WN Herbert - Ode to the 'New' Tay Bridge
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.
Twas in the clammy autumn of 2003
I was commissioned by some madmen at the BBC
to write aboot you, rickety auld Tay railbridge
(a prospect as cheery as inhabiting a fridge),
and a turbid revelation wiz granted unto me -
disturbin fur a Scotsman afore he's hud his tea -
that William McGonagall, wha wrote aboot you furst,
wiz no a woeful poet but a thingummy far worse:
a juggernaut of doggerel, the laureate from Hell,
an icon of his era like tae Issie K. Brunel.
While Isambard build iron boats about the same size as the ocean
McGonagall wrote rusty verse of abyssal proportion
devoted tae catastrophe domestic or abroad -
nae massacre or forest fire this man wad not applaud.
The fact that he wiz abstinent made me begin to think
total calamity his substitute fur drink;
the fact that he wiz obstinant, tho brainless as a midge,
made me think aboot this Storm Fiend that he sez attacked the bridge,
for this wiz his disaster, his wee Pompeii-on-Tay:
the bridge fell doon, a haill train drooned, all on a Hogmanay...
When one surveys yir predecessor, built by Thomas Bouch,
there's an inclination to adopt a tight defensive crouch,
but it disnae tak a Storm Fiend tae plant some gelignite
like it disnae tak a genius to pen a load o shite.
McGonagall wiz guilty, and God wiz fair but hard:
he possessed yir every atom wi the spirit of wir bard.
Each girder is a rib, and every rail a tooth,
every bolt's an eyeball, and yir redbrick piles... 'Forsooth!'
we'll hear you cry as we rattle intae toon,
'Why must they cross the River Tay while I have my troosers doon?'
Note: The first Tay Bridge, as McGonagall tells us, fell in 1879. Its successor was built in 1887, and it still is (touch wood) in service.
Herbert is a highly entertaining poet who writes both in English and Scots. In 'Bad Shaman Blues' he explores the English and Scottish Borders, and goes on an absurd shamanic flight to Siberia.
Originally from Dundee, WN Herbert now works at the University of Newcastle. His latest collection Bad Shaman Blues contains poems in both Scots and English. As ever, his eye roves over pretty much everything, though this book contains much writing about travel abroad.
In this poem, Herbert plays tribute to Scotland's worst poet, a man who nevertheless is held in great affection.