‘World’s Worst Poet’ Has Last Laugh

Scottish Poet William McGonagall dubbed ‘world’s worst’

Scottish Poet William McGonagall dubbed ‘world’s worst’

A handwritten, unpublished work by a Scottish music hall performer known as the world’s worst poet is set to fetch thousands of pounds at auction. Edinburgh-born William McGonagall, won notoriety in the 19th century as an extremely bad poet, and to this day is regarded as the worst in English literature.

His works were so detested he was pelted with rotten fish, with critics stating that he was deaf to poetic metaphor and employed inappropriate rhythms that resulted in unintentionally amusing poetry. The manuscript belongs to Roy Davids, a collector who is selling his entire hoard of poetry. It is expected to fetch £3,000 at Bonham’s in London in May.

Born in 1825, McGonagall claimed he was inspired to write poetry when he felt a strange feeling steal over him, which lasted for approximately five minutes. He realised if he were to succeed as a poet he needed a patron, and wrote to Queen Victoria to request the honour. Inspired by the  “thanks, but no thanks” letter from one of Victoria’s functionaries, McGonagall set off to Balmoral to proove himself in person. In July 1878, he walked from Dundee to Balmoral, a distance of about 60 miles over mountainous terrain and through a violent thunderstorm to perform for the Queen. When he arrived, he announced himself as “The Queen’s Poet”. The guards informed him “You’re not the Queen’s poet! Tennyson is the Queen’s poet!” McGonagall presented the letter but was refused entry and had to return home.

McGonagall struggled with money throughout his life, but found lucrative work performing his poems at a local circus. While he read his poems, the audience was permitted to pelt him with eggs, flour, herrings, potatoes and stale bread. He seemed happy with this arrangement which he received 15 shillings s night for, however the events became so raucous that city magistrates were forced to put a ban on them. Throughout his life he seemed oblivious to opinions on his poems, with some suggesting he was a lot shrewder than he is given credit for, playing to the audience’s perception of him.

In 1895 McGonagall and his wife moved to Edinburgh, where he met shortlived success as a ‘cult figure’. However he died penniless in 1902 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard. A grave-slab to his memory was unveiled in 1999.

The Tay Bridge Disaster
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

To The Rev George Gilfillan
He is a liberal gentleman
To the poor while in distress,
And for his kindness unto them
The Lord will surely bless.

Robert Burns
Immortal Robert Burns of Ayr,
There’s but few poets can with you compare;
Some of your poems and songs are very fine:
To “Mary in Heaven” is most sublime;
And then again in your “Cottar’s Saturday Night”,
Your genius there does shine most bright,
As pure as the dewdrops of the night.

Jottings of New York
Oh mighty City of New York! you are wonderful to behold,
Your buildings are magnificent, the truth be it told,
They were the only things that seemed to arrest my eye,
Because many of them are thirteen storeys high.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

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