The University of Guelph
© Gord Bambrick, 1992
Supervisor: Christine Bold
William McGonagall, "Poet and Tragedian," and the Fool of late nineteenth-century Scotland, currently holds the reputation of being the "world's worst poet," but this paper approaches him as a writer/performer in the working-class genres of broadside balladry and music-hall entertainment, focusing on the question of what he meant within his contemporary, working-class culture. While it is well known that McGonagall was a popular target of ridicule (and rotten vegetables), I argue that such abuse was not related to his failures as an "art poet" (the accepted explanation), but rather that it was a response to his antagonistic and naive rearticulation of ruling-class ideology. Moreover, as both a symbolic representative of the ruling class and a "fool," McGonagall is the vehicle of a subversive attack on the values of the ruling class.
Chapter 1 introduces a dialogical methodology which will enable us to understand how the ruling-class voice silences oppositional voices and how voices of opposition can be artificially reconstructed. This approach will then be used to identify points of conflict between McGonagall's values and those of his audience. Chapter 1 also considers various class conflicts that arise over McGonagall's role as a symbolic representative of philanthropy--an ideology that reserved the rights of the rich and undermined the rights of the poor. Chapter 2 outlines conflicts which arise over McGonagall's elite persona. Chapter 3 explores the class struggle over meanings, as it took place between McGonagall and the music-hall audience. The final chapter's deliberate misreading of McGonagall focuses on how the contradictions of his discourse may have been used to politicize philanthropy. The conclusion interrogates the suppression of McGonagall in Dundee from 1890 to the present, and it demonstrates with examples how this type of study can be used to recover cultural narratives from historical silence.
. . . Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.
--Carlyle, On Heroes 239
William McGonagall of Dundee, Scotland is best known as "the world's worst poet" (Drabble 601) and the "fool" who clung to an invincible belief in his own genius through twenty-five years of public abuse. Giving both 1825 and 1830 as his dates of birth ("A Summary History" 5; Authentic Autobiography 2), the "Poet and Tragedian" died on September 29, 1902 in Edinburgh. His parents, poor Irish immigrants, arrived in Scotland sometime before the Census of 1841-51, which states that William, at fifteen, was the eldest of seven children and worked at his father's occupation of handloom weaving in Dundee, where he remained until 1894. According to The Authentic Autobiography of the Poet McGonagall (Written by Himself), he received little education (3), but, this proved no obstacle to the growth of the poet and tragedian's mind--or his ego:
After I had learned to be an expert handloom weaver, I began to take a great delight in reading books, as well as improve my handwriting, in my leisure hours at night, until I made myself what I am.
The books that I liked best to read were Shakespeare's penny plays, more especially Macbeth, Richard III., Hamlet, and Othello, and gave myself no rest till I obtained complete mastery over the above four characters. (3)
Before long, McGonagall was performing his favourite parts for the benefit of fellow weavers at the factory and on the stages of Dundee's "penny gaffs"--the cheapest of theatres.
The year was 1877 and McGonagall was in middle age with a wife and six children (Census 1881-91), when, as he recalls, he suddenly received "the divine inspiration" (Authentic Autobiography 5-6). Upon hearing a voice that beckoned him to "Write! Write!" McGonagall immediately composed "Address to Rev. George Gilfillan" and submitted the doggerel effusion anonymously to Dundee's Weekly News. Shortly thereafter, the piece was published in the "Correspondence" column with the editor's wry observation that the writer "modestly seeks to hide his light under a bushel" (7 July 1877). McGonagall seemed to take the praise literally, for he turned professional "Poet and Tragedian" and proceeded to spend the next quarter of a century trying prove his greatness to the world. Unfortunately, the only appreciation he received came from "poet baiters," false admirers whose ironic praise he seemed to take seriously and whose cruel hoaxes invariably made an even greater fool out of him. In the introduction to a selection of McGonagall's verse, James L. Smith explains that the author's career was a tragicomedy:
The most outrageous misfortunes left his stupidity and self-confidence unshaken. Dundonians found him irresistible: they ridiculed the poems, hoaxed the poet, and pelted the performer. (J. Smith 5)
Nowadays, of course, McGonagall is famous as "a writer of the world's worst bad verse" (W. Smith). Irregular metrics, atrocious end-rhymes and inappropriate diction are just a few of the trademarks commonly said to make McGonagall's style inimitably bad. This reputation, together with the author's ironic image as the fool who thought he was a genius, has also made McGonagall one of Scotland's most popular poets from the 1930s onward. In 1934, a collection entitled Wm. M`Gonagall, Poet appeared in response to "the growing and insistent demand, not only in this country, but also in the Colonies and various parts of America . . ." (MaCartney 2). By 1950, 100,000 copies of McGonagall's Poetic Gems (1) had been sold ("Editor's Causerie"). In 1962 it was noted that "poetic gems sell in numbers second only to Burns" (McPhail). Six years later, Tokyo saw its first printing of Poetic Gems, presumably translated to Japanese (J. Smith 4). By 1980 500,000 copies of Poetic Gems had been sold (McGonagall, World's Worst Poet 10), making it "Scotland's largest selling book," according to a publisher's pamphlet (David Winter and Son).
Yet, for all the humorous attention the poet's style has received, only a few writers have seriously asked what "The Great McGonagall" was all about. Of these writers, none have considered McGonagall's corpus worthy of critical interpretation; consequently they have overlooked a good deal of unique, intriguing and surprisingly complex material. Furthermore, critical justice has not been done to the wealth of uncirculated archival materials, including McGonagall's manuscripts, original publications, photographs and, most importantly, the many fascinating accounts of his performances. The most comprehensive study to date remains David Phillips' humorous, semi-fictional (and totally undocumented) biography, No Poets' Corner in the Abbey: The Dramatic Story of William McGonagall. As yet, there exists no comprehensive investigation of the McGonagall phenomenon, something which I take to include not only writings and performances, but also the turbulent history of McGonagall's reception. On this note, it would seem particularly appropriate to ask what he meant within his own culture--a key question considering McGonagall was not really a "Poet and Tragedian" in the first place. Despite his elite pretensions, McGonagall actually made his living in the working-class genres of broadside balladry and music-hall entertainment. The broadside ballad was essentially a newspaper article in verse, hawked in the streets on single sheets of paper; music hall was a form of variety theatre comparable to Vaudeville.
I would argue that McGonagall became a very antagonistic figure in the history of a working-class city such as late-Victorian Dundee, where the overwhelming majority lived in poverty,(2) because he tried to present himself not only as the most elite of poets and tragedians but also as an exponent of ruling-class ideology and part of the larger Victorian mission aimed at "enlightening" the working class with "culture." McGonagall's verses glorify the deeds of an heroic ruling class but his discourse represents the dominant ideology in such naive, arrogant and self-contradictory terms as to delegitimize it before his music-hall public.
This paper will reconstruct McGonagall's monologue as an allegorical representation of the British ruling class contesting its meanings with the repressed oppositional voice of the Scottish working class. McGonagall's role in attracting ridicule symbolically directed at the dominant culture is comparable to that of the "fool," whom John Burnett Pratt distinguishes from "rational men" in his study of McGonagall's Scottish forefather, Jamie Fleeman, The Laird of Udny's Fool:
Both rational men and idiots build castles in the air. The former are accounted wise because they conceal the airy fabrics; the latter are esteemed fools, not because they allow their thoughts to run riot, but because they cannot conceal their vagaries from the public. (9)
From a slightly more political angle, it seems that McGonagall's castle in the air was the world of elite culture, to which he sought admittance through his loyalty to society's leaders, his adherence to their heroic ideals, and his sycophantic devotion to those above him, especially Victoria: calling himself "Poet to Her Majesty," he walked all the way from Dundee to Balmoral in hopes of giving her a recital. McGonagall was unable to conceal the vagaries of his elite pretensions, however, because of his intellectual quirks, humorous eccentricities, and fantastic arrogance. Thus, McGonagall's appropriation of the discourse of power for the purpose of upward mobility backfired in such a way as to produce a seemingly unintended burlesque. If, for convenience's sake, the term, burlesque, can be taken to mean merely "an action or performance which casts ridicule on that which it imitates," (Oxford English Dictionary) then we need only qualify our definition by saying that the burlesque is co-produced by both the performer and audience. McGonagall imitates the ruling class, and, in the various distortions which result, he places the audience in a position to cast ridicule on that which he imitates.
Before we can return to elaborate upon precisely how McGonagall's foolishness enables the working-class audience to ridicule the ruling-class ideology, it will be necessary to clarify his paradoxical position both within and in opposition to working-class culture. This in turn requires a brief summary of Frederic Jameson's reformulation of Bakhtin's dialogism.
In The Political Unconscious Jameson explains that "the dialogue of class struggle is one in which two opposing discourses fight it out within the general unity of a shared code." The roles are assigned as follows:
normally, a ruling class ideology will explore various strategies of the legitimation of its own power position, while an oppositional culture or ideology will, often in covert and disguised strategies, seek to contest and undermine the dominant "value system." (84)
A ruling class maintains hegemony by suppressing all cultural voices or "evaluative accents,"(3) other than its own. As Jameson explains, "the process of cultural `universalization'. . . implies the repression of the oppositional voice, and the illusion that there is only one genuine `culture'. . ." (87). Universalization legitimizes ideology by objectifying, dehistoricizing, and ultimately depoliticizing the values of the dominant class. The task of restoring monologic texts to their position in an antagonistic class dialogue requires "a whole new set of instruments":
For one thing, the illusion or appearance of isolation or autonomy which a printed text projects must now be systematically undermined. Since by definition the cultural monuments and masterworks that have survived tend necessarily to perpetuate only a single voice in the class dialogue . . . they cannot be properly assigned their relational place in a dialogical system without the restoration or artificial reconstruction of the voice to which they were initially opposed. . . . (85)
Jameson's revision of dialogism allows us to contextualize McGonagall in two complementary ways. Firstly, the working-class voice can be restored by reconstructing popular cultural history from its surviving fragments. Such work, is "of a piece with the reaffirmation of the existence of marginalized or oppositional cultures in our own time, and the reaudition of the oppositional voices of black or ethnic cultures, women's and gay literature, `naive' or marginalized folk art, and the like" (86). But since cultural signs are constantly exchanged in the class dialogue--appropriated and re-appropriated, coopted and subverted--our interpretation must go beyond sociological or pluralistic analysis to "an ultimate rewriting of [popular cultural] utterances in terms of their essentially polemic and subversive strategies . . ." (86). A second method of "artificial reconstruction" necessitates writing the working-class voice back into the silences of the ruling class discourse, for, as William Dowling explains in Jameson, Althusser, Marx: An Introduction to the Political Unconscious "we `hear' only one voice because a hegemonic ideology suppresses or marginalizes all antagonistic class voices, and yet the hegemonic discourse remains locked into a dialogue with the discourse it has suppressed" (131).
One of this paper's major concerns will be to resituate McGonagall within working-class culture, both in order to get a better idea of how he looked to the oppressed majority and to reaffirm the existence of culture outside of the hegemonic cultural narrative. Ideally, we would examine the perspectives of such marginalized groups as women, ethnic minorities, children, the elderly etc. A lack of available information together with a shortage of space for dealing with this complicated matter leaves no option but to provisionally substitute "working class" for the underprivileged majority during a time where the line between rich and poor formed the most important wall between an oppressive class and the oppressed. On a similar note, it should be recognized that the term "working-class culture" is an umbrella heading for the culture generated outside of, and largely in opposition to, the "legitimate" definitions of ruling-class culture established by educational, religious, military, and governmental institutions. Examples of working-class culture include popular theatre, pub culture, folksong, the Scots language, oral history, work traditions, and street culture, to name only a few.
This paper's recovery and revaluation of working-class culture is reserved for the second and third chapters, which relocate McGonagall in the contexts of broadside balladry and music hall, two genres of working-class culture that have remained virtually untouched by academic inquiry.
The very prejudice that excludes music hall and broadside balladry from scholarly interpretation is observable in McGonagall, who presents himself as someone who thinks he is far above "the public" and its "vulgar" tastes; he is a poet on a heroic mission to preach high culture to those whom he sometimes deems fit to call "the ignorant rabble" (Yet Further, "New Year's Resolution to Leave Dundee" 37). As we can see, interrogating McGonagall's meaning within his own culture is itself a political gesture in that it asks us to consider the perspective of a class that is still largely excluded from interpretation because the politically powerful minority universalizes itself as the sole distributor of sweetness and light.
One very important offshoot of our investigation of McGonagall's place in broadside balladry and music hall is the realization that he was more actor than author. This in turn implies a different context of enunciation which results in different meanings from those generated by the written texts of isolated poems. It is therefore essential that we abandon what Jameson calls "the illusion or appearance of isolation or autonomy which a printed text projects" in exchange for a broader, dialogical understanding of the way McGonagall's larger-than-life persona and his bizarre manner of dramatization affected his audience's perceptions. Against the objection that McGonagall's public merely read his individual poems, we must weigh a number of important factors. The sale of broadside balladry involved song, patter and dramatic rendition in the streets. Furthermore, the knowledge that McGonagall gave at least fifty performances in such places as the music halls, supper halls and pubs suggests he entertained frequently, for most performances would not have left any record. That McGonagall had done amateur work as a penny gaff actor and barnstormer for more than twenty years before turning poet also suggests the importance of interpreting his texts in a theatrical light ("Recollections"). To this, we must add that McGonagall's audience knew him on a far more intimate level than literary authors of today know their public: it would have been impossible to live in Dundee without seeing or hearing McGonagall at least once during the more than fifty years he resided there. It would also have been impossible to read the newspapers without hearing of his well-publicized performances and antics. Though newspaper reports provide only a fragmentary perspective of McGonagall in action, the composite picture assembled in Chapter Three's discussion of performance records confirms the image we will get from what amounts to the first critical analysis of his literature. But records also point to the fact that McGonagall performed his material in a manner that was thoroughly ridiculous. Thus, in reading McGonagall's printed texts, we must always keep in mind the centrality of his naive and absurd persona, and the manner in which this narrative identity mediates his meanings. The "I" is always present as a character, and McGonagall's position as the "fool" will be of at least as much importance as that of the lead role in a one-person play.
Taking a theatre-centred approach to McGonagall gives us the additional advantage of being able to witness the working-class audience's reaction, which, as I will show in Chapter Three, was characterized by intensely oppositional behaviour ranging from derisive laughter and heckling to pelting and the mock-heroic parading of McGonagall through city streets. These reactions provide tangible evidence of a class struggle taking place in the form of a battle over the meanings of McGonagall's words and actions.
A second major concern of this paper will be the dialogical interpretation of the dominant ideology, what will be called a discourse of philanthropy. Philanthropy arises in order to legitimize imperial conquest and colonial domination, but it is also a response to what was increasingly perceived to be a crisis in authority at home in Britain's industrial centres. Religion, by itself, was no longer serving as an adequate instrument of ideological control in a society that was finding the miserable symptoms of industrial exploitation impossible to tolerate.
The bourgeoisie's own faith in laissez-faire had earlier been perceived by Marx as a "most revolutionary" trend in the sense that wherever industrial capitalism was fully established it undermined the illusion of a single, unified society: "[The bourgeoisie] . . . has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest. . . . [F]or exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" (82). Marx overstated the case in his impatience to see revolution, but the discourse of philanthropy may in large part be seen as an attempt to depoliticize the symptoms of class exploitation by establishing a renewed faith in benevolent leadership.
Arnold and Carlyle were particularly frank about their fears of social chaos. Matthew Arnold saw that if the bourgeoisie persisted in ruthlessly exploiting the masses under the supreme law of supply and demand then their would soon be rebellion; in his eyes, the gift of "Culture" seemed to offer society's only alternative to "Anarchy." Carlyle's vision of "Hero-worship" offers compensation for the failure of religious opiates alone to pacify the working-class:
All dignities of rank, on which human association rests, are what we may call a Heroarchy (Government of Heroes),--or a Hierarchy. . . . Society everywhere is some representation . . . of graduated Worship of Heroes;--reverence and obedience done to men really great and wise. . . . They are all as bank-notes, these social dignitaries, all representing gold. . . . (Carlyle 249)
Thus, society must choose between the real gold of its heroic leaders and the fool's gold of "Democracy, Liberty and Equality." Where the religious doctrine of deferred reward (in exchange for present suffering) is losing its currency with workers, the Christian narrative of salvation must be rewritten on secular terms as a legend of self-sacrificing man-gods, "Great Men." All that is asked in return from the masses is submissive worship and a similar ethic of self-sacrifice.
The narrative of self-sacrifice or philanthropy attempts to legitimize a system which concentrates the power to act like godly benefactors in the hands of the few, while leaving the blame for poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, crime, family breakdown and disease with those whom the system oppresses. Gareth Stedman Jones observes that "the terms `working classes' or `toiling masses' carried no positive cultural connotations, for they signified irreligion, intemperance, improvidence or immorality. (184)" As Jack London explains in The People of the Abyss, middle-class attempts to teach thrift, temperance, Christian virtue and a reverence for "the Beautiful, the True and the Good" amounted to sheer hypocrisy. Of the "people who try to help" he writes:
Their college settlements, missions, charities and what not, are failures . . . . [T]hey come down to the East End [of London] as teachers and savants . . . . [T]hey come down to the miserable and the despised with the pomp of social redeemers. They have worked faithfully, but beyond relieving an infinitesimal fraction of the misery . . . they have achieved nothing . . . . The very money they dribble out in their child's schemes has been wrung from the poor. (306-7)
With some idea of how the dominant half of the class dialogue took shape, we can now begin to identify some sources of conflict between McGonagall and the working-class. Despite his own working-class background, McGonagall also constructs a "heroarchy." His numerous odes and addresses glorify the self-sacrificing deeds of a superior class including the queen and her family, generals, politicians, industrial magnates, reformers, clergymen, educators, philanthropists, and above all "Himself, knowing none greater."(4) McGonagall worships an ideal government of all-powerful individuals towering over the "ignorant masses" (Yet Further, "Inauguration of the University College, Dundee" 10). He identifies with the Victorian mission of "rescuing fallen creatures from the paths of vice" (Yet Further, "To Mr. James Scrymgeour" 7). Calling himself the "Poet to Her Majesty," McGonagall places himself at the very centre of the heroic mission: he is the "Bard," the Shakespearean tragedian, a disseminator of "the Beautiful," as well as a "Prophet" and a "Genius" (Phillips 173).
Since this paper's objective will be to demonstrate some of the counter-hegemonic meanings that McGonagall makes available to the working-class audience, we need to consider not only how the texts make such meanings available, but also how the working-class audience actively appropriated and reconstructed new meanings. The latter task will necessarily involve more than investing the texts with an understanding of genre conventions, local history, and the theatrical production of McGonagall as a character; we must return a hypothetical set of working-class values, or "evaluative accents" to the texts. For example, to take McGonagall--the "fool"--as an ideologically neutral sign would be to overlook the fact that he had a totally different value (and therefore a different meaning) to the various classes of his audience. From the working-class audience's point of view, McGonagall was a foolish representative of the ruling class, attempting to rise above and subordinate those below him. On the other hand, McGonagall's ruling class following (composed mainly of litterateurs) appropriated the fool as a representative of the working class attempting to rise above his place to vocations that were reserved for the elite.
Although this study affords little room for rereading McGonagall from a ruling-class point of view, the latter requires occasional commentary for the purposes of contrasting, isolating and clarifying the working-class reaction. Reconstructing the working-class perspective is especially important because this faction has hitherto been excluded from literary and historical interpretations that invariably universalize McGonagall's audience as a literary clique. Despite the fact that McGonagall was a working class writer and performer in a working-class city (for most of his career), his place in the culture that surrounded him has been forgotten, leaving the impression that he was merely the toy of educated pranksters--"poet-baiters," as they came to be known--who sponsored a hoaxes such as the famous ceremony in Edinburgh wherein McGonagall was knighted "Sir Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah," a title McGonagall thenceforth included with his autograph.
While it is true that several critics including, Hamish Henderson, Alan Bold, Robert MacDonald, and Allen Grossman, have briefly recontextualized McGonagall in popular culture, the working-class perspective has been routinely overlooked. All four writers recognize cruelty in McGonagall's treatment at the hands of the literary elite. Hamish Henderson, for instance, points out that "[s]elf-complacent class superiority oozes from [the] sentences" of a letter of mock-tribute sent to McGonagall (William McGonagall 9). "Tribute to Mr. M`Gonagall from Three Students at Glasgow University" consists of ironic flattery, a mock ode to McGonagall, and a series of questions to the following effect:
I. What grammar would you recommend as a preliminary study to the writing of poetry?
II. Is a College education an aid to write poetry, and what University would you recommend?
(McGonagall, Poetic Gems (Second Series) 13)
Robert MacDonald similarly observes that "McGonagall attempted to compete by the rules of high art; his failure was the joke . . ." (493). Be that as it may, we will also find that from a working-class perspective self-complacent class superiority oozes from McGonagall: he did not become the target of working-class ridicule because he failed to play by the rules of high art but rather because he attempted to impose those rules (and the rules of high culture in general) on the working class. While McGonagall's ideologically antagonistic relationship with the working class will clarify as we proceed, the third chapter's analysis of the "theatre of class struggle" will offer concrete evidence of the "dialogue between antagonistic discourses" as it was enacted between performer and audience. We will find that the dialogue involves intensely oppositional reactions which cannot be explained merely by stylistic inadequacies. Although hostilities may have been overtly directed at McGonagall they represent protests against a symbolic despot trying to impose a discourse of class domination.
Returning to the question of how McGonagall undermines the ruling-class ideology, it is clear that the central "device" of the "burlesque" is a naive persona, which "imitates" the ruling class in such a way as to attract working-class derision. In a class-inflected reading of McGonagall, the main objective will be to understand how the "character" of McGonagall looks to the working class. This process can be conveniently summed up as one in which the audience appropriates counter-texts through a unique kind of structural irony that is not literary and does not require the recognition of an implied author "behind" the narrator's voice. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms:
[structural irony] involves the use of a naive or deluded hero or unreliable narrator, whose view of the world differs widely from the true circumstances recognized by the author and readers; literary irony thus flatters its readers' intelligence at the expense of a character (or fictional narrator). (Baldick 114)
In place of traditional terminology, which allots too much authority to the author, it will now be more convenient to refer to the audience as a creative agency (or authorial presence) that has no less power than the author to generate provisional meanings and authorize truths. Moreover, where the audience licenses itself to appropriate what it deems more "intelligent" or "knowing" meanings at the "expense" of the naive persona, the co-produced effect of irony is also an instrument of subversive empowerment for the working-class audience, ultimately enabling its own readings to invert or overthrow the cultural biases of the ruling-class narrator.
As a deluded hero McGonagall also caricatures the "heroarchy" and its philanthropic ideals of social benevolence and self-sacrifice. Holding up the example of a heroic and more respectable class to workers, McGonagall insinuates his own place at the top of the "heroarchy" as a poet laureate and priest of high culture. He adopts the pose of one of the "pompous social redeemers" who come to the poor as "teachers and savants" and he presents his genius as a "gift" to society. He preaches about the virtues of "the Beautiful, the True and the Good," and is concerned with saving workers from their vices with his own "moral" and "intellectual" entertainments.
Part of what undermines McGonagall is the hostile social climate: audiences did not gravitate to performers of the street, pub or music hall in hopes of being enlightened or reformed. It seems only natural for audiences to rebel with derisive laughter against a naive spokesperson of the ruling class. Even more antagonistic is the way in which McGonagall exploits the humble, self-sacrificing pose of a philanthropist as a lever of upward mobility and self-aggrandizement. From the working-class perspective, McGonagall's heroic mission thinly disguises his attempts to rise above and subordinate others. In this way, McGonagall's persona undermines philanthropy by exposing some of the ways it can be exploited as a discourse of self-interest.
McGonagall's absurd, self-contradictory and incompetent rhetoric also invites the audience to retrieve/create counter-texts. Hamish Henderson calls McGonagall "the poet of the belly-flop" and notes that "[t]o perform this type of belly-flop continuously demands a certain type of talent, as anyone who ever tries to parody him soon finds out" ("William McGonagall" 6). George MacBeth suggests that McGonagall "created a style out of a a stupidity," adding that "[h]e was the first--and perhaps so far the only widely known--naive poet, and as such deserves attention." (428). In what is clearly the most insightful reading of McGonagall to date, Edwin Morgan suggests that McGonagall provokes mockery of the Victorian status quo through ironic inversions. McGonagall "upholds all the institutions from Queen Victoria downwards, but he does it in such a ridiculous way that the institutions seem to be being mocked" (171). Being mainly concerned with McGonagall's relationship to Scotland's "Kailyaird" tradition, Morgan claims that Kailyaird fiction of the nineteenth century exploits the miserable conditions of industrialized Scotland for "sentimental purposes, for a luxurious wallowing in a supposedly uplifting grief" (169). Writers are "not concerned with tracing the social conditions that led to such happenings, or with the altering or removal of these conditions. (169)" By contrast, McGonagall supplies "a kind of inverted Kailyaird":
he writes in such a way as to make us laugh at some of the things the real Kailyairders would want us to drop a tear over. . . . He gives us an outlet, quite unconsciously, for all those irreverent feelings which were held in check by the writers of `My Granny's Fireside' and its co-tranquillizers. When we laugh at McGonagall, we are to some extend laughing at the Fool who though a scapegoat is capable of showing us the shortcomings of his contemporaries. (171)
Although we are not concerned with McGonagall's value as a critique of a particular school of writers, Morgan draws attention to several features that contribute to our class-inflected reading. The third chapter's interrogation of the audience's reaction will testify to the fact that the institutions upheld by McGonagall are indeed opened up to mockery. Also, his serious and seemingly sincere sentiments are routinely overthrown by the pervasive humour of the situation. In chapter 4, we will find that, as the fool, McGonagall draws criticism not only upon himself but upon those institutions whose views he endorses.
Having specified that our primary concern is with cultural meanings as they are generated by working-class perceptions of McGonagall's naive persona, I must turn briefly to the problem of what to do with the "real McGonagall," about whom little is actually known.(5) Although the search for genuine causes and motives may not be justified by anything but curiosity, the need to explain some of McGonagall's contradictions in terms of how they relate to authorial intentions (as I infer them) is at least helpful in ascertaining textual authenticity where readers may sometimes be tempted to suspect the editorial intervention of "poet-baiters," publishers, reporters, or his many imitators. Indeed, the tradition of imitating McGonagall, which has persisted from his earliest publications onwards, has so far yielded nothing comparable to the style that is widely considered "inimitable." His publishers to their credit have always reproduced the material faithfully with amendments only to McGonagall's irregular punctuation, occasional spelling mistakes, and insignificant grammatical errors. The only spurious publication to be widely re-printed is This is the Book of Lamentations of the Poet McGonagall, a false autobiography written by one John Willocks; though Willocks adopts a naive persona in order to burlesque McGonagall, the former's style, being more coherent, erudite and deliberately ironic, bears no resemblance to McGonagall's, and it is indeed much less interesting.
Where so little is known about the authenticity of McGonagall's writing and the sincerity of his intentions, there has been a real danger of confusion. Writers such as Robert MacDonald have complicated the situation by inferring rather than researching biography. Of McGonagall, MacDonald writes:
In his own lifetime he was patronized by jokers of the educated classes, who, encouraging his high opinion of himself, helped create a market for his verse, turning it out in mock-serious titles such as This is the Book of Lamentations of the Poet McGonagall [not a book of verse, but a spurious autobiography]. He became known as "the Great McGonagall," and, for another joke, was dubbed Sir William Topaz McGonagall . . . , a title which in his innocence he displayed with pride. (481)
MacDonald obviously ignores the active role McGonagall played in soliciting ridicule and indeed in perpetuating a hoax that ultimately provided his livelihood for a quarter of a century. If he proudly accepted the title of "Sir William Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant Burmah," then it should also be noted that from the very beginnings of his career, McGonagall evinced a readiness to play the game. Less than a year after "Dame Fortune" kindly "endow[ed] me with the genius of poetry" (Autobiography of Sir William 3), McGonagall published "A Summary History of Poet McGonagall" which chronicles his meteoric rise to fame:
. . . 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] (7)
McGonagall tries, quite fraudulently, to look like the humble recipient of universal acclaim by mythologizing himself in a bogus editor's introduction. His first work was not "received with eclat," nor was McGonagall exactly "pronounced by the press the Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge": the anonymously submitted "Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay" did find its way into the local correspondence column along with the editor's comment that the writer "styles himself Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge" ("Correspondence" 11 August 1877). 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"("Correspondence" 20 Oct. 1877). This, of course, did not discourage McGonagall from entitling his small collection of 1878 "Poems and Songs by William McGonagall, Poet to Her Majesty" along with a cover advertisement that states "Mr. McGonagall holds in his possession an Acknowledgement from Buckingham Palace . . ." ("Job's Reflections").
McGonagall's false humility thinly disguises an inflated arrogance which is itself ironic in light of his real status as the lowly balladmonger. Despite problems with syntax, spelling and punctuation (characteristic of all of his manuscripts), the wording is subtle, articulate and funny enough to make us wonder if he were being burlesqued by some other, more intelligent writer.
Did McGonagall consciously intend any irony? I believe so. Although no single piece of evidence stands alone as proof of intentional irony, numerous fragments lead to the conclusion that he feigned much of his folly. It is logical to assume that McGonagall, an aging, unemployed weaver with over twenty years of amateur theatrical experience ("Recollections"), realized in 1877, and perhaps much earlier, that being hoaxed was his only alternative to starvation. Certainly the most intelligent decision available to someone in McGonagall's shoes was to adopt, or at least exaggerate, his naivete and absurdity as well as his conceit and antagonistic snobbery as a means of generating publicity. This would also explain why McGonagall re-published letters of mock-tribute (ie. "Tribute from "Tribute to Mr. M`Gonagall from Three Students at Glasgow University") and why he played along with the hoax so perfectly at performances, wearing outlandish costumes and acting absurdly, yet always maintaining a perfect deadpan. The memories of a number of first-hand witnesses, including William Power, Lewis Spence, Neil Munro and the authors of several letters-to-the-editor during the 1930s, all confirm that there was, during McGonagall's time, considerable suspicion that he was "`fooling them to the top of their bent' because of the profit attached" (27).
I find little reason to doubt that some aspects of McGonagall's work reflect consciously contrived folly. In "Tribute to Dr. Murison," for instance, McGonagall explains how his life was saved by the physician's humorous prescription. Speaking in the first person, McGonagall encourages the audience to identify him as the "patient":
He told me at once what was ailing me;
He said I had been writing too much poetry,
And from writing poetry I would have to refrain,
Because I was suffering from inflammation of the brain.
The lines emphasize the connection between his defective mental apparatus and defective poetry, McGonagall's two major selling-points. The "fool" is also, I think, quite consciously advertising his services as the victim of a hoax by expressing his ironic appreciation for the doctor's insulting prescription and, at the same, time failing to recognize that he is placing his life at risk by writing in defiance of doctor's orders.
The problem of understanding the "real" McGonagall's intentions is exceedingly difficult when it comes to deciding just how much was intended. The ironic openings and "jokes" are very irregular; consequently we are never given the impression of a unified work of art. Of course, McGonagall's economic circumstances dictated that any show of intelligence would end his career. He needed to balance the conflicting tasks of creating humour and maintaining an appearance of absolute innocence. Furthermore, McGonagall appealed directly to members of his "heroarchy" for support, sending copies of his flattering effusions and asking for a donation. This method of begging helped him to obtain gifts and kind endorsements from Lord Wolseley and others. McGonagall was also a member of the Good Templars, to whom he sometimes appealed for the free use of halls. A. C. Lamb, of Lamb's Temperance Hotel in Dundee, was an antiquarian who bought and collected manuscripts and other McGonagallia, thereby helping the impoverished poet to pay his rent as well as his travelling and printing expenses. Such conflicting interests may explain why McGonagall paradoxically seems totally sincere in most of his writing. The conclusion to "Tribute to Dr. Murrison" is more typical of McGonagall's tone:
He is very affable in temper and a skilful man,
And to cure all his patients he [t]ries all he can;
And I wish him success for many a long day,
For he has saved me from dying, I venture to say;
The kind treatment I received surpasses all
Is the honest confession of McGonagall.
Fortunately, of course, McGonagall's "split personality" does not need to be explained for the purposes of understanding socially generated meanings: space for subversive reading is opened by the very tension between a seemingly sincerity corpus and occasional "mistakes" or self-contradictions that serve to empower the audience over him.
It is impossible to pinpoint with any certainty the voice of a "real" McGonagall, but once we are more fully acquainted with the context of enunciation--fraught as it is with social and theatrical factors--the legitimate possibility of a "real" McGonagall does emerge. Among other things, we will find in chapter 4 that a small but significant number of texts contain ironically inverted observations or concluding morals. In these McGonagall emphasizes precisely what is not true (within the poem's narrative or surrounding history) with the result not only that McGonagall undermines himself in hilarious ways, but also that some surprisingly sophisticated meanings are made available.
Although McGonagall's genuine intentions will be considered from time to time, it must be stressed that the main objective will be to re-construct McGonagall's possible meanings from the audience's point of view, not the author's. The business of finding out what McGonagall's persona meant to the working class, and what his reception tells us about cultural history, will prove more accessible and indeed more profitable than an in depth exploration of the "real" McGonagall (Note: henceforth all references to McGonagall refer simply to the persona unless otherwise specified).
The great contradiction about McGonagall is that while he appears to place himself atop the social hierarchy as the "Poet to Her Majesty," he is also one of society's poorest members. The balladmonger, being an unabashedly commercial poet who hawked his penny broadsides (a.k.a. broadside ballads, street ballads, broadsheets) in the streets, was traditionally classed along with beggars and thieves and branded a drunken hack (Bold, Ballad 73-4; Wurzbach 1). How McGonagall's competing `high' and `low' identities are perceived depends on whether they are approached from "above" or "below," a distinction clarified by Stallybrass and White:
It would be wrong to imply that `high' and `low'
. . . are equal and symmetrical terms. When we talk of high discourses--literature, philosophy, statecraft, the languages of the Church and the University--and contrast them to the low discourses of a peasantry, the urban poor, subcultures, marginals, the lumpenproletariat, colonized peoples, we already have two `highs' and two `lows'. History seen from above and history seen from below are irreducibly different and they consequently impose radically different perspectives on the question of hierarchy. (4)
While "high" and "low" are concepts defined by the powerful as a means of maintaining hegemony, "the `low' (defined as such by the high precisely to confirm itself as `high') may well see things differently and attempt to impose a counter-view through an inverted hierarchy." Thus, McGonagall can be read from above as the lowest class of poet or from below as a representative of high culture being reduced to ridicule through an inverted hierarchy of values. Although the purpose of this chapter is to reconsider McGonagall from the working-class perspective as a representative of the `high' locked in an antagonistic discourse with the `low' over the right to define "culture," it will be helpful to clarify McGonagall's meaning to the ruling-class audience first. McGonagall's reputation in this century owes much to the irony that he stakes his claim to greatness as a poet while churning out mere doggerel. It is an irony that, due to his persistence, led to McGonagall's canonization as the worst poet in history. What is more interesting is the fact that McGonagall's "bad poet" reputation is usually connected to his failure to abide by the conventions of the aristocratic tradition. In this regard, Lowden MacCartney's introduction to a 1934 collection is typical enough:
Literary composition is an art, and, like other arts, is governed by certain rules and limitations. . . . So great was our "poet" that he deigned to observe only a few. . . . In rhymed verse a certain amount of harmony is usually considered necessary. It is one of the elements totally lacking in the writings of this wonderful man. Rhythm and measure, also, have been considered from time immemorial as essential to the making of good verse, but [they] were cast aside when our bard took up his pen. (3)
Critics such as MaCartney almost invariably treat differences in McGonagall's unconventional language as signs of excessive arrogance, and evidence of a lack of class, education and manners. McGonagall's real "tragedy" is the humorous and pathetic downfall of an ex-weaver whose hubris led him to believe someone of his status could make it to poet laureate.
James L. Smith's introduction to a collection entitled The Great McGonagall conveniently illustrates how little prejudices had changed by 1968. The opening line proclaims "`Poet McGonagall' was born in an Edinburgh slum in 1825, and bred in Dundee, where his father, an Irish weaver, `learnd him the handloom.'" We learn that McGonagall "scraped his living" by "hawking his latest masterpiece round the gutters of Dundee." McGonagall's failure is redeemed only by the irony that he ultimately entered immortality as "the greatest master of Illiterature [sic] in the langauge." A decade earlier, Kurt Wittig had condemned McGonagall for being "the shabbiest of public-house rhymesters" in The Scottish Tradition in Literature, directly equating the worth of McGonagall's poetry with signs of his lowly class (253). Hugh MacDiarmid spelled out the prejudice even more bluntly in his unforgettable description of McGonagall's photograph:
...an appalling portrait, a fish-belly face, as if of something half-human struggling out of the aboriginal slime. All the incurable illiteracy, the inaccessibility to the least enlightenment, and the unquenchable hope of the man are to be seen in the eyes. It is, indeed, a face to make one despair of humanity. (70)
The literary opinions of most twentieth-century critics fall into line with those of McGonagall's contemporary literary audience, which arranged to have him entertain at various private engagements throughout Scotland. The following speech, taken from an address that was presented by members of the "Waverly Shakespeare Club" at Campbell's Restaurant in Perth, is worth quoting at some length as a typical example of McGonagall's treatment at the hands of his literary fans:
Your purity of diction, your correctness of metre and your limpidity of verse all stamp you as the brightest poet of the Victorian era. . . . There is no end to your beautiful thoughts, which, expressed in the "once-heard-never-to-be-forgotten" poetry you alone can manufacture, thrill the hearts of all who may hear you. You are indeed the brightest gem in the poetic crown, and we long to see you raised to that position which you are justly entitled. . . . You stand alone in your power of expression. . . .
(qtd. in Phillips 198)
The main irony would appear to be that McGonagall is not "justly entitled" to the highest position, the "brightest gem on the poetic crown," because he, like other members of his class, lack the "power of expression." McGonagall employs the "once-heard-never-to-be-forgotten" langauge of the low, lacking "purity of diction" and "correctness of metre." McGonagall's real station as a former weaver is mocked by the suggestion that his poetry is not written but "manufactured."
Yet, whereas McGonagall's ineptitude as a poet was appropriated as a sign of the incompetence of the working class by the literary following, his working-class audience was not interested in ridiculing merely a bad poet; the vast majority most certainly knew less about the aristocratic conventions of literature than he. Moreover, as Alan Bold has noted, McGonagall's style is "entirely based on the broadside [ballad] formula" (Modern Scottish Literature 18). Whereas McGonagall is "bad" from the "literary point of view" because he employs the "low" language of popular culture, what distinguishes him in the popular context is his flagrant use of the "high discourse" of poetry as a means of rising above and dominating his audience. In order to understand some of the ways in which McGonagall's portrayal of the role of poet conflicts with working-class culture we must now return him to the "low" genre of broadside balladry.
Ever since its beginnings in the sixteenth century, broadside balladry has been considered the most inferior kind of poetry by the educated minority. Francis Child, the great oral ballad collector, epitomizes educated prejudice in stating that "most [broadsides] are, from a literary point of view, thoroughly despicable and worthless" (qtd. in Bold, Ballad 68).(6)
Of course, if we wish to understand why broadside balladry was more popular than "legitimate" poetry in Britain for over three hundred years, we must put aside the assumptions of a unified "literary point of view" and consider the broadside merely as a form of literature that evolved under different circumstances with a legitimate poetics of its own. The broadside ballad, a child of the print revolution and the older oral ballad, originated in the early sixteenth century and rapidly flourished throughout Britain's towns and cities from the middle of the century to the mid-Victorian era. Its format remained essentially unchanged over three hundred years: a single piece of paper with one or two ballads, often put to traditional tunes which were illustrated with crude woodcut impressions to attract attention. Broadsides were peddled by balladmongers, roving showmen who sold their wares on the streets, in pubs and at fairs with patter and performances. The rendition of a piece was the key to sales, for this attracted prospective customers while also teaching them how a piece should be sung--musical notation was never used--or recited (something that was especially important at a time when many buyers were not fully literate).
The popularity of the broadside diminished rapidly after the abolition of stamp duty in 1855 allowed cheap newspapers to take over the journalistic broadside's monopoly of the popular marketplace (Pinto 27). The rising popularity of music halls in the 1860s also undercut the broadside, since the halls could deliver more diverse entertainment as well as tunes that were considered more fashionable. Despite such competition, it was still observed in 1857 that the sale of broadsides "far exceeds that of any other production of the press throughout the world" (Hughes 9). By the time McGonagall turned "poet," however, the balladmonger had all but vanished from the streets of cities like London and presumably Dundee.
We know that McGonagall made a large portion of his income as a balladmonger and writer, for nearly all of his more than two hundred "poems" originally appeared on penny broadsides or in small, inexpensive chapbooks. With printers presumably taking the lion's share of his profits he needed to sell large quantities and therefore to appeal to the popular audience. Although the specific performances of broadside sellers were virtually never recorded in any way (our discussion of McGonagall's performances must therefore be left to the next chapter's discussion of his career in music hall), it is clear that McGonagall was in the habit of performing his broadsides in the traditional manner. One writer remembers:
It must be 40 years since he used to hawk his "poems" through the places of business here [in Edinburgh]. . . . So long as you bought you were at liberty to humour him to the top of his bent. We young fellows used to pretend to take his poems seriously, and, after buying, he would "let himself go" for our benefit. . . . ("Not So Daft")
A number of broadsides which contain choruses, or are were originally printed with the title "A New Song" definitely required rendition as part of the sale. It should also be noted that many of McGonagall's opening lines are the kind used to signal the beginning of performances on the street, at the fair, or in the pub: the "come gather round," "come-all-ye" and "a story I will unfold" openings are all part of the balladmonger's attention-getting repertoire (Wurzbach 14-15).
No aspect of McGonagall's verse has attracted the fascination of critics more than his irregular metrics, but the seemingly awkward rhythm of broadside balladry may be explained by its strong ties to oral balladry and folksong; in The Common Muse, Pinto and Rodway point out that the broadside's "basic rhythmical unit is the musical phrase rather than the metrical foot" (7). Broadsides, like oral ballads and folksongs, sound much better than they look since they, too, are meant to be orally recited. Although only a fraction of McGonagall's pieces are meant to be sung, all are certainly governed by the more elastic metrics of folksong and oral recitation. His scansion may not have been significantly "worse" than that of history's most successful broadside writer, James Catnach, who bought his own printing office in London's Seven Dials district and sold millions of copies. Catnach's style is sometimes quite indistinguishable from McGonagall's. The following excerpt is taken from "Lamentation and Confession of John William Holloway": In these dark cells of Horsham gaol I cry both day and night,
For the bleeding corpse of my poor wife is always in my sight;
When I hope her soul is in heaven at rest when I tormented I shall be,
I deserve nothing but the Burning Flames for my sad cruelty. (qtd. in Bold, Ballad 77)
Another typical feature of broadsides is the inclusion of as many facts and concrete details as possible. MaCartney mocks McGonagall's tendency to "give us the exact date of all . . . happenings, no doubt for the guidance of historians," yet this seemingly unique defect is merely conventional in a genre that was, like oral balladry, often the only means of transmitting and preserving the people's history:
'Twas in the year of 1887, and on the 28th of September,
Which many people of Honan in China will long remember,
Especially those that survived the mighty deluge,
That fled to the mountains and tops of trees for refuge. (MaCartney 6)
Many broadsides begin with the same formulaic opening, "Twas in the month," while supplying the exact dates, names and places, as well as a brief description or foreshadowing of the central event. The broadside audience wanted the key information stated in a predictable and easily remembered way--in the case of the broadside, like the oral ballad, simple rhyme and cliche is desireable.
As balladists found that they could no longer compete with newspapers for fresh information, they often drew material directly from newspapers. Since McGonagall did not begin writing broadsides until the tradition was dying out, it should not surprise us that much of his material is quoted almost verbatim from the newspapers. A piece commonly regarded as one of his worst efforts, "The Miraculous Escape of Robert Alan, the Fireman" is provided by Robert MacDonald as proof that McGonagall "could not be paraphrased; he had to be quoted for his effects to be understood" (481):
'Twas in the year of 1888, and on October the fourteenth day,
That a fire broke out in a warehouse, and for hours blazed away;
And the warehouse, now destroyed, was occupied by the Messrs R. Wylie, Hill & Co.,
Situated in Buchanan Street, in the City of Glasgow.
But this piece, like many others, was obviously either quoted or paraphrased directly from the newspaper with only the slightest alterations to fit the rhyming-scheme. It does not seem likely that McGonagall's contemporary working-class audience found any humour in the factual content or abbreviated words, since customers wanted as much information as could be bought for a penny.
I have only considered a few of the "faults" traditionally attributed to McGonagall's "unique" style. Obviously, this is not to insinuate that McGonagall is merely "normal" among the "worst"; on the contrary, the "literary" condemnation of McGonagall supplies an excellent illustration of the extent to which the genre has been misrepresented in ruling-class history. As Natascha Wurzbach notes in The Rise of the English Street Ballad 1550-1650,
"Irregular verse-formation, inelegance of style, incredible and fantastic content, obscenity and dubious morality, together with a general lack of `poetry', `culture', and `taste', are the criticisms levelled at the street ballad" (4). While it is beyond the limits of this paper to draw up a fuller poetics of the broadside, my objective has merely been to illustrate the extent to which McGonagall's use of the language of popular culture has been denaturalized in the ruling class context. Alan Bold notes that McGonagall "might have been successful in a broadside context, but in a literary context, which is what he wanted for himself, he appears ludicrous"(Bold, Ballad 80). The flip-side of this statement--something overlooked by Bold--is that in the working-class context, McGonagall's attempt to win a place in the elite tradition foregrounds the ridiculous elitism of his persona. Thus, as we return to "history from below" we must refocus on the manner in which McGonagall foregrounds the language of elite culture--and particularly that of poetic privilege--to insinuate his audience's "lack of" culture. McGonagall now appears politically subversive in the sense that he shows his audience how the philanthropic model of culture (ie. a gift from the "high" to the "low") can be used as an instrument of cultural domination.
McGonagall attempts to portray his higher vocation as both a humble and heroic mission, yet he reveals it to be nothing other than a quest for personal glorification. The famous three-day journey to Balmoral represents his Quixotic life story in microcosm. The autobiographical account of this mission is thoroughly mock-heroic, being told in the language of high adventure with biblical overtones:
. . . when I arrived at the Spittal o'Glenshee, a dreadful thunder-storm came on, and the vivid flashes of the forked lightning were fearful to behold, and the rain poured down in torrents until I was drenched to the skin, and longed to be under cover from the pitiless rain. Still God gave me courage to proceed on my weary journey, until I arrived at a shepherd's house near by the wayside, and I called at the house, as God had directed me to do, and knocked at the door fearlessly.
(Athentic Autobiography 17)
Far from achieving the desired effect of impressing his public with the holy significance of his quest and the depth of his own self-sacrifice, McGonagall's description may be construed from the working-class point of view to represent an ironic overstatement of his own worth and that of his avocation. Moreover, McGonagall's audience may have felt he was playing a noble hero for the purposes of self-aggrandizement. Thus, as a symbolic representative of the ruling-class mission of poetry and culture, McGonagall underlines the way in which the dominant society uses its mask of self-sacrificing humility for the purpose of its own glorification.
It is significant also that McGonagall fails to gain admittance to Balmoral Castle because he will not condescend to give a reading for the guard at the gates:
"No, sir, nothing so degrading in the open air. When I give specimens of my abilities it is either in a theatre or some hall, and if you want to hear me take me inside of the lodge and pay me before I begin; then you shall hear me. These are my conditions, sir; do you accept my terms? (19)
McGonagall's conception of the role of poet foregrounds a complete denial of his working-class identity as a balladmonger. It also highlights his abnegation of any affinities with the culture of the "low" and the "popular" who would demand a free show of talent under such informal circumstances before paying. McGonagall's "terms" are those of elite culture: they dictate that the relationship between the heroic "giver" of culture and audience will be one of master and servant.
McGonagall's suppression of what he plainly considers his low identity expresses an antagonistic disloyalty to the working-class community. His attempt to rise to what he considers the highest class of poet (a royal poet) also involves suppressing the voices of those he considers far below him. McGonagall's own voice actively excludes the working-class in ways that would have been especially antagonistic. A poster advertising one of McGonagall's performances clearly serves as an invitation for a public deemed unworthy of mention to get its revenge by crashing the party:
...the "nobility, clergy, and gentry," of Newport were asked through the medium of posters to assemble in the Free Church Schoolroom to signalize the occasion of the first professional visit to "the kingdom" of the "Queen's Poet," M`Gonagall. The Poet was announced to recite from Shakespeare's, his own, "and other great poets' works." (qtd. in "Poet M`Gonagall Interviewed")
Although the authorship of this poster is unknown, it does not represent a significant distortion of McGonagall's attitude. According to Neil Munro, McGonagall bragged at a performance that "what distinguished his (McGonagall's) works from all others was that they were read by the highest in the land." One finds little reason to doubt the credibility of Munro's memory in light of the notification that appears on most of Mcgonagall's broadsides:
Patronized by Her Majesty and Lord Wolseley of Cairo, H.R.H. The Duke of Cambridge, the Right Hon. W.E. Gladstone, and General Graham; also the Nobility and Gentry, &c. (Beautiful River Dee)
One of the interesting contradictions about the super-elite "Poet to Her Majesty's" presentation of himself as a disseminator of culture is that he does so in order to ascend the "heroarchy." The message to the working-classes is that McGonagall's (and the dominant society's) whole ideal of "culture" with all of its socially benevolent pretensions boils down to a mechanism of exclusion, the reservation of class privileges for those who possess the right credentials. McGonagall, with his love of titles, displays an allegiance to the powerful centre of exclusion through his sycophantic odes, addresses and funeral eulogies.
Another important way in which McGonagall's persona represents and undermines the dominant society's idea of culture is through his insistence upon the sacred privileges of privatized authorship, which directly violates the anonymous and communal models of popular cultural production. As a commodity, the broadside was scarcely worth more than the paper on which it was printed. Authorial identity was of little importance, being accorded only a small space if any at the bottom of the page. Yet, in place of the illustrations that traditionally appear above the title, McGonagall dedicates roughly a third of the sheet to headlining his own importance. Immediately below the Royal Seal, McGonagall's name is printed in large type with his address and a reminder that he is the "Bard of Tel-El-Kebir, El-Teb, The Capture of Lucknow, &c." Beneath this appears the list of elite patrons, and on either side are usually two or three letters from his most famous clients. These are headed in large capitals which proclaim "COPY OF LETTER FROM H.R.H. THE DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE," or "COPY OF LETTER FROM HER MAJESTY." (In much smaller print, of course, the letters only state that some representative of the person in question has been asked to "acknowledge the receipt of Mr. McGonagall's Poems" or to "thank him for the copies . . ." (Beautiful River Dee).
While the elaborate headpiece emphasizes McGonagall's own hubris and fraudulence, it also would have struck the working-class public as a ridiculous exaggeration of the importance that the ruling class attaches to its individual authors. Even more ridiculous is the bold notification that McGonagall is protected by "Copyright" with "All Rights Reserved." The warning is ironic, not because McGonagall is a bad poet overstating the value of his own productions (the elite interpretation) but because he tries to assert his exclusive ownership in the domain of popular culture. Broadsides were no more the private property of individual authors than popular folksong and oral balladry. Broadside writers freely borrowed from the common stock of oral culture, often putting their material to traditional tunes. Writers also drew their material directly from other broadsides, as well as the newspapers. Thus, McGonagall's version of "Grace Darling, or the Wreck of the Forfarshire" is only a slight variation of the same piece in The Greig Duncan Folk Song Collection (74) or a similar broadside version in Charles Hindley's Curiosities of Street Literature (123). By invoking laws against plagiarism, even as he borrows, McGonagall presents an ironic inversion in which the ruling-class notion of authorial "rights" is revealed in opposition to, and violation of, the values of a culture that is produced collectively. The inversion reveals to us not only the absurdity of literary "enclosure" in an intertextual domain of popular culture but also the way "poetic licence" is used to separate and empower the individual author while relegating the audience's role to that of a passive consumer. To the audience, such an inversion would undermine McGonagall's position and intensify antagonisms.
The above inversion is further complemented by McGonagall's attempted justification of this exploitative transaction with the claim that he is an original source of culture. For example, although "The Bonnie Lass o' Dundee" is no different from thousands of other "Bonnie Lass" poems written in Scots, and despite the fact that it was, according to the Authentic Autobiography meant to be sung to the traditional tune of "When the Kye Comes Hame" (9), he informed his audience that:
it was seldom they saw a poet who composed music for his own songs. He would sing to them, not only his own words but his own music also; and he seemed to attach more value to the latter than the former, as he stated he considered the music alone worth L50 to any musician.
Of course, McGonagall's offer to sell any song, let alone a traditional one, at a ridiculously inflated price (two years' wages for the typical jute worker), emphasizes the hypocrisy of the notion that culture "originates" from the individual on high: while borrowing his language from popular culture McGonagall commodifies his own words (and music) on the basis of the author's originality, attempting to sell it back to the masses at an inflated value. Adding insult to injury, McGonagall redistributes "culture" as though it were a gift from a culturally privileged individual to a culturally deprived class. McGonagall even goes so far as to donate a copy of Poetic Gems to the Dundee Free Library with an inscription stating that the book is to be used "for the benefit and edification of readers" (185).
As an individual who represents the ruling-class attitude towards culture, he merely demonstrates to his audience how the discourse of enlightenment can be used to legitimize the relations between the giver and receiver. In making the capitalistic underpinnings of such power obvious to the audience, he also contributes to the erosion of the philanthropic conception of culture from those "below" it. Closely connected to the bourgeois notion of author as original producer of meaning is the ideal of author as a divinely gifted genius. Candidly admitting that he "knew nothing about writing poetry" prior to his divine illumination, McGonagall idealizes himself as one with the Godly power to "immortalize." In fact McGonagall's first action is to "set myself down to immortalize the Reverend George Gilfillan." Wordsworth had been only slightly subtler than McGonagall in implying his own divinity. In Preface the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth uses the socratic method to teach his readers to worship him and buy the poetry:
What is a poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul. . . .
McGonagall, too, employs the pedagogy of humility as a way to indirectly insinuate his own greatness, but he is unable to conceal his contempt for the ignorant worker and envy for the rich:
What is Genius?
'Tis a thing seldom rewarded
If you are in poverty
'Tis sure to be disregarded.
But if you are a rich man,
Your company is courted
By the high and the low,
Throughout the world wherever you go.
Whereas the poor man
By his fellow-workmen is spurn'd;
They look upon him with a jealous eye,
And their noses upturn'd.
And they say to themselves,
You are no better than we. . . .
("Correspondence" 23 Mar. 1878: 2f)
The poem points to an intense conflict between McGonagall's values and those of the working class audience. While rightly observing a certain correlation between class and genius, McGonagall reveals that what he really resents is his exclusion from the privileged minority whose "company is courted." Clearly it is the main objective of McGonagall's mission to disprove fellow-workers who think that "you are no greater than we" by escaping their ranks; he condemns fellow-workers rather than the elite for what he ironically deems their (the workers') envy and snobbery, with "noses upturn'd." From the working-class perspective, McGonagall is obviously using the pose of the humble, under-appreciated genius in an inversion which ironically projects his own paranoic, upwardly mobile individualism and elite snobbery onto fellow workers. What is important to the audience is not that McGonagall fails to display the mystical qualities of genius but rather that genius is revealed as yet another sign of class superiority.
Another significant aspect of McGonagall's role as poet that conflicts with the values of his audience is the implicit association between poethood and linguistic superiority. McGonagall identifies his own mastery of "high" English (as opposed to "vulgar" Scots) as a source of personal power. The language of the dominant English culture is one of the instruments with which he attempts to dominate his audience. In The Empire Writes Back, Ashcroft, Giffiths, and Triffin write that:
One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language. The imperial education system installs a `standard' version of the metropolitan langauge as the norm, and marginalizes all `variants' as impurities. (7)
By McGonagall's time, English had long been established as the language of political hegemony in Scotland. The "central" culture of late-Victorian Scotland consisted of both the English and Anglified Scottish upper-classes, as well as an upwardly mobile Scottish middle class which had found it increasingly helpful to acquire "proper" English. The working class had been marginalized due to its lack of education in the "proper" language while Scots had come to be stigmatized as a sign of both one's lack of education, manners and class.
McGonagall very astutely adopts the language of power as a means of transcending the class barrier. Indeed, he sets himself up as a great authority on English. The obvious irony is that while McGonagall flaunts his mastery of the "proper" or "correct" language, he reveals his own incompetence, both in the sense that he is "the fool" and a bad poet figure. In so doing, McGonagall exposes "proper English" as nothing more than an instrument of exclusion and domination.
Another important irony in McGonagall's attitude towards language is that he considers himself a great authority on Shakespeare, whose English he idealizes as the purest form of language. Of Hamlet, for instance, McGonagall writes "for purity of language, nothing can be more fine . . . ("Address to Shakespeare.") McGonagall also depicts Shakespeare's English as the "universal" standard: "His language is spoken in the Church and by the Advocate at the bar, / Here there and everywhere throughout the world afar." Of course, in light of the fact that McGonagall's audience speaks Scots, the point merely undermines his attempt to universalize English by exposing it as the exclusive language of class.
McGonagall's obsession with Shakespeare's linguistic purity also draws attention to his own disloyalty to fellow Scots. Having perhaps been forced during childhood to memorize a few Shakespearean sonnets and soliloquies with the assistance of the schoolmaster's rod, McGonagall's audience was probably quite hostile to Shakespeare. This would seem to be borne out by the following passage from McGonagall's essay entitled "Shakespeare Reviewed":
The reason why Shakspeare is not more appreciated is because the people are not thoroughly acquainted with the proper intonation of his language; and until they come to understand how to read his works, they can neither derive any pleasure nor profit from them, because they cannot comprehend the meaning of the Bard. This is the reason why Shakspeare has got so many opponents. They think more of Jack and the Beanstalk or Jack the Giant-killer--because it is easier to understand. (3-4)
Of course, McGonagall appears sympathetic to those who "cannot comprehend the meaning of the Bard," but his condescending attitude rests on the assumption that his own intellectual superiority over those who attend "low" plays like "Jack in the Beanstalk" derives from his mastery of English. The equation between understanding only Scots and being unintelligent would not have been out of place in the schoolroom, where academic success was linked to English, rather than Scottish, proficiency. This prejudice is, however, quite ironic in the context of a pub or music hall, coming from a man who holds the reputation of being both intellectually deficient and linguistically incompetent (insofar as he writes bad poetry).
"Shakspeare Reviewed" also includes an advertisement for McGonagall's corrective services: "PARTIES desirous of being taught Elocution may be waited on at their own Residences by WM. McGonagall, FEES MODERATE" (4). Teachers of English elocution were, in fact, hired in Edinburgh during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Robinson xii). Moreover, McGonagall's attitude towards literary appreciation and language in the "Address to Shakespeare" and "Shakspeare Reviewed" is that of the teacher. In a university, McGonagall's attitude would not have been out of place, but, of course, in the working-class context, the teaching of English literature carries an implicit insult. The above examples are merely the most obvious manifestations of an attitude that would have been more conspicuous to those who had seen McGonagall perform or had met him personally. The ridiculous extreme to which McGonagall took his convictions about the correctness of his English is best illustrated by the poem "Jottings of London." McGonagall concludes the poem, by complaining that during his stay in London he only encountered one man--a preacher--"speaking proper English." Idealization of the "pure" language has been taken to the point where even the English cannot speak their own language proper.
Although it is largely a matter of conjecture as to how McGonagall's Irish background affected his accent (his family was among a large colony of Irish immigrants in Dundee), he definitely spoke some variant of "pan-loaf" (Mackie 14) in attempting to impress audiences with his superior class. Whereas Scots was--and still is--"the language of the street, the playground and the factory floor," English was spoken in the more inhibited atmospheres of the church and schoolroom, having been "the language of social pretension, intellectual discussion, and of formal speech" from the eighteenth century onward (Robinson xi). It also remains to the present a language which the Scottish working class finds uncomfortable. Although most Scots during McGonagall's time spoke only in their native dialect or in the city's mixture of foreign tongues and Scots (commonly regarded as corruptions), McGonagall attempted to speak in the accent of an anglicized upper-class. Thus, while the heckles of McGonagall's audiences are frequently recorded in Scots, he has without exception been quoted in very proper, formal English, bearing out Lewis Spence's claim that McGonagall "spoke in an educated voice and manner" (Spence 54).
Difficulties with English grammar and diction may partially explain the awkwardness of McGonagall's English doggerel, as Hamish Henderson has argued in "McGonagall and the Irish Question." I would suggest that McGonagall was probably very fluent in Scots and that his difficulties with English are similar in nature to those observable in the English writings of Burns. Unless he plagiarized them, the three pieces McGonagall composed in the vernacular, ("Little Jamie," "The Bonnie Brune-Haired Lass," and "We'll No Get Fou'") are surprisingly good specimens of the more lyrical vernacular poetry. By far the most interesting of these, "We'll No Get Fou'" (hitherto uncollected) appears to have been McGonagall's first experiment in the direction of temperance poetry, but the intimate, earthy tone and musical language is entirely more characteristic of a working-class Scot speaking in his native tongue to others of his kind:
Here are we met, a very merry set,
And a jovial set of boys are we;
And we'll drink and sing an mak the tavern ring,
Owre a we drap o' the barley bree.
Chorus-- Sae we'll no get fou,
We'll no get fou,
For that wad spoil a' the spree;
Sae we'ill tak a we drap,
And hae a social crack,
Owre a we drap o' the barley bree.
And as we've a' met thagether to hae a spree,
I houp nane o' us will disagree,
By getting owre fou, until we spu,
By taking owre muckle o' the barley bree.
If this uncharacteristically informal poem were indeed a fake, it at least provides an excellent example of the difference between the language spoken by McGonagall's audience and his own obsessive Englishness. "The Queen's Poet's" efforts to impress/intimidate his audience with a pompous, inflated, English vocabulary must have provided endless amusement, especially when it came to the notoriously undignified end-rhymes. Such humour would not have been out of place in the music hall either, as Albert D. Mackie notes in The Scotch Comedians: From Music Hall to Television:
Incongruity is the source of the belly laugh, and there is nothing more incongruous to us Scots than hearing a word of our old vernacular spoken in the wrong situation, or, conversely, a person addicted to Lowland speech trying to talk posh, or, as we say, "high-pan" or "pan-loaf." (14)
An autobiographical segment in which McGonagall recollects a formative episode from his childhood gives some indication of McGonagall as he may have sounded "talking posh":
William, the Poet, chanced to be one day in [the dominie's] garden behind the school, and Chanc'd to espy a live, Tortoise, that the Dominie kept in the garden, and never having seen such a curious kind of reptile before, his Curiosity was therefore excited no doubt to see it, and he stooped down and lifted the Tortoise with both hands, thereon admiring the varied Colours of its shell, when behold it dunged upon both hands of William the poet, which was rather aggravating to William, no doubt. . . .
("A Summary History" 5-6)
Mcgonagall is careful to remind readers as often as possible of his superior status as "the poet," but his language itself betrays ridiculously elevated social pretensions in its exaggerated politeness and lofty wording. In typical McGonagallian fashion, the story victimizes its naive author, whose high aesthetic meditation backfires hilariously upon him. But, such laughter as the audience's "punch-line"--"behold it dunged upon both hands of William the Poet"--would have attracted was based on an incongruity between the overly dignified, almost biblical language of the poet and the indignity of his circumstances (to which he seems oblivious). Precisely the same ironic indignity of the "dunged upon" English, aristocratic poet was replicated every time McGonagall stepped on stage to be insulted by his audience. His dignity--the dignity of imagined class-superiority and "proper" language--refuses to negotiate with the langauge of "vulgar," working-class realities. This invited the audience to exploit every opportunity to exalt in revenge by humiliating him.
In this chapter I have focused on recovering the elite aspects of McGonagall's persona as they looked to the working-class audience. We have seen that McGonagall attempts to gain power by imposing the ruling-class hierarchy of values in a working-class situation. It is partly because the audience imposes its own inverted hierarchy of values, and partly because McGonagall flagrantly, hypocritically and naively flaunts ruling-class attributes as a means of advancing his own interests and dominating his audience, that he has the effect of politicizing a number of high discourses, including those of poetry, culture and langauge. Whereas these ideological discourses depend for their legitimacy upon universalization, McGonagall ultimately politicizes them by revealing them in contradiction to working-class values. That the working-class recognized and rejected McGonagall's attempts to impose class privileges on the basis of his attempts to assert poetic privilege is best illustrated by a letter McGonagall wrote in 1891:
My dear friend, I write to inform you that I am resolved to leave Dundee owing to the shameful treatment I meet with daily while walking the streets. No farther gone than today a cab-driver called me an imposter and a pauper imposing on the eople of Dundee. Moreover, I was attacked on Reform Street by a young man while entering a shop. . . . [He] almost drove me through the shop door, and as he ran he kept shouting `Poet McGonagall! Poet McGonagall!'. . .
(qtd. in Phillips, 191)
The Theatre of Class Struggle
The Poet who could merely sit on a chair, and compose stanzas, would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior too.
--Thomas Carlyle On Heroes 312
Thus far, I have identified a number of important points of conflict between McGonagall's naive persona as a personification of ruling-class culture and his contemporary working-class audience. This chapter turns to the central text of the McGonagall phenomenon, a theatre of class struggle, in which the performance becomes a battle over the very meanings and values of McGonagall's discourse. This symbolic confrontation corresponds to Jameson's model of dialogism: "a ruling class ideology will explore various strategies of the legitimation of its own power position while an oppositional culture or ideology will, often in covert and disguised strategies, seek to contest and to undermine the dominant value system" (84). Within the framework of the great hoax McGonagall attempts to legitimize the dominant discourse through the strategy of universalization. That is, he acts as though his own values are shared universally while appearing deaf to the protests of his audience. On the other hand, the hoax, coupled with McGonagall's deafness to insult, provides the smoke-screen behind which counter-meanings can be appropriated. In the sense that McGonagall is doomed to play the perennial "loser" in an ongoing dispute with his audience, the theatre of class struggle can be seen as the site of a symbolic rebellion in which the "low" culture ultimately wins out over the "high." It is only after the overall shape of McGonagall's theatre has been re-defined in terms of class struggle that we can move on in the next chapter to insert individual texts into what is clearly a framework of subversion.
As the subtitle of No Poets' Corner in the Abbey: The Dramatic Story of William McGonagall suggests, we have good reason to focus our attention on the theatrical dimension: McGonagall was not only a broadside seller (a dramatic occupation in itself(7)), but also a part-time penny-gaff tragedian,(8) barnstormer and music-hall entertainer. Records of no less than fifty(9)
performances indicate McGonagall entertained quite frequently. Moreover, as a "worthy" or eccentric "character" of the street and penny gaff tragedian, McGonagall never seemed to step out of role. The manner in which McGonagall dramatized his material and interacted with his audience had a significant effect on the way he was interpreted by a public that had seen him perform, met him on the streets, or, at the very least, read of his well publicized antics in both his own "autobiographies" and in the local newspapers. The words of one contemporary report emphasize a crucial difference between the McGonagall we read today and the one who originally dramatized his material:
. . . McGonagall must be seen and heard before he can be appreciated. Tame, lame, and defective as his works appear in type, the sound and fury with which he thrusts them forth in the ears of his audience gives them a new and strange effect. No one can read McGonagall but McGonagall, or sing him either for that matter.
(qtd. in Phillips 115)
Obviously, historical records can supply only a very limited view of a uniquely eccentric performer who, "in the words of the play bills," needed to "be seen to be believed"
(Authentic Autobiography 7). Nonetheless, we will find that McGonagall's folly conformed to certain predictable patterns. More importantly, the relationship between performer and audience consistently emerges as a tension between monologic and dialogic forces, between McGonagall's "official" voice and various covert expressions of opposition operating through the hoax. Herein we find that working-class culture affirms itself by rebelling vocally and physically against McGonagall's attempts to silence the other half of the class dialogue. The rebellion is expressed through various inversions in which the poet's "official" mission is answered by the audience with expressions of "low," humorous and often covert counter-meanings. McGonagall's serious, upper-class respectability in all its heroic pomp provides the opportunity to overthrow him with rituals of laughter and humiliation.
To get a clearer picture of how McGonagall acted and how his audience re-acted, the theatre of class struggle can be placed in the genre of music-hall entertainment. McGonagall did not perform exclusively in music halls, nor were the halls patronized solely by the working class, but there are definite advantages to re-locating him in a genre that was dominated by working-class performers and audiences. The largest number of performance records refer to appearances in music halls. Of these, the most detailed and reliable are contemporary newspaper reports of McGonagall's entertainments in the various working-class halls of Dundee. Furthermore, many aspects of McGonagall's act belong to the conventions of music-hall variety, and the working-class audience would have interpreted McGonagall within the codes of the dominant form of popular theatre.
Victorian music halls were a cross between the pub and theatre. Rising steadily in popularity from the 1860s through to the 1900s, they provided the urban masses with a wide range of entertainment that drew on diverse popular cultural influences, including penny gaffs, street shows, circuses, fairs, popular balladry, and American Vaudeville. Most performers and patrons were from the working class. In his essay on "Working-Class Culture and Working-Class Politics in London," Gareth Stedman Jones draws an important distinction between genuinely proletarian music-hall entertainment and that which was offered by the more extravagant "palaces" which arose in London's West End in the nineties. He points out that most performers were poor, and that "the atmosphere of the halls was more like that of the pub than the theatre" (Jones 224). Often the difference between pub and music hall was little more than that of a room added or converted for entertainment purposes.
McGonagall did most of his entertaining in places that fit Jones's description of working-class music halls. In Dundee these included Weavers', Cutler's, Argyle, Blair's, Thistle, Trades, Marine, and Reform Street Halls as well as the Working Men's Club, and Baron Zeigler's Circus of Varieties, which was actually converted from a former circus (Martin 162). Several of these establishments were probably no more than penny gaffs or pubs with slight renovations. Although McGonagall was fanatically opposed to drinking, he entertained in public houses on at least eight occasions ("Reminiscences"), and, with between 300 and 620 pubs in the city (Yet Further, "Funeral of the Late Ex-Provost Rough, Dundee 28"), he likely found it necessary to put aside his scruples and "sing for his supper" on a regular basis. When he went "on tour" through the cities and villages of central Scotland, he performed in music halls, pubs, temperance halls, schoolrooms and smithies. ("Poet M`Gonagall's Holiday Tour"; McGonagall, "Poet M`Gonagall's Tour through Fife"; "Bards of Avon and the Tay Bridge: Honour and Glory to M`Gonagall (By and Admirer).")
Of course McGonagall also entertained many times in privately rented supper rooms and restaurants before exclusive audiences of litterateurs, but these affairs have almost invariably been misrepresented as McGonagall's only performances. Misunderstandings about the class of McGonagall's audience reflect a common blurring of important distinctions between supper rooms and music halls. In an article entitled "Custom, Capital, and Culture in the Victorian Music Hall," Peter Bailey points out that supper rooms "did not lie in the mainstream of popular entertainment," although they have received a disproportionate amount of attention owing to the fact that "the bohemian literary set that patronized them have provided convenient and colourful copy . . ."(180). Indeed, McGonagall's career in working-class music hall has been overshadowed by a few celebrated hoaxes before the middle-class, literary audiences at such places as Stratton's Restaurant (Phillips 107) in Dundee, Ancell's Restaurant in Glasgow (169), Campbell's Restaurant in Perth (196), and the University Hotel in Edinburgh (MaCartney 26). These hoaxes were elaborate ceremonies designed to "recognize" McGonagall with mock honours and titles, spurious letters and telegrams of recognition from important dignitaries, and ironic addresses from the chairman, spiced with passages in latin and comparisons between the works of McGonagall and "other great writers," such as Shakespeare and Burns. The "poet baiting" procedure is recalled by Lowden MacCartney as follows:
A number of youths and young men would organise themselves, temporarily appoint a committee to interview the "poet," and arrange with him to give an evening's "performance" for a liberal fee. A small hall would be engaged for a certain night. McGonagall was the only "artist" on the programme. . . . There could never be any possibility of doubt that his audience was "entertained." (22)
The appeal of such affairs is surmized by Allen Grossman, who argues that in McGonagall's "theatre of derision" the audience "comments on the discrepancy between the performance and its expectation, and is thus engaged, both in the registration of the inadequacy of the actor to its conception of the role, and in the maintenance of its conception of the role" (253). In an article that is otherwise concerned with ways in which the poet's "free verse" can be used to deconstruct modernism, Grossman's brief analysis of reception reflects a common confusion regarding the class composition of supper-room and music-hall audiences. When the working-class perspective is considered, it becomes clear that the "discrepancy" between greatness and badness is insignificant, for the music-hall audience did not value high culture (ie. "legitimate" poetry and high-brow Shakespearean tragedy) in the first place.
The difference between supper-hall performances and appearances in the working-class halls registers in the contrasting reactions of McGonagall's audiences. At private and exclusive gatherings of gentlemen, McGonagall was subjected to relatively polite burlesquing and comparatively "soft" treatment. The very cruellest of hoaxes involved setting McGonagall up for an audition before someone pretending to be Dion Bouicicult, the famous English playwright. Such performances were profitable to McGonagall, however: he usually received a dinner, travel expenses and a professional fee for his services. His "Lines in Praise" of "The Lyric Club Banquet" (Yet Further 48), "The Heatherblend Club Banquet Club Banquet" (Yet More 9) and "an Entertainment I Gave . . . in Reform Street Hall, Dundee" (Yet Further 39) indicate that McGonagall found being hoaxed by the literary set a pleasanter experience; moreover, "I never received better treatment in my day" ("Heatherblend Club Banquet"). In sharp contrast, music-hall performances are marked by more hostile and oppositional audience behaviour, including interruptive heckling and chorus singing, peltings and physical assaults. The sheer intensity of these reactions dictates that they are not related to his artistic flaws.
A final difficulty in sorting out the class composition of McGonagall's audience is the fact that a middle-class minority was attracted to music halls (Bailey 181) and McGonagall's literary "poet-baiters" appear to have been involved in "framing" many of his performances as part of the hoax. The middle-class presence was asserted in the chairman's address which preceded all entertainments. Though chairmen were sometimes spontaneously elected by the audience and sometimes appointed by McGonagall or the management of a given hall, most of them appear to have been inclined to make fun of McGonagall's poetic ineptitude. The crucial point here is that although the chairman's address was a great source of humour for everyone, and such speeches always "framed" McGonagall for all present as the naive butt of a hoax, the hoax bore fundamentally different meanings for the larger working-class contingent for whom the main joke was not that McGonagall thought himself a great poet who proved "the worst," but rather that he staked his claim to greatness in discourses of "high" culture that were fundamentally opposed to the "low" culture of the music hall. We may also observe that a kind of mock-officialdom is set up through the process of electing the chair:
Although the general lack of information about working-class halls, especially those outside London, makes it difficult to gauge popular trends, both Gareth Stedman Jones and Peter Bailey have observed that the halls provided an outlet for class expression, mainly in popular songs, the choruses of which were joined enthusiastically by everyone (footnote: Bailey explains "chorus singing was discouraged in supper rooms). Bailey follows Jones in noting that "[s]ongs served to confirm the experience of working-class life rather than to offer escapes or alternatives." The tone was generally "cynical of authority but accepted the class structure and its inequalities as immovable." The only escape from working-class life was through "the pleasures of beer and comradeship, and the ritual release of the seaside excursion," or "occasional visions of sudden windfalls and ensuing whoopee." Whereas Bailey suggests that a certain escape was also found in "the strident sentiments of jingo patriotism," Jones maintains that "the prevailing mood of the halls was anti-heroic." Pointing to the facts that workers only enlisted because of unemployment, and that anti-imperialist songs were likely to have been censored, Jones writes that "[w]orkers were prepared to admire and sing about the bravery of the common soldier or the open-handed generosity of the sailor, but they did not forget the realities of military life."
Within the music-hall context, it is easy to see why McGonagall would have been valuable as the man workers loved to hate. What he called his "moral" and "intellectual" entertainments reflected the interests of middle-class reformers who objected to the crudity of humour, to the generally "unrespectable" character of music-hall material, and to the sale of intoxicants. Jones points out that the halls were "perhaps the most unequivocal response of the London working class to middle-class evangelism," an observation that seems to be backed by Marie Lloyd's response to her critics:
You don't suppose they want Sunday School stuff do you? . . . Why, if I was to try and sing highly moral songs they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. They don't pay their sixpences and shillings at a Music Hall to hear the Salvation Army. (qtd. in Jones 225)
An article on "East End Entertainment" in 1872 also helps to explain why McGonagall's attempts to save the masses were doomed to drown in choruses of derisive laughter and showers of rotten vegetables. The writer remarks that
[t]he artisan tired with his day's labour, wants something to laugh at. He neither wants to be preached to, nor is he anxious to listen to the lugubrious effusions of Dr Watts or the poets of the United Kingdom Alliance. (qtd. in Jones 225)
McGonagall's self-aggrandizing attitude is another feature of his identity that would not have endeared him to his audience. Jones notes that music-hall songs reveal a general disapproval for those who rise above their class: "the former friend begins to `put on airs' as Gus Elen sang, `E don't know where 'e are'" (228). Similarly, Peter Bailey observes the workings of a "moral economy" in the case of actors who had been fortunate enough to rise out of poverty. Audiences applauded success on the basis of luck, not merit. The stars of the halls were "rich because they were fortunate," and stardom was "a property held in trust for one's fellows, not a lever for self-aggrandizement" (194-5). If, as Bailey suggests, "one of the qualities that endeared Marie Lloyd (and others) to her audience was her generosity" (194), then McGonagall's selfish quest for personal glory had the opposite effect. McGonagall confronted his audience as a would-be who ironically believed that he had already achieved world-wide acclaim. This delusion persisted from the beginning of his career through to end of his life. Such egotism would normally have jeopardized a performer's popularity, but in McGonagall's case, his antagonistic relationship with the audience was an ironic formula for success, making it well worth the price of admission to come and remind the self-aggrandizing snob of his humble origins.
Having located some of the most obvious sources of conflict, we should also recognize that many aspects of McGonagall's "act" place him within the conventions of music hall. A repertoire that included readings from McGonagall's own works, and those of "other great poets" (including Shakespeare, Burns and Hogg), singing, and the dramatization of scenes from Shakespeare's plays may seem totally out of place, but, upon further scrutiny, we can find some good reasons to take seriously David Phillips' quip that "such fame as [McGonagall] had was as a comedian" (22).
McGonagall's act offered all the key ingredients of music-hall variety and comedy. The central attraction in music halls was the solo performer, with song and patter. Audiences were more interested in the larger-than-life personalities of individual performers than in the material being rendered. According to Peter Bailey, "many styles were stereotyped [but] the art of the ambitious entertainer became increasingly individualized in the search for a unique stage persona" (197). The roles of "Poet and Tragedian" were probably quite novel, but McGonagall also "fits the bill" of a few comic stereotypes, such as the "character comedians" or "Lion Comiques" who performed various songs and sketches in role. According to G. J. Mellor, these types were often promoted as "The Great," as in "Great MacDermott" or "Great Vance" (58). No one so far seems to have realized that "The Great McGonagall" was a commercially promoted music-hall act, despite the fact that advertisements, such as the following from an Edinburgh newspaper, have been quoted by David Phillips:
THE GREAT McGONAGALL will give his inimitable performance from MACBETH & c. Music, Songs, etc., by other Gentlemen. Admission 1/-, Reserved seats 2/-, by tickets only. . . . Mr. McGONAGALL & PARTY will appear in Morningside Hall on Monday, 5th November, at 8pm. . . . (qtd. in Phillips 213)
The above engagement may well have been for a slightly higher class of audience than in Dundee, where popular prices for a music hall were three pence, six pence, one shilling and two shillings (Mellor 28). A poster for an entertainment at Dundee's Thistle Hall is especially helpful in clarifying the class of McGonagall's Dundonian audience:
Blue, green and yellow hand-bills a la Music Hall were widely circulated through the mills, factories and other public places announcing that McGonagall, Vocalist, Poet & Tragedian, was to be supported by his son and a long list of professionals, male and female. (126)
McGonagall's son's career as a target of ridicule seems to have fizzled after a two guest-appearances and a single solo effort, but the fact that Jock attempted to follow in his father's footsteps again suggests that there were strong commercial incentives behind the hoax.
McGonagall's absurd and seemingly unique choice of costumes and props reflects popular trends rather than mere eccentricity. According to Mellor, the Lion Comiques "all dressed as `swells' at the height of fashion, usually swaggering about the stage with a cane, or other foppish appendage." In one photograph, McGonagall is dressed as a "swell" complete with stylish suit, hat and cane. The Lion Comiques always had a "signature song" or "comic song"; a song about a "Rattling Boy from Dublin" seems appropriate for someone of Irish descent, and McGonagall used it to introduce himself, performing it in character with a hat and large umbrella or cane ("Entertainment by Mr M`Gonagall"). One report states that "every line was a master-piece of Irish comic acting" ("Grand Entertainment by Poet M`Gonagall"). Audiences often joined in the chorus with great enthusiasm.
McGonagall's choice of costumes reflects a flair for the absurd. He was notorious for appearances in ridiculous highland outfits. Highland costume 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" (Munro 219). 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 . . ." ("Not So Daft"). Similarly, William Power writes that McGonagall "wore a Highland dress of Rob Roy tartan and boy's size" (Power 285). 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" ("Bards of Avon").
McGonagall also wore ridiculous outfits in the streets. Lewis Spence recalled McGonagall making a "theatrical entrance" at the newspaper office "attired in a garb so utterly outrageous that every pen was dropped simultaneously":
A web of the very largest and most kenspeckle check had been tailored into a suit resembling a clergyman's uniform, with frockcoat and square-cut waistcoat complete. To this was added a pair of gauntlets of lambskin, with the curly white wool outside. . . . (52)
All accounts emphasize the fact that McGonagall's manner of performing was as ridiculous as his choice of costumes. "Daftness" was combined with McGonagall's 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 scenes--more like sketches--from Hamlet, Richard the Third, MacBeth and "Bruce at Bannockburn" (a battle-poem of his own composition). One element of absurdity that appears to have been consciously contrived on his own part was his recitation of "Bruce of Bannockburn," during which he almost always seemed to get carried away in his role and attack the audience with various dangerous-looking swords, with everyone nearby being forced to flee. This portion seems to have been not only contrived, but also co-ordinated with other members on the stage. 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.
(qtd. in Phillips 131)
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" (qtd. in Phillips 199).
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" (Spence 53).
The performance itself may be seen as a burlesque that was co-produced by McGonagall and the audience. Virtually all of the burlesque's dramatic appeal lies in the tension between McGonagall's ostensibly serious imitation (or representation) of the ruling-class and aspects of his performance which give the audience opportunities to appropriate hidden humour. I find great difficulty in imagining how any person could have been naive enough to be the victim of a hoax for twenty-five years without knowing perfectly well that the tension between his serious pretensions and the audience's perception of humour was his only means of attracting attention and money.
Indeed, it is interesting that so many descriptions of McGonagall's performances highlight the question of whether or not he was ultimately having the last laugh. In the Edinburgh newspapers of the 1930s, a writer who claimed to have seen McGonagall perform more than once argued that he "scored off the pubic by playing the daft laddie"("Not So Daft"). Another reminisced that "no one could be sure whether he was a rogue or fool" (Stewart). Neil Munro, on the other hand, remembered attending a performance in Glasgow with the expectation of seeing a "crafty merry-andrew deliberately playing up to the conception his employers for the time being had formed of him" (219). He was disappointed to find "a harmless, innocent `character'.()" Similarly, Lewis Spence recalled that his fellow journalists at Dundee's Weekly News believed McGonagall was "more knave than fool" but "I did not share their impression":
I had seen [McGonagall] declaim his "Battle of Tel-el-Kebir" at a smoking-concert to the accompaniment of outbursts of ribald laughter, which seemed to pass him as idle as the wind. Was he insensible to insult? (Spence 53)
Spence, like Munro, did not seem to realize that McGonagall's very livelihood depended upon him being "insensible to insult." One writer observed that "never throughout the entire proceedings was there the glimmer of a smile on his somber countenance." The writer shrewdly reflected that "[h]e may have been no fool when he had our guineas in his pocket" (26). For our purposes, it is sufficient only to note that McGonagall's economic motives offer the best explanation for his consistently absurd, naive, and generally comical behaviour. Furthermore, in a genre of mostly unscripted and unrecorded entertainment, the knowledge that much evidence points towards a "real" McGonagall who self-consciously produced much of his own folly helps us to clarify what his audience saw. What really matters is the fact that reports repeatedly suggest that McGonagall came as close as one could to the line that would "give him away" without ever crossing it. This is the sense in which McGonagall (with or without intention) ultimately succeeded in creating a uniquely powerful burlesque. As Victor Clinton-Baddeley explains in the Burlesque Tradition in English Theatre, "the best burlesque puts on an elaborate pretence of not being funny at all . . .(10)."
This framework allows us to make sense out of another, more ambiguous aspect of McGonagall's routine, his melodramatic manner of recitation, which may or may not have been intended humorously. According to Lewis Spence:
[McGonagall] was a possessor of a considerable histrionic talent . . . . He was the old-time "ham actor" par excellence, the relic of a day when full-blooded declamation was relished by audiences. But in his later years the time and vogue of this antique mannerism was already surpassed and was becoming a thing of public jape. (54)
Indeed, the high seriousness of melodrama, with its greatly exaggerated mannerisms and black and white depictions of good and evil gave way, midway through the nineteenth century, directly to burlesque. Michael Booth notes that in the second half of the nineteenth century "almost all well-known melodramas were travestied by rhyming doggerel, ludicrous situations, and silly characters" (180). For this kind of humour, of course, no one could have been better suited than McGonagall. Booth adds that "it was no longer necessary to write burlesque, for the old melodramas themselves were played for laughs. . . . Even when played with deadly seriousness melodrama produced the same or even greater hilarity" (180). Hence, in the late nineteenth century, when more realistic forms of acting had taken hold, melodramatic exaggeration, with its bombastic, pathetic and heroic mannerisms, could also be perceived as being ironically bombastic, mock-pathetic or mock-heroic (Oxford English Dictionary).
It is easy to see how McGonagall's theatre could have become the site of an ironic inversion, how a "Tragedian" could become a comedian without making any significant adjustment to his serious style. A photograph of McGonagall during his earliest days in the penny gaff and towards the end of his life as a music hall comedian reveal a truly remarkable similarity (see fig. 1 and fig. 2 ). Richard the Third was seen to be played "with an air of tragic comedy." ("Poet McGonagall Interviewed"). McGonagall's portrayal of MacBeth elicited the following comment:
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. (qtd. in Phillips 197)
Scenes from MacBeth sometimes involved playing more than one character simultaneously:
To describe this performance and do full justice to it would be impossible, as no amount of description could convey to the reader the marvellous style of gesture and rapid transition from one character to the other by the actor. (qtd. in Authentic Autobiography 7)
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."
McGonagall's melodramatic overacting both heightened and undermined the seriousness of pieces like the "Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay." A report states that "The `Tay Bridge' was given as usual with all the dramatic force that the Poet can throw into the reading of his own works" ("Grand Entertainment Given by Poet M`Gonagall"). Another reporter writes that the piece was read in a "melo-dramatic strain" ("Grand Entertainment by Mr M`Gonagall"). Thus, although melodrama may or may not have been meant to add humour, it opens up a whole new opportunity for subversion, which combines the audience's perception of ridiculous exaggeration and seriousness or sentimentality in such a way as to invite mockery and ironically inverted humour.
"Before" (Penny Gaff Tragedian) and "After" (Music Hall Comedian)
Figure1 and Figure 2
McGonagall's paradoxical place both within and against the contemporary music-hall world may be summed up as follows: the dialogical relationship between the performer and his working class audience is characterized by a tension between ostensibly serious meanings (which imitate or re-present the ruling-class point of view) and the audience's recognition/creation of humorous inversions which allow for the production of subversive counter-texts and other expressions of rebellion. Thus, it remains for us to consider what kinds of specific meanings may be written into tensions between McGonagall's seriousness on one hand, and his audience's humour on the other.
One of the nuances of this polarity is a conflict between McGonagall's serious imitation of the ruling class and his portrayal of the "daft laddie" which undermines the seriousness. The "daft laddie" was popularized in Scottish music hall by the likes of Harry Lauder, J. C. MacDonald and Will Fyffe (Mackie 132). This character is derived from the traditional figure of the clown, whose art is described by Albert Mackie in The Scotch Comedians: From Music Hall to Television:
Chronic misfortunes or illness . . .ought not to be the object of laughter, yet the main stock and trade of the clown is the knowledge that people will laugh at sheer stupidity and mental aberration. (130)
Mackie adds that "McGonagall's chronic misfortune . . . was that he could be extremely disconcerting without having the least idea what they were all laughing at" (131). Obviously the sado-masochistic relationship between "tragedian" and audience makes for a dynamic opposition between the naive meanings of the straight-faced victim and an audience that "outwits" him with what it considers more effective (and sometimes more violent) "punch-lines."
Although direct correlations between specific textual content and audience commentary are rare due to the lack of quotations in original reports, all evidence indicates that the audience was very actively engaged in interpreting McGonagall's work for possible ammunition to use against him, frequently responding with interruptive, oppositional heckling. The process is analogous to that which I have earlier defined as audience-centred, structural irony involving a socially constructed naive persona whose mistakes and biases elicit "corrections" from a "knowing" public. Indeed, within the ironic framework of the performance, the audience often attacks McGonagall with "helpful" or "polite" introjections:
A very unruly and uproarious set of fellows in the back of the hall, who evidently failed to appreciate the beauties of the sentiment, kept up a running fire of comments on the pieces, and by their clamour at times drowned the performer's voice. . . . Some gentleman was very desirous to learn who had the honour of being the poet's tailor. . . . Another anxious inquirer lustily called for a full and particular account of the "Holiday Tour;" while another proposed that the Poet should get a bottle of tipenny.
Comments regarding McGonagall's need for a "bottle of tipenny" obviously reflect opposition to what was considered his overly-repressive attitude towards drinking--the point being that it is the prohibitionist rather than drinker who requires help.
When McGonagall attempts to edify his audience on another occasion with readings from Hogg, the atmosphere resembles more than anything that of a classroom full of rebellious students. Sarcastic flattery--"What's Hogg compared with M`Gonagall"--gives way to suggestions that the "lesson" be turned into a party: "It's owre lang," "Shut up, gies a sang," "lat's hae a dance," "Gie him a bottle o' tipenny."
The importance of the tension between McGonagall's naivete and his audience's more intelligent interpretation is nowhere better illustrated than in a report of an entertainment in which he performed "A Christmas Goose." While the specifics of this surprisingly sophisticated ballad are not dealt with until the next chapter, it is clear that, with McGonagall's assistance, the audience was able to produce a more insightful reading of the piece than a century's worth of educated criticism:
A new poem, on Mrs Goose [sic], was read for the first time. The author had some difficulty in selecting the MS.S from a mass of papers. "Wha is the stationer?" shouted an anxious inquirer. "I must put on my spectacles," said the Poet as he spread the paper before him. . . . "Mrs Goose" [sic] was a genuine Christmas carol; all about the stealing of a goose, for which the thief got ten days in jail. Some of the audience declared that the Poet was reading the paper upside down, and one protested loudly that he had misread a verse.
On one side of the transaction, McGonagall signifies his intellectual incompetence and blindness through the shuffling of papers and, ironically, through the donning of a pair of glasses, lending him an air of pseudo-intellectualism. McGonagall's failure to recognize the injustice of sending a starving urchin to jail for ten days at Christmas elicits observations to the effect that the poet's blindness has caused him to either miss a verse (no doubt a verse in which the child ought to be forgiven and fed) or read the poem upside down (in the sense that the moral is inverted, with the unforgiving glutton, "Mr. Smiggs," getting "justice").
The tension between McGonagall's seriousness and his audience's sense of humour also takes the form of a conflict between the "official" meanings of the dominant society and "unofficial" meanings generated by the audience. It is not just that McGonagall cannot hear--he simply won't. His voice universalizes its values by pretending all other voices do not exist. The atmosphere McGonagall attempts to impose on the hall is one of earnestness, sobriety and awed reverence. Thus, when confronted with the insults of his audience, he "read on without paying the least attention to all untimely interruptions" ("Grand Entertainment by Poet McGonagall") or "treated all . . . untimely proposals with silent contempt, and with the gravity of a philosopher proceeded with the entertainment" ("Grand Entertainment by Mr M`Gonagall").
Of course, his efforts to civilize or repress the Other of his discourse are met with displays of total irreverence and carnivalesque inversion. Certainly, one of the gravest and most impressive of official functions is the funeral of a royal personage or important dignitary, but a poster makes it clear that McGonagall's many poems on the deaths of eminent Victorians were an occasion for the ultimate sacrilege: it advertises that "No other poet in the universe can extract laughter from the sombre pageantry of a funeral" (qtd. in Phillips 128).
The following description of a performance in Lochee, the Irish ghetto of Dundee, must be quoted at some length, since no other text so beautifully encapsulates the antagonistic confrontation between "officialdom" and working-class culture:
Several readings and recitations were then given by Mr M`Gonagall from his own works, which were received in a most uproarious manner, altogether past description. Every now and then, and particularly when the performer was uttering some choice bit, and giving it the "sweetness long drawn out," the audience would burst out with the chorus of "John Brown's body," in a manner that completely "shut up" the gifted artiste. Notwithstanding all this "irreverence" on the part of the audience, the bard remained perfectly calm, and seemingly not in the least disturbed by the riotous proceedings around him. And whenever the noise ceased he resumed where he left off with the greatest nonchalance. Matters came to a thorough climax, when the Chairman intimated that Mr M`Gonagall was to give a selection from "Hamlet." The intimation was received with howls of laughter, several voices shouting for well-known individuals in the hall to perform the part of the "ghost." Mr M`Gonagall, however, had not proceeded far with his recitation when a number of the audience who were seated near the platform rose from their seats, and ascending the improvised stage they forcibly seized hold of the "Poet to Her Majesty," and notwithstanding his frantic struggles carried him shoulder high to the street. A scene seldom, if ever, paralleled in the history of the village then ensued. A tremendous crowd thronged the street, almost the whole of whom seemed to be in a very frenzy of amusement. Mr M`Gonagall had ultimately, owing to the great crowd, to take shelter in a shop near by.
("Entertainment by Mr McGonagall at Lochee")
McGonagall certainly displays the timing of a professional comedian, giving it "the sweetness long drawn out," remaining "perfectly calm" despite the "riotous proceedings," and then resuming "with the greatest nonchalance." Even more fascinating are the various inversions. While McGonagall attempts to repress the other half of the class dialogue by pretending no oppositional voice exists, the audience produces a counter-text of rebellion. Ostensibly serious pieces are "received in a most uproarious manner, altogether past description." A high-sounding piece with the "sweetness long drawn out" is met with a rebellion from the lower orders in an irreverent celebration of the body (the song ostensibly refers to the body of Victoria's Scottish manservant). McGonagall's failure to "hear" the voice of the protesting Other results in collective revenge, with McGonagall being "shut up." The most serious of soliloquies is welcomed by "howls of laughter," and the performance is prematurely brought to a close by a rebellion in which McGonagall's power is at once overthrown and mock-heroically celebrated with an "unofficial" parade in which the mob rules.
It is important to note that audience responses of the above description are not unusual. At all working-class performances a carnivalesque atmosphere prevailed. McGonagall's voice was frequently drowned throughout with uproars of laughter and applause. His appearances on stage were heralded by "lusty cheers, renewed again" ("Bards of Avon"), "a torrent of applause" ("Poet M`Gonagall Interviewed"), or "thunders of applause, waving of hats, stamping of feet, whistling, cock-crowing, caterwauling and other demonstrations of delight" (qtd. in Phillips 114). When lucky enough to get to the end of a performance unscathed he "retired amidst roars of laughter and derisive cheers" ("Bards of Avon") or "bowed his farewells amidst continued howling and music from whistles of muscles and tin." ("Poet M`Gonagall Interviewed").
His voice was also drowned frequently with choruses to "The Rattling Boy" or counter-songs of the audience's choosing. An interesting example of this took place when McGonagall's recital of "Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay" was drowned out with a chorus of "Yeah Yeah" which turned into "Rule Britannia" ("Grand Entertainment by Mr M`Gonagall"). While the unofficial meanings of these actions remain concealed behind a superficial appearance of total support, the audience may well have been expressing its recognition of, and disagreement with, English domination and the role played by a bridge that linked Dundee to the English centre. The audience may also have been reacting against McGonagall's devotion to the English in a poem that celebrates the Queen's anticipated visit to the bridge.
Many of McGonagall's performances were pre-empted when the stage was invaded by members of the audience hoping to render him the mock-heroic march home. These attacks were probably borderline physical assaults, for in most cases McGonagall attempted frantically to escape. When the crowd turned ugly McGonagall was showered with peas, pelted with rotten vegetables and garbage or assailed with bags of flour. The violence sometimes escalated to physical assaults and vandalism. At a performance in Dundee's Thistle Hall (mentioned earlier),
The platform was invaded, and the Poet . . . bolted the ante-room. . . . He had only got his toilet half-completed when the roughs burst into the green-room like a torrent, and in their flurry to see the Poet, upset buckets of water all over the premises. . . .
The Poet and his son lost their tempers, and the junior threatened to fight all-comers. . . . At last, the hallkeeper turned off the gas on the platform and intimated that `it was all over' with the Poet. (qtd. in Phillips 127)
Violent opposition to McGonagall may be interpreted not only as the overthrow of a symbolic oppressor, but also as a form of collective revenge in which one who so epitomizes the hubris of the Victorian ruling class is made to enact a tragedy of degradation--a tragedy that some middle-class witnesses, such as William Power, were unable to forget:
A shower of apples and oranges fell on the platform. Almost before they touched it, they were met by the fell edge of McGonagall's claymore and cut to pieces. The Bard was beaded with perspiration and orange juice. The audience yelled with delight; McGonagall yelled louder still, with a fury which I fancy was not wholly feigned. It was like a squalid travesty of the wildest scenes of Don Quixote and Orlando Furioso. I left the hall early, saddened and disgusted. (285)
Power's revulsion draws attention to the key difference between McGonagall's reception in the music hall and in the supper-hall. The middle-class audience was interested in society humour of the kind to be found in the pages of Quiz magazine where McGonagall's prospects of becoming the next poet laureate were a pet joke. In sharp contrast, the working-class response displays intense opposition and hostility. Power did not share the crowd's delight in McGonagall's suffering. Similarly, Lewis Spence admitted that he found humour in McGonagall's style of writing, but was moved to sympathy by the poet's treatment at the hands of "the louts who guffawed at his barn-storming":
There is, perhaps, no human creature so utterly pathetic as the tragic buffoon. . . . Pathetic beyond words to the man of feeling, the mountebank is merely an Aunt Sally to the mob. (53)
Obviously McGonagall's "baiters" were not quite so sympathetic, but there is no evidence of them ever having done anything more cruel to McGonagall than to present the gift of "an enormous sausage of many pounds weight, all decorated with ribbons," a prank which made Neil Munro, one of the participants in this affair feel "painfully ashamed of myself" (221). The music-hall audience responded with hostility for a reason that was invisible to middle-class observers like Spence, Munro and Power: McGonagall inhabited the blind-spot of a culture that defined working-class culture only in terms of its backwardness. In the music hall, McGonagall was being made to pay the price of refusing to acknowledge the cultural differences of his audience.
In this chapter we have seen that the theatre of class struggle is characterized by an ongoing tension between antagonistic discourses, between the monologic voice of the dominant society, which attempts to suppress the Other by cultural universalization, and the voice of working-class culture which collectively undermines McGonagall in various hidden or indirect ways. We should also keep in mind that the prevailing outcome of this ideological warfare is an inversion in which the symbolic ruler plays the "loser" in all exchanges, with the audience turning his intended meanings against him: McGonagall's praise is used by the audience to voice derision, his seriousness is mocked by their sense of humour, his pain means their gain. The voice of officialdom is overturned by carnivalesque celebration in which base or vulgar meanings are used to sabotage McGonagall's respectable Victorianism. His repressiveness is met with total irreverence and his pomposity is humiliated. The representative of an heroic ruling class is reduced to the status of a mock-heroic fool.
McGonagall's theatre of class struggle serves as a boisterous affirmation of the existence of an oppositional working-class culture. It also reveals to us that the dominant code of reception was one in which ironic inversion ultimately empowered the working-class to retrieve/create counter-texts of its own. The task of explaining how individual texts fit into this scheme of subversion remains to be addressed.
The previous chapter's investigation of the politics of reception justifies the reconstruction of a counter-textual canon. Within the parameters of McGonagall's performance, we can now selectively re-write texts which open up possibilities for the working-class audience to undermine and overthrow the narrative authority. While no single re-writing of McGonagall can hope to account for the many meanings made possible by any given text, we will be able to pin down a number of possible interpretations that fit into the narrative structure revealed in the theatre of class struggle. We have seen that structural irony is the audience's primary weapon, used to undermine, invert and overthrow the mechanisms of power in McGonagall's discourse. Our interpretations of what McGonagall's individual utterances meant to the working-class audience must therefore focus on the way gaps and contradictions in various naive texts open up room for ironic commentary. Ultimately, we will focus on how such a deliberate misreading can ironically invert philanthropy, thereby unmasking self-interest in the various social arenas of charity, reform, education, temperance, aesthetics, industrial progress, imperialism, and the "heroarchy."
We have seen that the audience was very intensely involved in the process of interpreting McGonagall for ammunition to be used against him. In this chapter, we will also find that our understanding of the context of enunciation opens space for the production of textual meanings that are sometimes far more complex than McGonagall's previous critics would have imagined. This sophistication can be attributed in part to the creative role of the audience, but it also reflects the workings of a more sophisticated "real" McGonagall who seems to have deliberately used his naive and ironic persona to create humour and, in a few instances, to voice social criticism. But while the "real" McGonagall may well be a key contributor to the readings which follow, most of our attention will be devoted to answering the fundamentally different question of how McGonagall's discourse could have been actively "vandalized" by the audience.
Before turning to the textual analysis I should also explain that the readings are not necessarily to be equated with the conscious perceptions of the audience. I doubt that anyone consciously thought: "This undermines philanthropy by exposing its underpinnings in exploitation." Moreover, since ideology is in many ways an unconsciousness or habitual phenomenon (as opposed to one's world-view), I contend merely that cultural differences inform the working-class reading and indeed represent the main source of conflict between McGonagall and his audience. It therefore stands to reason that cultural differences open up an entirely new hermeneutic code, one in which McGonagall's universalizing propaganda has the effect of politicizing philanthropy.
The preservation of the right to make charitable donations justifies the right to a disproportionate amount of the wealth, to continued exploitation of the poor, and to demands of obedience and "respectability" from those of humble standing. In his attitude towards the poor problem, McGonagall closely resembles Dundee's leading philanthropist, James Scrymgeour, the superintendent of Dundee's "Band of Hope." Scrymgeour arranged free meals for the poor, while attempting to instill the values of Christianity, industry, cleanliness, order, thrift, and sobriety (Walker 377). In "To Mr James Scrymgeour, Dundee" McGonagall celebrates the heroism of "the poor man's friend" because, in addition to supplying food for the hungry, Scrymgeour "makes the hearts / Of the poor o'erjoyed / By trying to find work for them / When they're unemployed." Furthermore, Mcgonagall asks his "Fellow-citizens of Dundee. / Isn't it really very nice / To think of James Scrymgeour trying/ To rescue fallen creatures from the paths of vice?" While the poem does not directly undermine the charitable solution to poverty, it does draw attention to an aspect of McGonagall's persona that may have been particularly obnoxious to workers, especially the city's multitude of unemployed workers. Not only does McGonagall's hero-worship take the blame for rampant unemployment off of the industrial system, but it places it on the backs of those without work, the "fallen creatures" who are needy because of their own vices. Scrymgeour's version of salvation was sincerely conceived, but his effect was ultimately to defend the capitalist order of things, and, according to William Walker, "[t]he conclusion cannot be resisted that affluent Liberals in Dundee looked after Scrymgeour's personal welfare while he attended to those who were casualties of the industrial regime or whose behaviour threatened its good order" (335).
McGonagall connects the seemingly conflicting interests of charity and capitalism in ways that may have enabled the audience to recognize a certain complicity between the two projects. While on one hand he preaches moral virtue to his audience, he also hungers for personal glory, class privileges and profit. He writes flattering addresses and funeral odes to the "heroarchy," in hopes of both recognition and remuneration. "Requisition to the Queen"--sent directly to Buckingham Palace--demonstrates how McGonagall's lofty ideals of charity and his sycophantic flattery of the powerful connects to the "higher" purpose of making money.
Most Mighty Empress, of India, and Englands [sic] beloved Queen,
Most Handsome to be Seen.
I wish you every Success.
And that heaven may you bless.
For your Kindness to the poor while they are in distress.
Certainly Victoria would have been moved to tears (and a handsome donation) by the concluding couplet, had the submission ever got past Sir Thomas Biddulph:
I am your Gracious Majesty every faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee.
In wedding the seemingly incongruous task of preaching to selling broadsides and being a music-hall entertainer, McGonagall plays the self-contradictory role of a commercial clergyman, whose lines can be applied as conveniently to the task of eulogizing the rich as to celebrating the fact that "Sunlight Soap" gets shirts so white that they are "beautiful to be seen" (Edinburgh Collection). The conflict between McGonagall's Christian zeal and his reverence for the profit motive also presents itself as an interesting paradox in his "Reminiscences" of "my experiences amongst the publicans" (12). McGonagall beseeches the "fathers and mothers, and the friends of Christianity and the friends of humanity,"
To join each one with heart and hand,
And help to banish the bane of society from our land,
and trust in God, and worship Him,
And denounce the publicans, because they cause sin
Therefore cease from strong drink,
And you will likely do well,
Then there's not so much danger of going to hell!
On the heels of this exhortation, the preacher in the pub slips into a sermon on "the filthy lucre" which "I never considered . . . to be either filthy or bad":
Money is most certainly the most useful commodity in society that I know of. It is certainly good when not abused; but, if abused, the fault rests with the abuser--the money is good nevertheless. For my own part I have always found it to be one of my best friends. (17)
This may be taken to imply that if you are poor--and the vast majority of Dundonians were--you are deservedly so: "the fault rests with the abuser," and not The System. The last line of the above quotation reads as a joke in that it undermines McGonagall's lofty moralizing--so much to say that even Reverend McGonagall has his price.
With some idea of how McGonagall's persona itself may be taken to expresses a conflict of interests, it is interesting to consider how his faith in the goodness of capital affects the narratives of "The Famous Tay Whale" and "The Christmas Goose."
The "Famous Tay Whale" (Poetic Gems 37-8) 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 was finally landed, the whale "sped off to Stonehaven with all his might":
And was first seen by the crew of a Gourdon fishing boat.
Which they thought was a big coble upturned afloat;
But when they drew near they saw it was a whale,
So they resolved to tow it ashore without fail.
So they got a rope from each boat tied round his tail,
And landed their burden at Stonehaven without fail;
And when the people saw it their voices they did raise,
Declaring that the brave fishermen deserved great praise.
Although the whale obviously turned up 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 ironic--and the "real" McGonagall may have meant them that way--since there is nothing heroic about towing home a dead whale. 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 ("The Dundee Whale Hunt"). The newspaper makes no mention of any heroes' welcome for the body-snatchers at Stonehaven, but McGonagall seems desperate for a happy ending and a Christian moral. Lest sceptics should have any stray thoughts, McGonagall enters on behalf 77of the Presbytery to clarify the lesson:
And my opinion is that God sent the whale in time of need,
No matter what other people think or what is their creed;
I know fishermen in general are often very poor,
And God in his Goodness sent it to drive poverty from their door.
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 its carcase, but also from the Dundonian whalers who risked their lives to provide it. McGonagall is anxious to claim a victory for God; the whale must be taken as a sign of higher philanthropy, no matter how much sleight-of-hand is required to prove it. McGonagall "knows that fishermen in general are often very poor." Having little personal acquaintance with fishermen, McGonagall can only guess, under his breath, what is "often" their condition "in general." These uncertainties are glossed over by the fact that he "knows" they will be "very poor," as is always the case where "God in his Goodness" is at stake. Having shown that God "sent [the whale] to drive poverty from [the Stonehaven fishermen's] door" (while leaving it at the Dundee whalers'), McGonagall introduces another hero to round out the happy ending:
So Mr. John Wood has bought [the whale] for two hundred and twenty-six pound,
And has brought it to Dundee all safe and all sound;
Which measures 40 feet in length from the snout to the tail,
So I advise the people far and near to see it without fail.
Thus, Wood heroically secures the whale "all safe and all sound" for the benefit of his fellow Dundonians, and McGonagall is happy to salute this philanthropic deed with an advertisement:
Then hurrah! for the mighty monster whale,
Which has got 17 feet 4 inches from tip to tip of a tail!
Which can be seen for sixpence or a shilling,
That is to say, if the people are willing.
Of course, the final clause casts the Christian moral into doubt and, in effect, begs the question: would Dundonian workers be willing to pay for a glimpse of John Wood's whale after McGonagall's attempt to package the whole circular transaction with divine approval? The poem's narrative lays bare the symbolic transformation of active Dundonian labour into passive consumption on a free market. One suspects McGonagall's flock may have felt a little disgruntled after the theft of the whale had been sanctioned by God, with the middle-men being done up as brave heroes, and the profiteer praised for his philanthropy. Moreover, as both a moral of Christian charity and a plug for John Wood, "The Famous Tay Whale" smells of a certain complicity between religion and commerce, Reverend McGonagall and his enterprising friend.
"The Christmas Goose" (Poetic Gems 60-1) is McGonagall's most subversive work in that it makes a mockery out of the central idea in Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," which is namely that Christian charity is the solution to the social problems created by industrial capitalism. In a poem about Christmas, one might well expect McGonagall to reiterate the moral that Christ's birth in a lowly manger should be celebrated with renewed commitments to charity, as, for instance, in the final stanza of his companion poem entitled "A Christmas Carol":
And let the rich be kind to the poor,
And think of the hardships they do endure,
Who are neither clothed nor fed,
And many without a blanket to their bed.
(Poetic Gems 58-9)
McGonagall leads us to expect a similar conclusion in "The Christmas Goose," but the "hero," a miser named Mr. Smiggs, is left with a moral that is almost satanic. After "the naughty boy" has been sentenced to ten days in jail for trying to steal Smiggs's goose, the "hero" concludes:
"No matter how the poor are clothed,
Or if they starve at home,
We'll drink our wine, and eat our goose
Aye, and pick it to the bone."
Smiggs's knowledge that others are starving and cold only enhances the taste of personal luxury and increases his gluttonous appetite. McGonagall does not appear to see any fault in Smiggs, whose name not only reminds us of Scrooge, but also combines the words that best describe him: "smug" and "pig." And although Smiggs's wife's name, Peggy, sounds a lot like "piggy"
--especially in the local dialect--she is "a good kind soul." The two are introduced as the typical protagonists of a heart-warming Christmas tale:
Mr. Smiggs was a gentleman,
And lived in London town;
His wife she was a good kind soul,
And seldom known to frown.
'Twas on Christmas eve,
And Smiggs and his wife lay cosy in bed,
When the thought of buying a goose
Came into his head.
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:
So the next morning,
Just as the sun rose,
He jumped out of bed,
And donn'd his clothes,
Saying, "Peggy, my dear,
You need not frown,
For I'll buy you the finest goose
In all London town."
After Smiggs has been fortunate enough to purchase the "finest" goose in London for a mere crown, McGonagall adds some melodrama with the entrance of a villainous urchin:
When Smiggs bought the goose
He suspected no harm,
But a naughty boy stole it
From under his arm.
Then Smiggs he cried, "Stop, thief!
Come back with my goose!"
But the naughty boy laugh'd at him,
And gave him much abuse.
But a policeman captur'd the naughty boy,
And gave the goose to Smiggs,
And said he was greatly bother'd
By a set of juvenile prigs.
So the naughty boy was put in prison
For stealing the goose,
And got ten days' confinement
Before he got loose.
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:
So Smiggs ran home to his dear Peggy,
Saying, "Hurry, and get this fat goose ready,
That I have bought for one crown.
So, my darling, you need not frown."
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:
Dear Mr Smiggs, I will not frown:
I'm sure 'tis cheap for one crown,
Especially at Christmas time--
Oh! Mr Smiggs, it's really fine."
Lest Peggy should have a relapse, Smiggs reminds her yet again to take heart:
"Peggy, it is Christmas time,
So let us drive dull care away,
For we have got a Christmas goose,
So cook it well, I pray.
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:
"No matter how the poor are clothed,
Or if they starve at home,
We'll drink our wine, and eat our goose
Aye, and pick it to the bone."
It strikes me that there is a vastly more intelligent McGonagall lurking behind the narrative voice, perhaps with a message that is actually intended to echo the moral of Dickens's or his own "Christmas Carol." But "The Christmas Goose" is remarkably resistant to peaceful closure. Its details and events are balanced on an economy of injustice that would have been painfully obvious to an impoverished audience: Smiggs and his wife are the heroes of an inverted melodrama. The Smiggs are "cosy 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 five shillings, 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.
We should not be surprised to find that following a performance of "The Christmas Goose," members of the audience shouted "read it upside down" and "missed a verse," or that the reporter should have referred to this satiric masterpiece as "a real Christmas Carol." The story is more "real" than Dickens' version because it emphasizes precisely the absence of an unrealistic repentance that would humanize and heroize the rich, thereby legitimizing the right to excessive luxury. After all, the philosophy of "social benevolence" is itself the rationale for gross inequality, as I gather from the conclusion to Dr. David Lennox's "sympathetic" study of working-class life in Dundee, written in the 1880s:
However disguised by the expedients of civilization the weakest must go to the wall. Even the right to live is nowhere admitted in the economy of nature. Legislation may reduce disadvantages and education give advantages in the contest. But the poor will always be with us--a burden on social benevolence. (qtd. in Walker 70)
What is most striking about "The Christmas Goose" is the absence of a repentant "villain." Unlike Tiny Tim, whose illness symbolizes the pathetic condition of the London poor, the "naughty boy" short-circuits any possibility of charity by simply taking "the right to survive" where it has otherwise been denied by the economy of Britain (not Mother Nature). It is his own autonomous sense of justice that demands he celebrate his crime by giving Smiggs the "much abuse" he deserves.
Like many reformers, McGonagall thought that education offered a viable solution to what was deemed a culturally and intellectually deprived working class. The advantage to such an outlook was that it left the blame for the condition of workers on their own "backwardness." Poverty was attributed to a need to learn thrift, illness to improper dietary education, crime to a lack of moral education. Educational reforms also rationalized the right of the elite to maintain its own authority over those considered too ignorant to act in their own best interests. Hence, the textile mills run by the millionaire Baxter family could rationalize hiring children to do the work of adults for five hours per day, while teaching obedience and work discipline for five more hours at the company's adjoining school in the children's best interest. As an anonymous writer reported, the "Great Firm" of Mssr. Baxter Bros. and Company was saving children from "careless or drunken parents," the "street for a playground," and "a troop of rude companions" (101, Walker). By contrast:
What a boon this education is! and the girl or boy who passes through this curriculum successfully on leaving the school at thirteen advanced to the dignity of full time may continue their education at evening classes, and ultimately pass into the University College...Never before since child labour began has the path of learning been strewn with so many sugar plums . . . .
("Female Industries" 5f)
As William Walker notes, the suggestion that a mill-worker could make it to University College (also donated by the Baxters) "merely invited amusement" (101).
"Inauguration of the University College, Dundee" (Yet Further 10-12) invites amusement for much the same reason: while praising the generosity of "Miss Baxter and the late Doctor Baxter" for donating the university, McGonagall conveys the idea that the Baxters have simply secured some more sugar plums for their own class. McGonagall celebrates higher education as a gift to "the good people of Dundee," who are encouraged to "rejoice and sing and dance with glee" and "give honour to whom honour is due." Such ridiculous enthusiasm probably invited an ironic interpretation by the working-class audience, and, in the theatre, one can imagine how the lines might have elicited a sarcastic ovation.
McGonagall's paraphrase of W.E. Baxter's speech at the opening ceremony exposes something of the cultural condescension and narcissism behind the Baxters' brand of philanthropy:
. . .the Right Hon W. E. Baxter [Liberal MP] was
there on behalf of his aunt,
And acknowledged her beautiful portrait without any rant,
And said that she requested him to hand it over to the College
As an incentive to others to teach the ignorant masses knowledge.
If one happens to belong to "the ignorant masses," of course, the last line is perhaps a slap in the face and a threat, but not something to be thankful for: the university will serve as a launch-pad for future careers in reform. Thus, one culture's "ignorance" justifies the other's right to impose its own construction of knowledge, while assigning itself the all-powerful position of a godly benefactor. The image of Miss Baxter donating a self-portrait reveals in microcosm what this university will mean. It assigns both glory and political power to the giver, whose fortunes are based directly on the economic exploitation of workers.
McGonagall also undermines the idea that the university will be of value to "the people" by describing its seemingly universal benefits in a way that makes the institution sound more like a luxury for the rich than a blessing bestowed on everyone:
I hope the ladies and gentlemen of Dundee will try and learn knowledge
At home in Dundee in their nice little Colleges,
Because knowledge is sweeter than honey or jam,
Therefore let them try and learn knowledge as quick as they can.
McGonagall's cumbersome use of the word "knowledge" has a defamiliarizing effect which makes it sound less like a noble pursuit and more like something to go with the luxuries of "honey or jam." Moreover, knowledge is a commodity that will be available only to those who can afford it: "the people" have now become "the ladies and gentlemen of Dundee." Knowledge is something which "they"--as opposed to "we"--will enjoy in "their nice little College," a cosy image which somewhat patronizingly insinuates the university will benefit only an exclusive minority.
The poem emphasizes the idea that the university will serve no practical purpose apart from providing a pastime for the idle rich. Not only is knowledge "sweeter than honey or jam" but it "will benefit you in your old age,/ And help you through this busy world to pass." McGonagall's reminder that "the man without knowledge is just like an ass" merely draws attention to the narrator's own unreliability in such matters. The only practical benefit McGonagall can foresee is that "many of [the students] will learn to be orators and preachers"--news that hardly explains why "Dundonians ought to feel overjoyed. . . ."
"Inauguration of the University College, Dundee" can be construed to satirize the arrogance of a philanthropy that presents education as a charitable donation to society. From the point of view of the excluded majority, McGonagall describes the university in such a way as to make it look like a gift from the rich to themselves for the sake of their own glory and prosperity. The final stanza lends itself particularly well to sarcastic enthusiasm from the oppositional perspective of McGonagall's audience:
I hope Miss Baxter will prosper for many a long day
For the money that she has given away,
May God shower his blessings on her wise head
And may all good angels guard her while living and hereafter when dead.
Based on our reading so far, we can understand how an audience may have felt a desire to get revenge on McGonagall and Miss Baxter by cheering the last line, which offers the possibility that he wishes her a swift end. The audience may also have found it very ironic that McGonagall should wish prosperity on the already-prosperous or hope that God will "shower his blessings on [Miss Baxter's] wise head." The "wise head," like the "nice little college" lends itself well to being re-articulated with a different evaluative accent as patronizing sarcasm. Although I would not necessarily want to rule out the possibility that the "real" McGonagall intended any of the above meanings, what really matters is the fact that the text opens up so much room for ideological opposition to overthrow the narrative voice.
Central to the ideology of reform in Britain was the middle-class conviction that alcohol abuse needed to be curbed. Like many middle-class reformers, McGonagall argued that "The Demon Drink" was simply the root cause of all family strife, crime, poverty, and disease. McGonagall seemed certain that if drinking were abolished "this world would be a heaven, whereas it's a hell" (Last Poetic Gems 12). Prohibition was the solution even to the poor problem: "Then poverty and crime would decrease and be at a stand,/ And Christ's Kingdom would soon be established throughout the land." While it is true that alcohol abuse has few redeeming benefits, portraying it as the cause of all evil merely amounts to de-politicizing the symptoms of class exploitation and scapegoating workers for "their own" vices. As Jack London pointed out, however, alcohol was for the "beer soaked" working-classes the only escape from a life that might otherwise have been unbearable. We must also remember that the pub was one of the main refuges of working-class culture; it was somewhere to socialize and sing; in addition, it was one of the few places where such political matters as strikes and nationalism could be discussed.
There were few ways in which McGonagall was more antagonistic to working-class culture than in his preaching against the "Demon Drink." Audiences did not gravitate to the pub or music hall in order to be lectured on the evils of their pastime. On the other hand, McGonagall supplied a comical burlesque of the blind fanaticism of many temperance crusaders. He is the perfect hypocrite in proclaiming that "Alas! strong drink makes men and women fanatics,/ And helps to fill our prisons and lunatics," for the "fool" himself appears somewhat drunk on self-righteousness (Last Poetic Gem 12). McGonagall's praise of the heroic Prince Leopold makes a mockery out of those who naively scapegoated alcohol:
Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience's hearts with glee,
With your charming songs and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think. (Poetic Gems 30)
Of course, the last line suggests that Leopold's thinking in regard to the nation's affairs was, like McGonagall's, not particularly far-reaching. The stanza is also interesting in that it highlights McGonagall's puritanical conception of entertainment. "Charming songs and lectures against strong drink" were not the sort of thing to fill the hearts of Dundee's hard-drinking workers with "glee," a comment which again provokes sarcastic re-construction from the working-class point of view.
The good deeds of another "hero of the temperance cause" were commemorated in "The Funeral of the Late Ex-Provost Rough, Dundee." McGonagall lauds Rough's efforts to curb drinking in the city by reducing the number of public houses from 620 to 300, a line which would seem like the ideal cue for a pelting or tongue-in-cheek ovation. But, above all, McGonagall sees Rough as a true martyr, who ultimately sacrificed his life to prove a point:
And when the good man's health began to decline
The doctor ordered him to take each day two glasses of wine,
But he soon saw the evil of it, and from it he shrunk,
The noble old patriarch, for fear of getting drunk.
And although the doctor advised him to continue taking the wine,
Still the hero of the temperance cause did decline,
And told the doctor he wouldn't of wine take any more,
So in a short time his spirit fled to heaven, where all troubles are o'er.
I'm sure very little good emanates from strong drink,
And many people, alas! it leads to hell's brink!
Some to the scaffold, and some to a pauper's grave,
Whereas if they would abstain from drink, Christ would them save.
True to form, McGonagall twists precisely the wrong moral from the events as he describes them. His choice of words emphasizes the direct causal relationship between Rough's death and his refusal to drink: not only does the doctor prescribe drinking in a dosage that would hardly place Rough in danger of getting drunk, but also, Rough dies immediately after his final refusal. 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 becoming addicted to "teatotalitarianism." Again we are faced with what appears to the "real" McGonagall, intentionally inverting the moral to create irony. For the "real" McGonagall, one suspects that the purpose of such irony is merely to create humour by victimizing himself. But it is in these self-contradictions that McGonagall opens up room for subversive reconstructions which completely undermine his various causes.
According to McGonagall, one of the worst side-effects of alcohol was its tendency to make people cry for Home Rule. In "The Demon Drink" he explains:
The man that gets drunk is little else than a fool,
And is in the habit, no doubt, of advocating Home Rule;
But the best Home Rule for him, as far as I can understand,
Is the abolition of strong drink from the land.
And the men that get drunk in general wants Home Rule;
But such men, I rather think should keep their heads cool,
And try and learn more sense, I most earnestly do pray,
And help to get strong drink abolished without delay.
If McGonagall's correlation between drunkenness and nationalism is correct, then it seems likely that the majority of Dundonians were in favour of Home Rule. McGonagall's own argument is obviously aimed at repressing the idea that English oppression is responsible for Scotland's woes. McGonagall tries to depoliticize the issue by turning the motto of "Home Rule" back on workers in the sense that it is their fault that Scotland is in such a mess, concluding his poem with a slightly modified slogan: "the abolition of strong drink is the only Home Rule." Thus, it is the worker whose indulgence in the evil practice of drinking is responsible for all of his or her problems. In view of the theatrical situation, we can see how the argument may have had a sling-shot effect. As the "fool" himself, he merely discredits the claim that "the man that gets drunk is little else than a fool," at least, "as far as I can understand." Also, the framing of prohibition (which scapegoats the worker) and Home Rule (which criticizes government) as two opposing alternatives express the way that the discourse of sobriety figures in the scheme of English domination. Not only is strong drink--particularly whiskey--a key component of the Scottish identity (as mythologized, for instance, by Burns in "Tam O' Shanter" and "Scotch Drink), but also, McGonagall exposes a connection between the liberation of one's real feelings and frustration with English rule: "But such men, I rather think should keep their heads cool."
At the heart of the philanthropic notion of culture was a belief in the inherent goodness of art and in its powers to civilize and enlighten. Social commentators such as Henry Mayhew had expressed the fear of society descending into chaos without a deeper appreciation of art. Appalled by the lack of culture he had witness in London's penny gaff theatres, Mayhew moralizes:
It is folly to fancy that the mind, spent with the irksomeness of compelled labour, and depressed perhaps, with the struggle to live . . . will not, when the work is over, seek out some place where it can forget its troubles. . . . It is because we exact too much of the poor--because we, as it were, strive to make true knowledge and true beauty as forbidding as possible to the uneducated and unrefined, that they fly to their penny gaffs, their twopenny-hops, their beer-shops, and their gambling-grounds for pleasures which we deny them, and which we, in our arrogance, believe it is possible for them to do without. (Mayhew 45)
Though he seems to recognize that the worker's sins are justified by the system which deprives him or her of material comforts, Mayhew places the blame on "non-development of the aesthetic faculty." Of course, Mayhew's "sympathetic" solution merely amounts to a rationale for improved social control and the legitimization of the ruling-class's own right to govern on the grounds of its greater knowledge of "humanity" (45).
As a preacher of "the sublime and the beautiful," McGonagall makes aestheticism look naive. By his own account, "William has been from his Boyhood a great admirer of every thing that is Considered to be beautiful sush [sic] as beautiful Rivers and mountain Scenery and beautiful landscapes, and great preachers, such as the Rev. George Gilfillan, and Great Poets" (McGonagall). Indeed McGonagall seldom strays very far from his favourite aesthetic catch-phrases: "beautiful," and "most beautiful to be seen," where beautiful can be conveniently interchanged with "wonderful," "magnificent," "gorgeous" and "handsome." Of course, the effect of McGonagall's inane, indiscriminate and incredibly repetitious aesthetic labelling is not only to undermine the sincerity and intelligence of his judgments, but to give "the beautiful" an ironic suggestiveness. We know that McGonagall sometimes used the word with intentional sarcasm, as in the title of "Lines in Praise of the Beautiful Poet Who Welcomed News of My Departure from Dundee." It also seems likely that the "real" McGonagall relies on aesthetic cliches so often because they are a running joke which, according to one writer's recollections, earned laughs "in season and out of season" ("Not So Daft"). Yet, regardless of McGonagall's real intentions, his recourse to "the sublime and the beautiful" not only increased his value as the butt of ridicule, but also created a strong association between admiring "the beautiful" and being naive, especially in so many of his poems about beautiful scenery.
"The Moon" (Poetic Gems 73) is our best illustration of how McGonagall's depiction of "the beautiful" highlights the failure of art to compensate for more political necessities. Descriptions of natural beauty and innocence are undercut by images of a decidedly more cunning and practical nature. The poet's obliviousness to those images which are obviously not beautiful highlights his own blindness as well as that of his high-minded Victorian idealism.
The poem opens with McGonagall in his classical pose as the art poet, addressing flattery to the lofty object of admiration:
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.
While the moonstruck poet is captivated by an idealized beauty that is "in the sky so high" and his overly sentimental vision is blinded by "a tear of joy," a number of sinister shadows gradually creep into the background:
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.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the fox in the night,
And lettest him see to steal the grey goose away
Out of the farm-yard from a stack of hay.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the farmer in the night,
And makest his heart beat high with delight
As he views his crops by the light in the night.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the eagle in the night,
And lettest him see to devour his prey
And carry it to his nest away.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the mariner in the night;
As he paces the deck alone,
Thinking of his dear friends at home.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the weary traveller in the night;
For thou lightest up the wayside around
To him when he is homeward bound.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the lovers in the night
As they walk through the shady groves alone,
Making love to each other before they go home.
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou cheerest the poacher in the night;
For thou lettest him see to set his snares
To catch the rabbits and the hares.
While McGonagall naively enumerates all of the moon's benefits with the repetition of "thou cheerest" in the third line of each stanza, his ornate diction and innocent sentimentality are undermined by images of those who capitalize on the sleeping world: the eskimo harpoons the fish, the fox steals the goose, the eagle devours its prey, the lovers make love, and the poacher carries on his illegal business. Of course, these lines may simply have been intended by the "real" McGonagall as the kind of self-victimizing "punch-lines" that entertained his audience and kept the hoax alive. Yet, in the larger sense--and this would be particularly obvious in theatrical situation--the poem's events take advantage of the poet's naivete, making both himself and his aestheticism look utterly blind. The audience would have especially enjoyed the way that McGonagall's attempts to transcend the material world are sabotaged by transactions taking place closer to the ground, nearer to the world of reality and the practical business of survival. At the same time, the seemingly philanthropic "silvery light" functions as a kind of smoke-screen for more ruthless, sinister and indeed capitalistic background operations. In this respect the poem compares interestingly to "Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay" (Poetic Gems 41).
McGonagall's most famous poem has always been his address to the Tay Bridge, a hymn to industrial progress. The poem commemorates the anticipated opening of what was, for a short time, the world's longest bridge and one of the greatest infrastructural achievements of the Victorian era. Less than two years after its completion, the bridge collapsed, killing 75 passengers and assuring McGonagall's immortality. The poem itself had been a great embarrassment to "progress" from its original publication in the weekly news (when McGonagall was first pronounced "Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge") onward. Both John Prebble's novel, The High Girders, and Michael Barry's play, The Tay Bridge Disaster, make use of McGonagall's Tay Bridge trilogy (the other two pieces are "The Tay Bridge Disaster" and "Address to the New Tay Bridge") as a kind of chorus, emphasizing the arrogance and naivete of those associated with the bridge's construction, and, more generally, as a comment upon Victorian progressivism and imperialism. McGonagall may have done a better job of mocking the project himself, performing the poem in "a melo-dramatic strain," "seem[ing] to pour his whole heart into the reading," or "ranting" the poem to the tune of "something like Johnny Cope." His audience appears to have interpreted the poem with shows of ironic support, hailing recitations with "enthusiastic applause and waving of hats" ("Grand Entertainment by Mr M`Gonagall"). On one occasion, the reading was drowned in a chorus of "Rule Britannia," a gesture that may have been aimed at mocking McGonagall's loyalty to Victoria (whom McGonagall tells us is "most gorgeous to be seen" in the poem) or it may have signalled a certain recognition and disapproval of the bridge's role in connecting Dundee to an English-dominated empire.
Yet McGonagall celebrates the bridge's opening, first and foremost, as an aesthetic accomplishment, chanting "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!" in the first line of each stanza. The word "beautiful" has already become obnoxious after the first stanza, which asserts that the bridge is "a great beautification to the River Tay" and "Most beautiful to be seen. . . ." In the sixth stanza, "beautiful" takes on fully ironic connotations, for McGonagall draws attention to the fragility of the bridge in the prayer that became prophesy:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
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.
Of course, McGonagall, like many Dundonians, may have been fully aware of the bridge's frailty, since its central girders had already been blown down once by high winds during construction, killing one of the twenty workers who were to die before the project was finished (Prebble 238). Yet, from his contemporary audience's point of view, the prophesy was also an embarrassment to McGonagall, who was--at least on the surface of things--proud to have been named "Poet Laureate of the Tay Bridge," and too naive to be suspected of criticism.
The text also embarrasses everyone associated with the project. Though McGonagall apparently means to celebrate the bridge as a universal accomplishment that will benefit everyone, his words can be construed in such a way as to give the impression that it exists for the aesthetic pleasure of a privileged minority. There is no mention of any practical use for the bridge. What would strike the typical Dundonian as most significant is the fact that the poet does not even bother to acknowledge the workers who built it or died in the effort.
The only persons who stood to benefit directly from the bridge were Provost Cox and the two designers, all of whom are wished "prosperity" despite their wealth. Cox, who was the head of both local government and the largest jute industry in the world, would gain directly from greater access to English markets. McGonagall, on the surface of things, intends to commend Cox's generosity, but the text draws attention, not only to the fact that it is Cox--rather than the people of Dundee--who will prosper from his philanthropy, but also to the question of whether his "Thirty thousand pounds and upwards"--"most handsome to be seen"--was ultimately gleaned from the pockets of textile workers. The audience also gets the impression that much of the money was quietly "given away" to Bouche and Grothe, who are blessed again with McGonagall's hopes that they will enjoy "prosperity." Most obviously, the engineers, who receive mention in the stanza immediately following the prophesy, are made to appear directly responsible for any dangers.
In addition to anti-imperialistic implications made available in "The Demon Drink" and perhaps also by "The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay," the "Ode to the Queen on Her Jubilee" (Poetic Gems 25-6) hints of political unrest, although the piece does not undermine philanthropy it does enable the audience to mock the figure-head of colonial domination. McGonagall attempts to create a spirit of universal celebration "because a good and charitable Sovereign she has been", but the text seems to give the impression that he is trying to persuade his audience from a rather unhappy state of mind; he harangues the reader no less than seventeen times with reminders such as "Therefore, ye sons of Great Britain, come join with me,/ And welcome in our most noble Queen's Jubilee," and:
Therefore let all her subjects rejoice and sing,
Until they make the welkin ring;
And let young and old on this her Jubilee be glad, And cry, "Long Live our Queen" and don't be sad.
Obviously, this is not the sort of thing that one says at an anniversary celebration. Thus, in the act of attempting to suppress all voices but that of the dominant society, McGonagall calls loyalty to the British crown into question. Indeed, the very next stanza expresses his hope that "God will protect [the Queen] for many a day." If the reader should be curious as to why another clue immediately follows:
Let all hatred towards her be thrown aside
All o'er her dominions broad and wide.
And let all her subjects bear in mind,
By God kings and queens are put in trust o'er mankind.
Of course, anyone in favour of Home Rule is given the perfect opportunity to voice total agreement, since McGonagall is literally declaring that hatred will be spread rather than dissipated "all o'er he dominions broad and wide." Not only does McGonagall embarrassingly imply that the Queen is not liked by everyone, but, lest anyone in Scotland should be thinking disloyal or democratic thoughts, he is careful to remind "all her subjects" that the society's rulers are placed in power by God. The monarchy is above politics.
It is not, however, above the laughter that would have been inspired by the following couplet: "And as this is her first Jubilee year, / And will be her last, I rather fear. . . ." While this joke obviously victimizes McGonagall by making him look stupid, it also creates another ambiguity though which the audience can express anti-imperialistic sentiments. By voicing its approbation, the audience could be wishing that this is simply Victoria's final year.
In the final stanza, McGonagall's insistence that "Victoria is a good Queen, which all her subjects know" is immediately undermined by a contradiction: "And for that may God protect her from every foe." Again, McGonagall invokes the divine right of kings but in such a way as to make the queen's role look suspicious: "May He be as a hedge around her, as He's been all along,/ And let her live and die in peace--is the end of my song." One is tempted to recall the meaning of these lines in Hamlet, when uttered by Claudius amidst the spoils of an ill-got kingdom. But, assuming McGonagall's audience did not appreciate Shakespeare (as he claims in "Shakespeare Reviewed"), one still gets the image of God in complicity with royalty, "as He's been all along." "He" is an agent of mystification, protecting affluence by obscuring it from view.
McGonagall's preoccupation with the Queen's health and happiness may have invited ironic interpretation, especially if the following lines were read melodramatically:
Therefore rejoice and be glad on this her Jubilee day,
And try and make the heart of our Queen feel gay;
Oh! try and make her happy in country and town,
And not with Shakespeare say, "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."
It must have seemed very ironic to McGonagall's audience that he should be so preoccupied with trying to cheer Victoria or hoping that the head of one who lies amidst the more luxury than anyone else's should lie easy. Of course the audience could also pick up the literal meaning that the head of the one that wears the crown does indeed lie easy. The relationship between class and imperial domination is also important in McGonagall's glorification of military duty. One of the very few ways for the common man to win recognition in McGonagall's verses is by risking his life on the battlefield. Yet, clearly the real glory is reserved for the heroic leaders, such as Generals Gordon, Graham (Still More "General Gordon" 22-4) Stewart (Poetic Gems, "Battle of Abu Klea" 55), Wolsely (Poetic Gems, The Battle of Tel-El-Kebir 39), and Roberts (Last Poetic Gems, "General Roberts" 76), while the common soldier, or "Tommy Atkins," was more likely to be portrayed in anonymous and pathetic ways, as we see in "Lines in Praise of Tommy Atkins":
Oh, think of Tommy Atkins when from home far away,
Lying on the battlefield, earth's cold clay;
And a stone or his knapsack pillowing his head,
And his comrades lying near by him wounded and dead. (Yet More 11-12)
"Lines in Praise of Tommy Atkins" is McGonagall's naive rebuttal to Kipling's "Absent-Minded Beggar," a title which McGonagall takes literally as a slander upon Tommy, for "To call a soldier a beggar is a very degrading name." According to Robert MacDonald, McGonagall, "who was close enough to beggary himself, seems to be voicing the consciousness of his class and of his nation: `a man's a man for a' that.'" But McGonagall's whole point seems to be precisely the opposite; he draws a very clear line between soldiers and beggars. Tommy, in sharp contrast to the unemployed, is "a very brave man" and "to face foreign foes he's never afraid, / Therefore he's not a beggar, as Rudyard Kipling has said." Furthermore, "To call a soldier a beggar is a very degrading name." We are reminded that Tommy is no beggar eight times in ten stanzas. The propaganda of recruitment is aimed at repressing the fact that Atkins usually is a beggar. It depoliticizes the reasons for both recruitment and beggary by treating war as the heroic alternative to starvation: a person is either a brave soldier or a cowardly disgrace. In a society where the majority lived in poverty and most soldiers had volunteered out of sheer necessity, McGonagall's defensiveness only underlines the fact that Atkins has no real choice left between starving and dying on the field:
No, he's paid by our Government, and is worthy of his hire;
And from our shores in time of war he makes our foes retire,
He doesn't need to beg; no, nothing so low;
No, he considers it more honourable to face a foreign foe.
Thus, Atkins does not "need" to beg only because he "chooses" to put his life on the line. McGonagall's argument does not reflect a genuine loyalty to the common soldier but rather it mindlessly echoes the position of the government which paid Atkins about the same as begging while forcing him to endure harsh discipline and miserable conditions. Whereas begging is a liability to the state, the sacrifice of life and limb is a very precious asset. McGonagall spells out the equation quite clearly:
No, he's not a beggar, he's a more useful man,
And, as Shakespeare has said, his life's but a span;
And at the cannon's mouth he speaks for reputation,
He doesn't need to go from door to door seeking a donation.
McGonagall emphasizes the idea that Atkins is "useful" in a suicidal capacity at the "cannon's mouth" and in the sense that "his life's but a span." McGonagall's choice of words also makes room for the implication that the soldier's life is destined to be "used," a rather sinister theme which the final line brings home forebodingly: "And remember Tommy Atkins is a very useful man."
A final way in which McGonagall encourages the audience to undermine philanthropy is through his embarrassing depiction of the "heroarchy" in his odes and elegies on many of society's leaders. As mentioned in the previous chapter, McGonagall was actually advertized on the basis of the fact that he could "extract laughter" from funerals. And, in view of what we know about his performance and reception, we can very well understand how poetry that deals with such a serious matter could have attracted the most intense laughter.
McGonagall's funniest funeral ode is "The Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie" (Poetic Gems 27-29). The poem begins with a melodramatic line that leaves open the implication that the public has been somewhat impatiently awaiting the deaths of the Dalhousies: "Alas, Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last/ Which causes many people to feel a little downcast." The second line suggests that the two will not be particularly missed. The poem continues to offer opportunities for the expression of inverted sentiments throughout by emphasizing the theme of insincerity:
About eleven o'clock the remains reached Dalhousie,
And were met by a body of the tenantry;
They conveyed them inside the building, all seemingly woe begone.
And among those that sent wreaths was Lord Claude Hamilton.
Those that sent wreaths were but very few,
But one in particular was the Duke of Bucceleuch;
Besides Dr Herbert Spencer, and Countess Roseberry, and Lady Bennett,
Which no doubt were sent by them with heartfelt regret.
While the humorously stretched end-rhymes and ridiculously pedantic details are amusing, the notion that all were "seemingly woe begone" re-inforces the theme of the opening lines, and the fact that few wreaths were sent suggests again that no one was particularly affected. Towards the end of the poem, McGonagall notes that "in every one's face standing at the grave was depicted sorrow," as if to say that the faces were merely an artful contrivance for the official occasion. Finally, the poem's concluding couplet supplies a hilarious dénouement to this intriguing subplot:
And as two coffins were lowered into their last resting place,
Then the people retired with sad hearts at a quick pace.
The humorous implications are entertaining in a satiric way, but not particularly subversive in this poem and many others which make use of the same cliché phrases, pedantic details, and acrobatic end-rhymes. Yet, the mere fact that the funeral is used to encourage humorous word-play is, I think, very political. While the working-class audience may have seemed to be laughing only at McGonagall's ridiculous poetry, it also was given the opportunity to indirectly express its frustration with the ruling class. Indeed, to laugh at a one of "officialdom's" most sacred and self-important rites is an kind of sacrilege.
Many odes and elegies do offer occasional "jokes" that could be construed as deeper social criticism. McGonagall's depiction of Tennyson leaves the audience to conclude that the reclusive laureate had not exactly been a "poet of the people":
He was a man that didn't care for company,
Because company interfered with his study,
And confused the bright ideas in his brain,
And for that reason from company he liked to abstain. (Last Gems 35)
In "An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan" (Authentic Autobiography 5; "Brief Autobiography 7). McGonagall records that "The first time I heard [Gilfillan] speak,/ Was in Kinnaird Hall,/ Lecturing on the Garibaldi movement,/ As loud as he could bawl." The poem concludes with a recyclable couplet that seems to get used on all of his living subjects, it is a line that always leaves open the dangerous implication that a funeral is eagerly anticipated: "May all good angels guard him while living,/ And hereafter when dead." This strange tendency to dwell on the deaths of important personages is especially prominent in his poems about Victoria, as, for instance, in his commemoration of "The Attempted Assassination of the Queen," a song which begins:
God prosper long our noble Queen,
And long may she reign!
Maclean he tried to shoot her,
But it was all in vain.
For God He turned the ball aside
MacLean aimed at her head;
And he felt very angry
Because he didn't shoot her dead.
(Poetic Gems 68).
That the attempt proved "all in vain" may be taken to suggest that a happier outcome had been anticipated. Also, the way that "he" is stressed in the penultimate line leaves open the humorous possibility that God was angered by MacLean's failure.
In this chapter, I have attempted only a brief study of McGonagall's texts as they might have looked from a working-class point of view within the fuller context of a historical situation that includes such factors as McGonagall's persona, records of performances and working-class values. On one hand, I have clarified some of the ways in which McGonagall re-presents the various discourses of class domination. On the other, I have focused particularly on texts which reveal how McGonagall's attempts to universalize the dominant society's values undermine themselves in mind of a larger historical context that incorporates the working-class point of view. It would be misleading however, to say that the selection provided here is totally representative. Firstly, the majority of McGonagall's texts--looked at as isolated works--are not humorous, ironic or particularly subversive; in this sense, we cannot read McGonagall simply as we would a fictional fool or consciously contrived persona. Nonetheless, the larger, cumulative effects of McGonagall's presentation and the dramatic context, are ironic. For the purpose of understanding McGonagall as he looked to the culture that surrounded him, we can say that the ironic effect of his writing, persona, and dramatization is the politically potent element. The violent opposition McGonagall elicited from his contemporary music-hall audience proves that the canon I have constructed is similar in spirit to that which was appropriated by the working-class. Obviously, it would be absurd to suggest that such meanings were always consciously appropriated, or that my deliberate misreading is the only working-class interpretation available, but it is clear that McGonagall's theatre of class struggle was the symbolic battleground for very real conflicts over the meaning and value of his words.
No more shall the roughs of Bonnie Dundee
Get the chance of insulting or throwing missiles at me. (qtd in Phillips 173)
I have argued that McGonagall's own role as both an antagonistic "fool" and the theatrical "site" of hostile class discourses was politically subversive in the sense that it exposed the values of the dominant society to symbolic attacks. One measure of the extent to which McGonagall succeeded in delegitimizing philanthropy is the degree to which his "mission" failed. Not only did the working-class audience reduce his various causes to ridicule by outwitting, humiliating and overthrowing him in the theatrical situation, but the mission ultimately had to be aborted, as he explains in "New Year's Resolution to Leave Dundee" (1893):
Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
`There goes Mad McGonagall'
In derisive shouts, as loud as they can bawl
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me; And such actions are shameful to be heard in the
City of Dundee.
An even better indication of the extent to which McGonagall undermined the dominant ideology is to be found in the reaction of the city's authorities. When his audiences at Baron Zeiger's Circus of Varieties started to become too riotous in 1889, McGonagall was banned by Dundee's magistrates from any further appearances. According to a letter which McGonagall submitted to the Weekly News on September 13, 1890, the ban extended to all places of public amusement. In the note, he appeals to "ye electors of the city of Dundee" for support in his fight against the magistrates: "`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" (qtd. in Phillips 183).
While the ban may simply reflect a concern for the protection of property and the maintenance of order, it can also be seen as a form of censorship in response to the expression of working-class frustration, for McGonagall was provoking precisely the kind of "uproarious" behaviour that those committed to reforming and otherwise taming the working class feared most.
On the other hand, I would not want to rule out the possibility that the "respectable" classes of Dundee recognized McGonagall's potence as a both a provoker of working-class opposition and a disgrace to the monuments of officialdom. The repression of McGonagall at the unveiling of a Burns Statue in Dundee's Albert Square is a case in point:
I will ever remember the day I walked in the Burns' procession in Highland costume with the manuscript of the Burns' Statue poem in my hand, which I willingly would have read had I been permitted, but no! when I made the attempt for the third time, to get onto the platform, I was told by the police to go away, just the same as if I had been a dog. (qtd. in Phillips 216)
According to a columnist in the Weekly News, McGonagall was excluded on the grounds that he was not a "representative body.":
"McGonagall maintained his right. He was a citizen of Dundee. Moreover, he was a poet, and therefore the true representative of his brother poet. McGonagall demonstrated, and he was cheered all along the line. . . ." (qtd. in Phillips 216)
Had he been permitted to read his effusion, it might have been clearer just whose interests were being represented:
This Statue, I must confess, is magnificent to see,
And I hope will long be appreciated by the people of Dundee
It has been beautifully made by Sir John Steell,
And I hope the pangs of hunger he will never feel.
Although we cannot be completely sure that McGonagall intended to make a comment about the misappropriation of public funds on expensive monuments while so many Dundonians, like himself, felt "the pangs of hunger," his ironic concern for Sir John Steell's welfare is certainly a "punch line" which the working-class audience would have found convenient in the expression of its own concerns.
That the poet who dedicated more of his life than any other to the immortalization of official monuments, occasions, and dignitaries continues to this day to go unrecognized in Dundee serves as a reminder of the extent to which McGonagall's songs of praise embarrassed the dominant culture's achievements. True, there is a small, rectangle of tin on Paton's Lane entitled "McGonagall Square," almost seeming to refer to itself in a final mock-tribute, but actually, I think, referring to the seniors' complex near where his home once stood. There is also, fittingly, a pub named after him. Yet it seems as though the ban on McGonagall were never lifted. In the absence of any prominent celebration of one of Dundee's most famous citizens during the city's recent Octocentenary, I assume that McGonagall has not been considered "relevant" to the city's cultural heritage. Discovering Dundee: The Story of a City contains only the smallest of entries on McGonagall, "about whom the world has already heard far more than it needs . . ." (69).
While the difficult but intriguing question of exactly what McGonagall means in the larger context of today's Scotland is beyond the scope of this paper, the significance of our findings in popular cultural history requires further explanation. One cannot fail to be impressed by the fact that not a single critic to have written about McGonagall has adequately dealt with the questions of what he meant within working-class culture, or, what his ongoing battle with the Dundonian public may tell us about working-class culture in Scotland during the Victorian era.
In his essay on "The Patriotic Muse of William McGonagall: Imperialism and the Great Scots Joke" Robert MacDonald has argued that McGonagall's loyalty to the British crown and his support of imperial warfare is proof that "imperialism had taken hold of popular consciousness," but the essay ignores records of his performances which tell us that McGonagall was a prime example of unpopular consciousness. MacDonald leaves the problem of working-class reception untouched, merely asking "does naive literature have an equally naive audience?" All of the evidence discussed in this study answers with a resounding "No." While it has not been my specific intention in a thesis that deals with philanthropy to resolve the debate on whether or not imperial fervour had taken hold in Scotland, it does bear repeating that some evidence of unpatriotic behaviour discussed earlier suggests that imperialism had not taken hold of McGonagall's audience.
The danger of reading McGonagall as a representative of working-class culture is not merely one of allowing ourselves to imagine a culture that was as naive as McGonagall; it is also a danger of denying the existence of working-class cultural history altogether. This becomes more obvious upon turning to the history of late-nineteenth century Dundee--"McGonagall's Dundee," as Bruce Lenman calls it. Lenman argues upon no investigation of popular cultural sources that
...[M]cGonagall's] lines enshrine the commonplaces of the society he lived in. McGonagall's Dundee was a Christian and a Liberal society in the sense that there was no serious challenge to the dominance of the Christian and Liberal values of successful Victorian industrialism. (Lenman 184)
Echoing Lenman, William Walker, author of Juteopolis: Dundee and its Textile Workers, 1885-1923, has suggested that "in the self-activity of workers" there was not "the germ of an alternative culture." Walker argues that socialist critics have long tried to "disguise the failure to find values genuinely alternative to those of `bourgeois' society" (30). Accordingly, he explains that the doctrine of "respectability" was ultimately what enabled workers to gain legitimacy and the political leverage necessary to escape their misery. The assumption here is that working-class culture can only be defined as "cultural backwardness" (32). Only four out of Walker's 536 pages of labour history are devoted to exploring working-class cultural expression, and it is here that "McGonagall's Dundee" resurfaces:
That the "Christian and Liberal values of successful Victorian industrialism" had a blanket persuasiveness is borne out by the popular song and verses in the city. (56)
Walker concedes that "the content of popular poetry . . . would require to pass through the filter of bourgeois approval before being preserved by municipal archivists" (56), but he fails to acknowledge that all but one of the verses he quotes have passed through the filter of bourgeois approval of one A. C. Lamb, antiquarian, owner of Lamb's Temperance Hotel, author of Quaint and Historic Buildings of Dundee, and McGonagall's chief benefactor. The sole verse quoted from outside Lamb's collection, most notably excludes this couplet from the same song:
Oh, dear me the warld's ill-divided,
Them that work the hardest are aye wi' least provided. (Kay 36)
Evidently, the song had had to pass through another filter of approval before it could be brought to bear on the conclusion that "[i]t is possible to find in Dundee folksong of a genuinely working-class flavour, but the language is of lament not assertiveness" (Walker 59).
In this paper I have re-constructed the theatre of class struggle as part of the larger project of reclaiming a working-class history that has been largely excluded from historical and literary narratives. In demonstrating that there was significant ideological opposition to McGonagall's discourse, this study has given us a glimpse of a culture collectively affirming its own existence. Such a project is at one with the reconstruction of other cultural voices and evaluative accents that have been, and continue to be, excluded from histories--even working-class histories--written in large part by "the tiny elite who most obviously made history, won a reputation, and lapsed from time to time into moral conceit" (Walker, 536).
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---. Poetic Gems, Selected from the Works of William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian, with Biographical Sketch and Reminiscences by the Author and Portrait Dundee: Winter, 1976.
---. "Preface." See "Reminiscences."
---. "Reminiscences." Poetic Gems (Second Series). Rpt. in Poetic Gems, Selected from the Works of William
McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian, with Biographical Sketch and Reminiscences by the Author and Portrait Dundee: Winter, 1976. 12-18. Also rpt. as "Preface." in McGonagall: A Library Omnibus. 9-21.
---. "Shakspeare Reviewed." 1878. In Dundee Central Public Library, D3674ID80.71.
---. Still More Poetic Gems. London: Duckworth, 1980. Rpt. in McGonagall: A Library Omnibus.
---. "A Summary History of Poet McGonagall" . Rpt. in McGonagall, A Library Omnibus. 5-8.
---. Wm. M'Gonagall, Poet: A Choice Selection of his Best Pieces with a Sketch of his Life and Work, Critical and Biographical by Lowden McCartney Glasgow: J & D.R. Burnside, 1934.
---. Yet More Poetic Gems. London: Duckworth, 1980. Rpt. in McGonagall: A Library Omnibus.
McPhail, Charles. "The Real McGonagall: A man who knew the squelch of a ripe tomato." Weekly Scotsman [Edinburgh] 29 Mar. 1962. In "William McGonagall Presscuttings" 38-9.
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1. 1. There have been many revised editions of Poetic Gems. The first edition was printed in 1890, followed a year later by Poetic Gems (Second Series) which contained a completely different selection. The two were first published together in one edition in 1934 and reached a twelfth impression in 1963 (J. L. Smith, Editor's Note). Numerous editions have followed under the same name.
2. 2. In 1884, 100,000 Dundonians lived in dwellings of two rooms or less ("Female Industries" 5f); the city's population was then 120,000 ("Visit of the Tay Whale.")
3. 3. Evaluative accent is a term used in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language by V. N. Voloshinov of the Bakhtin circle (22). The concept of "universalization" is based on Voloshinov's theory that the ruling class "strives to impart a supraclass eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgments which occurs in it, to make the sign uniaccentual" (23).
4. 4. Quoted from the cover dedication to This is the Book of Lamentation of the Poet McGonagall, a spurious autobiography that satirizes McGonagall's arrogance.
5. 5. Of the few writers who claimed to have met McGonagall none had more than the briefest of acquaintances with him. McGonagall's three brief "autobiographies" are wildly contradictory in places. For example, "A Summary History of Poet McGonagall" and The Authentic Autobiography of the Poet McGonagall, (Written by Himself) recount two childhoods spent in entirely different parts of Scotland. On the other hand, the Census of 1841-51 suggests that McGonagall--who was fifteen at the time--was born in Ireland and that the family had migrated to Scotland less than five years earlier (the last of his siblings to be born in Ireland was four years old).
6. 6. Bold explains some of the reasons why the oral bad, in sharp contrast to the broadside, has earned more attention and respect from those who come to them with a "literary point of view":
Whereas popular ballads were, ideally, transmitted orally, broadsides were hastily issued for commercial gain; whereas popular ballads were the work of anonymous amateurs, broadsides were usually the work of hacks; whereas popular ballads were timeless, broadsides were topical; whereas popular ballads were largely rural entertainments, broadsides were eagerly devoured by the urban masses . . . (66).
7. 7. According to Natascha Wursbach, "we cannot overlook the close link between the writing of the street ballad and its performance, and the resulting more complex process of initial reception" (15).
8. 8. For the fullest account of McGonagall's early days in the penny gaffs, see "Recollections of `a Stage-Struck Hero' (by an Old Stager)" in the People's Journal of 22 June 1872. Parts of the article are quoted in David Phillips' No Poets' Corner (48-51).
9. 9. This is a personal calculation based on references to be found in No Poets' Corner, the "McGonagall Newspaper Clippings" at Dundee Central Public Library, McGonagall's "Reminiscences," The Authentic Autobiography, The Autobiography of Sir William Topaz McGonagall, as well as "William McGonagall Presscuttings" at Edinburgh Central Public Library, and the recollections of Neil Munro, William Power, and Lewis Spence.