I’ve mentioned the work of Theodore Dalrymple on several occasions in my time here, and am pleased to do so again, this time under his real byline of Anthony Daniels. In a recent issue of The New Criterion, Daniels contributed an essay on a rather unlikely subject, William McGonagall, whom he describes as “by common consent the worst poet in the English language, unlikely ever to be overtaken in the race to the bottom.” (A close second for American chauvinists would be Julia Ann Moore, who reminds us that “Literary is a work very difficult to do.”) He is the Ed Wood of literature — although as a Scot, if he wore a skirt, it was normal.
While acknowledging the absolutely terrifying badness of McGonagall’s poetry, poetry so awful that one of my favorite writers employs it as a weapon in a duel, Daniels calls for our sympathy as well:
Poet and Tragedian: that is how he thought of himself. And I was therefore aware that there was in my laughter something knowing and cruel, a mockery of the defenseless and a sense of my own superiority, none of which was at all pleasant to contemplate. I dismissed it from my mind.William McGonagall was a ridiculous and yet, in many ways, an admirable figure, worthy of our sympathy, compassion, and respect rather than of our disdain. If invincible delusion had not inured him to the cruel insults and practical jokes of his contemporaries, his life would have been truly tragic. But then again, were it not for that invincible delusion—that he was a theatrical and poetic genius unprecedented since the time of Shakespeare—his life would have passed in the utmost anonymity.
Instead, he has achieved an odd level of fame, a recognition from a certain cognoscenti not unlike that of Wood, the Shaggs or the Cherry Sisters, all of whom these days might be seen as “outsider art.” And in all these cases, there is the odd, even uncomfortable tension:
No matter how much ridicule or even physical abuse McGonagall suffered from his audiences, he never lost faith in himself and always found an explanation for it that allowed him to preserve his self-respect. (On one occasion, ill-treatment stimulated his muse there and then: “Gentlemen, if you please,/ Stop throwing peas.”) It was this psychological armor-plating that limited the effects of the cruelty of his audiences, but it was cruelty, and gross cruelty, nonetheless. There is nothing, after all, to suggest that McGonagall was other than harmless and even kindly. It was a nineteenth-century equivalent of paying to see the lunatics in Bedlam, and now, when I laugh so heartily at McGonagall’s verses, I feel that I am participating in this unfeeling cruelty. Even if the deluded are happy, you do not laugh at their delusions, for there is something intrinsically pitiable about the quality of being deluded.
A world that did not laugh at his verse, however, or refused to enjoy itself with them out of supersensitivity to his memory would be a horrible world too.
And in a way, I think that McGonagall is emblematic of what is one of the best things within us all — the knowledge that we matter. We go on, largely unrecognized, even scorned, but we do what we think we were meant to do. And as Daniels observes, a world without that would be horrible as well. So let us now praise William Topaz McGonagall, because in his own way, both grandiose and foolish, he is every Quixotic one of us.