There is no shortage in this world of bad poetry, or of doggerel that someone is trying to pass off as genuine art. But when poetry is really bad – I mean, really bad – it can take on a sort of grandeur that we can admire; and nobody achieved this better than the unique and wonderful William Topaz McGonagall, a Scottish handloom weaver who, inexplicably, came to believe he was a poetic genius. He is often described as the worst poet in the English language, and there is a sort of ambition in that claim that suits his style.
McGonagall had no understanding whatsoever of the key elements of poetry. His main assumption appears to have been that poetic stanzas must contain rhymes, and that the obligation to rhyme should trump everything else, from meter to meaning. But in pursuing this ideal he created a kind of nobility of nonsense that you just cannot help admiring. The opening salvo of his oeuvre was a hymn to the dissenting Protestant minister and poet, the Reverend George Gilfillan. This clergyman would have been long forgotten by now but for McGonagall’s masterpiece, which I must now reproduce in full.
All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen doss not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.
And who could fail to be moved by his account of the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, or not be impressed by his ability to explain complex (and tragic) engineering issues:
It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
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.
And of course nobody could fail to be persuaded by the sound common sense of those last two lines.
McGonagall sought Queen Victoria’s patronage – in verse of course, including the following:
Beautiful Empress, of India, and Englands Gracious Queen,
I send you a Shakespearian Address written by me.
And I think if your Majesty reads it, right pleased you will be.
And my heart it will leap with joy, if it is patronized by Thee.
In these current challenging times we need to be inspired by great thoughts and moved by great art. Surely McGonagall’s time has come again. And while he may have hoped that his heart might be patronised by the Queen, we shall certainly do no patronising here.