by Joseph S. Salemi

The poetic effusions of some people are so incompetent that they cross the line into unexpected humor, and thereby become valuable. Such is the case with the work of William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902), whose poetry has been kept in print long since his demise—first, as a source of amusement to many; and second, as a kind of warning sign to would-be poets concerning the dangers of absurdity and bathos. Not many competent poets have that sort of good luck. McGonagall continues to be remembered, long after better writers have disappeared from public consciousness.

A simple weaver of minimal education, McGonagall was of Irish background, though he lived mostly in Dundee, Scotland. He made up for the paucity of his schooling by self-education through reading, and by vigorous public recitations of Shakespearean passages. He even acted on a few occasions. He was in near poverty much of the time, earning only small amounts of money now and then from weaving, and later supplemented with what little change he could collect from reciting his own verse in taverns and pubs. Only the charity of generous friends kept him and his family from total destitution.

McGonagall was not a bad man. From the few prose accounts that he himself has left of his activities, we get the image of an honest, pious, straightforward character who did not have a malicious bone in his body. He showed genuine respect for his superiors, a strong patriotism, deep gratitude to those who had been kind to him, and an unfailingly hopeful and positive mindset. Reading between the lines of his comments, one can only pity the poor man’s very obvious need for human fellowship, his naïve trust in the good will of others, his shabby appearance, and the actual physical hunger that must have been a chronic affliction. He comes across as a likeable, uncomplicated, down-on-his-luck fellow, always good natured despite his straitened circumstances.

So, what is wrong with his poetry? Why is it derided as the absolute nadir of rotten composition?

In a nutshell, everything is wrong with McGonagall’s poetry. It is so poor that sponsored competitions to produce poetry worse than his have all ended in failure. No one can write worse than McGonagall. When it comes to abominable poetry, he is la crème de la crème. Let’s see if we can understand why.

The first thing to note is the utter, deadpan, blank earnestness of every line the man has written. McGonagall writes the poetry of plain, vapid, literal statement, completely devoid of any sophistication in vocabulary or sentence structure. There are no metaphors, or notable similes. Figures of speech are absent. The only discernible poetic device is rhyme, mostly monosyllabic. Reading McGonagall is analogous to listening to someone with an aphasic disorder trying mightily to speak. Here’s the start of his poem “The Sorrows of the Blind” —

 

Pity the sorrows of the poor blind,
For they can but little comfort find;
As they walk along the street,
They know not where to put their feet.
They are deprived of that earthly joy
Of seeing either man, woman, or boy;
Sad and lonely through the world they go,
Not knowing a friend from a foe:
Nor the difference betwixt day and night,
For the want of their eyesight…

 

This driveling doggerel is the very antithesis of poetry. It lacks all life, or any sense of verbal play, or even any human interest. Yes, yes, we all feel sorry for the blind, but these ten lines only evoke ridicule and contempt. They make the reader wish that the blind would slip on banana peels and break their necks. The only thing motivating such awful poetry is a clichéd appeal to emotions, draped in the most pedestrian and hackneyed language. McGonagall does this all the time, and it is purely unconscious. He is blissfully unaware of what the task of language is, and how real poets work to chisel and polish every word and line into razor-sharp precision. Compared to them McGonagall is a cave man, just crudely chipping flints.

Notice also the slovenly rhythm of the lines. Some seem to be pentameter, while others can only be scanned as tetrameter, and in either case the lines lack all grace and smoothness. The only thing that suggests we are reading poetry is the fact that they are arranged as rhyming couplets. There is something so utterly laughable in these lines, so awkward and ungainly, that one fails to respond to them with anything except quizzical dismissal or impatience.

McGonagall rarely keeps to a fixed meter. He never lets any metrical restriction stop the flow of his thoughts or feelings. Here’s a quatrain from his “Annie Marshall the Foundling,” about the rescue of a child from a shipwreck:

 

The night was tempestuous, most terrific, and pitch dark,
When Matthew Pengelly rescued Annie Marshall from an ill-fated barque,
But her parents were engulfed in the briny deep,
Which caused poor Annie at times to sigh and weep.

 

I defy anyone to scan those four lines, which contain 14, 18, 12, and 11 syllables, in their respective order. But let’s forget the metrical infelicities. Look at the last line. This is a textbook example of bathos, or “the art of sinking in poetry,” as Alexander Pope famously described the phenomenon. Can you read the line without laughing hysterically at its silliness, its triviality, its purely unnecessary and pleonastic emotionalism? Again, this is something that McGonagall does all the time. Consider these lines, from his poem about an attempted assassination of Queen Victoria:

 

God prosper long our noble Queen,
And long may she reign!
Maclean he tried to shoot her,
But it was all in vain.

For God He turned the ball aside
Maclean aimed at her head;
And he felt very angry
Because he didn’t shoot her dead.

 

This last line unintentionally turns the entire story of the attempted murder into a joke. It is pure bathos: the urge to say something lofty and important, but falling into a laughable absurdity instead. Now bathos is not merely a mistake in word choice, or a failure of decorum. When it happens regularly in a poet’s work, it indicates a severe deficiency in perception and an emotional immaturity. This is a major problem with McGonagall. His moral earnestness and his naïve innocence render him incapable of writing with the cool sophistication, detachment, and emotional distance that a professional poet brings to his work. All McGonagall can come up with is patriotism, religion, trivial details, and pathetic pomposity.

This naturally brings us to the question of McGonagall’s subject matter. None of his work is remarkable in this area: he writes some poems of natural description, some of historical incidents, some of love or revenge, some poems of praise, and some obituaries. But McGonagall’s most characteristic poem is the poem of catastrophe or disaster. A quick perusal of his poems shows ten of them: the collapse of a railway bridge (two poems), terrible fires (three poems), the bursting of a dam, a mining accident, the collision of ships, a shipwreck, and a military defeat. Now writing about major catastrophes or disasters is generally a mistake. The poem, right from the start, will have to be weighed down with the natural lamentation and grief that are publicly expressed over the event, and this ties the poet’s hands in composition and invention. Who can forget the tsunami of lousy poems that followed the attack on the World Trade Center?

Why does McGonagall write so many of these poems? Simple. Amateurish poets like these disaster subjects because a tragic incident that causes a great public outcry saves them the trouble of working hard to make a poem compelling and interesting. All you have to do is add to the chorus of weeping and wailing. Your audience is ready-made, your allusions will be public knowledge, your outrage and sorrow will be reflexively accepted, and you won’t be expected to raise any troubling questions or uncertainties. Your sentimental slop will be applauded.

McGonagall’s most famous (and most absurd) catastrophe poem is “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” concerning the collapse of a railroad bridge bearing a full passenger train over the deep river Tay, which killed many persons. I shall quote the poem’s beginning, and its end:

 

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.

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.

 

It’s hard to believe than anyone could have written that concluding couplet with a straight face, but McGonagall’s habit of bathos was deeply ingrained. He never stopped to consider whether a fact or idea or statement was appropriate in poem; he simply assumed that if it was in some way relevant, and if it could be fitted into a rhyme, he should add it.

Like many amateurish poets, McGonagall tended to be lengthy. Bad poets have always disregarded Edgar Allan Poe’s solid advice about the “totality of effect,” and aesthetic brevity, and how these are spoiled by an unnecessarily long poem. Excess length is usually a function of the amateur poet’s need to “get everything in,” like overstuffing a suitcase. The poet’s obsession with factual information or ideological principles overwhelms concise decorum. McGonagall’s poem about the mining disaster is composed of nineteen tedious stanzas, much of it nothing but a rehash of newspaper details. One of his poems about a terrible fire (“The Clepington Catastrophe”) has eighteen stanzas, some of them downright asinine:

 

Oh, heaven! I must confess it was no joke
To see them struggling in the midst of suffocating smoke,
Each man struggling hard, no doubt, to save his life,
When he thought of his dear children and his wife.

But accidents will happen by land and by sea.
Therefore, to save ourselves from accidents, we needn’t try to flee,
For whatsoever God has ordained will come to pass;
For instance, ye may be killed by a stone or a piece of glass.

 

The sheer irrelevance and inanity of that last line staggers belief. It indicates an overwhelming cluelessness about poetry, and a tone-deaf ear for what is suitable and what isn’t in literary composition. This is the real problem with McGonagall—not his wretched meter, not his prosaic diction, not his monosyllabic rhyme, not his depressing plainness. No—these things are disabilities, but they are not the primary and radical disability that afflicts the man. What is missing in McGonagall is the gift of eloquence itself, and the total absence of any fierce affection for language, of any appreciation of its panoply of glory and richness. For someone who supposedly loved Shakespeare, he is absolutely untouched by any of Shakespeare’s linguistic genius or rhetorical fire.

I’m told that McGonagall is highly appreciated and studied around the world, especially in East European and Asian countries. Well, these are people who are not native speakers of English. And if they are young they may still harbor the silly notion that poems are primarily about their paraphrased meaning. They may see in McGonagall nothing but his translatable subject matter, and because they are speakers of a classroom-learned English, they don’t see the unintended comedy, the silliness, the glaring incompetence, the sheer banality that an educated native speaker of English who is well trained in our literature cannot miss. The foreigners have an excuse for misreading McGonagall, because simple translation does not pick up the man’s bathos and absurdity.

But let me conclude with a more general observation. McGonagall was a poor and barely educated man. His life was a constant struggle, and he willingly endured heckling audiences who mocked his work and threw decayed vegetables and rotten eggs at him. In fact, his poor poetry may even have been a deliberately chosen signature style that he employed as a way to earn money for his desperate family. He recited his work in taverns and circuses to make a living. He may have had the honorable excuse that his primary duty was to his wife and children, and if this kind of worthless doggerel brought him a meager sustenance, so be it. Let them be amused by me, he may have thought, as long as I get paid.

But what is our excuse? I know far too many persons who share some of McGonagall’s faults. In our century, poetry is merely a private pursuit, an obscure boutique art that brings us neither money nor anything else. We aren’t keeping the wolf from the door with our compositions. For us this is just a hobby or a game. Can we at least resolve that we will NOT commit the poetic crimes that McGonagall committed? Can we stop with the humdrum plainness, the vapid statement, the dull diction, the crappy meter, the tedious length, the triviality, the commonplace thoughts and clichéd perceptions? Above all, can we give up the insufferable earnestness, the tone of which tells the reader that you are either spouting a commercial advertisement, announcing a news item, or giving a Sunday-School sermon? Can we at least TRY to be skilled and detached professionals?

We’re not feeding our families with what we write. We don’t have to amuse disorderly crowds at circuses and pubs. We don’t have to tolerate being pelted with decayed vegetables or hooted at with nasty catcalls. We don’t have to write like McGonagall.

 

 

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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20 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    This sounds like the start of an informal critical series, Dr. Salemi. I hope it is, with examination of both successes and failures in a variety of genres and style periods.

    Reply
  2. Joe Tessitore

    There is much here to think about (and not a little to laugh about) that leaves me wondering “What was that last thing I sent in to Evan?”.

    Another on-line poetry course for which I am grateful.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      I’m so glad we have a poet like McGonagall. No matter how awful my worst can be it can never rival even his best for sheer embarrassment, transparently pretentious drivel, childishness and utter incompetence (I hope). It is comforting to know that it is not physically possible to produce, as a grown-up, work that out-Herods his very best work for such appalling rhyme, diction, scansion, subject matter, technique. In every way a benchmark of poor quality and touchstone for the poetaster. When I was eight years old I wrote a splendid poem whose first couplet ran: “In days of old when men were bold / And slaves were sold for precious gold…” It makes me redden now as I write, but it has a reasonably neat internal rhyme and it scans and IT IS BETTER THAN McGONAGALL. I always knew he was bad but didn’t know quite how bad until I read this. Thank you for bringing him to our closer attention, and it’s a pity we’re a century too late to string him up.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Well, as I said, McGonagall wasn’t a bad man. There would be no pressing need to string him up. Reading accounts of his life, one is moved to pity the misfortune and poverty that dogged him. He was a loving husband and father, and this is a lot to be said for any man.

        But his verse is incredibly bad, and we all need to learn the lesson as to why this is so. To me it is this: BAD VERSE IS NOT SAVED BY BEING SINCERE AND SENTIMENTAL AND EARNEST. And verse that tries to be “edifying” is particularly vulnerable to these faults.

  3. Mike Bryant

    Joe S,
    I propose that we have a William Topaz McGonagall competition right here in the comments section. I have a feeling I might have just what it takes to excel at terrible poetry. The cutoff date and time would be one week from now, the 23rd at midnight. You’ve already laid out all the rules, but perhaps there should be a limit on the number of lines… maybe 10? What do you think?
    Would you judge it?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Not me, Mike — I won’t judge it. I already have too many enemies.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        You and me both… maybe it makes more sense to schedule it later… I’ll leave that up to the powers that be.

  4. Jeff Eardley

    Dr. Salemi, thanks for a most interesting essay. Up to this point, the only thing I knew about McGonagall was that the great British comedian, Spike Milligan was a fan, and indeed, produced “The Truth at Last” a pastiche biography of the great man himself. I think that if William suddenly re-appeared, he would become a celebrity on SCP and would join the long list of entertainers who have succeeded in being so awful as make a career of it. The bumbling magician, Tommy Cooper, the wonderful off the wall piano of the late Les Dawson, and the glass-splintering screeching of the delightful, and recently deceased Margarita Pracatan are just three examples. I’m sure there are many more.

    Reply
  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    What a beautifully written essay. I shouldn’t be laughing this hard on a peaceful Sunday morning – thank you!
    I am now a huge fan of William Topaz McGonagall. I adore his poetry. It knocks my humorous efforts into a cocked hat! It reminds me of the overblown horror films of the 80s – so grotesquely dire they’re comedic. It also reminds me of someone I know who completes a crossword puzzle every day and every answer is incorrect or misspelled, yet they fit together perfectly and are thoroughly entertaining. The crossword fan is quite unaware of this, and I would never point it out… I do, however, think there’s money to be made from these hilariously incorrect puzzles. Maybe, that’s why so many poets aren’t making their fortunes. Perhaps we could all learn from McGonagall. There’s a fine line between genius and insanity, and it would appear that a little craziness may pay.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Mrs. Bryant, if you like really bad and silly horror films, try “The Blob” or “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” (Believe it or not, “The Blob” was the 1958 film debut of Steve McQueen.)

      There’s a website devoted to McGonagall, and he is mentioned in many places on the internet. More than one biography of him exists. He’s famous in a way that is denied to many competent poets.

      Reply
  6. Mike Bryant

    This site really does provide an education in poetry, as Joe T said. The thing I found most interesting is the way cultures appreciate art so differently. I always loved the movies of Jerry Lewis, but the French hold him up as a genius of the highest order. I wonder if some of the Greek, Roman or classics in other languages were ridiculed in their times. I’m sure someone here knows. Thanks.

    Reply
  7. Leo Zoutewelle

    I don’t know, I came away with a sense of sadness and kept thinking of a quatrain of A. Roland Holst’s “Confessions of Silence”:

    I hear the endless murmur of thy stillness
    Through skies where no more earthly voice is heard
    I feel the look toward and through the illness
    Of my heart, which, weeping, broken, stirred.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      This is a superb, informative and well written article by Joe and a joy to read; however, I do – I think – understand a little of what Leo is feeling. Indeed, Joe makes it plain himself in describing the pain of the man – and when we see the haunted faces too of him in the photographs – the poet who struggled and died so long ago – the suffering comes alive. Everybody wants to feel that their contribution to the world makes some sense, has some meaning or purpose, so that when we consider he has been a source of constant merriment and mockery not only since his death but during his life too, it is a little sobering. But – heck – the poetry is godawful and he has achieved a kind of immortality, so we can cheer up a tad, Leo.

      Reply
  8. Roy E. Peterson

    I wrote one a couple of years ago that would be a contender for worst poem:
    THE WURST POME EVER ROTE
    By Roy E. Peterson (November 14, 2018)

    I done wrote a pome.
    The wUrst av ever seed.
    It is so bad it must be good
    like coons mah dawgs done treed.

    Mah pewter won’t keyrrect it.
    It done seamed to thro a fit.
    Ah think it dyed frm laffin.
    Whut cuud be wrong with it.

    Mah pomes about mah rooster
    The one that bothers hens.
    He ruffles up his fethers
    And done chases them in pens.

    Ah swears he crows at daybrake
    To wake me frm mah sleep.
    Ahd sell him if ah cuud,
    And the price would be real cheep.

    Ah knows he hates mah guts.
    He attackted me with his clause.
    The day is comin soon
    When ahll eat him with hot sauce.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      This isn’t bad or incompetent. It is simply a comic poem written in Deep South dialect. A poem is like McGonagall’s work when it shows absolutely no skill or prosodic ability, and lacks everything except cliched sentimentalism.

      Deliberate spelling mistakes don’t make a poem bad, if the mistakes are there to reinforce the comedy. That’s the case in this poem.

      Reply
      • Roy E. Peterson

        Excellent points. I appreciate the response and agree. When I posted it, I almost thought of cleaning up the spelling and checking the meter while leaving some Southern dialect, since it contained some humor. My poetry book, “Fables from the Funny Farm,” contains 256 humorous poems.

      • David Watt

        Thanks for this well written look at a famous/infamous poet.

        Joe, you’re right about poor spelling not necessarily spoiling a poem. C. J. Dennis was a master of deliberate spelling mistakes, and his poetry was pretty damn good. In fact, the creative spelling in his work became an expected trademark.

        The unintended incompetence of William Topaz McGonagall is a different matter entirely.

  9. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you so much for this! It’s both hilarious and educational. I had an uncle who I think could have competed with McGonagall; he wrote a Christmas newsletter every year in what he thought was poetry, which we greatly looked forward to getting, since it was always good for a few laughs.

    Reply
  10. Damian Robin

    Thanks, Dr Salemi, for making plain what I knew to be bad and funny but could not ‘exactify’ why.

    A contender for the bad bag is this lapse from Tennyson:

    I kiss’d her slender hand,
    She took the kiss sedately;
    Maud is not seventeen,
    But she is tall and stately.

    From the first part of Maud (XII, 4)

    Reply

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