William Topaz McGonagall

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William Topaz McGonagall (1825September 29, 1902) was a weaver, actor, and poet. He is renowned as one of the worst poets in the English language.

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Life and poetry

Born in Edinburgh, of Irish parentage, he was working as handloom weaver in Dundee, Scotland when an event occurred that was to change his life. As he was later to write:

The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877.

It was with this that he wrote his first poem An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, which showed all the hallmarks that would characterise his later work.

McGonagall has been widely acclaimed as the worst poet in British history. The chief criticisms of his poetry are that he is deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. Of the 200 or so poems that he wrote, the most famous is probably The Tay Bridge Disaster, which recounts the events of the evening of December 28, 1879, when, during a severe gale, the Tay Rail Bridge near Dundee collapsed as a train was passing over it.

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.

(Modern sources give the death toll as 75.)

McGonagall also campaigned vigorously against excessive drinking, appearing in pubs and bars to give edifying poems and speeches. These were very popular, the people of Dundee possibly recognising that McGonnagall was "so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius" (Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures).

"Poet-baiting" became a popular pastime in Dundee, but McGonagall seemed oblivious to the general opinion of his poems, even when his audience were pelting him with eggs and vegetables. (However, there is a theory that he was shrewder than he is given credit for, and was playing along to his audience's perception of him, in effect making his recitals an early form of performance art.)

McGonagall also considered himself an actor, although Mr Giles' Theatre, Dundee would only let him perform the title role in Macbeth if he paid for the privilege in advance. Their caution proved ill-founded, as the theatre was filled with friends and fellow workers, anxious to see what they correctly predicted to be an amusing disaster. Although the play ended with Macbeth's dead at the hands of Macduff, McGonagall believed that the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him, and refused to die. [1] (http://www.scotlandmag.com/issue/5/scottish_poets/169)

In 1892, following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he visited Balmoral, to ask Queen Victoria if he might be considered for the post of poet laureate. Unfortunately, he was informed the Queen was not in residence, and returned home.

McGonagall in popular culture

See also

External links

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