Monday, October 12, 2009

William McGonagall, poet, tragedian & "Knight of the Burmese White Elephant"

Well know as the worst poet in the English Language, only received one paying poetry commission in his entire life.
The Sunlight Soap company paid him two guineas to compose some doggerel in praise of their product:

Sunlight Soap

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 off your nose
You can wash your clothes with little rubbing
And without scarcely any scrubbing;
And I tell you once again without any joke
There's no soap can surpass Sunlight Soap;
And believe me, charwomen one and all,
I remain yours truly, the Poet McGonagall.

Now THIS is a bad poem in extremis. The questionable rhyme in the first two lines, the wretched imagery, the complete failure to rhyme in lines seven and eight, reiterates soap twice in the same line, and to crown all McGongall inexplicably commends himself to charwomen "one and all" for a peroration.
And still Sunlight Soap paid him.
Gord Bambrick, has put forward the notion that McGonagall (who when weaving went bust took to the variety stage as a poet and occasional Shakespearean actor) deliberately wrote substandard poesy and in reading his word with pretended sincerity reaped definite financial rewards from playing the part of inept aspiring artist. This interpretation puts McGonagall closer to say Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character than to a mere poetical bumbler.
Like Borat, McGonagall suffered for his art, "poet baiting" was all the rage in those days,local newspapers reported that the Poet was routinely pelted with rotten fruit in music halls all over Scotland.
For that privilege, McGonagall could count on wages around triple what a weaver could expect.
Bambrick's theory is interesting but I guess I'm a fundamentalist where McGonagall is concerned. I mean review the enclosed poem again, consider that he has been given a rare chance to write something with real commercial potential, if he turns in a good enough job who knows, maybe the "Burmese Knight of the White Elephant" can escape being cannonaded with old tomatoes in Glasgow?
And what does he do with this rare chance to escape? Nothing he turns in more of the rubbish he had been churning out for years, indeed he could do no other.
Well then again, McGonagall would not be the first artist to sell out for short money.


Alexis Walker said...

Poetry is not really my thing, but I think bad poets hold an important place in history. They help make the other poets look good :-) Though with McGonagall, I do wonder why we even know his name.

Elias said...

The thing about McGonagall is that he is wondrously internally consistent. His lyric abilities never evolve at all, he is as bad at the start of his "career" as a poet as he was when he shuffled off this mortal coil.
That is a common characteristic of all the "legacy" bad poets, the Julia Moores, the James McIntyres' the Captain Jack Crawfords....They never grow or change in any way. Doggerel is all they are capable of.

John G.