William McGonagall: A Small Celebration of the Worst Poet in Great Britain

William McGonagall: A Small Celebration of the Worst Poet in Great Britain March 2, 2017

It all started when I noted that the eighth and last attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria took place on this day in 1882. The attempt was by Roderick McLean, a poet who appears to have been offended by what he considered a curt response when he had sent a sample of his work to the Queen.

That led me to think a number of things, not least of which, was, oh my, eight assassination attempts? Considering the length of her reign that’s basically one every eight years.

But, actually where I found I landed in my ruminations was how in the Wikipedia article on the lamented McLean (incidentally, found not guilty, but insane, which so offended the Queen that the offense would become guilty, but insane.), which then added in a small tidbit.

It noted how another poet, William Topaz McGonagall offered up his own verse about this last assassination attempt. It added that by general assent Mr McConagall, an Irish born Scottish poet, was the worst poet in the English speaking world.

That caught my attention.

William McGonagall who was born in 1825, started out life as a weaver. Apparently he was very good at this, and for many years prospered. He attempted acting, but was not as good at it as he was a weaver. One report says that while playing Macbeth, he felt the actor playing Macduff had tried to upstage him, and so when the time came to die, he refused to pass away.

Fortunes change, eventually his business collapsed and he found himself in danger of penury. In that moment the muse struck. He reported an experience, it “seemed to feel a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry.” And, so he did.

He thought it would be a good idea that the Queen be his patron, so he sent her some of his work. He received a polite letter from the palace. Unlike Mr McLean, he took what others would have considered a brush off as complementing is work and as an honor, and gradually seemed to think he was in fact the Queen’s poet. He went on to write, some two hundred of his poems published in his life time. Another fifty or so published after his death. Two of them, most notably the Tay Bridge Disaster, have achieved renown as the generally acclaimed worst poems ever written in the English language.

The Wikipedia article on William McGonagall tells us “the chief criticisms (of him as a poet) are that he is deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. McGonagall’s fame stems from the humorous effects these shortcomings are considered to generate in his work. Scholars argue that his inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary, and ill-advised imagery combine to make his work amongst the most unintentionally amusing dramatic poetry in the English language.”

In fact his story is a sad one. He appears to have been invincibly delusional. On the other hand while often mocked, actually the term ravaged is probably more accurate, he did acquire a small following and a measure of success.

He sold his poetry, sometime on the streets, sometimes published, and he eked out a living for some twenty-five years. He was fortunate enough to have friends and supporters who helped ease the way, but nonetheless died in poverty.

At the end his legacy would be those two hundred, fifty or so poems.

Among those poems that one in honor of Queen Victoria

Attempted Assassination of the Queen

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.

There’s a divinity that hedges a king,
And so it does seem,
And my opinion is, it has hedged
Our most gracious Queen.

Maclean must be a madman,
Which is obvious to be seen,
Or else he wouldn’t have tried to shoot
Our most beloved Queen.

Victoria is a good Queen,
Which all her subjects know,
And for that God has protected her
From all her deadly foes.

She is noble and generous,
Her subjects must confess;
There hasn’t been her equal
Since the days of good Queen Bess.

Long may she be spared to roam
Among the bonnie Highland floral,
And spend many a happy day
In the palace of Balmoral.

Because she is very kind
To the old women there,
And allows them bread, tea, and sugar,
And each one get a share.

And when they know of her coming,
Their hearts feel overjoy’d,
Because, in general, she finds work
For men that’s unemploy’d.

And she also gives the gipsies money
While at Balmoral, I’ve been told,
And, mind ye, seldom silver,
But very often gold.

I hope God will protect her
By night and by day,
At home and abroad,
When she’s far away.

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.

And as you lasted all the way to here, here and at no extra charge, William McGonagall celebrates his fellow poet Robert Burns.

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