Thursday, September 29, 2005

The best bad poet of all time

I'd never heard of this gentleman before, but I am sure my life will be richer now for having read about him this morning. Apparently, William McGonagall (1825-1902), "poet and tragedian of Dundee," wrote poetry as horrible and as fascinating as a massive train wreck (in which nobody gets hurt, of course).

From Today in Literature:

McGonagall's contemporaries report that they could find no irony in him, or any awareness of what was going on. Today, he is recognized as favorite son and official "Best Bad Poet" of Dundee. So bad that when Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers held a Worse-Than-McGonagall contest they were unable to find a winner, and so good that they made the movie The Great McGonagall (1974), with Milligan in the kilt.

I've never heard of that movie. Does anyone here remember it?

I really enjoyed this next paragraph:

So how bad? Many have tried to capture this. Some cannot get past his spelling and grammar; Chambers Biographical Dictionary refers to his "calypsolike disregard for metre": the editor of The Joy of Bad Verse likens the feeling of reading a McGonagall poem to "that of being driven unsteadily down a meandering road in a rattling old banger, which finally turns abruptly into a brick wall." Such judgements, placed against the poems themselves, show once again how poor a thing literary criticism can be. On the lesson provided by the collapse of the Tay Railway Bridge:
...Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without 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.

I don't believe any words were harmed in the making of this poem and the others, but I'll understand if some of you need to click away from this blog right now. Those with stronger stomachs may enjoy clicking over to McGonagall Online for lots more on the midguided McGonagall, who appears to have published 200 of these flaw-ridden gems in his lifetime.

Because I'm a romance writer, this one caught my eye. I'll share the first three stanzas of "Forget-Me-Not":

A gallant knight and his betroth'd bride,
Were walking one day by a river side,
They talk'd of love, and they talk'd of war,
And how very foolish lovers are.

At length the bride to the knight did say,
'There have been many young ladies led astray
By believing in all their lovers said,
And you are false to me I am afraid.'

'No, Ellen, I was never false to thee,
I never gave thee cause to doubt me;
I have always lov'd thee and do still,
And no other woman your place shall fill.'

If you're absolutely certain you want to know how this poem ends, look at this page at McGonagall Online.

Do any Scots read this blog? If so, please believe that I mean no offense when I ask: If these poems are read aloud in broad Scottish accents, does their meter improve at all?


Robyn said...

Brenda, thank you so much for my morning belly laugh. I don't know if that's what McGonagall intended, but I almost wish he knew how bad his poetry was and had a belly laugh over it, too.

Brenda Coulter said...

I know. It's sad to think of him being bewildered and hurt when people ridiculed his work. I prefer to think he knew he wasn't greatly talented and was just having some fun--like a man who's singing off-key and knows it but doesn't care because it's just so doggone much fun to sing.

Neal said...

Hi Brenda

What a small world it is. My girls are big fans of the "Horrible Histories" series of books here in the UK (bear with me, this is relevant). They're a series of "fun" history books that try to make history entertaining for kids. Over the summer, Kellog's gave away free CDs containing abridged versions of some of these books on cereal packets, read by the author, and my girls were listening to one of these just yesterday. The one they were listening to was "the Villainous Victorians", and one of the topics it covered was the horrible poetry of William McGonagall, complete with a rendition of part of the Tay Bridge Disaster, in Scottish dialect!

I think that reading it in dialect may improve it just the tiniest bit, but only a tiny bit. It's truly awful stuff.

There was also a reference to another poem he wrote, even blacker, about a child dying of starvation or somesuch, though I can't remember the exact details off-hand. Horribly entertaining, though only if you don't take it too seriously. I think that McGonagall was actually being totally serious: it's easy to forget that the Victorians were a dour lot who were suckers for a good (or bad!) morality tale!

Brenda Coulter said...

Neal, I'd say they were more like mortality tales. ;-)

Neal said...

Thank you Brenda, you've just given me my morning smile :-)

(And thank you also for your comments over on my blog. Much appreciated.)

Chris Hunt said...

Hi Brenda,

I'm the creator of "McGonagall Online", I'm glad you've enjoyed your first exposure to the great Poet and Tragedian. My impression is that McGonagall absolutely believed he was a great writer, beset by philistines. That's certainly the impression you get from his autobiography.

Alternatively, maybe the persona of the Bard of the Tay was a great act of comic self-invention by the old man. I don't think it matters - the important thing is those dreadful peoms bringing enjoyment to generations of people. I'm proud that my site has brought him into the lives of readers from all over the world.

Does it scan better in a scots accent? Err... No.

It does make some of the rhymes work a bit better though - he rhymes "Edinburgh" with "sorrow" on more than one occasion. It also adds to the comic effect if you read it with a suitably exaggerated accent (I'm english, btw).

Brenda Coulter said...

Chris, thank you for stopping by my blog. I've just posted more about you and your man McGonagall here.

Keep up the good work (of showcasing all that bad work).