Over the years, I’ve been forced to read many a poem, and, while I can appreciate the effort it takes to compose one, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the art form.
However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a favorite poet.
During my trip to Scotland last year, I came across a plaque dedicated to the supposed worst poet in the world, William Topaz McGonagall. Prior to my visit, I’d never heard of this man and so decided to conduct a more thorough investigation of him once I returned to the states.
McGonagall was a weaver whom, at the age of 52, was suddenly struck by the idea that he should quit his job and make poetry his life’s vocation.
He was very prolific and composed around 215 poems over the course of several years, all of which covered a wide range of topics from the military, to famous people, to current events.
Apparently his poetry was so awful that it was a common practice for the city folk to throw rotten vegetables at him and jeer during his recitals.
Example of his work:
Welcome! thrice welcome! to the year 1893,
For it is the year I intend to leave Dundee,
Owing to the treatment I receive,
Which does my heart sadly grieve.
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.
And I’m ashamed, kind Christians, to confess
That from the Magistrates I can get no redress.
Therefore I have made up my mind in the year of 1893
To leave the ancient City of Dundee,
Because the citizens and me cannot agree.
The reason why? — because they disrespect me,
Which makes me feel rather discontent.
Therefore to leave them I am bent;
And I will make my arrangements without delay,
And leave Dundee some early day.
McGonagall was so convinced that he was a misunderstood genius that he walked 50 miles to gain the patronage of Queen Victoria, only to be told when he arrived to leave and never come back.
Knowing all of this, I think it’s difficult not to love the guy. Not only did he quit his job to do what he loved at a time when this most assuredly meant starvation, he would not let anyone convince him he shouldn’t write.
Was he an egotist? Oh yeah. In fact he seemed to be so oblivious to how bad of a writer he was that some historians are convinced it was all an act. Me, I’m not so sure.
McGonagall may have died a virtually penniless laughingstock, but there’s a bit of poetic irony to this story.
In spite of all the backlash his poetry received, every single one of McGonagall’s poems has been published. More to the point, his name and his legacy have endured centuries while other more talented poets have died forgotten.
As much as the cliché of following your dreams gets thrown around, it seems to have benefitted McGonagall. He didn’t let anyone persuade him to retire his quill and as a result he has earned himself a place in history.
It’s at the back of the bus with no air conditioning and a five year-old continuously kicking the headrest, but it’s a place nonetheless.
If someone like McGonagall can make his dreams come true, than by God so can we.