William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
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.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.

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