Norman Watson, Poet McGonagall: The Biography of William McGonagall (Birlinn)
One of the first books of poetry I remember from my childhood is listed in the bibliography to this new life of William McGonagall, the enigmatic purveyor of bad verse to a singularly heartless generation of Victorians. It is the Moc Gonagall, a student publication from 1960, still parodying him more than eighty years after his first visitation from the muse in 1878. In it clunking rhymes and distended metres ‘eulogise’ already-dated figures like Thor Heyerdahl and Picasso. One cartoon sums up both the pamphlet and McGonagall’s appeal: his head, lantern-jawed and quiffed in crow black, is transposed onto a bird whose clutch of eggs is hatching, each producing a mini-Gonagall as though he were a species of poetic chicken. He gapes at his progeny and the twentieth century in bewilderment.
I soon moved on to his own writings in one of the editions that made Winters the Printers so much money, fronted by the portrait that MacDiarmid memorably described as, ‘a fish-belly face, as of something half-human struggling out of the aboriginal slime…’. It was clear that his poems were both funnier and more disturbing than these juvenile skits, that McGonagall himself was more resonant in every sense than his would-be superior parodists. As a Dundonian poet, the image and the verse have continued to haunt me and my work, as well as the order in which I came to it, through parodic interpretation to something more unsettling in its absurdity. This biography proves it remains difficult to peer through the murk of smirking and glimpse the real figure at the heart of a particularly Dundonian darkness.
Watson focusses on the written records, revealing the gap between, for instance, the poet’s own autobiographical writings, and the census and other records of the time. He also looks at the newspaper coverage of McGonagall principally in the Weekly News — one of the quartet of extremely popular papers which still stands at the heart of D.C.Thomson’s driech north-eastern publishing empire — and balances this against the poet’s correspondence and, illuminatingly, court records and other documentation of the period. He uncovers an amount of hitherto unseen material by and about the poet, and attempts to draw some conclusions about the essential character of a figure the world seems to have embraced as emblematic not only of bad poetry, but of all that is bad about poetry.
However, it would appear from the outset that McGonagall was projecting an image as much a body of writing; that, whether we accept his own classification of him as ‘Poet and Tragedian,’ or, as he does himself, borrow the epithet of his tormentors, ‘Mad McGonagall’ was a persona not a person. Watson discovers an early publicity ploy to present McGonagall to the readers of the Weekly News as an employable actor — a verse addressed ‘To a Local Star,’ which calls forth a letter demanding the identity of said star, followed in turn by the first example of McGonagallian rhyme (it’s published as prose, but surely ought to be lineated as follows):
All ye who are disciples of Shakespeare,
I hope you’ll pay attention
unto a few incidents regarding Mr McGonagall,
which is worth of been made mention —
he is a gentleman of rare abilities
and few can him excel o’,
I wonder how Mr McFarland doesn’t make him an engagement,
with him he could do well o’.
There is ineptitude, shamelessness, and wrong-headed cunning in this self-advertisement, but it is already directed toward the promotion of a persona, the wildly over-acting figure who first played MacBeth in 1859. There is a clear continuity between this MacBeth who ‘instead of dying…swished his sword about the ears of his adversary’ and the McGonagall who delivered ‘Bannockburn’ in full highland dress while walking ‘majestically from side to side of the stage, making ferocious sweeps with his claymore…’.
The McGonagall who takes up poetry in an elaborately staged manner in 1878 (mentioning Burns, Tannahill, Scott and Byron within three sentences before concluding with the magnificently prophetic ‘I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, “Write! Write!”) is not experiencing what Watson confusedly calls his ‘Damascus moment’. His point appears to be continuity rather than conversion: the element of poet is being added to the base unit of tragedian, allowing him to generate original materials to set alongside Shakespeare, Moore, etc, and create the act he describes as ‘an intellectual entertainment,’ which he then touts around theatres, pubs, municipal halls and private dining clubs.
His extraordinary, Quixotic ventures to Balmoral, London and New York display a similar combination of ‘gissajob’ chutzpah, professional cluelessness, and an actor’s eye for publicity. The evident contrast, therefore, between the berserk deadpan of his performance style and his attempts at a quiet dignity in private life, reported by numerous witnesses, should have been the lock this biography attempted to pick.
But Watson’s approach, poring over minutiae such as whether he was born in Ireland or lived in South Ronaldsay, pointing out the poet’s persistent slipperiness with dates, and cataloguing his frequent court appearances for bad debt or to represent his disturbed, drunken children, seems intended instead to expose the dishonest hubris of an ostentatiously moral and abstemious simpleton.
This is announced from page one by a type of forced jocosity when referring to the poet. Before we acquire any overview, McGonagall is introduced as ‘this broiling broth of a bard,’ and his autobiography described as containing ‘fantasist banter’. He is referred to throughout as a ‘Paton’s Lane poem-monger,’ whose career is ironically ‘glorious’, his verse ‘deranged,’ his clothing ‘sound-barrier-loud’; the kind of person who, instead of returning to a subject, is merely ‘still banging on about’ it.
In other words, a stereotypical presentation of McGonagall is accepted as the norm to such an extent that it need scarcely be defined as such. He has already been defined as a rude mechanical, Bottom turned Peter Quince, an ass. This condemnation as a figure of fun hampers any attempt to present a more rounded analysis of his character, and this is generally attempted by interjected, unsupported announcements (‘…a feeling was growing that the rhymester they laughed at was perhaps beginning to have the last laugh…’). This biographer appears to have little sympathy for his subject, and even less empathy. The effect is that we pity where we are supposed to laugh.
This tendency reaches a climax in the extraordinary court scenes from 1894. In one McGonagall randomly interrupts proceedings, turning up with a butcher’s basket he has confiscated from delivery boys who have been abusing him in the street. Elsewhere, Watson has given us accounts of how McGonagall fears to leave his house because of constant verbal or physical abuse, how impoverished he is by a ban on performances which are little more than riotous assaults, and how ill he is. Here, he declares in terms that are at once histrionic and piteous, ‘…this custom of annoying me is destroying my head. It keeps up an eternal sound in my brain.’ Watson’s response to this outburst is a heartless, ‘We may smile…’.
He concedes McGonagall is apparently at his wits’ end, but a page later, when the poet is called to court because of a family brawl over one son’s confinement in a lunatic asylum, where ‘he believed he was dead,’ he reverts to the inappropriately chirpy, ‘the only witness was our hero.’ McGonagall’s imploding personal life has replaced an absurd Macbeth on stage with an absurdist Lear in the dock, but Watson assumes his reader will find this as amusing as a bad rhyme.
Essentially, he focusses on separating facts from fancy, but does not attempt to separate fantasy from the fantasist, resorting instead to a vocabulary of projected insight when discussing McGonagall’s (or his wife’s) reactions to events. From ‘One can imagine young William’s shocked senses’ to ‘Presumably mother Jean was heart-broken’ there is constant usage of ‘may have’, ‘must have’, and ‘probably’, but, given the general insensitivity of approach, this is rarely convincing.
A more coherent historical overview would have helped. Irish immigrants flip from ‘welcomed workers’ to ‘not a popular colony’ within seven pages; while the Weekly News‘s circulation drops from ‘close on a million readers’ in 1893 to 246,000 in 1899 without explanation. A more culturally-sensitive use of terms like ‘performance poet’, ‘showbiz celebrity,’ or ‘avant-garde tragedian entertainment’ would also have been useful: McGonagall unintentionally anticipated some of these ideas, but he cannot be classified by them.
Several areas which might have deepened our understanding of this strange phenomenon in Scottish cultural life are barely broached. For instance, how much did McGonagall actually earn from his performances and publications, and what amount was he and his extended family earning from other sources? Although sums are mentioned throughout, no overview is provided which might give insight into the motives for what he conceived of as his literary career. Even an estimate would reveal whether exigency or obsession lay at the root of his persistence.
A number of friends and allies are referred as offering support, financial and other. How much is known about them? These range from the journalists ‘Old Stager’ and ‘Johnny’ (with whom Watson seems to identify more than with his subject), to important cultural figures like the Reverend George Gilfillan or the bookseller Lowden Macartney. They include apparently genuine friends like the hotelier Alexander Lamb, who collected his manuscripts, and more ambivalent acquaintances like John Willocks, who published a scurrilous fake autobiography, but also put work his way. McGonagall’s (and Dundee’s) story could perhaps have been told through these more or less fleetingly mentioned figures.
Most importantly, why did Dundee harbour such an ambivalent response to McGonagall? He appears to have been received more gently in Glasgow, Perth and Edinburgh, and to have a certain degree of support in terms of subscriptions and sympathy from some portion of Dundee’s population. But what was it about the culture of Dundee in the late nineteenth-century, its ethnic and political make-up, that meant such gleeful violence could be offered to an eccentric old man who spouted bad verse?
Such a shift in emphasis might have helped, as Watson’s literary analysis isn’t always precise in determining what is bad about the verse. He often refers to the repetition of a phrase or rhyme as an oversight where McGonagall, however hamfistedly, is attempting refrain. As though assuming his readers less sharp than the bard, he paraphrases verses about which there could not be much if any ambiguity. He advances a version of Hamish Henderson’s argument about Irish folk tradition in which McGonagall becomes a type of rhyming journalist, though there is no evidence that the illiterate portion of his audience listened to him for news rather than for an opportunity to sock him with soot.
He concludes by arguing McGonagall could have suffered from a type of autism (or possibly bipolarism), performing a dubious retro-analysis based on insensitivity to criticism and a tendency to start poems with the word ‘Twas’. These are, of course, traits bad actors and terrible poets might demonstrate without needing to be pathologised.
The underlying issue is made clear by the response to Douglas Dunn’s 2002 remark that McGonagall should not be celebrated ‘as a poet’: ‘The literary elite has always found it difficult to get its collective head around this weaver poet and tragedian.’ This statement simultaneously complains about and complacently accepts the premiss that McGonagall is somehow outside literature. Explanations of his peculiar output, it seems to suggest, should therefore be extra- if not anti-literary, a matter for hard-headed journalists rather than elitist critics.
But McGonagall is more complex than this opposition of high and low culture. His poetry may have begun in the necessity for some words for a would-be actor to declaim, but it evolved into something quite different. It is like the leavings of nineteenth century Romanticism, everything the Modernists would soon want to shave off poetry — the pointless rhymes, grandiose address, laboured lyricism and bourgeois values — all swept away and dumped in one dusty old Dundonian head.
He’s all stagecraft and no play – a type of the hollow man Eliot would soon dissect, finding nothing but straw – though filled with a powerful need: a desire for acknowledgement, for that respect which is now required by both the excluded from society and the lowest rungs of celebrity, a combination which we could claim first met in an explosion of flour and bad couplets in Baron Ziegler’s Circus of Varieties in the Nethergate in 1889.
What we are witness to across his career is the construction of a carapace, a cartoon-like identity, fronted by a prefigurement of the blank expression Keaton would take from vaudeville to silent comedy, that eventually entraps McGonagall in a farcical and pathetic end, a creation as monstrous as Jarry’s Ubu, the product of an unwitting collusion between a limited imagination, a resentful work-force, and an imagination-less media. What we still do not know, and what this biography is incapable of telling us, is who was the man inside.
(Published in the Scottish Review of Books, Autumn 2010)