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Fri, Sep. 30th, 2005, 11:52 pm
McGonagall's 'Masterpiece'

After last week's experience with a horrible gift-card poem, I wasn't sure it could get any worse. I was wrong. Professor Kuin so kindly presented the class with an array of horrible international poets, many of which were unfortunately Canadian. Of those international poets, one appealed to me (or should I say appalled me) in particular. That poet was William Topaz McGonagall, the top nominee for the shameful honour of "The World's Worst Poet" (Smith p189). I first pitied the man when I heard he was considered in such low regard, but upon reading McGonagall's poetry I became convinced that he deserved this title. It was at that point I considered whether there could possibly be anyone that could defend McGonagall's works. I ventured to the library and after much searching I have found someone who makes some justification for McGonagall's crimes.

An associate professor of German and French literature at Rowan University in New Jersey, Edward C. Smith III wrote an article comparing poetry inspired by the Tay Bridge Disaster, which featured McGonagall (Browne and Neal p267). Within his article, Smith outlines the importance of the Tay Bridge Disaster, which was unknown to me, thus I shall outline it here. When the Industrial Revolution began more than 150 years ago, the world changed quickly and many people put their trust in the engineer. Cities grew and people prospered without the fear of disaster. Many regard the end of this era as the time of the Titanic's sinking in 1912. However, Smith regards 1879 as the more appropriate end of that era. On the night of December 28, 1879 an Edinburgh train of six carriages with 75 passengers and crew on board fell into the Tay River near Dundee, Scotland when "the central navigation spans of the world's longest rail bridge" collapsed during a heavy storm (Smith pp182-183). This tragedy greatly affected the morale of the British people and their pride in British engineering, as it occurred only 19 months after the bridge had been certified as safe by the Board of Trade (Smith p184). A media frenzy ensued in Dundee and the main subject of discussion was the "transgression of the Law of God", whereby traveling by train on Sunday was "inherently sinful" and the disaster was Nature's response to technological hubris on behalf on the British people (Smith p184).

In analyzing McGonagall's poem entitled, "The Tay Bridge Disaster", (which can be found here, http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/poems/pgdisaster.htm) Smith recognizes "the disjointed verse and purely functional rhyme" within the poem, but then most shockingly goes on to disregard McGonagall's poetic crimes in lieu of his ambitious attempt "to commemorate an event which until then was without parallel" (Smith p192). Smith goes further to say that at least McGonagall was able to sucessfully transmit the public fear of a world that was advancing too quickly technologically (Smith p192).

Althought, these are not the greatest compliments to McGonagall, they do seem to explain away the disaster that is the poem, "The Tay Bridge Disaster". Through comparison I will go on to examine whether McGonagall deserves such kindness.

Thankfully, Smith lists a poem that he considers to be an improvement from McGongall's 'masterpiece', entitled, "The Bridge on the Tay" by Theodore Fontane. A German writer, Fontane began to write his poem soon after the disaster in 1879 and completed it in 1880 (Smith p186). The poem is as follows:

"The Bridge on the Tay"

"When shall we three meet again?"
"At the seventh hour, at the bridge dam."
"At the middle pillar?"
"I'll put out the flame."
"I, too."
"I'll come from the north."
"I'll come from the south."
"And I from the sea."
"Yes, we'll have a round-about,
And the bridge must go into the ground."
"And the train, which treads upon the bridge
At the seventh hour?"
"It goes with."
"Goes with."
"A trifle is the plan
forged by human hand."
And on the north side, in the old bridge house-
with its windows facing toward the south,
the bridge worders, with neither rest nor sleep
peered frightened through the night dark and deep,
watching and waiting to see if a light
arose from the water and came into sight,
"I'm here despite night and stormy furor,
I'm the train from Edinburgh."
Then the bridge man: "There's a beam of light,
That must be the train coming into sight.
Mother, leave dreadful dreams to see,
our Johnny's coming, he'll want his tree
and what candles remain, let them burn bright,
Light them as if on Christmas night,
He's coming to visit with you and me,-
and in minutes it will come to be."
And it was the train. At the south tower
it panted through savage showers,
And Johnny cried: "The bridge it sways!
But we must go on and force our way.
A faithful boiler, and double steam,
we'll be the victors, a steadfast team,
and race and wrestle and run
against elements we cannot shun.
Our bridge, it is our greatest pride;
I laugh when I think back upon the tide,
which used to pummel our small ship,
upon the anguish and risk of it;
how many merry Christmas nights
I spent beneath ferry house lights
gazing through windows rimmed with frost,
Looking over waters I could not cross."
And on the north side, in the old bridge house-
with its windows facing toward the south,
the bridge workers, with neither rest nor sleep
peered frightened through the night dark and deep;
for more furiously the winds did blow,
and brilliantly the train did glow,
like fire from the sky, it too flight
over water,the within...and again came night.
"Whtn shall we three meet again?"
"At midnight, at the mountain ridge,"
"I'll come"
"I, too."
"I'll tell you the number."
"And I the names."
"And I the pain."
Below, like splinters, the girders rest."
"A trifle is the plan
forged by human hand."

Perhaps Fontane's poem is not the greatest ever written, but out of the two poems known to be written on the Tay Bridge disaster, I think all would agree the choice is obvious. Fontane had traveled to Scotland and was fond of the area; his passion for the Scots and dismay over the bridge disaster is evident in his poem. Fontane also has an obvious grasp of poetic devices, which of course McGonagall did not have, as evidenced through Fontane's beautiful depiction of parents waiting in the bridge house for thier son, who is the locamotive engineer (Smith p188). The one commonality between McGonagall and Fontane's poem is that they both end with a note on rampant technological advancement and the imminent disasters as a result of human pride. Thus, perhaps Smith was right to give McGonagall some credit, the poet did at least transmit one deep thought and if nothing else McGonagall serves as an example to others of what not to do when writing an occassional poem.

Works Consulted
Smith, Edward C. III. Ordinary Reactions to Extraordinary Events. "The Collapse of the Tay Bridge: Theodore Fontane, William McGonagall, and the Poetic Response to Humanity's First Technological Disaster" Ed. Ray B. Brown and Aruthur B. Neal. Bowling Green State UP, Bowling Green: 2001.

Sun, Oct. 2nd, 2005 01:06 am (UTC)
may_posa1: Nice poem

Alright here we go again....I have to say I do think you have the researching method down pact, you compared the awful McGonagall poem we reviewed in class to another poetic take on the same event. I dont know what else to really say or comment on...tip of the hat to you.

Wed, Oct. 5th, 2005 10:20 pm (UTC)
ofcatslives: Re: Nice poem

Thank you for your continued kind comments. I also appreciate your humour. It has inspired me to write a less formal entry this week, so thanks!

Mon, Oct. 10th, 2005 12:30 am (UTC)

Hi Janice, I must say that you post was very informative and that I agree with you that the Fontane poem is the better of the two. The emotion in the poem leaps off the page which you've explained, interestingly, by letting us know that Fontane cared for the country and the people in it. Keep up the good work -apologises for the cheesy compliment but couldn't think of anything else- :)


Tue, Oct. 11th, 2005 09:46 pm (UTC)

I'll take any compliment, even if it is 'cheesy'! Thanks for your continued interest in my entires.