A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday September 2nd, 2007
Folks frequently want to know how I come up with the inspiration for my sermons (and particularly sermons like this one, on "the world's worst poet"), and usually I'm at something of a loss to tell them. I mean, who really knows where these things come from, originally? But this morning I can tell you PRECISELY how and when and where the Muse whispered to me in a mysterious way. It was Sunday, July 5th, 1987; and I was sitting out by the swimming pool at the parsonage at my first church in Midland, Texas (whatever else you may think of Texans, they certainly know how to treat their ministers!) and I was reading (of all things) the local Hearst newspaper, the Midland Reporter-Telegram. And I noticed an article, a feature off the Associated Press wire, which turned out to be my introduction to the life and work of William Topaz McGonagall -- the man reputed to be the world's worst poet.
I knew right away that I had to preach a sermon about this man. There was something about his life which cried out to be expressed -- a certain courage and nobility of spirit deserving of our attention. One phrase in particular, a comment by a Scottish literary critic named James Cameron, captured my imagination. He described McGonagall as "one of God's clumsy innocents, who found his way among the angels." I read that phrase and I thought to myself "What better epitaph could any of us ask? What commentary speaks more profoundly to the universal human condition?"
Unfortunately, Midland Texas in the mid-1980’s was not exactly overflowing with easily accessible McGonagallia. It was not until some time later, when I happened to be in Boston and had the opportunity to stop by the Weidner Library at Harvard University that I was able to obtain the materials I was looking for: the complete works of William McGonagall, anthologized in three volumes: Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems,and Last Poetic Gems. Moreover, I was overjoyed to discover that, as an alumnus, I was allowed to check them out and bring them back to Texas with me.
I kept the books out well past their due date (fortunately, no one at Harvard was clamoring for their quick return); and by the time I was finished with them, not only could I honestly claim to be the foremost authority on this subject in all of West Texas, but I could also state with some confidence that McGonagall's reputation as the world's worst poet is both well deserved, and not likely to be challenged in the foreseeable future. Yet it is more than the quality of one's poetry that makes a poet. William McGonagall had poetry in his soul, a poetry which burst forth with an authentic, Wordsworthian "spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling," despite his undeniable lack of skill or talent.
He was born in Edinburgh, in either 1825 or 1830 -- We don't really know for sure, and he himself reports both dates in different places; but as a child moved with his family to the city of Dundee, located in the east of Scotland on the Firth of Tay, where his father was employed as a handloom operator in a Jute-weaving mill: a trade which McGonagall himself also practiced until machinery made his vocation obsolete. It is reported that he had only 18 months of formal education, yet he was literate enough to be familiar with Shakespeare, and even performed for a time as a Shakespearean actor, where his powerful voice and striking appearance, as well as his obvious enthusiasm for his roles, made him quite popular with the rowdy and boisterous Dundonian audiences.
It was not until he was in his forties that McGonagall turned to composing and reciting his own "poetic gems." He describes that moment in one of his brief autobiographies:
**I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was the year of 1877, and in the month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom. Well, it being the holiday week in Dundee, I was sitting in my back room in Paton's Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn't get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears -- "WRITE! WRITE!" I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself -- "I know nothing about poetry." But still the voice kept ringing in my ears -- "Write, write," until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem....**
The result was "An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan," which was published anonymously in the Dundee Weekly News. All told, McGonagall would eventually compose some 576 poems during his lifetime: poems which were uniformly, as James Cameron notes, "of a magical dreadfulness that reached the sublime." McGonagall's early reputation was established by his poem "Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay," which some believe foretold the Tay Railway bridge disaster of 1879, in which 90 lives were lost after the poorly constructed bridge collapsed during a violent storm. The verse in question reads:
**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.**\
In 1881 he added the words "By Appointment to Her Majesty" to his calling card: "William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian" after receiving the following letter from Queen Victoria's personal secretary:
**General Sir Henry F. Ponsonby has received the Queen's commands to thank Mr. McGonagall for sending the verses which were contained in his letter of the 10th instant, but to express Her Majesty's regret that they must be returned, as it is an invariable rule that offerings of this nature not be received by the Queen.**
McGonagall typically published his verses as broadsides, single sheets containing his latest composition, which were often printed free of charge by a local publishing house and then sold by the poet himself for a penny apiece to passers by. Needless to say, it was not a particularly profitable enterprise. Slightly more lucrative were his performances in Public Houses -- ironic, since McGonagall himself was a teetotaler; but the barmen soon discovered that the presence of "The Great McGonagall" was sure to draw a thirsty crowd. A typical performance is described in a biography by David Phillips, which draws upon a contemporary newspaper account:
**"The hall was filled by a large audience, the majority of whom were young men and lads, all evidently in a thorough mood for fun...."
Then came the recitations, received in a manner "most uproarious, 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 the 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 had left off with the greatest nonchalance...."
"Mr McGonagall, 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 tremendous crowd thronged the street, almost all of whom seemed to be in a very frenzy of amusement. Mr. McGonagall had ultimately, owing to the great crowd, to take shelter in a shop nearby....The general impression of the audience seemed to be that they never in their lives were so thoroughly entertained as they were by the celebrated McGonagall."**
Marcus Eliason, the Associated Press writer whose article first introduced me to McGonagall, offers this summary of his career:
**...Dundee, a hard-drinking, ruffianish sort of town, turned McGonagall-baiting into a sport.
He was pelted with peas, pies, and rotten hams, shouted down by hecklers, mocked by street urchins as "Mad McGonagall," and hounded by magistrates for causing the unruliness.
A barman, incensed at McGonagall for having the nerve to recite teetotaling propaganda in his pub, stuffed a wet towel in his mouth.
Soon he was refusing to perform unless a clergyman sat on the stage....
He would recite his poem about the Battle of Bannockburn brandishing a sword with such exuberance that the front-rows had to duck....
In 1887, fed up with these riotous spectacles, Dundee's elders bought McGonagall a one-way ticket to New York....**
It's through incidents such as these that McGonagall's true character is revealed. There are thousands upon thousands of bad poets in the world, poets who aspire perhaps to achievements beyond their gifts, and who fail ingloriously, lapse into obscurity. What separates McGonagall from all the rest is his unflagging sincerity and dogged persistence, a tenacious optimism which endures beyond all sense or reason. The Times of London has called McGonagall "a real genius, for he is the only memorable truly bad poet in our language." His anthologies have sold over half a million copies, well outstripping sales of the work of his far more talented Scottish contemporary, the (Unitarian) Robert Burns. McGonagall's poetry radiates an enthusiastic reverence and passion for life which transcends the technical flaws of the verse itself -- the clumsy meter and the awkward rhyme -- to express a vitality somehow compelling despite its obvious artistic limitations.
McGonagall returned to Dundee from New York, and for a time it was business as usual. He hit upon an ingenious scheme for supplementing his income -- printing ditties such as this one on the back of his broadsheets, in exchange for a small sum:
**You can use it with great pleasure and ease
Without wasting any elbow grease;
And when washing the most dirty clothes
The sweat won't be dripping from your nose....
And I tell you once again without any joke
There's no soap can surpass Sunlight soap....**
The harassment continued however, while failing health and constant poverty likewise took their toll. In December of 1892 he composed this poem in anticipation of the coming year:
**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.**
This particular poem drew an editorial response from the newspaper the Scottish Leader:
**Dundee is threatened with a very serious calamity, to wit, the departure from its gates of the Poet McGonagall.
McGonagall is a very good poet for Dundee, with limitations -- such things as a lack of ideas, a trivial shakiness about spelling, and a want of familiarity with syntax, for which doubtless his parents are more to blame than himself. He is never at a loss for a rhyme, and when he discovers the full value of the circumstance that Dundee rhymes with 1893, he may be induced to reconsider his decision and stay for yet a year....**
Sure enough, it was not until 1894 that McGonagall and his wife moved to the city of Perth, where he continued to compose and to perform his poetry until his death in 1902. He lies buried there now in an unmarked, pauper's grave; his only memorials the poetry itself, and a modest plaque on a park bench near the statue of Burns in downtown Dundee. Throughout his life, William McGonagall was the object of ridicule and derision, the butt of cruel hoaxes and practical jokes. Yet the last laugh, it seems, belongs to him, for through no other merit than perseverance he has earned himself a slice of immortality. He is "one of God's clumsy innocents who found his way among the angels" -- a hope and inspiration for all of us whose gifts and talents likewise fall somewhat short of the mark, but who notwithstanding continue to aspire to high ambitions....
AN ADDRESS TO THE REV. GEORGE GILFILLAN
All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn'd away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.
AN ADDRESS TO SHAKESPEARE
Immortal! William Shakespeare, there's none can you excel,
You have drawn out your characters remarkably well,
Which is delightful for to see enacted upon the stage--
For instance, the love-sick Romeo, or Othello, in a rage;
His writing are a treasure, which the world cannot repay,
He was the greatest poet of the past or of the present day--
Also the greatest dramatist, and is worthy of the name,
I'm afraid the world shall never look upon his like again.
His tragedy of Hamlet is moral and sublime,
And for purity of language, nothing can be more fine--
For instance, to hear the fair Ophelia making her moan,
At her father’s grave, sad and alone....
In his beautiful play, "As You Like It," one passage is very fine,
Just for instance in the forest of Arden, the language is sublime,
Where Orlando speaks of his Rosalind, most lovely and divine,
And no other poet I am sure has written anything more fine;
His language is spoken in the Church and by the Advocate at the bar,
Here and there and everywhere throughout the world afar;
His writings abound with gospel truths, moral and sublime,
And I'm sure in my opinion they are surpassing fine;
In his beautiful tragedy of Othello, one passage is very fine,
Just for instance where Cassio loses his lieutenancy
...By drinking too much wine;
And in grief he exclaims, "Oh! That men should put an
Enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains."
In his great tragedy of Richard the III, one passage is very fine
Where the Duchess of York invokes the aid of the Divine
For to protect her innocent babes from the murderer's uplifted hand,
And smite him powerless, and save her babes, I'm sure 'tis really grand.
Immortal! Bard of Avon, your writing 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 night.