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17 October 2006

the Vleeptron Poetry Hour / hey Libby! THIS is REALLY scary!!!

Tay Rail Bridge, Dundee, Scotland
(before 28 December 1879)

The Tay Bridge Disaster
by William McGonagall

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 Fiend 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 peoples 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.

from Wikipedia:

The Tay Bridge Disaster is an internationally-known poem by the Scottish poet William McGonagall and recounts the events of the evening of 28 December 1879, when, during a severe gale, Tay Rail Bridge near Dundee collapsed as a train was passing over it with the loss of all on board.

The poem is known for being one of the worst poems in the English language, and is still widely quoted.

The Tay Bridge Disaster

During a violent storm on the evening of 28 December 1879, the centre section of the bridge (known as the "High Girders") collapsed, taking with it a train which was running over its single track. More than seventy-five lives were lost, including Sir Thomas' son-in-law. (A common urban myth in Dundee is that Karl Marx would have been a passenger on the train had illness not prevented him from travelling on that date.)

Investigators quickly determined that the cylindrical cast iron columns supporting the thirteen longest spans of the bridge (each 245 ft (75 m) in length) were of poor quality. In particular, the lugs used to attach the wrought iron bracing bars were moulded with the columns, introducing a fatal weakness. It was these lugs which failed first in the accident, and so destabilised the entire centre part of the bridge. No allowance for wind load had been made by Bouch; such calculations were not common practice until precipitated by the disaster. However, the High Girders section in the middle of the bridge was top heavy, making this part insecure. It was this section that wholly collapsed into the Tay during the accident.

William Topaz McGonagall (1825 – 29 September 1902) was a Scottish weaver, actor, and poet. He is comically renowned as one of the worst poets in the English language.

Life and poetry

Born in Edinburgh, of Irish parentage, he was working as a handloom weaver in Dundee, Scotland when an event occurred that was to change his life. As he was later to write:

The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877.

It was with this that he wrote his first poem An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan, which showed all the hallmarks that would characterise his later work. Rev. Gilfillan commented "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this".

McGonagall has been widely acclaimed as the worst poet in British history. [1] The chief criticisms of his poetry are that he is deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. And yet whilst this might simply generate dull, uninspiring verse in the hands of lesser artists, McGonagall's fame resides in the humorous effects these shortcomings generate: the inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary and ill-advised imagery combine to make his work amongst the most spontaneously amusing (albeit unintentional) comic poetry in the English language. Of the 200 or so poems that he wrote, the most famous is probably The Tay Bridge Disaster, which recounts the events of the evening of 28 December 1879, when, during a severe gale, the Tay Rail Bridge near Dundee collapsed as a train was passing over it.

[poem at top]

(Modern sources give the death toll as 75.) One commentator remarked that "a lesser poet would have thought it was a good idea to write a poem about the Tay Bridge disaster. A lesser poet would have thought of conveying the shock of the people of Dundee. But only the true master could come up with a couplet like:

And the cry rang out all round the town,
Good heavens! The Tay Bridge has blown down."

McGonagall also campaigned vigorously against excessive drinking, appearing in pubs and bars to give edifying poems and speeches. These were very popular, the people of Dundee possibly recognising that McGonagall was "so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius" [2].

"Poet-baiting" became a popular pastime in Dundee, but McGonagall seemed oblivious to the general opinion of his poems, even when his audience were pelting him with eggs and vegetables. (However, there is a theory that he was shrewder than he is given credit for, and was playing along to his audience's perception of him, in effect making his recitals an early form of performance art.)

McGonagall also considered himself an actor, although the theatre where he performed, Mr Giles' Theatre, would only let him perform the title role in Macbeth if he paid for the privilege in advance. Their caution proved ill-founded, as the theatre was filled with friends and fellow workers, anxious to see what they correctly predicted to be an amusing disaster. Although the play ended with Macbeth's death at the hands of Macduff, McGonagall believed that the actor playing Macduff was trying to upstage him, and so refused to die (see [1]).

In 1892, following the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, he visited Balmoral [so did I!], to ask Queen Victoria if he might be considered for the post of poet laureate. Unfortunately, he was informed the Queen was not in residence, and returned home.

He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. A grave-slab installed to his memory in 1999 is inscribed:

William McGonagall
Poet and Tragedian

"I am your gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee."

McGonagall in popular culture

* The memory of McGonagall was resurrected by comedian Spike Milligan. A character called McGoonagall frequently appears in The Goon Show, alternatively played by Milligan and Peter Sellers. Milligan also occasionally gave readings of McGonagall's verse.

* A 1974 movie called "The Great McGonagall" starred Milligan as a fictionalized William McGonagall. Sellers played Queen Victoria. (see The Great McGonagall at the Internet Movie Database)

* A Muppet character named "Angus McGonagle, the Argyle Gargoyle" (his last name sounds similiar to "McGonagall") appeared on one episode of The Muppet Show. As his stage act he "gargled Gershwin". He was supposed to be the leading act in his only appearance on the show but then Mark Hamill/Luke Skywalker came onto set (at the beginning of the show) looking for Chewbacca and Angus was no longer needed for the show. However, he did have a few minutes of fame on stage when he "gargled Gershwin" with Mark Hamill. [2]

* In The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, the Nac Mac Feegle have a battle poet, or Gonnagle, who repels the enemy through the awfulness of his poetry.

* An episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus featured a McGonagall-esque poet called Ewan MacTeagle, whose "poems" were actually prose requests for money.

* Dundee held a McGonagall Supper on 12 June 1997, during which the courses were allegedly served in reverse order, starting with the coffee and ending with the starters.

* The equally awful Vogon poetry from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was possibly inspired by McGonagall.

* In the Harry Potter books, author J.K. Rowling chose the surname of the Professor of Transfiguration, Minerva McGonagall, because she had heard of McGonagall and loved the surname [3].


The Death Of Prince Leopold
by William McGonagall

ALAS! noble Prince Leopold, he is dead!
Who often has his lustre shed:
Especially by singing for the benefit of Esher School,
Which proves he was a wise prince. and no conceited fool.

Methinks I see him on the platform singing the Sands o' Dee,
The generous-hearted Leopold, the good and the free,
Who was manly in his actions, and beloved by his mother;
And in all the family she hasn't got such another.

He was of a delicate constitution all his life,
And he was his mother's favourite, and very kind to his wife,
And he had also a particular liking for his child,
And in his behaviour he was very mild.

Oh! noble-hearted Leopold, most beautiful to see,
Who was wont to fill your audience's hearts with glee,
With your charming songs, and lectures against strong drink:
Britain had nothing else to fear, as far as you could think

A wise prince you were, and well worthy of the name,
And to write in praise of thee I cannot refrain;
Because you were ever ready to defend that which is right,
Both pleasing and righteous in God's eye-sight.

And for the loss of such a prince the people will mourn,
But, alas! unto them he can never more return,
Because sorrow never could revive the dead again,
Therefore to weep for him is all in vain.

'Twas on Saturday the 12th of April, in the year 1884,
He was buried in the royal vault, never to rise more
Until the great and fearful judgment-day,
When the last trump shall sound to summon him away.

When the Duchess of Albany arrived she drove through the Royal Arch,--
A little before the Seaforth Highlanders set out on the funeral march;
And she was received with every sympathetic respect,
Which none of the people present seem'd to neglect.

Then she entered the memorial chapel and stayed a short time,
And as she viewed her husband's remains it was really sublime,
While her tears fell fast on the coffin lid without delay,
Then she took one last fond look, and hurried away.

At half-past ten o'clock the Seaforth Highlanders did appear,
And every man in the detachment his medals did wear;
And they carried their side-arms by their side,
With mournful looks, but full of love and pride.

Then came the Coldstream Guards headed by their band,
Which made the scene appear imposing and grand;
Then the musicians drew up in front of the guardroom
And waited patiently to see the prince laid in the royal tomb.

First in the procession were the servants of His late Royal Highness,
And next came the servants of the Queen in deep mourning dress,
And the gentlemen of his household in deep distress,
Also General Du Pla, who accompanied the remains from Cannes.

The coffin was borne by eight Highlanders of his own regiment,
And the fellows seemed to be rather discontent
For the loss of the prince they loved most dear,
While adown their cheeks stole many a silent tear

Then behind the corpse came the Prince of Wales in field marshal uniform,
Looking very pale, dejected, careworn, and forlorn;
Then followed great magnates, all dressed in uniform,
And last, but not least, the noble Marquis of Lorne.

The scene in George's Chapel was most magnificent to behold,
The banners of the knights of the garter embroidered with gold;
Then again it was most touching and lovely to see
The Seaforth Highlanders' inscription to the Prince's memory:

It was wrought in violets, upon a background of white flowers,
And as they gazed upon it their tears fell in showers;
But the whole assembly were hushed when Her Majesty did appear,
Attired in her deepest mourning, and from her eye there fell a tear.

Her Majesty was unable to stand long, she was overcome with grief,
And when the Highlanders lowered the coffin into the tomb she felt relief;
Then the ceremony closed with singing "Lead, kindly light,"
Then the Queen withdrew in haste from the mournful sight.

Then the Seaforth Highlanders' band played "Lochaber no more,"
While the brave soldiers' hearts felt depressed and sore;
And as homeward they marched they let fall many a tear
For the loss of the virtuous Prince Leopold they loved so dear.


Anonymous said...

If you look carefully at the picture at the top of this post, you'll see that it was taken after the disaster. There's a very clear gap in the row of pillars which supported the bridge.

If you want to find out more about this extraordinary character, you can do so at my web site: McGonagall Online.

Vleeptron Dude said...

hey hey chris hunt, thanks!

The required squint gave me a whale of a headache, but I think I see the post-collapse gap.

The Tay Bridge isn't mentioned, but there's a wonderful book by a structural engineering professor (Salvadori et al) called "Why Buildings Fall Down." Couple of short-lived bridges mentioned. You'll never cross a long modern bridge or ride to the top of a skyscraper with quite the same confidence again.

the Tay Bridge disaster has been especially interesting to me because I'm a big fan of I.K. Brunel and his bridges. For Queen Victoria's Balmoral, he built an adorable little iron pedestrian bridge; it's like having Eiffel build you your own miniature Eiffel Tower in your front yard.

Somewhere in this mess impersonating a book collection I have "The Stuffed Owl," a book of howlingly Bad 19th-Century Poetry, but I doubt if McGonagall made the cut -- these are all poems and poets which were praised in their day, so it's a joint crime: the poet and his readers conspired to chop down forests to print these volumes of ghastly poetry.

One of the remarkable things about Lewis Carroll was his ability to recognize a crappy poem hot off the presses, no matter how much praise the literary establishment and the Sovereign was heaping on it. Vleeptron's posted Southey's megacorny (megamaizey?) original "Father William" poem ("The Old Man's Comforts ...") at

Your being The Leading Authority and doing Vleeptron the considerable honor of a shout-out, tell us something new or startling or gossipy about McGonagall. Or about haggis. Or the Scottish sense of humor. As far as I've been able to figure out, the Scottish have one of the world's finest senses of humor, but the keys to the jokes are Classified Top Secret for non-Scots.