04 May 2009

Fry on 'The Tay Bridge Disaster'

The Tay Bridge Disaster was a terrible accident that occurred in 1879 when the girders of the Tay Railway Bridge collapsed under the weight of a train, which fell into the Firth of Tay dragging 75 people with it. William McGonagall composed a poem memorialising the event. Here is the first 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.

Like Stephen Fry, 'I am too kind to you and to [McGonagall's] memory to reproduce the entire poem' (The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within [NY: Gotham, 2007], p. 153). Fry had the following to say about the poem:

Almost everything that can go wrong with a poem has gone wrong here. One might argue that McGonagall has brilliantly memorialised a doomed and structurally flawed bridge in congruently doomed and structurally flawed verse. His poem is a disaster for a disaster: it is the Tay Bridge, crashing hopelessly to its destruction and dragging every innocent word with it. It is not buttressed by metre, rhyme, sense or reason and even as we read it we feel it collapse under the weight of its own absurdity and ineptitude. (p. 154)

For those who do not know, The Ode Less Travelled is a wonderful introduction to prosody by Stephen Fry, the British actor who portrayed the iconic butler Jeeves alongside Hugh Laurie (of 'House') in the BBC's Jeeves & Wooster. (Fry also played the eponymous Oscar in the biopic, Wilde, various roles in Blackadder, the Narrator/Guide in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the librarian in MirrorMask, Inspector Thompson in Gosford Park, and Gordon Deitrich in the film adaptation of 'V' for Vendetta.) The book is brilliant—an incredibly informative overview of traditional English prosody ('Metre, Rhyme, Form, Diction, and Poetics'), filled with wit and wisdom, and complete with (fun) exercises. Get ready to laugh and learn.


Felix Culpa said...

Fry's book really is a great deal of fun. I heartily second your recommendation.

Speaking of Fry, his two-part television documentary "The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive," available in twelve parts on YouTube, is very much worth watching as well.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks for the tip, Father. I'll have to check that out!

Esteban Vázquez said...

You know, Hugh Laurie was also Prince George in Blackadder the Third.

Aaron Taylor said...

Well, of course I know that, Esteban! But the average American is more likely to know him from House, of which I have only seen one episode, than from Blackadder, of which I have seen the entire series.

And don't forget that Hugh Laurie was also Lieutenant George in Blackadder Goes Forth, and Prince Ludwig the Indestructible in Blackadder II! Please accept my apple-ogies!

Anonymous said...

Adds yet another book to my "must-have" list...