Inadvertent Doggerel
[ Issue 5 ]

Inadvertent Doggerel intrigues Emily Bronto

Allow Bikwil to show you the pleasures of inadvertent doggerel

Inadvertent Doggerel

Tony Rogers' Inadvertent Doggerel is a celebration of a particular feature of Victorian literature — accidental trash poetry.  Included are examples from the pen of the heroic William McGonagall, together with a couple of blunders from a lesser Poet Laureate (Alfred Austin), and even something awkward from the great Francis Thompson.

The Victorian era seems to have been peculiarly prone to fits of unconscious bad verse composition

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Inadvertent Doggerel — Tony Rogers


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.

Readers will 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:

His poems are uniformly bad, but possess a disarming naiveté and a calypso-like disregard for metre which still never fail to entertain.

Spike 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 muse:

. . . 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.

Here 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.

Well, 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 of danger:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
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.

Sure 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.

The 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.

As 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.

Occasionally 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 ancient East,
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.

Perhaps 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 goes.

When Tennyson 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.

The 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 designated him.

For some 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 Were.

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.

Here he 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.

Mr 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.

Does 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.

Here’s E.F. Benson again, on the rhyme the event set aglow in Austin, and on a similar one from a quarter of a century earlier:

The Jameson Raid inspired a fugitive composition, and It was surely there when Mr Austin wrote:

They went across the veldt,
As hard as they could pelt.

To 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.

That sounds very like It: that sounds like Mr Austin at his very best.

Superbly, 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.

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