A Cautionary Tale About Cautionary Tales?

While discussing the great nation of Scotland recently, in these very pages, I was reminded of something. Undoubtedly, Scotland has bestowed upon our world some fine gifts, including the telephone, television, penicillin, caber tossing, Billy Connolly, the Glasgow Kiss, the Bay City Rollers and the words “bampot”, “stoater”, “drookit”, “hackit” and “blootered”. (I discern a visit to the Urban Dictionary in your future, dear reader.)

But along with such distinguished cultural contributions, Scotland also produced the mother of all cautionary tales, a tale that exemplifies supreme “bathos” (no, silly, Bathos isn’t the name of the fourth Musketeer… and stop interrupting). And that tale goes by the name of William Topaz McGonagall. (Yes, I did just say “Topaz”. Bear with me, you’ll see.)

First, bathos. Here’s the dictionary definition:

bathos |ˈbāTHäs|
(esp. in a work of literature) an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.

The key word there is “unintentional”. For some unaccountable reason, something already funny is far funnier when it isn’t meant to be. If you doubt me, think back to your school days when you were passed a note featuring a crude rendition of a specific body part, and at that moment the teacher uttered the terrible words, “David, please share with the class what you clearly find so amusing.” (Yes, I know your name isn’t David, you’re missing my point, keep up. Sigh.) Anyway, the effect was excruciating. Your internal organs would seem to liquefy, then inexplicably feel like gravity had just increased tenfold. Your hands would sweat, your face take on the texture and hue of something you’d order from Domino’s. There would be a feeling in your throat somewhat akin to having a nest of boll weevils stuffed in your trachea, aching for release. Bottom line: forbidden humour is simply funnier.

So, who was William McGonagall? Well, he was a poet. Of sorts. More accurately, he was a truly abominable poet. If he was in any other field, not even the most militant union could have saved his job. But the spectacular part is that he believed he was gifted… and not only with verse. He also acted. So filled with hubris was this man that while playing the role of Macbeth, he once refused to die at the appointed moment in the play. I suppose rewriting Shakespeare on the fly is a form of subverted genius. Who knows what went on in this man’s head?

There are so many examples of his execrable poetry out there in Google-land (he wrote some 200 of the things), so I’ll just drop a quote from the conclusion of his most famous poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster”. Keep in mind this is a lament for a very real disaster in which 75 people met horrible deaths when the Tay Rail Bridge near Dundee collapsed while a train was passing over it. Remember, we should not be laughing in any way at this…

“Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv’ry Tay
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way
At least many sensible men do say
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses
For the stronger we our houses build
The less chance we have of being killed.”

A purer example of bathos we’d be hard pressed to find.

Oh, the Topaz part of his name? He once received a letter claiming to be from King Thibaw Min of Burma, informing him he’d been knighted as Sir Topaz, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah. Either choosing to ignore or actually oblivious to this pretty obvious hoax, he henceforth referred to himself in his promotional material as “Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah”. Can someone hoax me something along similar lines so I can start a Facebook page entitled, “Sir David Emerald Antrobus, Knight of the Gold Phoque, Cascadia”, please?

Seriously, Google his name and I guarantee you will be helpless with laughter at many of the absurdities scattered throughout this man’s life. Unaware or unconcerned as McGonagall himself was, some of the events surrounding his seventy-seven years on planet Earth are scarcely believable. I’ll leave you with one such tidbit. No one can argue the truth contained in his first “review”, an ostensibly admiring comment from the subject of his very first poem, the Reverend George Gilfillan, who gushed, “Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.” Quite.

But what does his example teach us, as we each try to make our way in this world of letters? Should we mock him or admire him? In a way, perhaps both. Certainly on one level, I’m actually envious of the man’s stalwart self-belief. I’m as riddled with self doubt about my writing, after all, as the England national football team are about their continued progression at major tournaments: I just know I’m going out at the next penalty shootout. Whereas the McGonagalls of the world are apparently oblivious to those long dark tea-times of the soul (thank you, Douglas Adams), those quiet moments of reflection wherein most of us conclude our future most likely lies at a busy intersection holding a cardboard sign in one hand and a small, trembling dog in the other. But it’s easy to snipe, and perhaps this cautionary tale conceals another level of caution altogether. Despite his almost complete lack of writing talent, McGonagall’s bullheaded refusal to allow even a shred of self doubt to divert him from his vocation, his unerring insistence on his own brilliance, has ensured his seven collections of poetry are still being read over a hundred years after his death. Which, okay, is unintentionally funny, for sure, yet not really all that bathetic, is it?

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David Antrobus is a contributing writer for Indies Unlimited and author of the nonfiction book Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. For more information, please visit the IU Bio page, and his website: The Migrant Type. He also occasionally adds his stuff to the website BlergPop.

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

41 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale About Cautionary Tales?”

        1. “First you must find… another shrubbery! (dramatic chord) Then, when you have found the shrubbery, you must place it here, beside this shrubbery, only slightly higher so you get a two layer effect with a little path running down the middle. ("A path! A path!") Then, you must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest… with… a herring!”

  1. Very fun post. Love the educational value all the while being entertained! Thanks, DA! Oops, I mean, Sir David Cubic Zirconia Antrobus, Esquire, M.D.

    1. Oooh, I love it. Opal Moonstone.

      And I also love the word "chutzpah". The refusing to die while playing Macbeth story is still giving me LOLs at inopportune moments.

        1. Almost certainly. Good thing Zappa and Bowie didn't mate, come to think of it.

          And thanks! From all Canadians everywhere (since I clearly speak for them). 😉

  2. Finally, something I can put on my gravestone:

    "For the stronger we our houses build

    The less chance we have of being killed."

    Unless my house collapses on me, in which case it would be way too bathetic.

    1. Ha, yes! It's brilliant in its way.

      I think he once started a poem something like this (too lazy to Google):

      "Oh fairest Edinburgh

      Second most beautiful city in Scotland…"

  3. Ha! Brilliant, Sir David. If ignorance is bliss, McGonagall must have been one happy dude.

    1. I'll bet he was. There was a story he approached Queen Victoria in order to become her official poet and was turned away and roundly rejected, as Tennyson was the poet laureate back then. But he somehow interpreted this rejection as encouragement! I'd love to learn that aspect of his character, at least.

  4. Henceforth I will be known as Yvonne Alexandrite of the Most Expensive Sisterhood Hertzberger. Because I am so changeable (translate moody) and never a cheap date.

  5. I have a feeling that this fellow may have been brothers with the original 'poet' of all the Nantucket limericks. There is a quiet genius in the ability to consistently write quotable poetry. 🙂

  6. I'm changing my middle name to Topaz. Okay, maybe not. Perhaps that could be my stripper name. If so, it will be my little secret. But we all have taken a bathos from time to time. Financially, figuratively, and literally. Thanks David, for another great hysterical lesson in the history of the world. Sincerely, Sir Edwin watermelon tourmaline Drury of Portlandia.

    1. LOL, Ed. I can't believe everyone's managing to come up with new gems. I think I tried and got as far as ruby and amber… which now I think about it, could also be incorporated into my own stripper name…

    1. Nice collab! The whole thing:

      There once was a poet MacGonagall

      Who considered his writing not abominable

      An actor and poet

      Some detested and showed it

      Yet in some ways his work was phenomenal

  7. My favourite poet! I have his complete works on the bookshelf, lol. This post and the recent discussion have reminded me, I haven't hosted a McGonagall Dinner for too many years. Got to be done soon.

    Happy Canada Day weekend all, I'm missing the fireworks in the flood plains of soggy Lancashire.

    1. Soggy's a good description for here right now, though, too. Any fireworks at this moment wouldn't get off the ground. But yes. Canada will be 145 tomorrow! Maybe we should write a MacGonagall-esque ode in honour of it?

      "Oh great and mighty Canada,

      Second biggest nation on earth

      Much, much bigger than fairest Rwanda,

      We celebrate the 145th year of your birth."

  8. Great David. Some people are just so full of themselves and don't even know it, lol. Here are some more stones for you:

    Amethyst, Aventurine, Bloodstone, Cat's Eye, Hematite, Jasper, Malachite, Moonstone, Opal, Ruby, Sapphire, Tourmaline, and Unakite. All of these are believed to have magical properties.

    Love the poem you and Jo-Anne came up with.

      1. I'm taking Aventurine — it's supposed to attract both luck and money. 😉 Happy day-after-Canada Day!

        Lady Lynne Aventurine Cantwell of Electricity Restored*

        *bad storm here in DC last night — grateful for the return of both A/C and intarwebz!

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