All Writers Have Their Off Days

The Arts

Tay Bridge Disaster L_tcm4-560651

I’ve been running a column about missing and forgotten writers for a number of years now, and I’ve been steadily pushing for the reprinting of lost books from deserving authors. But are there some who don’t deserve resuscitation?

The archetypal rubbish poet is of course William Topaz McGonagall, whose epic doggerel ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ offers a masterclass in crap writing:

‘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.’

There’s something about those who, brushing against others of genius, assume they can do it too, and they’re usually drawn to verse. The awkwardly-named Vyvyan Holland, second son of Oscar Wilde, turned to limericks of such dreary vacuity that I actually binned my copy (you can still pick them up for about six quid). Then there’s Lord Alfred Douglas, usually described as The Tragic and Litigious, although after reading ‘The Duke of Berwick and Other Rhymes’ it’s hard to avoid adding And Astonishingly Stupid. How about:

‘I wish you may have better luck

Than to be bitten by the Duck

And though he looks so small and weak

He has a very powerful beak.’

Even when he tackled the story of his own life, ‘Oscar Wilde and Myself’ he had to have it ghost-written, but in such cases the name makes the sale. Bosie became a rabid Wilde-hating anti-Semite, and is buried in Sussex, where he puts the creepy into Crawley.

Not all of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was eloquence personified, either. He wasn’t averse to churning out the odd bit of Mills & Boon:

‘Her bosom heaved – she stepped aside

As conscious of my look she stepped

Then suddenly, with timorous eye

She fled to me and wept.’

We can only pray that EL James doesn’t turn to poetry.

When considering duff prose let’s not leave out the master, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the Victorian baron who wrote incredibly popular bestsellers, who coined the phrases ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, ‘the great unwashed’, and the immortal ‘It was a dark and stormy night’. He influenced Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, popularised the Hollow Earth theory and died rich, to be buried in Westminster Abbey. But much of his prose stinks. His name is given to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants have to write a single opening sentence of such awfulness that it would be impossible to go on reading.

6 comments on “All Writers Have Their Off Days”

  1. Roger says:

    “I’ve been running a column about missing and forgotten writers for a number of years now, and I’ve been steadily pushing for the reprinting of lost books from deserving authors. But are there some who don’t deserve resuscitation?

    The archetypal rubbish poet is of course William Topaz McGonagall, whose epic doggerel ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ offers a masterclass in crap writing:”

    The worthy authors you and others try to restore still remain mostly unknown- there are several blogs dedicated to unjustly forgotten and neglected authors- while the abominable McGonagall and his prose equivalent, Amanda Ros, have never gone out of print. Says something about human nature and taste, but I’m not sure what.

  2. Bob Low says:

    William Topaz McGonnagall was indeed a remarkable poet. A friend of mine used to cheer himself up by reading aloud from another of his classics, ‘The Disastrous Fire at Scarborough’. ‘The Horrors of Majuba’ is also worth seeking out. If nothing else, McGonnagall had the rare talent of translating real life tragedy and disaster into unintentional comedy, which might be genius, of a kind. I feel I have to stick up for poor old Bulwer-Lytton, though. Yes, his prose is clunky, but he wrote ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’, which is a favourite haunted house story, and even takes a surprisingly modern approach to paranormal phenomena. I also picked up a battered old hard back edition of a novel of his called ‘A Strange Story’, which is quite gripping, with definite touches of Dracula, which it pre-dated. He also gave us the expression ‘the coming race’, which David Bowie appropriated for the lyrics of ‘All You Pretty Things’.

  3. Vivienne says:

    I want to stand up for Wm McGonnagall. He clearly couldn’t manage heroics, but I have never read a parody that didn’t actually scan. I really think it is very difficult to produce verse of a rhyming nature that doesn’t scan. Most people can’t help themselves. William McG did it to perfection.

  4. Vivienne says:

    Quite a fan of Bulwer-Lytton too! Waiting for a dark and stormy night to start Paul Clifford. But most of all, very keen on Invisible Ink.

  5. Bob Low says:

    Vivienne-you’ll need another, particularly dark and stormy night for ‘A Strange Story’. Invisible Ink is priceless.

  6. Richard Saunders says:

    William McGonnagall was a genius,one of my favourite poets,even Spike Milligan&Peter Sellers thought so,he’s got to be one of the funniest UK poets of all time .

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