An accomplished poet he was not, yet they'll bid a fortune for this lot

Share this article

HE IS the hapless wordsmith still ridiculed as the world's worst poet more than a century after his death.

William Topaz McGonagall may have created more than 200 poems, but no bard has been mocked as much as "The Tayside Tragedian".

Yet had McGonagall been alive today he could be excused a smile at the news a collection of his work is to be one of the star attractions at a major auction.

No fewer than 35 of his original poems are expected to generate up to 6,500 when they go under the hammer at Lyon and Turnbull in his home city of Edinburgh next month.

Experts have valued the McGonagall works – which are being sold by a private collector – in the same league as a collection of Harry Potter first editions, signed by JK Rowling.

And their valuation dwarfs that attached to rare first editions of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, a rare Mickey Mouse book from 1931 and a first edition of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Alex Dove, a specialist at Lyon and Turnbull, said: "McGonagall is obviously not the best poet, but he is actually very popular these days. Any of these poems on their own are actually worth up to 150, so the valuation of between 4,500 and 6,000 is pretty good value.

"It is likely that McGonagall sold some of these broadsheet poems himself on the streets. It is thought these poems, which he would have published himself, would have been his main source of income."

The self-taught son of an Irish cotton weaver, Mc Gonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1825. From there, his family moved to Dundee, where he worked most of his life as a handloom weaver in the jute mills.

He did not begin writing until the age of 47, but went on to pen poems about everything from famous Scottish battles to Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

Among the works being sold at auction next month are an ode to Robert Burns, his tribute to "beautiful Glasgow", a poem about the Battle of Waterloo and another about a fire at the People's Variety Theatre, in Aberdeen. But McGonagall – probably best remembered for his poem commemorating the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 – was paid just once for his work, for a Sunlight Soap commercial.

In Dundee, he was notoriously encouraged to give performances just so his audience could make fun of him, and was regularly the victim of practical jokes by students. He was also lured to London and even New York on a series of forged promises.

He eventually returned to the city of his birth, but died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard in the capital.

Comic influence lives on

THE 100th anniversary of McGonagall's death, in 2002, triggered a renewal of interest in his work, despite 13 pages out of 198 in a guide to the World's Worst Poetry being devoted to him.

Enthusiasts in Dundee and Edinburgh ended up arguing over which city has the correct claim to being the home of McGonagall, and there are now memorial plaques to him in both.

A play about his life and work was premiered in Edinburgh in 2002.

The official William Topaz McGonagall Appreciation Society boasts members in the United States and Canada, and his work has been translated into Russian, Japanese and Romanian. And his comic influence has lived on in a host of TV programmes, plays and films.

Glasgow poem

Beautiful city of Glasgow, with your streets so neat and clean, Your stately mansions, and beautiful Green!

Likewise your beautiful bridges across the river Clyde, And on your bonnie banks I would like to reside

Suffrage poem

Fellow men! why should the lords try to despise

And prohibit women from having the benefit of the parliamentary Franchise?

When they pay the same taxes as you and me,

I consider they ought to have the same liberty.