When I turned 25 my friend Sanna gave me a little poetry anthology that I have since treasured. Kathryn & Ross Petras’s Very Bad Poetry (1997) is a lovely read. One of the versifiers most voluminously represented there is W.T. McGonagall (1830-1902). After quoting his words, “The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet”, the Petrases comment, “Many people in his native Dundee, Scotland, apparently disagreed with his discovery.”

Here is McGonagall’s “The Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie“.

Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last,
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast;
And both lie side by side in one grave,
But I hope God in His goodness their souls will save.

[I omit eight stanzas that cover Lord Dalhousie's CV.]

‘Twas in the year of 1887, and on Thursday the 1st of December,
Which his relatives and friends will long remember
That were present at the funeral in Cockpen churchyard,
Because they had for the noble Lord a great regard.

About eleven o’clock the remains reached Dalhousie,
And were met by a body of the tenantry.
They conveyed them inside the building all seemingly woebegone
And among those that sent wreaths was Lord Claude Hamilton.

Those that sent wreaths were but very few,
But one in particular was the Duke of Buccleuch;
Besides Dr. Herbert Spencer, and Countess Rosebery, and Lady Bennett,
Which no doubt were sent by them with heartfelt regret.

Besides those that sent wreaths in addition were the Earl and Countess of Aberdeen,
Especially the Prince of Wales’ was most lovely to be seen,
And the Earl of Dalkeith’s wreath was very pretty too,
With a mixture of green and white flowers, beautiful to view.

Amongst those present at the interment were Mr Marjoribanks, M.P.,
Also ex-Provost Ballingall from Bonnie Dundee;
Besides the Honourable W. G. Colville, representing the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh,
While in every one’s face standing at the grave was depicted sorrow.

The funeral service was conducted in the Church of Cockpen
By the Rev. J. Crabb, of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, town of Brechin;
And as the two coffins were lowered into their last resting place,
Then the people retired with sad hearts at a quick pace.

Update 18 January: Dear Reader John Tierney has posted this blog’s first audio comment, where he mentions that he actually excavated at Cockpen churchyard 20 years ago, using “a long-handled Irish spade”. Here’s the site report.

Comments

  1. #1 Deborah
    December 25, 2010

    I’m stunned.

  2. #2 Jeremia
    December 26, 2010

    There once was a poet from Dundee
    Who wrote about royals: Dalhousie.
    The poem was bad,
    I’m done; now I’m glad!
    With Katie and Ross I do agree!

    T’ao Ch’ien he isn’t. Terrible, he is. Happy holidays, Dr. Martin!

  3. #3 Måns
    December 26, 2010

    So “Dalhousie” rhymes with “tenantry”, huh?
    Anyway, great read as always. Happy December!

  4. #4 codero
    December 26, 2010

    Very bad doesn’t begin to describe it.
    But how did it come to pass that the Lord and Lady came to pass away at the same time? Relating the tragedy behind it, one feels, might have been more worthwhile than a list of wreaths. BTW, I am reminded of the Isabel Dalhousie books by Alexander McCall Smith, which are rather boring and uneventful in comparison to this excellent author’s other rich and varied output.

  5. #5 Bob O'H
    December 26, 2010

    Ah, William Topaz McGonagall. A man who’s infamy outlived him. The wiki page is a joy to read, and the discussion page includes this eminently sensible suggestion: “Why didn’t someone suggest that Florence Foster Jenkins sing McGonagall’s poems? Snezzy (talk) 02:12, 5 August 2010 (UTC)”

  6. #6 Martin R
    December 26, 2010

    I also wondered why they died at the same time. And the poem’s title is confusing: the piece covers the life of the man and the funeral of both, but says nothing of their death.

  7. #7 justawriter
    December 26, 2010

    A fairly undistinguished end, according to wikipedia

    Lord Dalhousie married Lady Ida Louisa, daughter of Charles Bennet, 6th Earl of Tankerville, in 1877. They had five sons.[1] After returning from a trip to the United States in November 1887, the couple were forced to break off their journey in Le Havre after Lady Dalhousie was taken ill. Despite medical attention she died of peritonitis on 24 November, aged 30. After retiring to bed the same night, Lord Dalhousie never awoke, having apparently suffered from an apoplectic fit during the night. He thereby survived his wife by less than 24 hours, dying at the age of 40.

  8. #8 Martin R
    December 26, 2010

    Poor dears, and poor kids. Peritonitis is mostly caused by a punctured gut.

  9. #9 blf
    December 26, 2010

    [I omit eight stanzas that cover Lord Dalhousie's CV.]

    This is the best line in the, ah, poem(?).

  10. #10 SM
    December 26, 2010

    That is amusingly bad. It reminds me of those moderns who think they want to write poetry, but really want to write ornate, incoherent prose, so stick extra line breaks in and call it good. Only a very bad poet could ignore the romance of the husband dying the night after his wife and compose a verse obituary instead.

  11. #11 Ambidexter
    December 26, 2010

    McGonnagall’s best known poem is the infamous “The Tay Bridge Disaster”. Here’s the opening stanza:

    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.

  12. #12 Birger Johansson
    December 27, 2010

    Actually the text in the song about Mr Hanky, the Christmas T£$rd (South Park Xmas special) would be an improvement.

    — — — — —
    “Only a very bad poet could ignore the romance of the husband dying the night after his wife and compose a verse obituary instead.”

    Or an AI. I recall the computer surgeon in a Philik K. Dick novel telling the husband about the demise of his wife in a traffic accident:
    “…is dead, her pretty little head riven in twain
    -a typical robot word-choice”

    — — —
    I suppose the priorities would vary with the culture. For a species of intelligent, eusocial insects, the identities of those attending the funeral would be as important as any tragedy. And having little concern for individual lives -the hive being the important unit- the tragedy would be if the near-simultaneous deaths had impaired the functioning of the social group.
    Since it would be practical burying two family members at once, the event might instead be seen as fortunate!
    (see Robert Sheckley’s “The Monsters” for more examples).

  13. #13 Birger Johansson
    December 27, 2010

    “Dr. Herbert Spencer”

    Is this the very bastard that created an ideology based on vulgo-Darwinism to justify the worst shortcomings of society, and to advocate genocide of resistance-minded natives? Gimme a time machine, and I will arrange for a third coffin to be filled!

  14. #14 Martin R
    December 27, 2010

    Bury? In our hive we of course feed the dead to our young.

    Dunno if it’s that Spencer. Was he a Scotsman?

  15. #15 Don
    December 27, 2010

    I have ordered the volume on Amazon and relish the thought of it in my hands on New Years Eve!

  16. #16 Phillip IV
    December 27, 2010

    The fun thing being, McGonagall actually seems to have succeeded in immortalizing the Earl of Dalkeith’s funeral proceedings not despite of the lacking quality of his poetry, but precisely because of it. Had he been an even just slightly more competent poet, his eulogy would likely have been out of print and unquoted for the last century – thanks to it’s abyssmality, it’s a cult classic.

    Although I think it’s sad that McGonagall’s infamy tends to overshadow that of his peer and compatriot (at birth), James McIntyre (1828-1906). He’s every bit as bad a poet as McGonagall, plus was mostly looking to cheese for his inspiration. A short excerpt from his magnum opus, “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese”:

    We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
    Lying quietly at your ease,
    Gently fanned by evening breeze,
    Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
    All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
    To the great Provincial show,
    To be admired by many a beau
    In the city of Toronto.

  17. #17 Birger Johansson
    December 28, 2010

    Philip,
    James McIntyre would be perfect for dealing with religions who declare cheese to be evil. I would be chewing bacon in public while quoting his “poetry” and be threefold Haram; because of the bacon, the cheese and the awful rhymes. Satanic verses indeed!

  18. #18 Dunc
    December 29, 2010

    I think it says something about the Scots that our national poet is Robert Burns, and our other national poet is William McGonagall… But exactly what it says, I’m not sure. ;)

    (I started reading the poem first, before reading the introductory para, and immediately thought “That sounds rather a lot like McGonagall” – so at least you can say he’s distinctive.)

  19. #19 John Tierney
    January 17, 2011

    Martin, an inspiring post. And here to add to the discussion

    http://audioboo.fm/boos/256798-cockpen-church-dalhousie-mcgonagall-and-rundkvist

    I was part of a small team that excavated in Cockpen church in 91 or 92.

  20. #20 Martin R
    January 18, 2011

    Wow, awesome! You dug at Cockpen! And that was this blog’s first audio comment. I really like that, suddenly hearing the voice of a reader. I’m putting in a link.

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