Monday, May 05, 2008


Oh! Ill-Fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay...

The Scotsman notes an Edinburgh auction house is auctioning manuscripts by the man many consider the most wonderfully awful poet ever, William Topaz MacGonagall.

The self-taught son of an Irish cotton weaver, Mc Gonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1825. From there, his family moved to Dundee, where he worked most of his life as a handloom weaver in the jute mills.

He did not begin writing until the age of 47, but went on to pen poems about everything from famous Scottish battles to Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

Among the works being sold at auction next month are an ode to Robert Burns, his tribute to "beautiful Glasgow", a poem about the Battle of Waterloo and another about a fire at the People's Variety Theatre, in Aberdeen. But McGonagall – probably best remembered for his poem commemorating the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 – was paid just once for his work, for a Sunlight Soap commercial.

It's a sign of MacGonagall's greatness that in 1974 Spike Milligan (an incorrigible McG quoter, going back to his Goon Show days) and Peter Sellers both starred in The Great MacGonagall, which imagines the poet haplessly attempting to become Poet Laureate.

And yes -- that is Peter Sellers playing Queen Victoria.

MacGonagall's works can be found at MacGonagall Online, and I'd be remiss if I did not include the glorious concluding stanza of The Tay Bridge Disaster:

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.

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