Oh Tragedy! What Could Be Worse? – McGonagall’s Verse!

A drawing of the Tay Bridge disaster as it appeared in the Illustrated Police News
A drawing of the Tay Bridge disaster as it appeared in the Illustrated Police News

by Ray Setterfield

December 28, 1879 — A bridge over the River Tay in Scotland collapsed in a violent storm on this day as a train was passing over it. The engine and coaches plunged into the water, killing all 75 on board.

Some time later, local self-declared poet William Topaz McGonagall recounted the event in his rhyme, The Tay Bridge Disaster – a work widely considered to be of such low quality as to be comical.

Thought to have been born in Edinburgh in 1825, and a resident of Dundee for most of his life, McGonagall published over 200 poems in his lifetime – mostly on printed broadsheets which he sold in the street or after giving one of his “entertainments”.

The Scottish Poetry Library says of him: “William McGonagall has long been regarded as the worst poet in the history of the English language.

“Nevertheless, his unwitting butchery of the art form continues to be enjoyed for its comic qualities, wince-inducing rhymes and naive treatment of weighty subject matter, all of which are present in his most infamous poem, The Tay Bridge Disaster.”

The Tay bridge is located near McGonagall's home town of Dundee, which makes it puzzling that his facts are incorrect. The number of deaths caused by the tragedy was 75, not 90, as stated in his poem. It (partly) reads:

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.”

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!

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.

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.

The Scottish Poetry Library throws further light on McGonagall, describing him as “a man of apparent supreme self-confidence.” Even so, the Library says, “his readings were regularly attended by riotous audiences throwing rotten fruit and other projectiles, with such commotion seeing him banned from public performance in his home city.”

Seemingly undeterred by such receptions, McGonagall took the view that his work deserved more refined ears and on one occasion he hiked to Balmoral, the royal residence in Scotland, where he planned to perform – uninvited – for Queen Victoria.

The poet was not granted an audience.

Published: April 27, 2021

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