McGonagall & Friends

I have been rather ignoring poor old William McGonagall lately, and I’m feeling a bit remorseful about that.  So today we’re going to compare the Great Man with one of his contemporary rivals.  Who is every bit as bad, you’ll be glad to know.

Dundee newspapers frequently printed poems sent in by their readers.  In fact, this is how McGonagall began his career as a professional poet.  In June, 1877, the Muse whacked him upside the head as he sat forlornly in his house in Patons Lane.  In a blaze of inspiration, he wrote his first poem and delivered it by hand to the offices of the Dundee Weekly News.  See this page for McGonagall’s own account of the event.

His rivals in Dundee have all been forgotten.  Suffice it to say that we remember McGonagall, which probably indicates the stature of his writing compared to theirs.  Instead I want to introduce Julia A. Moore (1847-1920), the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who mined much the same vein of disasters, gleaned from the newspapers, as McGonagall did.  Like him, Moore was also a performance poet, singing her poems (with orchestral accompaniment) on two occasions in the Grand Rapids Opera House before realizing that the jeers weren’t because of the quality of the orchestra.  She gave as good as she got, though, telling the audience at her second and last public performance in 1878:

You have come here and paid twenty-five cents to see a fool; I receive seventy-five dollars, and see a whole houseful of fools.

Here is McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster, written in 1879.

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.

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

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.

You can also hear Billy Connolly  declaiming the poem on Dundee Law, in a blizzard, in this video.

Stirring stuff, I think you’ll agree.  Now here is Julia A Moore’s, Ashtabula Disaster, commemorating another bridge and train catastrophe, to be sung to the tune of Gently Down the Stream of Time.

Have you heard of the dreadful fate
Of Mr. P. P. Bliss and wife?
Of their death I will relate,
And also others lost their life;
Ashtabula Bridge disaster,
Where so many people died
Without a thought that destruction
Would plunge them ‘neath the wheel of tide.


Swiftly passed the engine’s call,
Hastening souls on to death,
Warning not one of them all;
It brought despair right and left.

Among the ruins are many friends,
Crushed to death amidst the roar;
On one thread all may depend,
And hope they’ve reached the other shore.
P. P. Bliss showed great devotion
To his faithful wife, his pride,
When he saw that she must perish,
He died a martyr by her side.

P. P. Bliss went home above —
Left all friends, earth and fame,
To rest in God’s holy love;
Left on earth his work and name.
The people love his work by numbers,
It is read by great and small,
He by it will be remembered,
He has left it for us all.

His good name from time to time
Will rise on land and sea;
It is known in distant climes,
Let it echo wide and free.
One good man among the number,
Found sweet rest in a short time,
His weary soul may sweetly slumber
Within the vale, heaven sublime.

Destruction lay on every side,
Confusion, fire and despair;
No help, no hope, so they died,
Two hundred people over there.
Many ties was there broken,
Many a heart was filled with pain,
Each one left a little token,
For above they live again.

To my mind, McGonagall is head and shoulders above this mawkishly pious nonsense.  Just as bad of course.  McGonagall is circumstantial in the extreme, his lines are long, bony and ungainly, and yet the poem gallops along in a very satisfying way.  Particularly when read by Billy Connolly.  A Scots accent seems to bring out the best in his work.  Moore’s poem, on the other hand proceeds at a sentimental hobble, mostly focused on the risibly named P. P. Bliss.  Who did not have a happy ending.

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