A Terrible Genius

William Topaz McGonagall was a famously bad poet.  So famously bad, in fact, that he still has devoted admirers more than a hundred years after his death. 

According to the BBC, a private collector just shelled out £6,600 for a set of McGonagall’s signed poems – more than was recently raised for signed first-edition copies of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter heptalogy.  Coincidentally, Rowling, another Scot, named the character of Professor McGonagall to honor the poet.  The 1970s American television series, The Muppet Show, also included a character reminiscent of the “Tayside Tragedian.”  Performances of Angus McGonagle, the “Argyle Gargoyle” who “gargled Gershwin,” were about as well received as William McGonagall’s public recitals, which often closed in a hail of rotting vegetables.

Born in 1825, William was a handloom weaver from Dundee who only took up poetry at about age fifty.  He self-published a volume of his work humbly titled Poetic Gems. His most famous poem is ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ which recounts a deadly bridge collapse and opens with these memorable 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.

Equally disastrous, in my opinion, is McGonagall’s poem commemorating the premature demise of Queen Victoria’s fourth son, ‘The Death of Prince Leopold,’ which includes the following stanzas:

ALAS! noble Prince Leopold, he is dead!
Who often has his lustre shed:
Especially by singing for the benefit of Esher School,
Which proves he was a wise prince, and no conceited fool.

Methinks I see him on the platform singing the Sands o’ Dee,
The generous-hearted Leopold, the good and the free,
Who was manly in his actions, and beloved by his mother;
And in all the family she hasn’t got such another.

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience’s hearts with glee,
With your charming songs, and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think.

Now this Prince Leopold, curiously enough, was once rumored to be infatuated with Alice “in Wonderland” Liddell, and was godfather to her first child.  His own daughter he named Alice.  And though Leopold spent his spare time “lecturing against strong drink,” he died of a mortal combination of claret and morphine in a yacht off the Mediterranean coast of France.

In 1892, after hearing of Lord Tennyson’s death, William McGonagall made a trek across Scotland on foot from Dundee to Balmoral to apply in person for the position of Poet Laureate.  Unfortunately, Queen Victoria was not in residence that day.  Ten years later, the man who Stephen Pile, in The Book of Heroic Failures, described as “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius” died and was buried at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh.

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