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William Topaz McGonagall, who was born in Dundee in 1830 and died in Edinburgh in 1902, has a strong claim to being the worst poet in the history of the English language. There are thousands of mediocre poets, and millions of ordinarily bad ones, but McGonagall stands above (or should that be below?) them all. What makes him special is not just his talent for staggeringly awkward rhythms and tortured rhymes, nor his fondness for disasters and bloodshed of all kinds; it's the passion and exuberance, even the pride, which he brings to his craft.

His crowning achievement, the one poem most widely acknowledged as the worst ever written in English, is his ode to the Tay Bridge Railway Disaster. It speaks for itself:

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 will be remember'd for a very long time.

'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem'd to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem'd to say-
"I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
"I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers' hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

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.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill'd all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

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
.

William Topaz McGonagall, 1825-1902 poet and tragedian.

Robbie Burns aside, Scotland's best known contributor to the field of poetry could be claimed, justifiably, to be William McGonagall. The awfulness of his poems have ensured that his work has endured while many of his contemporaries in rhyme faded into the mists of time.

McGonagall, a weaver from Dundee, discovered his talent late in life, penning his first work at the age of 47. This passion seems to have stemmed from a love of Shakespeare, a love brought to fruition on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Dundee, playing Macbeth. His acting seems to have been pursued in the same manner as his poetry, preferring energetic jousting to subtle nuances. In the climatic duel with Macduff, McGonagall infuriated his co-star by refusing to die. This rewritten ending went down well with the Dundonian audience earning McGonagall a standing ovation, but unfortunately not a second night.

McGonagall was certainly prolific, writing over 200 poems, with his first collection published in 1878, and was able to eke out an existence with assistance from certain broadsheets and bars and holstereries willing to host public readings. Convinced of his talents, McGonagall set out to display to Queen Victoria a poem he written in her honour, walking the 50 or so miles to her Royal Deeside residence at Balmoral. Upon arrival he was turned away by the lodge keeper who maintained the Queen already had one poet and had no need of another. The trip was not in vain as McGonagall was inspired by sights such as the Spital o'Glenshee which were soon commemorated in verse.

Audiences in Edinburgh, London and later (thanks to a forged invitation) New York were treated to McGonagall's live readings, which were performed in full highland dress accompanied with a broadsword for dramatic florish. Such theatrics would earn McGonagall nothing but ridicule and derision occasionally augmented by the odd stone-throwing and quickly became a target for student pranks and other pisstakery. On one occasion McGonagall received a letter informing him he had been granted the title of Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah from a 'King Theebaw of Burma'. Oblivious to the mockery, McGonagall adopted the title for the remainder of his life, including it in all correspondence.

Fame and success continued to elude McGonagall, but upon his death in 1902 he did receive obituaries in several Scottish newspapers. His poetry remained, thanks to an ever increasing army of fans and English teachers, and in 1962 fifty more previously unseen works were uncovered. In 1974 a film about McGonagall's trip to Balmoral was released - The Great McGonagall - starring Peter Sellers with Spike Milligan playing McGonagall.

By this time the Scottish tourist industry had started to respond to the growing number of McGonagall fans across the globe. Edinburgh erected a plaque by his graveside at Greyfriars Kirkyard, while Dundee has etched the first verse of Silvery Tay on the walkway by the edge of the river.

The Book of Heroic Failures, Stephen Pile
Scotland Magazine, Issue 5, William McGonagall: White Elephant

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