Vile Verse and Desperate Doggerel

Was the worst poet in history a hidden visionary?

William McGonagall, 19th century.
William McGonagall, 19th century © GL Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

Despite his long-running status as ‘the worst poet in history’, William McGonagall has hardly lacked appreciation in literary culture since his death in 1902. Raised in Dundee by a working-class family with deep religious convictions, McGonagall followed in his father’s footsteps and became a weaver. His artistic inclinations were apparent at an early age; he committed the verses of his idol, Shakespeare, to memory and appeared in local theatre as the titular character in Macbeth. As he would later write in his inordinately self-dramatising autobiography, his fellow thespians were jealous of his acting, so he refused to die at the hands of Macduff in the final fight scene as penance for their bitterness.

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