October 18, 2017
The World's "Best Bad Poet"On this day in 1902 William McGonagall, poet and tragedian of Dundee, died. Today McGonagall is a cult figure, his many collections of poetry translated into over a dozen languages and selling well to those wishing to investigate a reputation for "the worst poetry ever written, in any language, at any time." The middle-aged weaver was contemplating the beauties of a June day when he felt "a flame as Lord Byron has said" telling him to "write, write, write." McGonagall's Muse stayed for the next twenty-five years, granting him a carnival popularity, guiding him through ridicule -- forged invitations lured him to non-existent public readings, rotten vegetables greeted him at real ones -- and inspiring him to tour America in full Highland dress. The "tragedian" side of McGonagall's fame is not equal to the poetry, but he has the distinction of being the only double entry in Stephen Pile's Book of Heroic Failures, as both "The Worst British Poet" and "The Worst Macbeth." The latter derives from a performance made possible by McGonagall's shopmates at the Seafield Handloom Works in Dundee, who anted up a cash guarantee to a local theater owner and attended the premiere in great numbers. According to McGonagall's autobiography, their enthusiasm encouraged his Macbeth to push Macduff to his limits in Act V, and beyond:
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:
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.
To decorate with crape the beautiful City of Berlin;
Therefore Berlin I declare was a City of crape,
Because few buildings crape decoration did escape.
Which would cause Kings and Queens for such a one to sigh,
And make them feel envious while passing by
In fear of not getting such a beautiful Statue after they die.
The cow is much forlorner;
Standing in the pouring rain,
With a leg at every corner.
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