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While writing up the wiki excerpt for a couple of weeks back, I came upon a rather surprising remark about him in Wikipedia:

He won notoriety as an extremely bad poet who exhibited no recognition of, or concern for, his peers' opinions of his work.

The next line down, it says the following:

He wrote about 200 poems, including "The Tay Bridge Disaster" and "The Famous Tay Whale", which are widely regarded as some of the worst in English literature.

Wikipedia goes to further claim that critics "argue that his inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary, and ill-advised imagery combine to make his work amongst the most unintentionally amusing dramatic poetry in the English language."

Is this accurate? What makes his poems so terrible? Is this a fair and objective evaluation of his works?

(Note: I am not asking for someone's opinion on his works. I am asking for the scholarly citations and evaluations of why scholars consider him to be so bad. Specific examples of meter (or rather, lack thereof) and/or analysis of his works would also be appropriate).

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The question asks for “scholarly citations and evaluations of why scholars consider him to be so bad” but there is very little to cite. Anyone who reads and appreciates poetry can tell that McGonagall’s poetry is bad, and something so obvious does not need detailed scholarly explanation. Accordingly, in this answer I have relied on my own analysis, using only a couple of citations to Lowden Macartney, who edited Select Poems of McGonagall (1910), the first published collection of works by the poet, some eight years after his death.

They are very bad

The reasons that McGonagall’s poems are bad are as follows:

  1. The only poetic devices that McGonagall uses are rhyme and lineation (the breaking of the text into lines). His lines do not scan regularly, nor do they use poetic diction, figurative language, or allusion. His poems are (rather dull) prose broken into lines at the points where McGonagall manages to insert a rhyme-word.

    The length of his line did not trouble him, He would write one and leave off at a striking word, commence the next, and go bravely forward till a word resembling it occurred, and then commence another couplet.

    Lowden Macartney (1910). ‘Examples of McGonagall’s “Poetry” and a Sketch of the “Poet”’. In Select Poems of McGonagall. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    Two examples of this prose-like diction and arbitrary lineation:

    Fellow-men, why should the Lords try to despise
    And prohibit women from having the benefit of the Parliamentary franchise?

    William McGonagall (1884). ‘Women’s Suffrage’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    The chief mourners were all of the Tennyson family,
    Including the Hon. Mr and Mrs Hallam Tennyson, and Masters Lionel and Aubrey,

    William McGonagall (1892). ‘Death and Burial of Lord Tennyson’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

  2. In many lines the words appear to be chosen, not for their meaning or contibution to the narrative, but merely in order to supply, or enable the placement of, a rhyme-word.

    ’Twas in the spring of 1717, Captain Harnigold and Teach sailed from Providence
    For the continent of America, and no further hence;

    William McGonagall (1892). ‘Captain Teach alias “Black Beard”’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    He was the tenant of the premises, Mr Brookes,
    And for his wife and family he enquires, with anxious looks,

    William McGonagall (1898). ‘The Disastrous Fire at Scarborough’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

  3. Many lines have contorted phrasing in order to get the rhyme-word to the end of the line.

    Because, while he was living,
    The people unto him were seldom giving.

    William McGonagall (1897). ‘An Ode to the Immortal Bard of Ayr, Robert Burns’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    Concerning the unfortunate steamer, Mohegan,
    That against the Manacles Rocks, ran.

    William McGonagall (1898). ‘The Wreck of the Steamer “Mohegan”’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

  4. McGonagall over-uses devices and rhymes, by re-using them in multiple poems.

    The admiring reader may have noticed how often the month provides a rhyme for “remember” in these happenings. Possibly our “poet” accepted this as a special dispensation of Providence. He certainly lost no opportunity of using the chance to make his lines jingle in it.

    Macartney.

    Four examples of this device:

    ’Twas in the year of Eighteen Eighty Seven, which many people will long remember,
    The burning of the theatre at Exeter on the 5th of September.

    William McGonagall (1887). ‘Burning of the Exeter Theatre’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    ’Twas in the year 1887, and on the 28th of September,
    Which many people of Honan in China will long remember,

    William McGonagall (1888). ‘The Great Yellow River Inundation In China’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    ’Twas in the year of 1893, and on the 17th and 18th November,
    Which the people of Dundee and elsewhere will long remember,

    William McGonagall (1893). ‘The Terrific Cyclone of 1893’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    ’Twas in the year of 1898, and on the 2nd of September,
    Which the Khalifa and his surviving followers will long remember,

    William McGonagall (1898). ‘The Battle of Omdurman’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

  5. Frequent inadvertent bathos, the spoiling of the sublime by following it with the ridiculous. This is often due to inapposite choice of rhyme-word.

    When women will have a Parliamentary vote,
    And many of them, I hope, will wear a better petticoat.

    William McGonagall (1884). ‘Women’s Suffrage’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    When all other gunners had been borne back,
    He took up a handspike and the Arabs he did whack.

    William McGonagall (1885). ‘The Battle of Abu Klea’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

  6. Unnecessary and tedious enumeration of details, reducing the verse to reportage.

    The gale swept everything before it on its way,
    No less than 250 trees and 37 tombstones were blown down at Balgay.

    William McGonagall (1893). ‘The Terrific Cyclone of 1893’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

    The pall-bearers on the right of the coffin were Mr W. E. H. Lecky,
    And Professor Butler, Master of Trinity, and the Earl of Rosebery;

    William McGonagall (1892). ‘Death and Burial of Lord Tennyson’. mcgonagall-online.org.uk.

They can’t be fixed

The poems are so full of faults that it’s not possible to imagine fixing them. The problem is that McGonagall does not seem to have had anything poetic to say. Poetry needs to go beyond reportage by using figurative language and allusions to connect the specific events or objects of the poem to a wider sphere of ideas and emotions. Take, for example, the first stanza of ‘The Battle of El-Teb’ (1884):

Ye sons of Great Britain, I think no shame
To write in praise of brave General Graham!
Whose name will be handed down to posterity without any stigma,
Because at the battle of El Teb he defeated Osman Digna.

We could spend few minutes to make it scan, say, in anapestic tetrameter:

All you Britons, now hear me declare without shame
That the bravest of soldiers was General Graham!
His name will be writ in our books without stigma,
Because at El Teb he outfought Osman Digna.

But this kind of superficial rewrite doesn’t touch the other faults—the banality of the sentiment, the forced choice of “stigma” to rhyme with “Digna”, the use of filler to get the rhyme-words to the ends of the lines, etc.

They are comic in small doses

The reason why McGonagall’s poems survive is that they are so bad that (in very small doses) they can be funny. The first stanza of ‘The Battle of El-Teb’ quoted above, for example, resembles nothing so much as a Clerihew avant le lettre. A “Clerihew” is a form of comic verse invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley, in which forced rhymes and irregular metre are used for comic effect. For example:

The great Duke of Wellington
Reduced himself to a skellington.
He reached seven stone two,
And then—Waterloo!

Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1905). ‘The Duke of Wellington’. In Biography for Beginners. London: T. Werner Laurie.

One of the virtues of a Clerihew is that it is short enough not to grow tedious. So perhaps we could rescue McGonagall’s ‘The Battle of El Teb’ by reducing it to a Clerihew:

General Gerald Graham
Need not hang his head in shaham,
Nor suffer any stigma,
Because at El Teb he defeated Osman Digna.

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  • The irregular line length, lack of scansion, and forced rhymes are reminiscent of some of the verse of Ogden Nash. I suppose the difference comes down to the fact that one is dull and the other is witty.
    – user14111
    Aug 19, 2023 at 21:48

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