A modest literary hoax

When I was a philosophy professor at Hillsdale I played a small joke on the student Literary Society. They accepted my offer to deliver a talk on "William McGonagall, Scotland's second poet." In the days before personal computers and the Internet, there was little the students might find out about the subject. The joke was that William McGonagall wrote appalling doggerel. He recited his stuff in pubs in Dundee, his home town, and collected small change from his audiences. Sometimes he printed his poems and sold them in penny sheets in the street. The point about him was not just the awfulness of his verses, but the totality of his self-belief. He thought he was a genius, unfairly overlooked, and deserved to be made Poet Laureate in late Victorian times. There were three small books of his collected verses that people bought decades after his death to recite at parties to solicit howls of laughter. The man had little sense of metre or scansion. His subjects were the news stories of the day, such as shipwrecks, train crashes and theatre fires. He wrote poems about the deaths of famous people.

When the students gathered, I solemnly recited his epic on the railway bridge that spanned the river Tay to Dundee. I then recited his poem on the Tay Bridge disaster. 

"Beautiful railway bridge on 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." 

The poem continues for many lines in this vein. I pointed out that McGonagall was undeterred by this tragedy, but went on to compose the third work in his great trilogy, "Beautiful new railway bridge on the silvery Tay," when the bridge was eventually replaced. At this point one of the students cottoned on and said, "This is a joke, right?" I admitted it was, and we all spent a happy evening reciting his works. McGonagall's atrocious verse has made him immortal, and his works are recited as an enduring source of pleasure. I doubt if anyone knows who the Poet Laureate of the day was, though.