Lamentable Lines

Lapham’s takes a deep dive into the life and work of William McGonagall, the worst poet to ever live (though I could line up a few challengers for him), and his penchant for disaster.

Scotland has justifiably claimed him as its own, but in all likelihood McGonagall was born in Ireland, in 1825. His family migrated to Dundee when William was a child, and like much of the city’s population, he grew up to be a weaver. The textile business was booming then, though the apogee of the mechanical revolution wasn’t far behind. And as the industry began to make workers redundant amid its collapse in 1877, McGonagall had a conveniently timed epiphany. Sitting in his room on a spring day, he recalls, “I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me…I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, ‘Write! Write!’” He complied, writing a graceless tribute to the Scottish preacher George Gilfillan (himself a poet, although the misfortune of having been eulogized by his fellow Dundonian has been the better part of his literary legacy). McGonagall sent the results to Dundee’s Weekly News, where they were subsequently published by a deeply bemused editorial staff.

What followed over the next two and a half decades was one of the most bizarre careers in Victorian letters. The Weekly News proved a reliable publisher, though it often accompanied McGonagall’s hapless texts with scathingly ironic commentary (a courtesy they were not inclined to extend to their more traditional poetic contributors). Encouraged by what he misconstrued to be rightful artistic recognition, the poet took to local theaters to read his own works and recite Shakespearean soliloquies, whereupon he was often met with raucous crowds who either mockingly encouraged him—sometimes carrying him aloft into the streets—or pelted him with garbage. (Contemporary accounts allege that among the objects he was barraged with were potatoes, footwear, rotten eggs, fish, sacks of soot, peas, snowballs, and, on at least one occasion, a brick.) His profile rising amid these riotous performances, McGonagall increasingly became the victim of a number of cruel pranks, which only served to inflate his own sense of vocational destiny. He trekked to Balmoral Castle seeking an audience with Queen Victoria after someone had passed him a sham letter of patronage; he was tricked into dining with an imposter posing as the dramatist Dion Boucicault; and in the last years of his life, McGonagall was made a knight of the fictional “Holy Order of the White Elephant,” an honor supposedly bestowed upon him by the king of Burma, and of which he proudly and obliviously boasted until his death.

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