Remembering William McGonagall

Monday, May 19, 2008

I first came across information about the gentleman (1825-1902) years ago in Gilbert Highet's book of literary essays A Clerk of Oxenford, but William McGonagall has been brought to my attention again by a news item in The Wall Street Journal. (Thanks, Brother Paul, for sending me the link!)

McGonagall is widely accepted as the worst poet in the English language. Here, for example, are the closing lines of his "An Address to Shakespeare":

"Immortal! Bard of Avon, your writings are divine,

And will live in the memories of your admirers until the end of time;

Your plays are read in family circles with wonder and delight,

While seated around the fireside on a cold winter's night."

He wrote many poems about disasters, such as "The Clepington Catastrophe," which begins:

"'Twas on a Monday morning, and in the year of 1884,

That a fire broke out in Bailie Bradford's store,

Which contained bales of jute and large quantities of waste,

Which the brave firemen ran to extinguish in great haste."

There is a lovely website devoted to his work; I recommend it, whether you have time to read only a single verse or the entirety of his autobiography.

But the inspiring news of the day is that, in a Friday auction, 35 of McGonagall's broadsheets brought $13,200 from an anonymous buyer: in the words of the Wall Street Journal article, "$1,200 more than was bid at the same auction for a collection of Harry Potter first editions signed by J.K. Rowling -- and much more than a set of first editions of Sir Walter Scott, a wildly popular writer during Mr. McGonagall's time."

It is somehow sweet that the poet, who died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave (though it is marked well these days), produced a body of work that is cherished today -- for whatever reason.


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