to address the works of another William. Beginning in 1877 and dragging out for a further 25 years, the career of William Topaz McGonagall never really took off.

A self taught hand loom weaver, McGonagall was not a man many would have set aside for poetic greatness. Even after he began writing his poetry, it is unlikely that this opinion would have changed. Gripped by the Victorian obsession with death, McGonagall wrote over two hundred poems. Now, I understand that this may seem like an impressive feat, but I assure you that most people with a concept of rhyming could bash out two hundred poems in a quarter of a century. Self publishing his own collections of poems and handing them to people on the street, it is hard for one to knock the determination of the man. However, when performing to large audiences, it was not uncommon for him to be pelted by the occasional rotten fish, showing that even the somewhat morbid Scottish Victorians found his work emotive in ways he had never intended.

Often focusing on news stories and topical issues of the time, the “poems” themselves have sometimes unapologetic, sometimes just  plain peculiar, titles, ranging from “The Sorrows of the Blind” to “A New Temperance Poem, in Memory of my Departed Parents, who were Sober Living & God Fearing People”. Of course, there is one event that McGonagall immortalised forever: the Tay Bridge Disaster. If you have not yet come across the epic retelling of this tragic event, you can be forgiven for thinking that the... poem... is nothing more than a newspaper report with a little anecdotal piece of advice at the end. “The Tay Bridge Disaster” is, quite possibly, one of the funniest things I have ever read, which should not be the case when the poem addresses such delicate subject matter. It seems to have no coherent structure, every line has a rhyme, and I honestly found myself asking whether William had given up in the middle and just tweaked the original report in order to fit the stanza length. There are some truly priceless lines in it, and I thoroughly recommend reading it at some point, but I must confess that it is not my favourite work of William Topaz McGonagall. The top prize must go to the retelling of another horrific event, a fire in London that killed an entire family. Again, I laughed. I should be ashamed to admit it, but... well... I'm sure many others would too.

Calamity in London
Family of Ten Burned to Death

’Twas in the year of 1897, and on the night of Christmas day,
That ten persons’ lives were taken away,
By a destructive fire in London, at No. 9 Dixie Street,
Alas! so great was the fire, the victims couldn’t retreat.
In Dixie Street, No. 9, it was occupied by two families,
Who were all quite happy, and sitting at their ease;
One of these was a labourer, David Barber and his wife,
And a dear little child, he loved as his life.

Barber’s mother and three sisters were living on the ground floor,
And in the upper two rooms lived a family who were very poor,
And all had retired to rest, on the night of Christmas day,
Never dreaming that by fire their lives would be taken away.

Barber got up on Sunday morning to prepare breakfast for his family,
And a most appalling sight he then did see;
For he found the room was full of smoke,
So dense, indeed, that it nearly did him choke
.
Then fearlessly to the room door he did creep,
And tried to arouse the inmates, who were asleep;
And succeeded in getting his own family out into the street,
And to him the thought thereof was surely very sweet.

And by this time the heroic Barber’s strength was failing,
And his efforts to warn the family upstairs were unavailing;
And, before the alarm was given, the house was in flames,
Which prevented anything being done, after all his pains.

Oh! it was a horrible and heart-rending sight
To see the house in a blaze of lurid light,
And the roof fallen in, and the windows burnt out,
Alas! ’tis pitiful to relate, without any doubt.

Oh, Heaven! ’tis a dreadful calamity to narrate,
Because the victims have met with a cruel fate;
Little did they think they were going to lose their lives by fire,
On that night when to their beds they did retire.

It was sometime before the gutted house could be entered in,
Then to search for the bodies the officers in charge did begin;
And a horrifying spectacle met their gaze,
Which made them stand aghast in a fit of amaze.

Sometime before the firemen arrived,
Ten persons of their lives had been deprived,
By the choking smoke, and merciless flame,
Which will long in the memory of their relatives remain.

Oh, Heaven! if was a frightful and pitiful sight to see
Seven bodies charred of the Jarvis’ family;
And Mrs Jarvis was found with her child, and both carbonised,
And as the searchers gazed thereon they were surprised.

And these were lying beside the fragments of the bed,
And in a chair the tenth victim was sitting dead;
Oh, Horrible! Oh, Horrible! what a sight to behold,
The charred and burnt bodies of young and old.

Good people of high and low degree,
Oh! think of this sad catastrophe,
And pray to God to protect ye from fire,
Every night before to your beds ye retire.”

I find it more authentic to read it in a Scottish accent.


As I reach the end of this article, I have to wonder whether McGonagall really deserves the title of “the worst poet in history”. For one, can we even stretch to calling him a poet? On the other hand, I am tempted to come to the conclusion that the man was, in fact, a genius. A comedy genius. 


Ever since I first heard his poetry, read by Terry Deary on a Horrible Histories CD, I have been rather fond of him. I would highly recommend reading some of his poetry if you ever find yourself a little down, and remember that the creator of the works managed to make a living out of them. If he could do that, then the rest of us can do just about anything.

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