All Writers Have Their Off Days
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.