The 19th century was the peak of the Romantic era, and a kind of golden age for poetry. Many of its poets have gone down in history: Lewis Carrol, Alfred Tennyson, and Lord Byron, to name a few. For every renowned laureate, there might be a thousand bedroom bards whose unremarkable poems are destined to never leave their diaries. But on rare occasions, a poet comes along whose work is so offensively bad that it endures the test of time. This is the case for one William McGonagall, who has often been called the worst poet in history.
William McGonagall was likely born in March of 1825 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His parents, Charles and Margaret, were two of many Irish immigrants to the city who eked out a modest living in the weaver’s trade. After their 1836 move to Dundee, William followed them into that same line of work. It was at the mill that he met Jean King, who would become his wife (and, eventually, mother to their seven children) in 1846.
It was a difficult job. Weavers toiled for 12 hour shifts in hot, dusty factories for just three shillings a day. McGonagall had bigger dreams. He spent nights reading Shakespeare and, when he could spare the price of admission, attending penny theater shows. If the actors flubbed their lines, McGonagall would smirk as if to say, I could do better than that.
He would certainly try. McGonagall staged readings of Shakespeare for his coworkers during breaks. After gaining some reputation as an actor, he begged the proprietor of Mr. Giles’ Penny Theatre to give him a shot in the lead role of Macbeth. Giles agreed.
When it came time for the climactic duel, the actor playing Macduff duly ran McGonagall through with his sword. McGonagall, basking in the glory of his debut, simply refused to go down. He dodged the thrust and countered, continuing the show until his scene partner wrestled him to the floor.
Meanwhile, it was becoming difficult for a weaver to find work. 1856 had seen the end of the Crimean War, and 1874 of the Franco-Prussian War, which meant a decrease in demand for linen absent the British Navy’s pressing need. Worse still, the fully automated power loom was beginning to replace skilled workers. McGonagall was in arrears; court records show that he was sued by his grocer for an unpaid bill.
What was an out-of-work weaver to do? In June of 1877, McGonagall decided to become a poet. Paraphrasing Byron, he says his whole body was set alight by the flame of inspiration. His first poem, “Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan,” was published in the Weekly News on July 7, 1877, with snide commentary from the editor.
In this early work, many of the hallmarks of McGonagall’s style are present. He had little understanding of meter or rhythm, but was fond of rhyme, most commonly “see” and “Dundee.” His subjects were often magnanimous figures, like Gilfillan, a champion of the local working class. Whatever the subject, McGonagall would plainly list the facts; in the ode to Gilfillan, he counted the reverend’s large congregation, biography of Sir Walter Scott, and biblical scholarship among his accomplishments. He would often kill his subjects off within the poem in order to explore their legacy:
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read.
McGonagall truly came into his own with “The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,” the first of four poems he dedicated to the structure. Its sixth verse predicts the bridge’s collapse two years later:
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.
Queen Victoria hadn’t been present at the opening of the Tay Bridge, but according to the editor of the Weekly News, she would feel as though she had if she read McGonagall’s poem. So the poet wrote to her, enclosing the poem “A Requisition to the Queen”:
I send you an Address, I have written on Scotland’s Bard,
Hoping that you will accept it, and not be with me too hard,
Nor fly into a rage, but be as Kind and Condescending
As to give me your Patronage.
McGonagall did not win the patronage, but he did get a reply. The queen was not in the habit of receiving poetry from her subjects, but extended her thanks. For McGonagall, this was implicit endorsement. He began styling himself “poet to Her Majesty,” and printed the royal arms on the poems he hawked in the street. In another attempt to gain patronage, he walked 60 miles to Balmoral Castle, but was promptly turned away by a guard.
In 1879, McGonagall took the show on the road with his first ever performance tour. (Its timing coincided with Queen Victoria’s visit to Dundee, so perhaps McGonagall was merely trying to avoid further royal embarrassment.) He usually took the stage in full Highland costume, and, when performing “Bruce at Bannockburn,” he reenacted Robert the Bruce’s victory in the First War of Scottish Independence by brandishing a prop sword. His swordplay was so lively that those in the front row sometimes fled in fright. Audiences matched his energy, usually shouting throughout the performance and, on some occasions, rushing the stage.
That excitement began to spill out into the streets. McGonagall was a highly recognizable figure; tall, thin, and pale, he stalked the streets of Dundee like a ghost. He became a frequent target for snowballs, in addition to various scams. One wrote a letter to the poet claiming to be the actor Dion Boucicault, inviting him to a lunch meeting but instead wheedling a free performance out of him. Even the press cried foul, and the real Boucicault sent him a letter of sympathy.
McGonagall’s troubles worsened in 1885 with the publication of The Book of the Lamentations of the Poet MacGonagall, an impostor’s libelous “autobiography” that misspelled his name. In it, he was characterized as an arrogant, perpetually poor fool and his parents as alcoholics. McGonagall hired a lawyer and had the book pulled from shelves, having his true autobiography printed in its stead.
After legal fees, printing costs, and a series of failed tours, McGonagall was again destitute. He found a windfall in circus work. He would stand in the ring, reading his poems while the audience pelted him with peas, rotten eggs, and bags of soot. McGonagall, by now an old hand, deflected as many of them as he could with his prop sword. Greater risk, but for greater reward—he was paid 15 shillings for each humiliating performance. However, after someone threw a brick at the poet, knocking him out cold, the authorities became concerned for public safety and banned him from performing.
McGonagall was devastated. He wrote to the Weekly News, “‘To be or not to be?’ That is the question – whether I am to be permitted to perform in public places of entertainment or not.” He petitioned local authorities to get his license back, but was repeatedly declined. To make matters worse, his health was failing. His doctor’s advice: poetry and Dundee were bad for his health. With his means of income restricted, however, McGonagall couldn’t afford to move. He added product placement to his poetry, advertising soap and laxatives for a few extra pennies.
In September of 1894, the McGonagalls were evicted from their tenement house. Their neighbors had complained about their legal troubles: William’s daughter Margaret had been arrested for failing to educate her son, his son Joseph was committed to Westgreen Asylum, and his son John had assaulted Joseph’s father-in-law. With few options left, the family packed up and moved to Edinburgh.
Edinburgh was not half bad to McGonagall. He was able to book venues again, and held flashy, well-attended shows. When he was strapped for cash, those who could spare it often did. He was introduced to actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry by Irving’s assistant, Bram Stoker. He wrote back to Dundee, keeping abreast of goings-on and occasionally sending poems, but would never return.
William McGonagall died on September 29, 1902 of cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried in an unmarked grave. In his final autobiography, he wrote, “I may say I have been highly appreciated by select audiences, and for their appreciation of my abilities I return them my sincere thanks.”
Although he is remembered as history’s worst poet, McGonagall certainly had some talents. He undeniably knew how to put on a show. His habit of plainly listing facts about his poetic subjects would have made his performances rather educational for the illiterate. Most of all, though, he should be remembered for his determination, his commitment to practicing his craft even when everyone begged him not to.
Sources: Poetry Foundation, Scottish Poetry Library