How to Celebrate 'The World's Worst Poet'?

By Ben McConville
Associated Press
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- The land that gave the world Robert Burns also has the dubious honor of producing the "world's worst poet." Now fans of the hapless William McGonagall are campaigning to put him in the pantheon of Scottish literary greats.

The late-19th-century poet's work was so bad he carried an umbrella with him at all times as protection from the barrage of rotten tomatoes he faced wherever he recited.

His most famous work, initially titled "The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay," drew derision from crowds and required a hasty rewrite after the structure collapsed in 1879.

It became "The Tay Bridge Disaster" with the immortal opening stanza: "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."

More than 100 years after the poet's death, detractors still won't give him a break: The Scottish literary establishment has blocked plans for a memorial to him at the Writers Museum in Edinburgh alongside those honoring Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott.

"The decision to turn down a place for McGonagall was just snobbery pure and simple," said Bob Watt, chairman of the Edinburgh Friends of William McGonagall.

"These academics and arts bigwigs don't like McGonagall because he's so accessible -- he's the people's poet. To me, he is one of the greats of Scottish literature. . . . He endures to this day because he touches the lives of so many people. He's about laughter -- some folk laugh at him while others laugh with him."

Despite his plodding verse and excruciating rhymes, McGonagall has remained in print since his death in 1902. He was branded the "world's worst" by his own publisher, who put the epithet on a volume of his works.

McGonagall himself was confident of his genius, believing his poetry to be second only to Shakespeare's.

Today fans keep the flame alive with regular recitations and their own version of a Burns supper -- the annual gatherings marking Burns's birthday that include prodigious consumption of Scotch. At McGonagall night, the meal is eaten back to front, starting with dessert.

On such evenings, devotees are likely to declaim vintage McGonagall verses such as: "Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light / Thou seemest most charming to my sight / As I gaze upon thee in the sky so high / A tear of joy does moisten mine eye."

Neither McGonagall's home town of Edinburgh nor his adopted city of Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland, has a statue to him -- though both have plaques.


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