The undoubted grandeur of really bad poetry

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.

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42 Comments on “The undoubted grandeur of really bad poetry”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Many thanks for this post Ferdinand, from now on I won’t be able to cross the Tay Bridge without remembering McGonagall’s immortal lines (even more memorable if you hear them (
    or attend a meeting in the Baxter Room at the University of Dundee without thinking about his “The Inauguration of University College Dundee” poem (1883) which opened with the stanza:
    Good people of Dundee, your voices raise,
    And to Miss Baxter give great praise;
    Rejoice and sing and dance with glee,
    Because she has founded a college in Bonnie Dundee

    Any university should be proud of the association with a man before its time, a man who in spite of his very poor origins and little schooling wanted to “become” somebody thanks to the art of poetry. Granted he might have been ‘over confident’ in his own talent, some might say delusional (other have argued that he suffered from Aspergers syndrome), in any case what I find incredibly modern about him is the fact that McGonagall is the prototype of the contemporary talent show participant, the one without the X factor, the one ridiculed on our television screens every Saturday night, a freak paraded for our entertainment. Apparently he was a music hall joke – the Mr Bean of the Scottish cultural scene. He was paid five shillings for a public recital so that audiences could jeer at his bad poetry or pelt him with rotten vegetables. I find such figures truly tragic.

    The sense of tragedy has come a long way since the Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides tradition, one could argue that much of its moral weight has been lost, drama is now driven by an unashamed hunger for exposure, and yet just like the ancient Greeks at times of difficulty nominated a *scapegoat* – a cripple or beggar – to suffer outside of the community on its behalf such contemporary figures are our scapegoats, our attempts at gaining some sense of humane dramatic closure. Tragedy and comedy have always been close relatives.

    As you write in conclusion of the post: “In these current challenging times we need to be inspired by great thoughts and moved by great art.” I would be content if in these challenging times we would be inspired not only by ‘greatness’, but find true solace in our imperfect humanity.

    • Thank you, Anna. I find McGonagall absolutely wonderful, without a hint of sarcasm. His enthusiasm for his poetry is so completely infectious. He really does demonstrate the greatness of the imperfect and flawed. That means something.

  2. It’s like an eighteenth century Rebecca Black!

  3. It takes a true poetic genius to work “buttresses” into a poem. And the last two lines of that poem should be an inspiration to us all..

  4. PoshPedlar Says:

    ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ William Wordsworth (Happy Birthday William).
    McGonagall’s feelings overfloweth.

  5. The ability to create something that gloriously awful is an artform in and of itself. “A nobility of nonsense”–haha, I like it. Thanks for sharing!

  6. holdenlyric Says:

    In my monthly search for new literary magazines to submit to, I ran into this Lit Magazine that says “send us your worst!” They encourage bad poetry. My immediate thought was, “What if the worst Lit Mag rejects my writing?” haha That would just be terrible.

  7. “For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed.”

    …I love those lines. Thanks for this blog post!

  8. Haha a great post!! I can only aspire to come up with such artistry as:

    “For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed”

    Makes my attempt at Vogon poetry seem quite good.

    Thanks for giving us all hope!!


  9. anolivedaily Says:

    This is why I avoid poems… I rarely read one that doesn’t make me cringe. That’s why those who are truly talented at them are so impressive!

  10. I admire McGonagall’s efforts but he must have heard a lot of criticism and he just sucked it in.

  11. I think it is to admire his courage for writing poetry of self conviction- and still here to talk about him 😉

  12. McGonagall is a classic — buy an audio book of his work and listen to a professional reader and he really is wonderful in his way.

  13. kkessler833 Says:

    I hate the ones on greeting cards. They almost always make me gag!

  14. emilymullaswilson Says:

    Have you seen the book called Very Bad Poetry, by Ross and Kathryn Petras? McGonagall is just one of the poets featured in this hilarious anthology. It includes such classics as “Ode to the Mammoth Cheese,” and “Dentalogia: A Poem on the Diseases of the Teeth.” My favorite poet in the book is Julia A. Moore who killed off so many of the subjects of her poems that Mark Twain said that she was “worse than a Gatling gun.” Great stuff! Thanks for this post.

  15. rly1987 Says:

    There is no authority on poetry or art. People need to read or look at a piece of work and determine for themselves if they like it or not. The worst habit people can fall into is assuming there are any real laws to poetry or art. Rules are artificial constructs created by non-divine entities (ie. people) and must be questioned even if a certain group declares themselves as an authority and states that such rules are standard practice. What makes them omnipotent? Artifice destroys real art, in my opinion.

    • jq_soul Says:

      You defy your own point by creating a rule that says all rules must be questioned. By default you are then arguing for and not against the critical examination of a work of art. If I support your point I then I acknowledge this construct as something more than artificial. It becomes real in its applicable practice. Such as my applying your rule by disputing its point. Of course there are rules in art. Whether written or unwritten. Character, plot, setting. All parts of story structure whether we labeled them or not. How else would we distinguish between the well written story and someone’s indiscernable ramblings. It’s the ability of the artist to paint within these often invisible lines of structure that create the masterpiece. Some sounds make good music and others just make noise. I’m not saying that some rules weren’t meant to be broken, but surely, not all of them.

  16. Azure James Says:

    I’ve written worse I bet. Lol.

  17. Ted Luoma Says:

    Wow, just when you think it’s complete, you are assaulted until you need to eat meat.

  18. Ann Kilter Says:

    Some wonderful friends of ours wrote a wonderful awful poem describing our romance which they read out loud at our wedding reception. It was enjoyed by all…and poems like this have a certain joy. Thereb is one in the tradition on my blog…Tiger, Tiger- with apologies to william blake.

  19. worzelodd Says:

    Hello, when I began The Collected Wisdom Of Godfrey, I set out to write the worst poetry I could. It is not easy, people actually liked it. I seek out the terrible everywhere, so many thanks.

  20. I wish I were good enough to be awful enough to be good.

  21. Greg Says:

    Whilst the poetry is pretty horrific, it takes some serious balls to rhyme buttresses with confesses(es).

  22. I did laugh while reading this. I find McGonagall’s poetry sort of charming. This is the first time hearing of it, though. Thanks!

  23. Anonymous Says:

    Apart from the technicality of the poem which I am not aware of, but still the poems looks awkward good, he must have felt good after writing these poem which is I think what matters. thanks for sharing

  24. mollyshallow Says:

    I do see the grandeur! Thank you for the introduction.

  25. Said Oscar wilde, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.”

  26. awax1217 Says:

    Great poetry is an art form which eludes me and leaves me in a quicksand,
    It seems alright but then I read it over and realize that I am not even my own fan.
    Do the words have to rhyme and make sense of my thoughts,
    I guess so for that is what lessons I have been taught.

  27. susanddhavle Says:

    I thought only people I knew wrote bad poetry.

  28. amandadawnclothier Says:

    Who defines what poetry is anyway. If the expression is poetic to the writer, there will always be someone else it resonates with.

  29. PrairieChat Says:

    Somewhere, somehow a bell will ring
    Someplace, someway we’ll hear it ding!

  30. You are correct. That was horrible poetry. Ugh.

  31. I get these gems in Christmas letters. Although I really want to know what’s been going on in the senders’ lives, I can hardly stomach reading their “poems” to find out!

    It wouldn’t bother me if I thought the writers of Christmas letter family doggerel were being funny. But they are serious. They think these are fine poems!

  32. ©lb Says:

    It is certain within any form of art, there is bad art. In this way you speak as plainly as the one you critique. Though all ideas addressed here are fair, I would much rather appreciate deeper and more meaningful exploration of what informs someone of “good” art over “bad” art. A study of the elements, a dissection of poetry, would do this post-modern world challenge some good in finding a “solution” if one is necessary. All the same, there is some curious thinking as to why “bad” poetry can be “good.” This too would do better being explored. Yet, in the end, there will always be an inequality of quality in art.

  33. Leo Trait Says:

    Reblogged this on The Traited and commented:
    “William Topaz McGonagall”
    He’ll feel proud if he had been alive to see a lot of his minions….

  34. MissFit Says:

    I LOVE that you remind your readers to stop and think about why we like what we say we like and value. there is a lot of bad [ __insert art, behavior, institution] in our society. we might now be able to eradicate it all but simply asking if it merits praise is a great start!

  35. afsheenanjum Says:

    Congratulation on being freshly pressed

  36. magnocrat Says:

    He has much in common with many net poets and maybe poets need a sort of super conceit to believe their words are worth reading. Journalists know within days their offerings are rubbished but they have to earn a living. Authors know it is unlikely you will read the same book twice. Only musicians and poets intend to imprint your mind and extend their mortality.

  37. suchled Says:

    It says a lot about the Scots that they have given us Whisky, porridge, haggis, bagpipes, Jimmy Connolly and William McGonagall. And I love ’em all – all the way down here in Aust.

  38. stephenhague Says:

    I suspect he has the last laugh, since what he has written in this genre must be simply intentionally sarcastic and self-mocking and reflects the Chaucerian tradition of social commentary through humorous, hilarious outrageousness.

  39. Surely art like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One form doesn’t suit all. What gives anyone the right to make rules about it?

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