In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle pores over some poetry that’s so bad it’s good
A short while ago, I wrote about Nicholas T. Parsons’ very witty and erudite study of poetasters, The Joy of Bad Verse. In that post, I mentioned the book that might be considered the Golden Treasury of doggerel, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (Everyman’s Classics). This anthology of bad poetry, which was first published in 1930, is full of examples of poetry that’s ‘so bad it’s good’, so I wanted to share some of my favourite examples.
In his preface to the first edition of The Stuffed Owl, D. B. Wyndham Lewis points out that ‘Bad Verse has its canons, like Good Verse’, and that the selection of the ‘best’ bad verse is a task as onerous and difficult as the challenge of choosing the cream of the crop for inclusion in a ‘traditional’ anthology. Bad verse in itself is not amusing or entertaining, and verse that is bad in such a way as to be distinctive is hard to come by. Indeed, he goes on to argue that ‘good Bad Verse has an eerie, supernal beauty comparable in its accidents with the beauty of Good Verse’. It is, perhaps, as difficult to write a genuinely good bad poem as it is to write a good poem.
With this in mind, D. B. Wyndham Lewis justifies his decision to include predominantly famous poets – Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron, Dryden, Burns, and Barrett Browning all feature – rather than opting for the well-known cack-handed metrical not-so-niceties of William McGonagall, although the awful Della Cruscans and the American poet Julia Moore are both included.
Wyndham Lewis begins The Stuffed Owl with Abraham Cowley from the mid-seventeenth century: ‘the last poet of the metaphysical school and about the first to be bad comically’, he therefore ‘makes a convenient jumping-off point’. But the second edition, a reprint of which I own, opens with a selection of ‘one-liners’ from various poets, short clangers from many illustrious names, alongside such repeat offenders as Alfred Austin (often called the worst Poet Laureate in the history of the post). There are many gems here: Wordsworth’s ‘Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands’; Abraham Cowley’s couplet ‘Backward the sun, an unknown motion, went; / The stars gazed on, and wondered what he meant’; Leigh Hunt’s ‘The two divinest things that man has got, / A lovely woman in a rural spot’; and Henry Vaughan’s ‘How brave a prospect is a bright backside!’ It’s probably best to draw a veil over that last one.
Indeed, the prefatory ‘hors-d’oeuvres’ in The Stuffed Owl offer the most condensed and imagistic examples of awfulness to be found in English verse, as if William McGonagall had tried to write Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’. This, from an anonymous poet, comes from ‘A Funeral Elegie upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658’:
Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet,
And yet another, for the last is wett.
Or there is this charmingly vapid couplet from Carnegie of Pitarrow’s The Golfiad:
The game is ancient, manly, and employs
In its departments, women, men, and boys.
Who knew golf could inspire poets to such creative heights? And this, from the Victorian John Close (known to his contemporaries as ‘Poet Close’, perhaps because he was close to being a poet), ‘In Respectful Memory of Mr. Yarker’, may have been intended to pay respects, but ends up wronging poor Yarker, whose name seems hardly at home in such portentous lines:
And have we lost another friend?
How sad the news to tell!
Alas! poor Mr. Yarker’s gone –
Hark to the tolling bell!
Alas! how many now drop off –
What numbers are unwell;
Another mortal borne away –
Hark to the tolling bell!
Such examples of ‘good bad verse’ serve an important function, I think, which is that they encourage us to think about how delicate and gossamer-thin the line often is between good bad verse and out-and-out good verse. Much distinctive, and distinctively great, poetry takes risks, and one of the risks it takes it to be unpoetic, bland, down-to-earth, jarring, even ‘wrong’. Consider Shakespeare’s line from King Lear: ‘Never, never, never, never, never’. And although I have tried to put into words why Gerard Manley Hopkins’s off-guard ‘Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then?’ is full of pathos while ‘Alas! poor Mr. Yarker’s gone’ is just pathetic, I have found it difficult to pin down precisely where the difference resides, although I know there is a difference.
I was also struck by these lines from Edward Young’s once-celebrated long meditative work, Night Thoughts, which in the age of Brexit seem to resonate for tragicomic reasons. In these five lines, Young appears to chastise his fellow Britons for being insular and irrational in their attitudes, prone to acts of self-destructive small-mindedness. He concludes by doing the eighteenth-century equivalent of telling Britain to get in the sea:
O Britain, infamous for suicide!
An island in thy manners! far disjoin’d
From the whole world of rationals beside!
In ambient waves plunge thy polluted head,
Wash the dire strain, nor shock the Continent!
Perhaps not the best verse ever written, but suddenly rather relevant all the same.
You can hear some more of the worst poetry ever written – poetry that’s so bad it’s actually quite funny – over on the rather interesting School of Poetry podcast.
Discover more forgotten literary curiosities with our Secret Library archive.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.