Jason Blake from the University of Ljubljana sent me this very entertaining takedown of a truly awful 19th century poem, William Topaz McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Jason wonders whether it isn’t “the worst poem ever published.” To get the full effect of Jason’s critique, I recommend first reading the poem, which can be found here.
Jason’s essay got me thinking about other awful poems, and the one that came to mind was Alfred, Sir Richard Blackmore’s 18th century epic. Blackmore is best known to us today through the attacks of other poets. John Dryden called him a “Pedant, Canting Preacher, and a Quack” whose poetry had “the rhythm of wagon wheels.” Alexander Pope made him one of the major dunces in The Dunciad, referring to “Blackmore’s endless line” and “everlasting Blackmore.” Here’s how Pope describes Blackmore’s contribution to the epic poetic games that the dunces engage in:
But far o’er all, sonorous Blackmore’s strain;
Walls, steeples, skies, bray back to him again;
In Tot’nam Fields the brethren, with amaze,
Prick all their ears up, and forget to graze!
Long Chancery Lane retentive rolls the sound,
And courts to courts return it round and round;
Thames wafts it thence to Rufus’ roaring hall,
And Hungerford reëchoes bawl for bawl.
All hail him victor in both gifts of song,
Who sings so loudly, and who sings so long.
Having now read “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” I think McGonagall would give Blackmore a run for his money. What I particularly appreciate about Jason’s article, however, is how, after his takedown, he evinces sympathy for the poet. Jason says that we have to appreciate his exuberant energy. In that respect, “Tay Bridge Disaster” reminds me of the poetry of my late cousin Dan, whose long wedding poem to my sister-in-law, read aloud, literally triggered a migraine and whose self-published epic on “the Beantown Bosox” and their 2004 championship went on and on and on. But everyone gave him a pass because we liked him so much and he was so enthusiastic.
By Jason Blake, University of Ljubljana English Department
William Topaz McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster” is undoubtedly the worst poem ever published. It’s so bad that when I first encountered it in Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled I optimistically assumed it didn’t actually exist. I figured Fry had Shawshanked not only the poem but also McGonagall into existence, that he had conjured up an entire one-man tradition in order to make a point about writing poetry.
But McGonagall (1825 – 1902) did exist and two seconds of googling made it clear I was the only one never to have heard of him. There are plenty of websites devoted to him, including The (not so) Great McGonagall, the hilarious and thorough McGonagall Online (“William Topaz McGonagall, poet and tragedian of Dundee, has been widely hailed as the writer of the worst poetry in the English language”) and, appropriately, one site that appears to deliver a computer virus. Somehow, Poemhunter.com has WTM ranked 185, one ahead of the famous versifier Ernest Hemingway, and four ahead of some guy named Wystan Hugh Auden. “If a way to the Better there be,” says Thomas Hardy, “it exacts a full look at the Worst.” I think he was talking about his contemporary, Mr. McGonagall.
“The Tay Bridge Disaster” is awful and should be taught in all high schools and universities. I mean that seriously, for McGonagall’s “lay” is a perfect guide to what a poem should not be (“lay” is McGonagall’s term; he needed a rhyme for “Tay.” He’d already used “say” four times.). The lines scan like I golf, the rhymes are wrenched or outright lies, the diction is delightfully dreadful, the stanza pattern is gnomic, and, most grotesquely, this ode on a tragic event brings the gift of laughter to all.
Based on a true disaster involving a Scottish wind, a bridge and a train, the poem is a gift to teaching. Even a student who is sleeping, who has nary a poetic bone in his body, who is thinking about lunch or mating or video games will adore this poem. Ya want proof? When I mention that the poem won’t be on the exam… students complain.
Once I tried the old teaching trick of presenting “The Tay Bridge Disaster” as a great work, but no one fell for it. Every time I discuss it in class, a student quips, “It’s a disaster of a poem.” Amen and nuts to those who say young minds can’t identify art.
Reading aloud is an important life-skill, I tell my students as we slug through “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Someday, somewhere, I tell them, they will all have to read something in public. Better to practice now than to embarrass themselves at a future PTA meeting or wedding speech. My real reason, of course, is that by the end of the first stanza I’m laughing spasmodically:
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.
Cynics and realists and people with a smattering of English may point out that “1879” does not actually rhyme with “time.” This leads naturally to a discussion of rhyme. It could be argued that “nine-time” is an intentional half-rhyme (here I am rhyming more by accident than WTM did on purpose!). The textual evidence, however, speaks against that theory. William Topaz McGonagall would sell his mother and Scottish accent for even a tortured full rhyme, since other rhyming gems in the poem include “Edinburgh” and “sorrow,” “buttresses” and “confesses.”
Cryptically, McGonagall repeats the unwieldy and unsightly “1879”-“time” pairing again and again, using them as a sort of refrain. To be fair, though, he does change his tune the fourth time around:
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.
Lines such as these have much to say about feet and metre and poetic imbalance, especially when students – remember, they’re still reading aloud – try to impose rhythmic order upon them. Further clunker lines include “Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year” and the syllable-poor “Until it was about midway.” Without getting bogged down in iambs and the like (not a great concern of McGonagall’s in any case), students get a sense of flow and poetic control.
A teaching tip: ask students to pick out the worst lines and to explain what makes them bad. I guarantee at least a dozen different and creative answers.
“The Tay Bridge Disaster” fails in many ways as it blithely trips toward its final, thirteen-line sentence/stanza:
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.
It’s easy to beat up on McGonagall’s verse, to add my voice to the many who have skewered him decades after his death, but that is cynical and useless. He’s long gone and in no position to fight back. And who cares if he was a poor poet?
Truth be known, I love this poem, and not just because it makes for an easy class or because it disproves the claim that young people can’t separate the good from the bad. I love “The Tay Bridge Disaster” because it struts with a life-affirming exuberance, a naivety and energy that would be right at home in Blake’s Songs of Innocence – with one crucial difference: McGonagall must have known he was not universally adored. As McGonagall Online notes, “His audiences threw rotten fish at him, the authorities banned his performances, and he died a pauper over a century ago.”
When I read McGonagall’s bad verse, I simply can’t believe he was a bad person. That’s primarily because I myself am an inhibited person. I practice what to say before I head into the bank. That’s the only example I’m prepared to reveal.
For me, McGonagall is like the refreshingly loud, awful singer who sings for the hell of it, he’s like the trash-talking schoolyard hoops player who knows he won’t win but still plays the game, he’s like the flailing dancer endangering others to the tune of Boney M’s “Ra, ra Rasputin.” Especially this summer, McGonagall has been a joy to behold.