Mike Pollitt | Tuesday 19 June, 2012 12:11
Over 100 years after his death, Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902) is still revered across the world by connoisseurs of bad poetry. His Wikipedia profile puts it like this:
“He won notoriety as an extremely bad poet who exhibited no recognition of or concern for his peers’ opinions of his work.”
The McGonagall Online website says:
“William Topaz McGonagall, poet and tragedian of Dundee, has been widely hailed as the writer of the worst poetry in the English language. A self-educated hand loom weaver from Dundee, he discovered his discordant muse in 1877 and embarked upon a 25 year career as a working poet, delighting and appalling audiences across Scotland and beyond. His audiences threw rotten fish at him, the authorities banned his performances, and he died a pauper over a century ago.”
He is most famous for his extraordinary poem to mark the Tay Bridge rail disaster of 1879. It begins:
“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 shall be remembered for a very long time.”
You can read the whole of that wonderful poem here.
What I didn’t know is that McGonagall came to London, in 1880, to make his fortune as a poet. While here he wrote the following poem, which I think really captures the essence of the metropolis:
Descriptive Jottings of London.
As I stood upon London Bridge and viewed the mighty throng
Of thousands of people in cabs and ‘busses rapidly whirling along,
All furiously driving to and fro,
Up one street and down another as quick as they could go:
Then I was struck with the discordant sound of human voices there,
Which seemed to me like wild geese cackling in the air:
And the river Thames is a most beautiful sight,
To see the steamers sailing upon it by day and by night.
And the Tower of London is most gloomy to behold,
And the crown of England lies there, begemmed with precious stones and gold;
King Henry the Sixth was murdered there by the Duke of Glo’ster,
And when he killed him with his sword he called him an impostor.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is the finest building that ever I did see;
There’s nothing can surpass it in the city of Dundee,
Because it’s most magnificent to behold
With its beautiful dome and spire glittering like gold.
And as for Nelson’s Monument that stands in Trafalgar Square,
It is a most stately monument I most solemnly declare,
And towering defiantly very high,
Which arrests strangers’ attention while passing by.
Then there’s two beautiful water-fountains spouting up very high,
Where the weary travellers can drink when he feels dry;
And at the foot of the monument there’s three bronze lions in grand array,
Enough to make the stranger’s heart throb with dismay.
Then there’s Mr Spurgeon, a great preacher, which no one dare gainsay
I went to hear him preach on the Sabbath-day.
And he made my heart feel light and gay
When I heard him preach and pray.
And the Tabernacle was crowded from ceiling to floor,
And many were standing outside the door;
He is an eloquent preacher, I solemnly declare,
And I was struck with admiration as I on him did stare.
Then there’s Petticoat Lane I venture to say,
It’s a wonderful place on the Sabbath day;
There wearing apparel can be bought to suit the young or old
For the ready cash- silver, coppers, or gold.
Oh! mighty city of London! you are wonderful to see,
And thy beauties no doubt fill the tourist’s heart with glee;
But during my short stay, and while wandering there,
Mr Spurgeon was the only man I heard speaking proper English I do declare.
I think the man’s genius speaks for itself.
Five classic poetry readings, available free online
The most annoying bits of bad English on London’s tube network
Five grammatical rules technology is destroying
Five filthy, dirty, obscenely sexual poems from the past
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About this writer
Mike Pollitt is the editor of The Metropolis.
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