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Worst poet

William McGonagall is widely recognised as the worst poet in history.

McGonagall

Parisian Photo Co, Edinburgh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William McGonagall was born in Ireland in 1825, and his family moved to Scotland soon after. He found work as a weaver, got married, had seven children, and performed in local theatre. (In one story, he played the titular role in a production of Macbeth. Jealous of another actor, he reputedly refused to die at the end of the play.)

June, 1877, McGonagall was struck by the Muse of Poetry. Inflamed by his new ambition, he wrote an awful poem and sent it to Queen Victoria. He received a polite form letter of rejection. Undeterred, he decided that this letter was as good as a ringing endorsement (it had come, after all, from one of the queen’s own functionaries!) and later styled himself “the Queen’s Poet.” This was not reciprocated.

Mcgonagall’s life from then on was tragic. His confidence in his own poetic genius was unmoved by criticism or derision. He was impoverished and had to rely on family friends to keep him afloat (and fund publication of his poetry). At one stage he became a circus performer, reading his poems while the audience threw rotten food at him. His poems always, always rhymed, had no sense of metre, and frequently descended into pompous bathos.

But how bad were his poems, really? His most famous poem is “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” It commemorated the unfortunate collapse of a bridge in Scotland that resulted in the death of ninety people. Here are the opening stanzas:

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.”

Yeah. I mean… yeah. Phew. Ouch. It gets better. (Worse.) Here’s how it ends:

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.

I can honestly say that this is the best poem I have ever read about central girders. And the worst poem I have ever read.

On Loch Ness:

Your scenery is romantic…
With rocks and hills gigantic…
Enough to make one frantic,
As they view thy beautiful heathery hills,
And their clear crystal rills

On women’s suffrage:

Fellow men! why should the lords try to despise
And prohibit women from having the benefit of the parliamentary Franchise?
When they pay the same taxes as you and me,
I consider they ought to have the same liberty.

On Shakespeare:

In his beautiful play, As You Like It, one passage is very fine,
Just for instance in the forest of Arden, the language is sublime,
Where Orlando speaks of his Rosilind, most lovely and divine,
And no other poet I am sure has written anything more fine

You can read all of his published poetry at the second link below. I recommend taking a stiff drink with you.

Categories: Arts & recreation Literature

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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