The Pendragon Papers (2): William McGonagall & the Almanack Poem – Naming the Year

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The poet is, ostensibly, a poet of the zeitgeist. Our knowledge of medieval England is so much richer thro Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Bronze Age of Greece still lives in epics of Homer. Poets also have the ability to record great individual occasions, such as Tennyson’s ode on the death of the Duke of Wellington; but there is one of sub-species of poem extant in which the poem names the year itself; perhaps a survey of the goings on of that twelvemonth, perhaps what the poet is doing himself in that year. These, I would like to give the name of ‘Almanack’ to. The name really means occurring every year, as in the Beano & Dandy hardback annuals which my grandmother gave me every Christmas, which I would sneak downstairs about 4 AM to open & read a strip or two, before hiding under a settee cushion to reveal to my parents half-way thro the unwrapping session when they were distracted, as coming ‘from my Grandma Joan.’ Yes, that is one kind of annual, but in the context of the poet, who cannot be relied on at all to compose poetry with such regularity, let us say their ‘almanack’ poems are those in which the year appears in the title. For the purposes of this paper I shall give several examples, including some of my own, whose compositions were inspir’d by some of the examples I now present.

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

London 1802

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

William Wordsworth mark’d his presence in the capital of Britain with two excellent Petrarchian sonnets. He must have known this moment was some kind of watershed in his life. He was on his way to meet Annette Valon, a former lover of his from which union produced a daughter, Caroline. Later that year he would move north, to his destiny in the lakes, & his fruitful marriage to Mary Hutchinson. The first sonnet is what I call a ‘Vista’ sonnet, in which a poet absorbs a panorama, mixes the scenes with his poesis, & turns the mimesis to gold. In the second sonnet, he identifies with the great epic poet, John Milton, in an ‘Epistle’ sonnet, that is to say a direct open letter of sorts to an individual. One could say in this sonnet Wordsworth is exhorting some kind of vow to become a new John Milton type poet.

England 1819

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

This is one of my favourite poems, compos’d by Percy Bysshe Shelley in response to the slaughter of innocent protestors at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, widely known as the Peterloo massacre, for the carnage that day resembl’d that of the Battle of Waterloo, four years previously. This poem in particular inspir’d two of my own sonnets, the first of which is a survey of British band music in 1998, & the second compos’d on returning from my first tour of India, 2002.

British Music: 1998

I wish I’d been absent for this year’s charts,
Nuthin half-decent to chill to and smoke,
Girlpower got pregnant – talentless tarts,
Shmoasises pub-rock souped-up on coke,
The soulless Dee-jay, class A parasite,
Spinning mixed-up beats to mind-numb masses,
The blurring churn of pulp sounds like the shite
Pulled out with their egos from their asses.

Robbie ‘Fuckin’ Williams rules a scene
Of talentless boy & girl groups galore,
The biggest bunch of nobodies I’ve seen –
Take That have got a lot to answer for…

All but for Ian Brown & the Beta Band
I’d say Britpop had done one from the land.

England 2002

England! forest of the sex-obsess’d West,
Still tax’d to the hilt, still chilly, still stress’d,
Moaning thro’ wintertime’s epic bummer,
Willing on another Big Brother summer,
Pop Idols have fifteen minutes of Fame,
But every song still sounds the fucking same,
The streets & parks are rife with kickabouts,
“Come on Svengland!” the passion & the shouts,
Four pills for a tenner, ten for twenty
Three quid for a beer, pints of milk forty pee,
Harry Potter, Prince Harry on pot,
& hook’d on the ripples of Bin Laden’s plot,
Tony Blair puts on a sycophantic front
For Dubya Bush, another name for cunt,
Who’s dragged us off to war, some 51st state
But still, my friends, still Britain, still great!

We have now come to the misunderstandingly monicker’d ‘Worst Poet in the World,’ William Topaz McGonagall. Born & bred on the Cowgate in Edinburgh, he spent the best part of his writing career in Dundee, in which place, at the age of 52, he had his poetical epiphany, which he recorded in his autobiography.

In the year of 1877 & in the month of June, when the flowers were in full bloom. Well, it being holiday week in Dundee, I was sitting in my back-room in Paton’s Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn’t get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, & instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, I fact, that in my imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears – Write! Write!

So, the eagle of invention had swoop’d into McGonagall’s soul, & he was about to embark on an exploration of a previously unexplor’d part of Mount Parnassus. There is a natural spontaneity to his verse, like a horse barely tamed, but there is an abundance of grace & genuinity, & a quite adorable affection for life in his works. The following lines should give a pleasant example of his style;

Oh, Bonnie Dundee! I will sing in thy praise
A few but true simple lays,
Regarding some of your beauties of the present day
And virtually speaking, there’s none can them gainsay;
There’s no other town I know of with you can compare

What marks out McGonagall, for me, as a bard, is his series of odes to events of his day – Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, battles in the Sudan, disasters & shipwrecks, he truly recorded the zeitgeist of his times. For the purposes of this paper, there is one year in particular in which he employ’d the ‘Almanack’ poem, 1893. In these he announces his struggles at being a poet in Dundee, he clearly feels unappreciated, but is also willing to fight for his reputation. The second poem isn’t actually dated, while the third only mentions the year in one of the lines, but I’ll present them both as part of the narrative McGonagall recorded for us in that year.

New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee
by William McGonagall

Welcome! thrice welcome! to the year 1893,
For it is the year that I intend to leave Dundee,
Owing to the treatment I receive,
Which does my heart sadly grieve.
Every morning when I got out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
” There goes Mad McGonagall”
In derisive shouts, as loud as they can bawl,
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me;
And such actions are shameful to be heard in the City of Dundee.
And I’m ashamed, kind Christians, to confess,
That from the Magistrates I can get no redress.
Therefore I have made up my mind, in the year of 1893,
To leave the Ancient City of Dundee,
Because the citizens and me cannot agree.
The reason why — because they disrespect me,
Which makes me feel rather discontent.
Therefore, to leave them I am bent;
And I will make my arrangements without delay,
And leave Dundee some early day.

Lines in Reply to the Beautiful Poet who Welcomed News of McGonagall’s Departure from Dundee

Dear Johnny, I return my thanks to you;
But more than thanks is your due
For publishing the scurrilous poetry about me
Leaving the Ancient City of Dundee.

The rhymster says, we’ll weary for your schauchlin’ form;
But if I’m not mistaken I’ve seen bonnier than his in a field of corn;
And, as I venture to say and really suppose,
His form seen in a cornfield would frighten the crows.

But, dear Johnny, as you said, he’s just a lampoon,
And as ugly and as ignorant as a wild baboon;
And, as far as I can judge or think,
He is a vendor of strong drink.

He says my nose would make a peasemeal warrior weep;
But I’ve seen a much bonnier sweep,
And a more manly and wiser man
Than he is by far, deny it who can!

And, in conclusion, I’d have him to beware,
And never again to interfere with a poet’s hair,
Because Christ the Saviour wore long hair,
And many more good men, I do declare.

Therefore I laugh at such bosh that appears in print.
So I hope from me you will take the hint,
And never publish such bosh of poetry again,
Or else you’ll get the famous Weekly News a bad name.

Lines in Praise of Mr. J. Graham Henderson, Hawick

Success to Mr J. Graham Henderson, who is a good man,
And to gainsay it there’s few people can,
I say so from my own experience,
And experience is a great defence.

He is a good man, I venture to say,
Which I declare to the world without dismay,
Because he’s given me a suit of Tweeds, magnificent to see,
So good that it cannot be surpassed in Dundee.

The suit is the best of Tweed cloth in every way,
And will last me for many a long day;
It’s really good, and in no way bad,
And will help to make my heart feel glad.

He’s going to send some goods to the World’s Fair,
And I hope of patronage he will get the biggest share;
Because his Tweed cloth is the best I ever did see,
In the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and ninety-three.

At the International Exhibition, and the Isle of Man Exhibition,
He got a gold medal from each, in recognition
Of his Scotch Tweeds, so good and grand,
Which cannot be surpassed in fair Scotland.

Therefore, good people, his goods are really grand,
And manufactured at Weensforth Mill, Hawick, Scotland;
Where there’s always plenty of Tweeds on hand,
For the ready cash at the people’s command.

Mr Tocher measured me for the suit,
And it is very elegant, which no one will dispute,
And I hope Mr Henry in Reform Street
Will gain customers by it, the suit is so complete.

Lines in Memoriam Regarding the Entertainment I Gave on the 31st March, 1893, in Reform Street Hall, Dundee

’Twas on the 31st of March, and in the year of 1893,
I gave an entertainment in the city of Dundee,
To a select party of gentlemen, big and small,
Who appreciated my recital in Reform Street Hall.

The meeting was convened by J. P. Smith’s manager, High Street,
And many of J. P. Smith’s employees were there me to greet,
And several other gentlemen within the city,
Who were all delighted with the entertainment they got from me.

Mr Green was the chairman for the night,
And in that capacity he acted right;
He made a splendid address on my behalf,
Without introducing any slang or chaff.

I wish him success during life;
May he always feel happy and free from strife,
For the kindness he has ever shown to me
During our long acquaintance in Dundee.

I return my thanks to Mr J. P. Smith’s men,
Who were at my entertainment more than nine or ten;
And the rest of the gentlemen that were there,
Also deserves my thanks, I do declare.

Because they showered upon me their approbation,
And got up for me a handsome donation,
Which was presented to me by Sir Green,
In a purse most beautiful to be seen.

Which was a generous action in deed,
And came to me in time of need.
And the gentlemen that so generously treated me
I’ll remember during my stay in Dundee.

McGonagall would soon enough leave Dundee, & return to the Cowgate once more in Edinburgh, where he would see out his days. Whatever happens in the history of poetry, his laurel crown is assur’d. Altho’ many aficionados of the poetic arts scoff at the quality, they could only dream of achieving the same sales figures & adulation as McGonagall – everything he ever wrote has been collated, pored over & simply adored.


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