World’s Worst Poet

  Jerome Shea       May 27, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Give ear, Gentle Reader:

And the Tower of London is most gloomy to behold
And the crown of England lies there, begemmed with precious stones and gold.
King Henry the Sixth was murdered there by the Duke of Glo’ster,
And when he killed him with his sword he called him an imposter.

Please meet William Topaz McGonagall, born in Edinburgh in 1825 or 1830, and dying there in 1902, a man with so tin an ear that it never occurred to him that the last line, above, exactly replicated the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a man who could rhyme “ruins” with “bruins” and count it a poetic coup, and yet a man who ranked himself right up there with the Bard of Avon. He may also have been a “performance artist” before his time. Nothing thrilled him more than to take to the stage and perform the more flamboyant passages from the Bard—fight scenes his specialty, declaiming away and brandishing a wooden broadsword while eggs and overripe fruit rained down upon him.

You have probably guessed that McGonagall was so bad that he was, oddly, good. Or as we might say today, he was so bad that he was “BAAAD!” And you would be right. Audiences loved him even as they pelted him. Readers longed for the next broadsheet wherein McGonagall would leave the merely execrable far behind. Here, in its entirely, is perhaps my favorite, “Greenland’s Icy Mountains”:

Greenland’s icy mountains are fascinating and grand,
And wondrously created by the Almighty’s command;
And the works of the Almighty there’s few can understand:
Who knows but it might be a part of Fairyland?

Because there are churches of ice, and houses glittering like glass,
And for scenic grandeur there’s nothing can it surpass,
Besides, there’s monuments and spires, also ruins,
Which serve for a safe retreat from the wild bruins.

And there’s icy crags and precipices, also beautiful waterfalls,
And as the stranger gazes thereon, his heart it appals
With a mixture of wonder, fear, and delight,
Till at last he exclaims, Oh! What a wonderful sight!

The icy mountains they’re higher than a brig’s topmast,
And the stranger in amazement stands aghast
As he beholds the water flowing off the melted ice
Adown the mountain sides, that the cries out, Oh! how nice!

You can’t make this stuff up. Or, rather, McGonagall could, and we would be the poorer without him. More? Ok. Here is the only poem that, according to one source, he actually got paid for, a paean to Sunlight Soap:

You can use it with great pleasure and ease
Without wasting any elbow grease:
And when washing the most dirty clothes
The sweat won’t be dripping from your nose.

Along with egregious rhymes, clichés, and tortured meter, he could not resist the helpful fact, the mundane detail:

Then as for Fort Leith, 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.

(Sorry. It’s so hard to stop quoting McGonagall. It’s like eating salted peanuts!). In “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” based upon a real and horrendous railway tragedy, he concludes by lecturing the builders on engineering principles and advises as to how

…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.

A question arises as to whether he was a poet at all; that is to say, can writing this godawful even be called poetry? I will leave that for others to decide. A more interesting question is how he could have been so utterly clueless about his lack of talent. And clueless he certainly seems to have been. This is a man who hiked to Balmoral to present his verses to Queen Victoria and to suggest that he succeed Tennyson as Poet Laureate (he was turned away at the gate). It was inevitable that another theory arise: that McGonagall knew precisely what he was up to, that he was in fact a satirist of the form or gladly abased himself to make a living. This is the argument of at least one Master of Arts thesis (Gord Bambrick, 1992, University of Guelph). The best that I can say after reading Bambrick’s website—you can Google it—is that his summary argument is detailed and impressive. But I am not persuaded. One reason, I suppose, is that I don’t want to be.

“We have been vouchsafed but one Scots bard named Wm. McGonagall And I think his verses are a succulent and nutritious feast for us always to chronicle.”

You see, it’s no use trying to compete! My hat’s off to you, McGonagall!

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