In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle pays tribute to a truly remarkable bad Victorian poet
William McGonagall. Julia A. Moore. Alfred Austin. Bad poetry has its own canon, a sort of dark reflection or negative of the other, more salubrious canon comprising Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson. And in its own way, the canon of bad verse is just as difficult to join as the good one: it takes a certain peculiar combination of self-belief, metrical tone-deafness, artistic ambition, and – perhaps most importantly – utter lack of self-awareness to produce a remarkable bad poet. A notably bad one, we might say. One poet who should be in the bad canon, but is often overlooked alongside McGonagall et al, is Theo Marzials (1850-1920).
Marzials was a British composer, singer, and poet who was born Théophile-Jules-Henri Marzials. As well as his musical work, he was also the author of a poetry collection, the wonderfully named The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems (1873). It is in The Gallery of Pigeons that we find Marzials’ masterpiece, if that is quite the word: the poem ‘A Tragedy’, which is more of a farce than a tragedy, although undoubtedly its claim to being a tragedy is rather tragic. Here is the poem, reproduced in full:
The barges down in the river flop.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop,
As they scraggle black on the thin grey sky,
Where the black cloud rack-hackles drizzle and fly
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop
On the black scrag piles, where the loose cords plop,
As the raw wind whines in the thin tree-top.
And scudding by
The boatmen call out hoy! and hey!
All is running water and sky,
And my head shrieks – ‘Stop,’
And my heart shrieks – ‘Die.’
My thought is running out of my head;
My love is running out of my heart,
My soul runs after, and leaves me as dead,
For my life runs after to catch them – and fled
They all are every one! – and I stand, and start,
At the water that oozes up, plop and plop,
On the barges that flop
And dizzy me dead.
I might reel and drop.
And the shrill wind whines in the thin tree-top
A curse on him.
Ugh! yet I knew – I knew –
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end –
My Devil – My ‘Friend’
I had trusted the whole of my living to!
Ugh; and I knew!
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air –
I can do,
I can dare,
The barges flop
I can dare! I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
Quite what this ‘tragedy’ entails, it is difficult to ascertain. Something involving a romance gone wrong and a friend’s betrayal (‘If a woman is false can a friend be true?’): has the speaker’s beloved run off with his best friend? The poem refuses to say, whether deliberately or through general incompetence it is hard to be sure. And yet how incompetent is the poem? It clearly misses its mark when it comes to evoking its tragic promise (or premise), but it’s great fun. If it were intended to be tongue in cheek, it would be a masterpiece of comic verse.
Unfortunately, elsewhere we see Marzials offering poetry seemingly with a straight face and his tongue nowhere near his cheek, and failing to evoke more than scorn. This, from another poem in The Gallery of Pigeons, ‘The Trout’:
All is a-grey, and the sky’s in a glimmer,
A glimmer as ever a sky should be;
Silvery grey with a silvery shimmer,
Where shimmers the sun in the hazes a-shimmer,
The shimmer of river, oh! river a-shimmer.
Of which the Athenaeum said: ‘we must say that the repetition of the same word five times in three lines shows a certain want of familiarity with the language in which he writes.’ Ouch. For poems like ‘A Tragedy’ and ‘The Trout’, Theo Marzials deserves his place among the pantheon of literary not-so-greats: the anti-canon of ‘good bad verse’. Happily, you can read the whole of The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems online for free, courtesy of the Internet Archive here.
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.