The Facts of the Matter

For those of you who do not know, William McGonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1830.  He was the son of a handloom weaver and pursued his father’s trade until the mechanisation of the weaving industry made life hard for him.  In June 1877 he experienced a life-changing visitation from the muse

‘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, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears-

“WRITE! WRITE”

I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– “I know nothing about poetry.” But still the voice kept ringing in my ears – “Write, write,” until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem.’

There could hardly be a more powerful experience of poetic inspiration than this.  If the burning desire to create was any guarantee of the quality of the creation, this should indeed produce a work of genius and, in a sense, so it did.  Here are the opening lines of ‘Burial of the Rev. George Gilfillan’, the first poem written by the man who was destined to become The Great McGonagall:

On the Gilfillan burial day,
In the Hill o’Balgay,
It was a solemn sight to see,
Not fewer than thirty thousand people assembled in Dundee,
All watching the funeral procession of Gilfillan that day,
That death had suddenly taken away,
And was going to be buried on the Hill o’Balgay.

McGonagall points up a paradox central to artistic creation – the lack of any necessary correlation between the experience of making the work, with its powerful feelings of engagement and self-authentication, and the quality of the work itself. Every artist who is subject to even the most rudimentary self-doubt (and what artist isn’t?) feels the tooth of this paradox. The problem is made worse by the fact that if you are really doing something new and interesting your own critical faculties might not be able to recognise it. As so often with a paradox, there are two points of view here: one for the maker, engaged in the work, the other for the critic, judging it dispassionately. The flip-flop between these two is a peculiar mental torture, one that renders the process of creation ultimately absurd.

McGonagall was famous for his lack of self-criticism. Some time in the 1880s he fell victim to a bunch of clever fellows who feted him to his face and laughed at him behind his back. They paid for him to come to London where they showered him with phoney honours including a knighthood in the Order of the White Elephant of Burma. He took all this as his due and from then on called himself Sir William Topaz McGonagall.

Recently, I read a suggestion that he knew very well what was going on but he was a poor man with a large family to bring up and no talent other than his utterly redundant skill as a handloom weaver. Poetry had become his livelihood and if he could make good money out of pretending to be the unwitting victim of this mockery then it was fine by him.

I like the layers of irony here.

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