The Real McGonagall
McGonagall prophesied the collapse of the world's
longest bridge in his Tay Bridge satire.
William McGonagall is best known as the world's worst poet. His unique style of versification breaks the laws of rhythm, rhyme and common sense in a manner that has eluded his thousands of imitators for more than a century. According to "The Autobiography of Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian, Knight of the White Elephant Burmah," the bard was lucky recipient of the "divine inspiration".
Legend has it that the fiftyish weaver and amateur actor gave up his job to spend his last twenty-five years combing the streets of Dundee and central Scotland for buyers of his incompetent verses, which he sold on single sheets called broadsides and various collections he saw fit to call Poetic Gems.
Although McGonagall appeared convinced of his own genius and utterly devoid of humour, his public was composed largely of those who enjoyed laughing at him. By the 1880s, "Poet baiting" had become something of a national pastime, with McGonagall frequently being invited to give readings from his own works and those of Shakespeare (whom he claimed as his greatest "influence"). At one such gathering in 1894, McGonagall was treated to an elaborate ceremony by representatives of King Theebaw who had evidently traveled all the way from Burmah to name him "Sir Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant"--a title which McGonagall immediately affixed to his broadsides.
Of course, there have always been the skeptics--those who think McGonagall was merely "playing along" with his tormentors because it provided a living. Perhaps it is no coincidence that McGonagall's divine inspiration arrived when most handloom weavers had been replaced by the cheaper labour of machines, women and children. In fact it was less than a year after the closing of over thirty jute mills in that McGonagall had so suddenly decided to "turn pro". At a brief appearance in debtor's court a year later McGonagall explained that his poverty could be attributed to "scarcity of work". The memoirs of a number of first-hand witnesses, including William Power, Lewis Spence Neil Munro and Lowden MacCartney all confirm that there was, during McGonagall's time, some question as to whether he was "`fooling them to the top of their bent' because of the profit attached". As one letter to the editor of the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch recalled in the early thirties, McGonagall was "not so daft":
In and early essay, Hamish Henderson recalls a story of how McGonagall had once been spotted leaving a performance with what appeared to be a "satiric smile" sneaking out from the shadow of his egg-spattered cleric's hat.
And yet, it seems odd that the one place no one seems to look for this satiric smile is in McGonagall's writing, itself. Herein I would argue that we can catch a glimpse of "the real McGonagall"---someone who merely uses the mask of stupidity in order to humorously victimize himself. Consider if you will McGonagall's "Tribute to Dr. Murison," a piece in which the poet explains how his life had been saved by the physician's humorous prescription:
On the surface of course these lines merely highlight the connection between McGonagall's defective brain and the incompetent poetry. He doesn't even seem to realize that in the very act of immortalizing Murison he is defying the doctor's orders and risking his own life. But just as the clown's art is one of making accidents look unintentional, McGonagall's self-deprecating humour must also be disguised as unintentional. Of course the real McGonagall's intentions of perpetuating an economically profitable hoax are only thinly disguised in this example, as he draws attention to his key selling points: obliviousness and stupidity.
Another key ingredient of McGonagall's reputation--a feature which made him truly worthy of his audience's ridicule--was of course his unparalleled conceit. In his self-written introduction to an early collection of Poetic Gems we again find McGonagall broadcasting his services as a most deserving victim of his audience's hoaxing:
..it is only recently that he discovered himself to be a poet. the desire for writing Poetry came upon him In the Month of June 1877 . . . the first piece he wrote was An address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, to the Weekly News, only giving the Initials of his name, W.M.G. Dundee which was received with eclat, then he turned his muse to the Tay Bridge, and sung it successfully and was pronounced by the press the Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge then he unfolded himself to they [sic] public . . . then he wrote an Address to Robert Burns. Also upon Shakespeare, which he sent copies of to her Majesty, and received her Royal Patronage for so doing. [printed from uncorrected manuscript of Summary History of Poet McGonagall]
On the surface, McGonagall tries to look like the humble recipient of everyone else's praise, referring to himself in the third person as though in a legitimate editor's introduction. Of course, his first work was not "received with eclat," nor was McGonagall exactly "pronounced by the press the Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge": his anonymously submitted "Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay" had found its way into the local correspondence column along with the editor's comment that the writer "styles himself Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge". McGonagall did not receive "Royal Patronage" either. While he had in fact sent verses to Victoria humbly imploring her patronage, these had been returned immediately with due thanks and a polite explanation that "it is not usual for Her Majesty to receive manuscript poetry". The wording of the above-quoted passage is subtle, articulate and funny enough to make us wonder if he were being burlesqued by some other, more intelligent writer, but the manuscript, the style and the ridiculously inflated persona are indeed his own. McGonagall sets himself up as the kind of person everyone loved to hate, someone who made it worth the price of admission for the right to shower him with derisive laughter and rotten vegetables.
McGonagall's ironic style, with its tongue-in-cheek emphasis on what is precisely not the truth reappears in much of his material. The beauty of such irony is that it gives McGtonagall's readers the feeling that they are genuinely creating the real story from events and "mistakes" in wording that the author himself cannot understand. Hence, the "real" McGonagall's art lies in his ability to speak with two voices: while one voice establishes a naive perspective, usually in praise of some lofty person or object, the other voice cleverly subverts and undermines the surface meanings with "unintended" information. This duplicity is particularly apparent in "The Beautiful Moon":
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
While the sentimental "nature poet" attempts to enumerate each of the moon's benefits, his ornate diction and innocent sentimentality are undermined by less romantic images of those who use the light to take advantage of the sleeping world: the eskimo harpoons the fish, the fox steals the goose, the eagle devours its prey, the lovers enjoy the shady groves, and the poacher poaches.
McGonagall pronounces every aspect of the world around him "most beautiful to be seen"--to use his favourite phrase--but his poems very often become an explanation of that which is not beautiful. In so doing he succeeds not only in setting himself up as the humorous victim of his poetry, but also in embarrassing the many people and objects of his lofty praise. McGonagall's ode to the "beautiful" Prince Leopold makes a sarcastic mockery of the late prince as well as those who naively scapegoated alcohol for all of Britain's troubles in the late nineteenth century:
Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Another tragic victim of McGonagall's compulsive eulogizing was the Tay Bridge, which was for a short time the world's longest bridge. Less than two years after its completion, the bridge collapsed, killing seventy-five passengers. McGonagall celebrates the bridge's opening as an aesthetic accomplishment that will attract people from everywhere, chanting "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!" in the first line of each stanza.
But in the sixth stanza, "beautiful" takes on rather ironic connotations, for McGonagall draws attention to the fragility of the bridge in what was to become an unfortunate prophesy:
Of course, McGonagall, like many Dundonians, was fully aware of the bridge's frailty, since its central girders had already been blown down once by high winds during construction. This is probably the reason McGonagall's eye moves immediately in the first stanza to the central girders which appear "towering to the sky," a boast that might have worried some prospective passengers.
McGonagall's incompetent attempt to praise bridge also casts those responsible for building it in a suspicious light. Provost Cox, as head of the largest jute industry in the world, stood to gain directly from greater access to southern markets. The naive McGonagall wishes "prosperity" to both Cox and his builders and commends the former's generosity, yet the poet's seemingly careless wording makes the deal sound like patronage by emphasizing the size of the donation--"Thirty thousand pounds and upwards" ("most handsome to be seen")--and the fact that it was "given away".
Indeed, McGonagall's reputation as a "fool" who is too engrossed by the process of getting to another precious end-rhyme to realize what he's actually saying gives him considerable freedom as a social critic of sorts. He could never have outright condemned the Thames Ironworks Company for building a grandstand that would collapse, killing some two hundred people at the christening of the Albion Battleship, but he could ridicule the company's attempt to buy off the relatives of the deceased with a gift of five pounds, which "will help to fill the hearts of the bereaved with glee"
Just as McGonagall's portrayal of "the sublime and the beautiful" in such poems as "The Moon" and "The Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay" becomes an opportunity to reveal an uglier side, his attempts to draw a moral that contradicts the events and actions of the story he tells us serve to reveal what is precisely not the moral in such pieces as "Famous Tay Whale", "Funeral of Ex-Provost Rough" and "The Christmas Goose." In "The Famous Tay Whale," McGonagall recounts the true story of how a "monster whale" swam up the Tay estuary and offered itself to a fleet accustomed to chasing whales in the treacherous waters off Greenland. At first, the task must have seemed ridiculously simple, but the whale taunted his pursuers for almost two months. After the fatal harpoon finally landed, the whale "sped off to Stonehaven with all his might":
Although the whale obviously turned up quite dead at Stonehaven, McGonagall seems to be of the same mind as those whom he depicts on shore, "declaring that the brave fishermen deserved great praise." This choice of words could not be more sarcastic since there is nothing heroic about towing home a corpse. Furthermore, The Dundee Advertiser states that the crew that first spotted the whale returned for a tug, but the information leaked, and another crew beat the tug back to the scene. Lest the skeptics should have any stray thoughts, Reverend McGonagall enters to clarify the lesson:
From a Dundonian perspective--especially if one happens to be a whaler--McGonagall's misappropriation of praise to the "brave fishermen" aggravates a fresh wound. God did not "send" the whale; the fishermen took it, not only from those who first spotted it's floating corpse, but also from the Dundonian whalers who risked their lives to provide it. While readers in McGonagall's original audience might have seen the poem as a reflection of the poet's utter stupidity, reading it no doubt with a just a hint of sarcasm, it is important for us to recognize how cleverly the sarcasm has been "smuggled" to readers by a more intelligent author.
In "The Funeral of Ex-Provost Rough, Dundee" the naive Mcgonagall tells of Rough's heroism in the face of temptation, yet the poem's events speak to us with a different voice:
McGonagall wrenches precisely the wrong moral. His choice of words emphasizes that fact that Rough's refusal to drink led to his death. Whereas the real lesson would seem to be that temperance can be taken too far, McGonagall's moral, that "very little good emanates from strong drink," offers itself to the audience as an ironically inverted lesson against the dangers of "teatotalitarianism."
In "The Christmas Goose" McGonagall again sarcastically emphasizes the wrong moral in order to reveal the absence of morality the poem's "heroes". The poem, a parody of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," leads us to expect a similarly heart-warming, but after "the naughty boy" has been sentenced to ten days in jail for trying to steal a goose from the Scrooge-like Mr. Smiggs, the hero of our tale concludes:
Smiggs's knowledge that others are starving and cold only enhances the taste of personal luxury and whets his appetite. On the surface, McGonagall does not appear to see any fault in Smiggs, whose name fittingly combines "smug" and "pig." And although Smiggs's wife's name, Peggy, sounds a lot like "piggy" she is "a good kind soul." The two are introduced as the typical protagonists of a Christmas story:
While McGonagall repeatedly alludes to Peggy not frowning, it soon becomes apparent that her melancholy is indeed the source of much distress in the story, and Smiggs is up with the sunrise the next morning, apparently in a great hurry to alleviate her condition:
After Smiggs has been fortunate enough to purchase the "finest" goose in London for a mere crown, McGonagall injects some melodrama with the entrance of a villainous urchin:
But the crisis has not yet passed, for Smiggs is still in a hurry to relieve the distress of "his dear Peggy"--and to get a meal on the table:
Of course, it is only upon hearing news that the "fat" goose was purchased for a mere crown that Peggy courageously resolves to stop her frowning:
Lest Peggy should have a relapse, Smiggs reminds her yet again to take heart:
In place of the stanza where we are led to expect a last-minute change of heart and a "god bless everyone," we are presented with an image of greed and indifference in Smiggs' twisted moral. But, even more disturbing, there is a note of melodramatic perseverance, as though Smiggs and his wife ironically believed they were being oppressed by the poor. The poem's details and events are balanced on an economy of injustice that would have been painfully obvious to an impoverished audience, such as McGonagall's: Smiggs and his wife are the heroes of an inverted melodrama. The Smiggs are "cozy in bed;" Mr. Smiggs will comfort his wife with the "finest goose," later described as a "fat" goose, which, interestingly enough, turns out to be a great bargain at the price of one crown. The key irony, of course, is that the "gentleman," and his wife act as though they are oppressed by both poverty (ie. their concern with "dull care" and saving money) and the poor who are responsible for crime. To an audience that could not afford such luxuries as a "a blanket to their bed" or a fat goose, let alone a goose that cost a crown, the Smiggs' melodramatic self-depiction (ie. the mock emergency surrounding Peggy's frown) is merely the most antagonistic reminder of all of the things that are absent from Christmas. The audience's sense of injustice is further heightened by the fact that the narrator sympathizes with the Smiggs' rather than the boy. McGonagall reminds us four times in as many stanzas that the boy is "naughty" and, significantly, leaves out any explanation as to why the boy stole the goose. If it were not for the fact that Smiggs alludes the starving poor in the last stanza, we would be left with a crime motivated simply by evil.
Having considered how McGonagall's irony and satire are created on the page it is useful to return the question of how McGonagall acted when on stage. His career as an ametuer "Tragedian" seems to have begun as early sometime before 1858, the year in which he and his shopmates bribed the manager of Dundee's Theatre Royal in order to let McGonagall play the leading role for a two act version of Macbeth:
This episode seems to have set the stage for McGonagall's career in comedy. The numerous records of his performances in pubs and rented halls always point to the same kind of "split personality" that we have seen in his writing: on one hand McGonagall appears completely serious and sincere while on the other he dresses and performs in ways that hilariously undermine the seriousness of his intentions.
McGonagall's choice of costumes reflects a flair for the absurd. He was notorious for appearances in ridiculous highland outfits. Of course, Highland regalia was exploited for humour by many Scottish comedians, and it was the trademark of Scotland's most successful music-hall entertainer, Harry Lauder. Neil Munro remembered how McGonagall "turned up in a most fantastic Highland costume" and he "looked as if deliberately made up for a part in opéra bouffe". Another writer recalled the great uproar caused by McGonagall "at a smoking concert where he appeared in a kilt, under which he wore a pair of workman's coarse knitted woollen drawers covering his knees and legs." Similarly, William Power writes that McGonagall "wore a Highland dress of Rob Roy tartan and boy's size." The highland garb was ostensibly worn for his impersonations of Macbeth and Robert the Bruce, but McGonagall often wore it to recite or sing, complemented by a pair of spectacles. One reporter commented that "A kilted chieftain, armed with broadsword and dirk, looked rather droll in a pair of `specs,' but though the audience laughed M`Gonagall rattled on with his ditty." Lewis Spence recalled McGonagall making a "theatrical entrance" at a Dundee newspaper office "attired in a garb so utterly outrageous that every pen was dropped simultaneously":
All accounts emphasize the fact that McGonagall's manner of performing was as ridiculous as his choice of costumes. McGonagall combined "daftness" with serious roles in such a way as to undermine any attempt to impress. McGonagall did not merely play the serious poet, he was also the tragedian who performed sketches from Hamlet, Richard the Third and MacBeth. A standard part of McGonagall's routine (dating back to his first appearance as Macbeth) was to get carried away in role and attack his audiences with sword in hand during such pieces as "Bruce at Bannockburn." While appearing with "Mr Scott, conductor of a star company of vocalists and company," in Trades Hall, Arbroath, McGonagall slew 128 imaginary foes during a battle scene that resulted in a total evacuation of the stage area: "At first the fiddles made their escape from the front or got down under their seats, and the little boys who were clustering behind the orchestra also retired to a safe distance." Similarly, McGonagall "turned the whole room into a very battlefield" during his recitation of "The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir" and, "in his enthusiasm inadvertently hit the Chairman a stunning blow on the head which, however, did not prove fatal."
McGonagall may have been quite willing to follow any absurd requests: at one of two performances in which he shared the spotlight with a rival "Worthy" named "Pace," the bellman (of Broughty Ferry). Both entertainers were requested by the chairman to recite simultaneously as a condition of receiving their pay. Lewis Spence described what followed as "a doleful dual chanting which fulfilled my notions of a Druidic incantation." Unfortunately, the dual was ended when "suddenly, as if at a prearranged signal, a row of urchins in the front seats let loose on the poetic pair a terrific fusillade of flour, pease-meal, and washing-blue."
Richard the Third was seen to be played "with an air of tragic comedy." McGonagall's portrayal of MacBeth elicited the comment from a reporter that "His intonations of the voice, his dramatic positions, and his facial expressions all marked him as on who had formed his own idea of the part."
Scenes from MacBeth sometimes involved playing more than one character simultaneously:
The above report also states that McGonagall cast the performances of eleven other entertainers "completely into the shade," owing to the writer's conviction that "it is utterly impossible for any one to approach Mr M`Gonagall in that command of facial expression which . . . he has made peculiarly his own."
Few reports fail to remark upon the fact that McGonagall appeared perfectly oblivious to the insults and laughter. Some writers, such as Lewis Spence interpreted it as a sign that McGonagall was sincere. Recalling that his fellow journalists at Dundee's Weekly News believed McGonagall was "more knave than fool" Spence explained why he did not agree:
Of course, Spence did not seem to realize that McGonagall's very livelihood depended upon him being "insensible to insult." Morevover, in the details of the following report McGonagall's deadpan expression, obliviousness and nonchalance all reveal the timing of a professional comedian.
This humorous antagonism between McGonagall and his audience often got out of hand:
Things did not always go so well for McGonagall. He was banned from performing at Baron Zeigler's Circus (a circus turned music hall) by the magistrates of Dundee because his audiences were becoming just a little too uproarious. McGonagall threatened to leave Dundee. He had been making fifteen shillings a night.
There is nothing "new" about an author or an actor deliberately playing the fool for humorous or satiric purposes. But for the Great McGonagall the difference was that his disguise was not a costume that could be simply removed after the show: he had to live with it. For this reason the "real McGonagall" is someone who only occasionally makes the briefest of appearances in a vast body of otherwise very ordinary broadside balladry. All that can be seen of him through the foggy lens of history is the occasional glimpse of a satiric smile.