"Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!Alas! I am very sorry to sayThat ninety lives have been taken awayOn the last Sabbath day of 1879,Which will be remember'd for a very long time."
Those are the most famous words of notoriously bad Scottish 'poet' and tragedian William Topaz McGonagall - celebrated during and after his life for his appalling rhyming schemes, inappropriate choice of subject matter and the bathos of his public performances of his works.
Aside from "The Tay Bridge Disaster", he published a further 200 poems which remain anthologised and popular today with fans of the ironic - and with perhaps a smaller coterie who believe his works to be an early form of performance art or satire.
He came to poetry and prominence late in life, first appearing in print in 1877 when he was already 52 years old. By his own account, he was struggling to work as a weaver when he was struck by the sudden realisation that he was a poet. With his typically florid style, he recounted the moment for posterity in terms that recall an almost Damascene 'conversion':
Dame Fortune has been very kind to me by endowing me with the genius of poetry. I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June, when the flowers were in full bloom. Well, it being the holiday week in Dundee, I was sitting in my back room in Paton’s Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn’t get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears–Write! Write!"
McGonagall was soon earning a meagre crust selling his 'broadsides' on the streets of Dundee and taking to the stage to read his works aloud in pubs. Such was the public reaction to his readings, that McGonagall was regularly pelted with flour, eggs, fruit and herrings. Yet through it all he would maintain a solemn mien as he intoned his various dirges to the hysterical crowd.
So rowdy were his appearances that magistrates in Dundee were moved to ban his performances as they had become a breach of the peace in themselves.
Even at the time, however, there were those who thought they discerned a shrewder mind at work behind his guileless face. While he was pelted with vegetables, he was earning up to 15 shillings a night at a time when other weavers of his age were being laid destitute by the mechanisation of the weaver's trade. While he was frequently poor himself, his poems were anthologised, and in tandem with his performances gave him a valuable source of income.
Even more than the income, some have claimed that McGonagall was even a satirist, and it is true that in some of his most famous works there appears to be an impish - even political - spirit at work. While "The Tay Bridge Disaster" is his most famous work, it was preceded by an ode to the poem on its opening. In it, the wily McGonagall sagely notes:
"Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!I hope that Providence will protect all passengersBy night and by day,And that no accident will befall them while crossingThe Bridge of the silvery Tay,For that would be most awful to be seenNear by Dundee and the Magdalen Green."
This was no mere prophesy: as a Dundonian, he would have been fully aware that some of the supports had indeed been destroyed in inclement weather during the bridge's construction and that its supposed safety and high-tech construction was a mirage - a fact that became evident when the bridge collapsed during a storm within two years of opening, claiming up to 75 lives.
In his follow-up ode to the tragedy, McGonagall wrote:
I must now conclude my layBy 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
At the time, as now, there are those who detect a sharp-minded satire hidden behind the mangled rhyming couplets that McGonagall left to posterity. His words here seem an almost open rebuke to the builders of the bridge, hidden behind a dubious rhyming scheme and awful sense of meter.
Is there not even a twinkling mischief in the inscription on his tombstone?
William McGonagallPoet and Tragedian"I am your gracious Majestyever faithful to Thee,William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,That lives in Dundee."