The World's Worst Poet

The following is reprinted from Bathroom Readers' Institute's 17th edition Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader book. William McGonagall (Image Credit: McGonagall 2002 Virtual Gallery)  

Great poetry must be considered art - It tickles the brain and stabs the heart. Could there be a worse poet than Uncle John? It's all in the story that follows; read on.


One afternoon in June 1877, an impoverished Scottish weaver named William McGonagall fell into a funk. McGonagall was depressed because he wanted to escape the gritty industrial city of Dundee for a few days in the countryside, but he couldn't afford a train ticket. He was stuck at home, and to make matters worse, he was starting to feel a little funny. Was it a cold? The flu? Hardly. As McGonagall later wrote in his autobiography, it was something else entirely: Divine Inspiration.

I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me. A flame ... seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry. I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, "Write! Write!"

So McGonagall wrote. His first poem was a tribute to his friend the Reverend George Gilfillan: The first time I hear him speak, 'Twas in the Kinnaird Hall. Lecturing on the Garibaldi movement, As loud as he could bawl. My blessing on his noble form, And on his lofty head, May all good angels guard him while he's living And hereafter when he's dead.


McGonagall showed the poem to Reverend Grilfillan, who remarked diplomatically, "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this!" Encouraged, McGonagall dropped into the mailbox of the Weekly News, hoping they might print it. They did ... and he was off on a new career. McGonagall already had a reputation for being eccentric: His impromptu performances of Shakespeare's plays at the factory where he worked were so bad they were funny, and his co-workers once rented a theater to watch him make a fool of himself along-side professional actors.

But it was McGonagall's poetry that cemented his fame as a local nut. He sold his poems on the street and gave readings at local pubs. And as with his Shakespeare performances, his readings were so funny that people rented halls and subsidized his performances just so they could laugh at his work. Unfortunately, they also pelted him with pies, wet towels, rotten eggs, and garbage while he read his poems. It got so bad that McGonagall refused to perform unless a clergyman sat next to him onstage to keep people from throwing things.  


How did McGonagall cope with the abuse? Though his poetry was awful, he never doubted his own talent and refused to believe that his audiences were there to laugh at him. But it was so unrelenting that, by the early 1890s, McGonagall began threatening (in verse) to leave the city forever. Would he really leave? In 1892 the Scottish Leader speculated that "...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."

McGonagall stayed until 1894, when he moved to Edinburgh. There he continued writing poetry until ill health forced him to lay down his pen forever. McGonagall passed away in 1902, at the age of 77, and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The grave remained unmarked until 1999, when the city of Edinburgh finally erected a plaque at the cemetery. The Oxford Companion to English Literature says he" enjoys a reputation as the world's worst poet," and more than a century after his death, his poems are still in print.


So is William McGonagall the worst poet ever? Here are selections from his poetry to help you decide.

ALAS! Sir John Ogilvy is dead, aged eighty-seven, But I hope his soul is now in heaven; He was a public benefactor in many ways, Especially in erecting an asylum for imbecile children to spend their days. -The Late Sir John Ogilvy

And from the British battleships a fierce cannonade did boom; And continued from six in the morning till two o'clock in the afternoon. And by the 26th of July the guns of Fort Moro were destroyed And the French and Spaniards were greatly annoyed -The Capture of Havana

ALAS! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last, Which causes many people to feel a little downcast. -Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie

Ye sons of Great Britain, I think no shame To write in praise of brave General Graham! Whose name will be handed down to posterity without any stigma, Because, at the battle of El-Teb, he defeated Osman Digna. -The Battle of El-Teb

Arabi's army was about seventy thousand in all, And, virtually speaking, it wasn't very small. -The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir

Beautiful city of Glasgow, I now conclude my muse, And to write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse; And, without fear of contradic- tion, I will venture to say You are the second grandest city in Scotland at present day! -Glasgow

The New Yorkers boast about their Brooklyn Bridge, But in comparison to thee it seems like a midge. -To the New Tay Bridge

And when life's prospects may at times appear dreary to ye, Remember Alois Senfelder, the discoverer of Lithography. -The Sprig of Moss

He told me at once what was ailing me; He said I had been writing too much poetry, And from writing poetry I would have to refrain, Because I was suffering from inflammation of the brain. -A Tribute to Dr. Murison

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 17th book in this the Bathroom Reader series is filled to the brim with facts, fun, and fascination, including articles about the Origin of Kung Fu, How to Kill a Zombie, Women in Space and more! Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Hrm... And I was under the impression Paul Neil Miln Johnstone [wikipedia] was the worst poet next to the Vogons... But I suppose that's what happens when you listen to Douglas Adams...
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I'm sure he's still alive, and writing for Hallmark.

"Blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah-blah-blah,
On this special day,
Blah-blah, blah-blah, blah-blah-blah-blah,
Blah-blah in every way!"

(actual card I just gave my dad for Father's Day)
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