Celebrating The Worst Poet Of All Time

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams created a race of aliens whose hobby was writing poetry so terrible that listening to it was akin to a physical assault.

The Vogons are (we hope) fictional, but Earth has its very own Bad Poet Laureate. Feast your ears upon the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall. At Grammarly we tend to frown on bad writing, but there's something almost majestic about McGonagall's incompetence. As Stephen Pile, who featured the poet in his Book of Heroic Failures, said, McGonagall was "so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius."

The official website celebrating (if that's the correct word) McGonagall's life and work describes him as having "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." Already a failed actor and a handloom weaver in an era when his craft was rapidly being replaced by machines, McGonagall claimed that at fifty years old, he suddenly heard a voice compelling him to write.

And write he did -- over 200 poems, every one of them terrible.

McGonagall had no concept of figurative language or meter; his lines don't scan and his rhymes are either absurdly childish or painfully overwrought. Here's an example of his (horrible) verse:

The hen it is a useful beast,
And struts about the yard also;
It sometimes lays an egg or two,
Or three or four or more or so.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

His best-known poem is "The Tay Bridge Disaster," an account of -- you guessed it -- a collapsed bridge. Like many of his poems, it's a mostly factual report of an event told with great emotion but very little metaphor.

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.

After his poem "An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan" was published in the Dundee Weekly News as a joke, McGonagall was inspired to keep seeking publication and patronage. He sent letters to Queen Victoria and once walked to Balmoral, her Scottish estate, to gain her favor. He traveled to both London and New York to find an audience, and along the way he sold broadsides of his work in the streets, performed in musical halls, and even recited poetry in pubs.

Unfortunately, many of his poems were screeds against "the demon drink," which didn't make him very popular in the bar scene. Despite limited success as an unintentional comedy act, the Bard of Dundee died penniless in 1902.

According to Andy McSmith, writing for The Independent, "it is not the quality of his poetry that has immortalised McGonagall, but rather the British love of heroic failures. We adore the little fellow with oversize ambition who won't give up even when it is blindingly obvious to everyone around him that he is bound to fail."

But was McGonagall truly such a failure?

Florence Foster Jenkins, remembered as the worst opera singer in history, once said "People may say I can't sing, but no one can say I didn't." Like Jenkins, McGonagall might not have had much talent (or rhythm, or possibly a thesaurus), but no one can deny that he followed his dreams with dogged determination. Although he did not achieve the success he craved during his lifetime, his work is still in print today, long after most of his contemporaries have been forgotten.