Thought to have been born in Edinburgh in 1825, and a resident of Dundee for most of his life, William McGonagall has long been regarded as ‘the worst poet in the history of the English language’. Nevertheless, his unwitting butchery of the art form continues to be enjoyed for the comic qualities of its erratic scansion, wince-inducing rhymes and naif treatment of weighty subject matter, all of which are present in his most infamous poem, ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’. A man of apparent supreme self-confidence, his readings were regularly attended by riotous audiences throwing rotten fruit and other projectiles, with such commotion seeing him banned from public performance in his home city. On occasion, he was to seek more genteel company, once hiking to Balmoral in order to perform – uninvited – for Queen Victoria.
Patronage from royalty was to arrive in later life, in the form of a gift, purportedly sent by King of Burma, declaring him ‘Sir Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant’. A rather obvious hoax, with its allusion to Chaucer’s deliberate doggerel verse ‘The Tale of Sir Topas’ from The Canterbury Tales, McGonagall was – knowingly or otherwise – to assume the mantle, writing and performing as Sir William Topaz McGonagall until his death in 1902. Collections of his work have been regularly issued over the years, with Birlinn’s recent publication Collected Poems including an in-depth introduction from Chris Hunt, as well as an extract from McGonagall’s autobiographical writings.