Ever since that
suggestion on the front page of Issue
3, Bikwilians everywhere have
rallied to the cause of de-closeting and dusting off the hopeless
rhymes of their youth and at last getting them into print, even if
(or, more like it, mainly because) they discharge this heavy duty
anonymously. All well and good, but there is, you know, another type
of doggerel already in print: the accidental sort.
need little introduction to the excruciating verse of Scottish
handloom weaver William McGonagall (1830-1902). He used to sign
himself “Wm. McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian”, but history knows
him better as “the world’s worst poet”, or at least as Punch
once put it, “the greatest Bad Verse writer of his age”. Here is
what Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1990) has to say:
poems are uniformly bad, but possess a disarming naiveté and a
calypso-like disregard for metre which still never fail to entertain.
Milligan, himself no stranger to the writing of doggerel, has over the
years been more than happy to recite McGonagall at the drop of a manic
hat, and indeed in 1974 co-wrote and starred as the poet in a
95-minute TV special called The Great McGonagall. Also
appearing were Julia Foster, Valentine Dyall, John Bluthal and Peter
Sellers as Queen Victoria.
Of course, the
essential difference between Spike’s nonsense verse and McGonagall’s
is that the latter solemnly believed his work to be admirable poetry,
created “under the divine inspiration”. Witness McGonagall’s
childlike account of how at the age of 47 he was first seized by the
. . A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire
frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so
happy, so happy, that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace
backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of
writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation
became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand,
and a voice crying, “Write Write!” So I said to myself,
ruminating, let me see; what shall I write? Then all at once a bright
idea struck me to write about my best friend, the late Reverend George
Gilfillan; in my opinion I could not have chosen a better subject,
therefore I immediately found paper, pen, and ink, and set myself down
to immortalize the great preacher, poet, and orator.
is that life-changing poem:
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
There is none can you excel;
You have boldly rejected the Confession of Faith,
And defended your cause right well.
The first time I heard him speak,
'Twas in the Kinnaird Hall,
Lecturing on the Garibaldi movement,
As loud as he could bawl.
He is a liberal gentleman
To the poor while in distress,
And for his kindness unto them
The Lord will surely bless.
My blessing on his noble form,
And on his lofty head,
May all good angels guard him while living,
And hereafter when he’s dead.
as you know, McGonagall wrote dozens of rhymes in similar vein, none
more ridiculous than the trio of poems on the Tay Bridge.
It all started
with the completion of the bridge in May 1879, which called forth from
McGonagall his ode The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay. For some
reason, though, our poet must have also been inspired to a premonition
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.
enough, the bridge collapsed seven months later, killing 90 passengers
on a train. This cried out for a new poem. The last stanza of The Tay
Bridge Disaster has McGonagall in his finest fettle:
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.
bridge was eventually rebuilt, to a new design, which is more than you
can say about the third ode to the wretched structure, An Address
to the New Tay Bridge:
Beautiful new railway bridge
of the Silvery Tay,
With thy beautiful side-screens along your railway,
Which will be a great protection on a windy day,
So as the railway carriages won’t be blown away,
And ought to cheer the hearts of the passengers night and day
As they are conveyed along they beautiful railway,
And towering above the Silvery Tay,
Spanning the beautiful river shore to shore
Upwards of two miles and more,
Which is most wonderful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.
Thy structure to my eye seems strong and grand,
And the workmanship most skilfully planned;
And I hope the designers, Messrs Barlow & Arrol, will
prosper for many a day
For erecting thee across the beautiful Tay.
And I think nobody need have the least dismay
To cross o’er thee by night or by day,
Because thy strength is visible to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.
all-conquering as he was at bad poetry, however, McGonagall was not
exactly alone during his lifetime, for the Victorian era seems to have
been peculiarly prone to fits of unconscious bad verse composition.
even the most eminent literary pens wrote negligent and therefore
comical poetry. A suitable example is a stanza by Francis Thompson
(1859-1907), whose profound visionary ode The Hound of Heaven rightly
continues to be included in anthologies of great verse. The blunder in
question is part of his 1897 poem on the occasion of the Diamond
Jubilee of the now chubby Queen Victoria:
Come hither, proud and
Gather ye to this Lady of the North,
And sit down with her at her solemn feast,
Upon this culminant day of all her days;
For ye have heard the thunder of her goings-forth,
And wonder of her large imperial ways.
the most inexplicable case of a highly placed inadvertent Victorian
doggerel writer is that of Alfred Austin (1835-1913). I only wish I
had more examples of his poetic vision to bring you, but anyway, here
died in 1892, the position of Poet Laureate became vacant. He, its
longest serving incumbent, had occupied the post since assuming the
mantle from Wordsworth in 1850.
Conservative Cabinet scratched its head: there were several
conceivable contenders, none of them really suitable. Algernon
Swinburne? No, he was a pagan, a libertine and an alcoholic. William
Morris? No, no, he was a socialist.
Four years went
by, but still no Poet Laureate. Then, in 1896, Prime Minister Lord
Salisbury decided that Rudyard Kipling might be the appropriate
choice. Kipling turned the offer down.
In fact the
only versifier who seemed to want to be Poet Laureate was a
self-admiring fool of a man called Alfred Austin, and regrettably Lord
Salisbury recommended his name (perhaps in recognition of his services
to Tory journalism) to Queen Victoria, who later that year so
relevant information on Austin and his appalling verse we now turn to
another eccentric author — malicious, misogynous E.F. Benson, who
was so prolific he wrote 93 books in 47 years. Edward Frederic Benson
(1867-1940) is best remembered today for six comic novels about Mapp
and Lucia, successfully adapted for TV in the mid 80s, starring
Prunella Scales and Geraldine McEwan, plus Nigel Hawthorne, but what
engages us here is his sparkling 1930 book of reminiscences As We
A son of the
Archbishop of Canterbury (his older brother A.C. Benson wrote the
words to Land of Hope and Glory, incidentally), E.F. Benson
took detailed notice of the upper strata of Victorian, Edwardian and
Georgian society, and his memoirs thus afford an important commentary
on that period, entertainingly surveying Queen V. herself, major and
minor lords and ladies, and a certain Poet Laureate.
describes a stay the diminutive Austin made at the Bensons, just
before his P.L. appointment, where apparently he impressed no one. One
night Austin came into the smoking room and
. . laid himself down, all five feet of him on the sofa, and as
feast-master directed a wondrous symposium entirely about himself.
Austin began to tell us of 'It'. 'It' was the poetic inspiration.
Sometimes It left him altogether, and when that first happened he was
terribly upset, for he feared that he would be able to write no more
poetry, since he never wrote a line except when It directed him. But
he had learned since then that, though It might leave him for a while,
It always returned, and so he waited without fretting or attempting to
produce uninspired stuff, until It came back.
Austin’s adolescent manner sound familiar? An English MacGonagall
maybe, but a sixty-year-old Poet Laureate as well?
If you know
anything of the life of Cecil Rhodes, you’ll have heard of the “Jameson
Raid”, where in 1895 a foolish and unsuccessful attempt –
instigated by Rhodes and led by his friend Dr. Jameson — was made to
overthrow Boer rule in the Transvaal.
Benson again, on the rhyme the event set aglow in Austin, and on a
similar one from a quarter of a century earlier:
Jameson Raid inspired a fugitive composition, and It was surely there
when Mr Austin wrote:
||They went across
As hard as they could pelt.
him, too, is ascribed, though with what certainty I know not, a
wonderful couplet concerning the national suspense during the illness
of the Prince of Wales in 1871: the internal evidence strongly
supports the theory.
Across the wires
the electric message came,
He is no better, he is much the same.
sounds very like It: that sounds like Mr Austin at his very best.
if spitefully put.
If anyone has
access to more of Austin’s rubbish (it’s predictably hard to come
by these days), please share it with us. Not all his poetry is as
wretched as the above quotations, they say, but none ever really rises
to the greatness implied by the office of Poet Laureate.