Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Inverse Genius: On the Greatness of William McGonagall

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Inverse Genius: On the Greatness of William McGonagall

Article excerpt

William McGonagall (1830-1902) is the pre-eminent bad poet of the English language, as Shakespeare is the best. Shakespeare's pre-eminence is rarely disputed, except by those with an agenda, but McGonagall, though treasured by a happy multitude, mostly in Britain, rarely receives encomiums proportioned to his genius. Memorably bad poetry, immortally bad poetry, is as rare as very good poetry, and unlikely to secure publication, much less enduring fame. McGonagall achieved, and merited, both. To salute the poet so, one ought not only assess his claims vis-a-vis other bad poets but speak up for bad poetry itself as worthy of serious critical attention, and laurels, in its own right.

Such consideration is rarely attempted, since the critics of poetry are, by and large, a solemn lot who do not seek amusement in the poetry they read and approve. No one has more succinctly stated the traditional case for serious criticism in this matter than the venerable Phoebe-Lou Adams, who, in reviewing an anthology titled Very Bad Poetry in the Atlantic Monthly s book review column (May, 1997), wrote: "Why should anyone deliberately read bad poetry? The editors consider their dreadful specimens funny. They must be easily amused." That was the entirety of her review.

Against such a principled sneer what hope is there for asserting McGonagall's claim to greatness? It would be unavailing to enter in evidence the praises of those students of Glasgow University who declared, in a celebratory Ode of 1891:

Among the poets of the present day

There is no one on earth who can possibly be able for to

gainsay

But that William M'Gonagall, poet and tragedian,

Is truly the greatest poet that was ever found above or

below the meridian.

For their praise, by being cast (if less than deftly) in the mold of the master, would be self-negating in the eyes of Phoebe-Lou or other critics of her ilk.

One need not be a matron of amusement-proof gravitas to share that aversion. I recently read aloud to an audience of friends McGonagall's three most renowned poems, which celebrate, mourn, and at last rejoice in the construction, collapse, and reconstruction of the bridge over the river Tay. Those poems are usually an unfailing source of mirth, but among my listeners was a girl of eleven who squirmed and twitched with unfeigned aesthetic pain and complained that the poems were awful and dumb and an affront to her intelligence, as indeed they were. No one will be more dismayed by a burp than a bright serious-minded eleven year old just learning the niceties of good manners.

That a work of art might be so god-awful and so dumb as to merit one's attention, might seem a doubtful proposition, but such is the case I mean to make for William McGonagall. I think him not only the worst of the English poets but one of the greatest. Greater, and worthier of contemporary attention than, say, Matthew Prior or Edward Young or other such cobwebs still festooning anthologies; and more sheer fun than all but the language's greatest comic poets. A genius, in fact, though an inverse genius, whose special gifts are the anticlimax, the bafflement of expectation, the poetic pratfall, and the groaner.

If you have not yet discovered McGonagall, let me here intrude what are commonly regarded as his three greatest poems, "The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay," "The Tay Bridge Disaster," and "An Address to the New Tay Bridge." If you know them already, you will need no urging to read them again. If you do not, I envy you as I might envy someone who has never read Keats's "Ode on Melancholy" or Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence," for they are of the same stature.

THE RAILWAY BRIDGE OF THE SILVERY TAY

BEAUTIFUL Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!

With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,

And your central girders, which seem to the eye

To be almost towering to the sky. …

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