HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — "A chicken is a noble beast, The cow is much forlorner; Standing in the pouring rain, With a leg at every corner."
This week we pay tribute to the triumph of steadfast faith in oneself despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as epitomized by the life of William Topaz McGonagall. Widely considered to be the worst poet in the English language, McGonagall (1830-1902) was <i>so</i> bad that he would regularly be hired to perform for audiences wishing to derive entertainment at his expense rather than from his talents. Yet despite a complete lack of critical success, the poet never doubted himself - and while those who mocked him are long forgotten, The Great McGonagall lives on - in print, on film, and most recently through such websites as McGonagall Online.
Created and maintained by McGonagallphile Chris Hunt, McGonagall Online is a basic but entertaining showcase of the artist's self-described "Gems." And while visitors may be tempted to question whether the works featured are some sort of Internet spoof, let me state for the record that this is not a joke - the man really did exist, and the works presented here are his and his alone.
Still, skepticism is only natural, as the quality of McGonagall's works stagger the imagination, and his writing technique tests any reader's ability to wrestle the words into a recognizable meter. These are not your average amateurish rhymes, nor the simple saccharine inanities that one finds in greeting cards adorned with overly precious configurations of puppies and kittens. McGonagall reached for greatness, in his art as well as in his personal status, and fell so spectacularly short in both that he has become a legend. (Posthumously, McGonagall ranks as Scotland's second most famous poet, after Robert Burns.)
The heart of the site is dedicated to the full text of the writer's "Poetic Gems" (first published in 1890 and still in print today). Later works are also available, and all are browsable by either publication or subject matter. As a sample of the great one's style, here are a few lines from a piece commemorating the construction of a railway bridge over Scotland's Tay River (add a theatrical delivery and Scottish accent to your inner voice for best results):
"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."
Other works include "The Tay Bridge Disaster," which some rank as the worst single poem ever written:
"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."
This was followed by the inevitable "Address to the New Tay Bridge."
"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."
Of course, McGonagall's works weren't limited to trains and bridges. In his unsuccessful quest to become poet laureate of Britain, the artist also tackled such subjects as historic battles:
"Meanwhile the French troops did advance in disorganised masses, But as soon as the English saw them they threw aside their glasses."
- The Battle of Cressy
He also wrote tributes to famous people, such as "The Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie":
"ALAS! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead and buried at last, Which causes many people to feel a little downcast."
He touched on inspirational events, as in "The Sprig of Moss":
"And when life's prospects may at times appear dreary to ye, Remember Alois Senefelder, the discoverer of Lithography."
In addition to the canon, webmaster Hunt also offers a Pick of the Day, and some of the poet's Autobiographical Writings. (The latter option includes accounts of an ongoing battle with pub owners, who used such projectiles as peas and wet towels when they decided that the maestro's recitals had gone on for too long). McGonagall Online also offers links to related sites, books in print, and a small collection of articles - including a persuasive argument that the poet's works weren't so much disaster as satire.
While sites reviewed in this space frequently make full use of the technological advantages of the Web, this presentation could hardly be more basic. In fact, the contents of McGonagall Online could just as easily -and more conveniently - be presented on the printed page. For this exhibition, the Internet serves the audience by providing accessibility - as most visitors to McGonagall Online would never have heard of the poet otherwise, and fewer still would have ever laid hands on his works. Without multimedia or interactive features, McGonagall Online can nevertheless introduce new audiences to a truly historic lack of talent, and inspire them with the story of a limitless (and ultimately triumphant) perseverance.
McGonagall Online can be found at http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/.
And if, unlikely as it may seem, McGonagall's work leaves you thirsting for even more bad poetry, a tribute to Canada's worst poet, James McIntyre, is available here. Though he was a contemporary of McGonagall (1827-1906) and also born in Scotland (there must have been something in the haggis), McIntyre's most memorable accomplishments dealt with neither bridges nor history, but cheese, as in this ode to a seven thousand pound wheel of cheese produced in 1866 and sent to exhibitions in Toronto, New York, and Britain:
"We have seen thee, queen of cheese, Lying quietly at your ease, Gently fanned by evening breeze, Thy fair form no flies dare seize ... Wert thou suspended from balloon, You'd cast a shade even at noon, Folks would think it was the moon About to fall and crush them soon."
Enter at your own risk.