Monday, December 13, 2004

William McGonagall – the world’s worst poet

It is impossible to fake poetry as bad as that of William Topaz McGonagall.

McGonagall was a self-educated hand loom weaver from Dundee, who decided in 1877 that he had a vocation as a wandering bard. He embarked upon a 25 year career as a working poet, delighting and appalling audiences across Scotland and beyond.

His many public performances produced much unintentional hilarity, and his audiences routinely howled with laughter at his tragic poems, and pelted him with rotten vegetables and so on.

Nonetheless, he was quite oblivious to the derision which greeted his poetry, and in that respect I suppose he is a sort of forerunner to those poor deluded souls who appear in the early stages of Pop Idol, convinced that they are singing sensations and utterly dumbfounded and disbelieving when the judges inform them of just how bad they really are.

McGonagall’s poems are unfailingly written in a dreary succession of rhyming couplets, with certain endlessly repeated phrases, notably: “most wonderful to be seen”, and “the Silvery Tay.”

His most famous poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster, which encapsulates the essence of the man nicely, especially in its killer last verse. It is reproduced in full below, but really you can read any of his efforts, or his unintentionally hilarious autobiography, and be guaranteed a good laugh.

Meanwhile, I think my favourite verse is this one from The Ancient Town at Leith, just for the scrupulous and very unpoetic attention to numerical accuracy:

Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,

They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.

You can read everything he ever wrote here.

The Tay Bridge Disaster

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say-"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now 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 do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.


Tadpole said...

I'm inclined to agree that McGonagall is amongst the worst poets, but I think there is one who rates higher on the scale of appall: Wordsworth. I urge you to revist the poems of this overrated institution, and consider the Lucy poems for what they really are: dismal, divelling attempts to keep to rhyme schemes at all costs; the costs are high.

I give you
"She dwelt among the untrodden ways"

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A Violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

Please pay close attention to that last line. A classic.

Brit said...

Yes, if Wordsworth were around today he'd probably be writing birthday card verses or lyrics for Oasis.

Actually, I think that one's ok. It's 'Daffodils' that's useless.

(Of course, we must point out that "The difference to me!" means his life is worse now she's dead. I don't think he's just clarifying the fact that he's not dead too.)