(This was originally posted at http://africanjungle.iblog.co.za/2010/10/03/was-the-worlds-worst-poet-autistic/ on the 3rd October 2010)
According to an article in The Telegraph, William McGonagall, a poet widely regarded as the worst ever, may have been autistic. In “Bard of the silv’ry Tay” a book about McGonagall, Dr. Norman Watson argues the case.
William McGonagall was a weaver born in 1825. In 1877, he was struck by the urge to write poetry. His first poem was titled “An address to the Reverend George Gifillan”. Gilfillan’s response to the “honour”? “Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.”
Not deterred by this dismissal of his effort, McGonagall continued writing poetry. Eventually, he found work in a circus. He would read his poems while the crowd would pelt him with all sorts of things. For this, he earned 15 shillings a night, but the magistrates in Dundee banned these “performances” as they were leading to riotous behaviour. McGonagall wrote “Lines in Protest to the Dundee Magistrates”.
“Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee
Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me?
Nay, do not stare or make a fuss
When I tell ye they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus,
Which in my opinion is a great shame,
And a dishonour to the city’s name…”
and continues on in this silly vein.
McGonagall wrote some 200 poems. More than 60 began with the word “T’was”, and numerous phrases were repeated in his poems, including “beautiful to be seen”. He seemed immune to embarrassment, as he was pelted numerous times over in the circus but seemed totally indifferent, and was very upset when his performances were banned. Some of his poetry was cringeworthy. Witness this couplet from the “Tay Bridge Disaster”:
“And the cry rang out all round the town,
Good heavens! The Tay Bridge has blown down.”
One final quote, from “The Battle of Bannockburn”:
“Then King Edward ordered his horsemen to charge,
Thirty thousand in number, it was very large;
They thought to o’erwhelm them ere they could rise from their knees,
But they met a different destiny, which did them displease;
For the horsemen fell into the spik’d pits in the way,
And, with broken ranks and confusion, they all fled away,
But few of them escap’d death from the spik’d pits,
For the Scots with their swords hack’d them to bits”
I think that’s enough for one night. I must say, however, that the case that McGonagall was autistic has merit, and warrants further investigation.