Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Doing it badly (1)

If you want your talent to bring you long-lasting fame, and you are not actually talented in any way at all, then it is no use just being not much good at your chosen art—you must be supremely bad at it. Not just rather poor, but breathtakingly, hopelessly awful. Few reach these heights, and those that do sometimes come to be regarded by the public with an affection not always granted to their more gifted peers. I can think of two examples.

William McGonagall was the worst poet in the world; he is sometimes described as the best bad poet, though this seems much the same thing. He believed that his poetry was second only to Shakespeare’s; to explain the difference between the two it is only necessary to say that Shakespeare’s plays lacked rhyme while McGonagall’s poems did have rhyme but no trace of any other quality whatsoever.

The first two stanzas from his ode The Ancient Town of Leith are a wonderful example of his indifference to nearly everything – other than rhyme – that distinguishes poetry:

Ancient town of Leith, most wonderful to be seen,
With your many handsome buildings, and lovely links so green,
And the first buildings I may mention are the Courthouse and Town Hall,
Also Trinity House, and the Sailors' Home of Call.

Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,
They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.

On the other hand, this poem demonstrates that he was deeply concerned about something rarely found in poetry – close adherence to the facts. This is also shown in his best-known poem, about the Tay Bridge Train Disaster:
So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

Did William McGonagall realise just how dreadful his poems were? It seems unlikely; he vowed he was misunderstood and persecuted and always yearned to become Poet Laureate. On the death of Alfred Lord Tennyson he walked all the way to Balmoral Castle to ask Queen Victoria for the title, and was turned away at the gate. But who has heard of the man who got the job, Alfred Austin?

McGonagall died in 1902; his poetry is still in print today, not just in English but also in other languages including Russian, Japanese, Thai, Bulgarian, Romanian and Chinese. I should like to pay my own tribute:

The poems he wrote about a lot of things, mostly in Scotland, were really rather rotten
But we admire him now for his courage and persistence, and he will never be quite forgotten.

[My second subject is an American soprano, the great Mrs Florence Foster Jenkins.]


Corey said...

He who was named Knight of the White Elephant shall live forever in my heart. His poetry, while bad, was never as horrible as the vacant look he shows in every photo.

K. A. Laity said...

He was much beloved some of the greatest comedians, including Spike Milligan. Have you Spike's movie The Great McGonagall. While a bit painful at times with the dated racial humour he was inclined to use, it's still got some amazing moments of McGonagall pain as well with recitations of his exquisitely bad poetry.

Tony said...

I would like to have seen The Great McGonagall, though I must say I never found Milligan very funny.