Fun facts about poet William McGonagall (1825-1902): his life, his work, and his legacy
1. William McGonagall is widely regarded as the worst poet in the English language. Nineteenth-century Scottish poet William McGonagall has enjoyed (if that’s the word) a posthumous reputation you won’t find many poets seeking: a reputation as the worst ever English-language poet. At one point, he had a job giving poetry readings in a circus: he received fifteen shillings a night on condition that the crowd be allowed to pelt him with eggs and stale food, like a minor criminal in the stocks. McGonagall seemed to like this arrangement, however – the money came in handy – and he was annoyed when the authorities put a stop to it.
2. His middle name was Topaz. William Topaz McGonagall was born in March 1825, though his own account of his date of birth varied from one telling to the next. When he resolved to become a poet, he wrote to Queen Victoria requesting her patronage. She sent back a polite rejection letter, which McGonagall – never one to be blighted by a lack of self-confidence – interpreted as an expression of interest. In 1878 he walked 60 miles from Dundee to the Queen’s castle at Balmoral, in a violent thunderstorm, in order to perform a reading of his poetry in front of Victoria. He was refused entry and had to walk all the way back again.
3. His most celebrated poem (if ‘celebrated’ is quite the word) is the one he wrote commemorating the Tay Bridge disaster. In December 1879, the Tay Rail Bridge at Dundee collapsed, killing everyone aboard the train – reckoned to be some 75 people. Soon after the event, in 1880, McGonagall took up his pen to write an elegy for the lost souls. The intention, no doubt, was to create a moving lament about the disaster. Unfortunately, McGonagall’s cackhanded way with rhyme had quite the opposite effect, producing a poem that was unintentionally funny. Here’s how it opens: ‘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 ends with the resounding couplet: ‘For the stronger we our houses do build, / The less chance we have of being killed.’ You can read the whole poem here.
4. When he played Macbeth in a production of Shakespeare’s play, he refused to die at the end. Despite the fact that the title character tends to pop his clogs at the end of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth – when he is vanquished by Macduff in battle – McGonagall decided a little revision of the Bard’s play was required. He had persuaded a local theatre to let him take the title role in the production, but he was annoyed by the actor playing Macduff, who he reckoned was trying to upstage him. So he resolved not to die at the end of the play, causing consternation to the audience (and to Macduff, one suspects). What would William Shakespeare have made of such a rewriting?
5. J. K. Rowling named Professor McGonagall after him. The name of the character Minerva McGonagall in Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a nod to William McGonagall. As Rowling herself stated: ‘William McGonagall is celebrated as the worst poet in British history. There was something irresistible to me about his name, and the idea that such a brilliant woman might be a distant relative of the buffoonish McGonagall.’ This has given McGonagall’s name another lease of life – though again, whether he’d be pleased about that it’s difficult to say. (We have more facts about Harry Potter here.)
If you enjoyed this post, check out our interesting facts about the life of Sir Walter Scott.
Image: William McGonagall in the early 1900s, by the Parisian Photo Co, Edinburgh; Wikimedia Commons.