Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Bad Poets Society: William Topaz McGonagall

Tuesday, January 9, 2018
William McGonagall
Loretta reports:

A subplot in my third Dressmakers book, Vixen in Velvet, features a rather bad poet, who is the 1830s equivalent of a rock star, much as Byron was the 1810s version. But my fictional Lord Swanton was no Byron. I chose some typical, but what many of us would deem horrendous, poetry of 1835 to give readers a sense of what the young ladies were swooning over and why the gentlemen were scratching their heads.

Imagine my delight when I came upon William Topaz McGonagall, “widely hailed as the writer of the worst poetry in the English language,” according to the website McGonagall Online, which goes on to tell us,
“His audiences threw rotten fish at him, the authorities banned his performances, and he died a pauper over a century ago. But his books remain in print to this day, and he’s remembered and quoted long after more talented contemporaries have been forgotten.”
He started out as a handloom weaver and, before the poetry bug bit him, he was keen to be an actor. When he wanted to perform the title role of Macbeth, he apparently had to pay the theater to let him do it. Friends and colleagues turned up, expecting a laugh fest, which they got: Among other things, [spoiler alert] he refused to die at the end of the play.

His autobiography is a delight.
“I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877 … all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears- ‘Write! Write’”
And so he did. Oblivious to critics, laughter, and rotten food missiles, he wrote poems by the cartload. I offer a sample, but I think you have to read his work in quantity to get the full joy of it.
The Moon

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou seemest most charming to my sight;
As I gaze upon thee in the sky so high,
A tear of joy does moisten mine eye.

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the Esquimau in the night;
For thou lettest him see to harpoon the fish,
And with them he makes a dainty dish.
Turner, Fishermen at Sea 1796

Likewise, I think it’s well worth reading both the various offerings on the McGonagall site (don't miss the court case) and the Wikipedia entry for a sense of the man. The wonderful thing, I think, is that he continues to delight us. He didn’t make the literary contribution he intended, perhaps, but he certainly made one!

I am indebted for the bulk of this post, to the truly excellent website, McGonagall Online.

Images: William McGonagall, courtesy Wikipedia. J.M.W.Turner, Fishermen at Sea, 1796, collection of Tate Britain, via Wikipedia Google Art Project. 

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love this!! Thanks for introducing us to him.

Lucy said...

It's rather sad, I think, when you read about his life. He clearly was not normal, so that, whatever his own ideas of himself, the outcome didn't reflect well on the people throwing eggs and fish. A bit of a commentary, perhaps, on the freak/sideshow culture of the 19th century.

 
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