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“An evening of whisky, terrible poetry, haggis and general mayhem.”

Many thoughtful people consider Scotland’s William Topaz McGonagall the worst poet in the history of the English-speaking world. His best-known poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster (here it is in full), has achieved renown, and remains constantly read and quoted.

Readers are especially drawn to its last stanza (the 1879 poem commemorates the deaths of passengers on a train that fell into the Tay River when the bridge over it collapsed):

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.

Writing like this never gets old, and very much lends itself to recitation. So on January 25, in a sign of McGonagall’s yet greater reach, pubs all over Scotland will celebrate not Robert Burns (January 25 is in fact Burns Night, when everyone’s supposed to be celebrating him), but McGonagall.

Margaret Soltan, January 16, 2012 12:57PM
Posted in: bad writing

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2 Responses to ““An evening of whisky, terrible poetry, haggis and general mayhem.””

  1. jim Says:

    Writing like this never gets older. It was already insupportable when first written. It’s probably not true that McGonagall is the worst poet in the English language. There have been, I’m sure, many as bad and some worse. His poems, though, were published (apparently by his friends, perhaps as a backdoor way of getting money from them to him). So we get to laugh at them and him.

    He had been a handloom weaver, a trade which was destroyed by industrialization. He turned to making a sort of living reciting his poems at a circus where patrons would throw rotten vegetables at him. Perhaps he is a fitting symbol of our age.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    jim: On there being worse poets: to be sure. But it’s like my calling the University of Georgia the worst university in the country. In an obvious sense, there are far worse universities. One is, however, looking for the highest level of bad.

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