The world has exploded into violence, everywhere you turn this month. Where else to turn for a few moments’ respite from the news but … Scotland?
A few months ago, Bliss Carnochan gave a talk on his book Scotland the Brave during the Company of Authors event – I wrote about his book earlier here. I meant to write about his talk that day, too – but, well, time ran away with me, and I forgot the details of what he said, so must refer to his book for the part I remember best: Bliss’s nomination for the worst poet evah. He’s not alone, apparently, in his assessment.
Where, he asks, should we begin in the extraordinary career of William McGonagall (1825–1902), who has become something of a cult figure? “He specialized in dramatic events: shipwrecks, battles and, in his best-known poem, the disastrous failure of the Tay Bridge, spanning the Firth of Tay near Dundee, in December, 1879. Only a year after it was built, the bridge collapsed in a storm under the weight of a passing train, killing all aboard when the train plunged into the water below.” Here’s the poem, then, with Bliss’s words to walk us through:
When the bridge had opened, McGonagall was bursting with Scottish pride.
Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array.
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day.
Lest passengers worry about the bridge’s strength, McGonagall assures them:
And I think nobody need have the least dismay
To cross o’er thee by night or by day.
Because thy strength is visible to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.
So long, so splendid is the Tay Bridge that it rivals a famous bridge across the sea:
The New Yorkers boast about their Brooklyn Bridge,
But in comparison to thee it seems like a midge,
Because thou spannest the silvery Tay
A mile and more longer I venture to say
Besides the railway carriages are pulled across by a rope,
Therefore Brooklyn Bridge cannot with thee cope…
But then the bridge collapsed in December,1879:
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.
McGonagall offers an engineering analysis of the disaster, quite at odds with his earlier raptures, and a homespun moral:
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.
Bliss concludes that “the niceties of critical exegesis are probably lost on this poet’s oeuvre. Macro-poetics, not micro-poetics, are the issue here.” Is this the worst poem ever written? No! McGonagall falls from that to this, written at the request of bereaved parents in Scotland to honor their daughter who died young, and mercifully confines himself in one short quatrain:
Here lies little Mary Jane,
She neither cries nor hollers,
She lived but one and twenty days,
And cost us forty dollars.
Bliss Carnochan is a connoisseur of badness. “This may be uniquely bad, perhaps the worst poem ever written,” he mulls. “But its badness differs from that of McGonagall’s usual fare. Here he can only be read as sporting with a child’s death. As an expression of feeling in the face of tragedy, it is utterly perverse. That is not the case with poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” in which the hypnotic monotony of expression—Hugh MacDiarmid calls it a ‘dead levelness of utterance’—flattens rather than perverts normal feelings. I think that is one reason why McGonagall’s poetry, in all its dreadfulness, has been able to attract an audience as devoted almost as that of Robert Burns.”
The legendary McGonagall has been remembered Spike Milligan’s film The Great McGonagall (1974), with Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria. McGonagall inspired a series of books, concluding with William McGonagall Meets George Gershwin (1988). “A William Topaz McGonagall Appreciation Society keeps his memory warm in his hometown of Dundee where, until his born-again life as a poet and performer, he was an impoverished hand-loom weaver. And a capacious website, McGonagall-Online, filled with information, provides a McGonagall poetic ‘gem’ each day, inviting readers to register if they would like to receive it by e-mail.”
According to the website here: “His audiences threw rotten fish at him, the authorities banned his performances, and he died a pauper over a century ago. But his books remain in print to this day, and he’s remembered and quoted long after more talented contemporaries have been forgotten.”
How did such an extraordinary writing career begin? Bliss takes us to the roots. McGonagall writes: “I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June . . . 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!’” And so he did.
“Did he fabricate the whole thing? Almost certainly not. For better or worse, William McGonagall was born to write.”
Spike Milligan below as McGonagall. Not quite my thing, but it gives you a feel… In any case, Peter Sellers does an interesting turn as Queen Victoria.