Inverse Genius

Tom Disch

Vol. 24, No. 1, 1999

 

His writings abound with gospel truths, moral and sublime,
And I’m sure in my opinion they are surpassing fine…

—McGonogall, “An Address to Shakespeare”

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-à-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.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay! The longest of the present day
That has ever crossed o’er a tidal river stream,
Most gigantic to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
Which will cause great rejoicing on the opening day,
And hundreds of people will come from far away,
Also the Queen, most gorgeous to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting the Railway
Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

THE TAY BRIDGE DISASTER

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 Field 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 people’s 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.

AN ADDRESS TO THE NEW TAY BRIDGE

BEAUTIFUL new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day,
And can be seen for miles away

From north, south, east, or west of the Tay
On a beautiful and clear sunshiny day,
And ought to make the hearts of the “Mars” boys feel gay,
Because thine equal nowhere can be seen,
Only near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.
Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With thy beautiful sidescreens along your railway,
Which will be a great protection on a windy day,
So as the railway carriages won’t be blown away,
And ought to cheer the hearts of the passengers night and day
As they are conveyed along thy beautiful railway,
And towering above the silvery Tay,
Spanning the beautiful river shore to shore
Upwards of two miles and more,
Which is most wonderful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.
Thy structure to my eye seems strong and grand,
And the workmanship most skillfully planned;
And I hope the designers, Messrs Barlow & Arrol, will prosper for many a day
For erecting thee across the beautiful Tay.
And I think nobody need have the least dismay
To cross o’er thee by night or by day,
Because thy strength is visible to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay.
I wish you success for many a year and a day,
And I hope thousands of people will come from far away,
Both high and low without delay,
From the north, south, east, and the west,
Because as a railway bridge thou are the best;
Thou standest unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

And for beauty thou art most lovely to be seen
As the train crosses o’er thee with her cloud of steam;
And you look well, painted the colour of marone,
And to find thy equal there is none,
Which, without fear of contradiction, I venture to say,
Because you are the longest railway bridge of the present day
That now crosses o’er a tidal river stream,
And the most handsome to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

The New Yorkers boast about their Brooklyn Bridge,
But in comparison to thee it seems like a midge,
Because thou spannest the silvery Tay
A mile and more longer I venture to say;
Besides the railway carriages are pulled across by a rope,
Therefore Brooklyn Bridge cannot with thee cope;
And as you have been opened on the 20th day of June,
I hope Her Majesty Queen Victoria will visit thee very soon,
Because thou are worthy of a visit from Duke, Lord, or Queen,
And strong and securely built, which is most worthy to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

How can one praise such mastery sufficiently? First of all, by pointing out the poet’s uncanny prescience. Has he not foreseen, in the first poem, the impending disaster? (“For that would be most awful to be seen . . . “) And does he not, looking beyond the immediate tragedy, propose, in the second poem, the remedy for the problem? His attitude, in both respects, embodied the practical wisdom of the average citizen of his era, or, indeed, of anyone of a progressive temperament, which is: Too bad, move along, get the job done. Practical wisdom, in this respect, is somewhat the opposite of tragic vision, which offers no remedies but glories in its very chill like bathers in the January sea, or like Hardy in his elegy on the Titanic, “The Convergence of the Twain”:

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Between these rival visions most readers (and non-readers) prefer McGonagall’s slant on the matter, that “the stronger we our houses do build, / The less chance we have of being killed,” an attitude that allows us to be stoic about every evening’s smorgasbord of horrors on the TV news. It is McGonagall’s genius, like Hardy’s, to strip his wisdom so bare that it has the power to shock. In his complacence and smiley-faced optimism we see the mirror image of our own fragile psychic defenses against the Conqueror Worm. In McGonagall’s poems the Tay Bridge collapses forever, one of those rare cases where art has usurped the primary significance of an historical event (like Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” or Picasso’s “Guernica”), one of the prerogatives of genius.

But this is to consider only the poet’s subject matter. What of his technical accomplishments?

The best-known American writer of light verse, Ogden Nash, probably is in debt to McGonagall for his trademark trick, the Nash rambler-a prosodically wonky and hyperextended line leading to a thudding rhyme. But McGonagall has a way of driving a Nash rambler—that his heir never dared emulate. McGonagall hasn’t heard that identical rhymes (such as “day” and “seen” in the first Tay Bridge poem) are taboo and will repeat the same rhyme word, and then do it again. He will pad out a line, or two, or four, just to keep the rhyme chiming, as he does for seven consecutive lines in the second stanza of the last Tay Bridge poem. Any rhyme is a good rhyme for McGonagall. And yet, in the whole body of his work, there is never one rhyme that works as it would for Pope or Johnson, not one that snugs into place like the cinching of a belt.

For McGonagall is devoid of wit. And that is one crux of his genius. Many poets are bathetic, and we snicker at them. Many lack a sense of due decorum, and we wince. But McGonagall, unfailingly, strikes the wrong note at every opportunity, and that is hard to account for. His is not simply a poetic failing, but a human one. McGonagall himself is awful, and his poems reveal a figure of charismatic interest. It is a hallmark of genius that even its vices become assets. Whitman and Ginsberg are not simply braggarts, nor Lowell and Berryman sots; they are braggarts and sots extraordinaires. And McGonagall is not simply a pathetic creep; he is the prince of pathetic creeps.

The world is inhabited by cripples, dwarves, the blind, deaf, obese, and those who are simply, somehow, grotesque. It is a part of good manners to ignore such differences. Indeed, poetry in this regard has been one of the most charitable of equal opportunity employers. Pope, Milton, Johnson, and Thomson all fit into one or more of those categories. The one disability poetry cannot easily accommodate is sheer ineptitude. And yet, in a utopia of perfect tolerance, of truly equal opportunity, should it matter that one’s prosody is wholly inept, that one’s rhymes clunk, that one is tone-deaf or humor-impaired? So long, at least, as one’s heart is in the right place?

McGonagall’s always was. If a notable died, he mourned. If the flag was flown, he saluted it. As when, in “The Royal Review: August 25, 1881″ he addressed the Queen:

All hail to the Empress of India, Great Britain’s Queen
Long may she live in health, happy and serene
That came from London, far away,
To review her Scottish Volunteers in grand array:
Near by Salisbury Crags and its pastures green,
Which will long be remembered by our gracious Queen . . .

Never mind the plangent echo from the Tay poems. The real poignancy of this poem, and of much else in McGonagall, is its patent, even bitter, untruth. For the most important moment in the poor man’s life, if one is to credit the “Brief Autobiography” that introduces his first volume of poems, Poetic Gems, was his attempt to pay a call on Queen Victoria at Balmoral. He walked there from Dundee, sleeping by the road, and on arrival, after presenting a manuscript of his poems to the gatekeeper and being allowed to stay overnight in a barn, he returned to Dundee. He accepted his humiliation as an honor, or so he writes.

And that was the story of his life, not only as he wrote it, but in the emblematic sense he (surely unconsciously) intended: The Queen, and all society, contemned him as a poor, ignorant, unlettered fool, and he thanked them for it, writing poems in their praise, with many a tug of the forelock. Execrable poems, maybe, but he didn’t know that.

Or did he? McGonagall was surely innocent of all prosody; his rhyming was promiscuous and his sense of decorum insufficient, as when he characteristically intruded the language, and data, of newspaper obituary columns into his elegies.

But he was a performer—not only of his own poetry but of the Bard of Avon’s. His performance of the title role in his self-subsidized production of Macbeth is infamous. (For an account of gloriously bad Shakespearean acting of the mid-Victorian era, check out Great Expectations.) McGonagall must have heard the hoots and snickers, and they must have registered. All cripples, all dwarves—tone-deaf singers like Florence Foster Jenkins and inept painters who can’t give away their oils, even to close relatives—all of them remember the slights they’ve received: the polite smile, the averted gaze, the proud man’s contumely. And they respond in kind. They dance a minstrel dance and strum their banjos, basking in the applause provoked by these performances after the fashion of Quasimodo when he is crowned King of Fools.

Sometimes, however, we can glimpse the broken heart. Julia Moore, who can claim to be America’s McGonagall, came to the nation’s attention in 1876 through the praises of the humorists Bill Nye and Mark Twain. The resulting success of her first volume, The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes the Public, more than made up for the occasional lack of reverence she felt due her work. As she later wrote, “Although some of the newspapers speak against it, its sale has steadily progressed.” But the wound had been felt, as she confesses in “The Poet Is Scornful”:

Perhaps you’ve read the papers,
Containing my interview;
I hope you kind good people
Will not believe it true.
Some Editors of the papers
They thought it would be wise
To write a column about me
So they filled it up with lies.
The papers have ridiculed me
A year and a half or more,
Such slander as the interview
I never read before….

McGonagall was made of sterner stuff. Reading between the lines, one senses that his was not an easy lot, but he always finds a way to put a happy spin on any personal disgrace. In the prefatory “Reminiscences” of his masterpiece, Poetic Gems, the bard sets off on a characteristic meander that Juliet’s Nurse could not improve on for sheer blithe, blithering self-importance. “My Dearly Beloved Readers,” he intones, as from the pulpit:

—I will begin with giving an account of my experiences amongst the publicans. Well, I must say that the first man who threw peas at me was a publican, while I was giving an entertainment to a few of my admirers in a public-house in a certain little village not far from Dundee; but, my dear friends, I wish to be understood that the publican who threw the peas at me was not the landlord of the public-house, he was one of the party who came to hear me give my entertainment. Well, my dear readers, it was while I was singing my own song, “The Rattling Boy from Dublin Town,” that he threw the peas at me. You must understand that the Rattling Boy was courting a lass called Biddy Brown, and the Rattling Boy chanced to meet his Biddy one night in company with another lad called Barney Magee… [This love triangle segues into a brief temperance tract:] Because, my friends, too often has strong drink been the cause of seducing many a beautiful young woman away from her true lover, and from her parents also, by a false seducer, which, no doubt, the Rattling Boy considered Barney Magee to be. Therefore, my dear friends, the reason, I think, for the publican throwing peas at me is because I say, to the devil with your glass, in my song, “The Rattling Boy from Dublin,” and he, no doubt, considered it had a teetotal tendency about it, and, for that reason, he had felt angry, and thrown the peas at me.

One reads such a passage as one might a story by Ring Lardner, delighting in the steady flow of inadvertent self-revelations. But even in truncated form this soon turns wearisome, as McGonagall’s poetry rarely does.

That, maybe, is the chief desideratum in poetry, that it should never sag into the humdrum monody of prose in the pejorative sense of that word. Poetry, and especially verse of prosodic regularity, can easily get to sound like an idling car engine, so that it becomes almost impossible to pay attention to what the poet may be saying. Morris’s tales in verse and Swinburne’s ever-so-mellifluous dithyrambs are cautionary examples.

Conversely, all poets of genius have their signature ways of quickening the tempo, or shifting gears, or changing the subject so as never to bore their readers by excess of loveliness or regularity. And among poets of inverse genius none is so quicksilver as McGonagall. Just when he begins to maunder in some predictable way he will take a pie in the face from a wholly unexpected direction.

It is easy to be a mediocre poet. The admissions committee is famously welcoming. Members of the club may be more deft, better schooled, and genuinely nicer people than McGonagall, but they will only be read by those who have incurred an obligation to do so, because, through no fault of their own, they drone. Their efforts are a self-renewing source of received wisdom and moral instruction, which is what most readers look for in poetry, whether in the perorations of Martin Tupper, McGonagall’s contemporary (and almost his equal in fatuity) or in the free-verse greeting cards and rants of all those present-day poets who follow an agenda rather than a muse.

Poets of genius often, like Napoleon, are self-crowned, praising their own art while seeming to bestow laurels on others. So it was with Eliot and the Metaphysicals; so, too, with McGonagall in his poems of tribute to Shakespeare and, even more, his ode to Robert Burns. Finally, as with Dante, only the Poet Himself can adequately lay down the terms by which he is to be admired. Let me conclude then, in McGonagall’s own unbetterable words:

Immortal Robert Burns of Ayr,
There’s but few poets can with you compare:
Your “Tam o’ Shanter” is very fine,
Both funny, racy, and divine,
From John o’ Groats to Dumfries
All ciritics consider it to be a masterpiece,
And, also, you have said the same,
Therefore they are not to blame.
And in my own opinion both you and they are right,
For your genius there does sparkle bright,
Which I most solemnly declare
To thee, Immortal Bard of Ayr! 

 

[Footnote]
*Never suppose, because you find his verse hilarious, that McGonagall ever meant to be funny. The poet rarely condescends to invoke the comic muse, and when he does he is unfailingly unfunny.

[Footnote]
**Bathos may be, perhaps, the chief glory of bad poetry. Almost all of Julia Moore’s reputation (she was the inspiration for Emily Grangerford in Huckleberry Finn) rests on her elegies to children who died in odd and heartbreaking ways, and McGonagall was no slouch himself in the Kindertotenlieder category. Where is the Mahler who will set his “Little Match Girl”? It begins:

It was biting cold, and the falling snow,
Which filled a poor little match girl’s heart with woe,
Who was bareheaded and barefooted, as she went along the
street,
Crying, “Who’ll buy my matches? for I want pennies to buy
some meat!”

 

 

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