Friday 26 September 2014

Worst. Poem. Ever.

This dashing fellow is Théophile-Jules-Henri "Theo" Marzials who was, despite his exotic monicker, a British composer, singer and poet. His French clergyman father married his English mother and Theo, born in 1850, was the youngest of five children.

At the age of twenty he started work in the British Museum as a junior assistant in the librarian's office where his path crossed those of Coventry Patmore, John Payne, Arthur O'Shaughnessy, and Edmund Gosse (who may have been his lover). He was not really cut out for a library career - he reportedly once yelled "Am I not the darling of the British Museum reading room?" from the balcony of that noble institution.

He nevertheless continued working there until retiring at the ripe old age of 32, on a handsome pension of £38 a year supplemented by royalties estimated at around £1000 annually. These were derived from his successful career as a composer, noted for his settings of Christina Rossetti's verses and some popular ballads that were all the rage in the 1880s.

He moved to Devon in the early 1900s where he became addicted to chloradyne (a potent patent medicine invented in the 19th century by Dr. John Collis Browne, a doctor in the British Indian Army as a treatment for cholera, diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia and migraines. It was made from a mixture of laudanum, tincture of cannabis, and chloroform.) He died in Colyton in February 1920.

As a poet he had his admirers - Gerard Manley Hopkins for one - and his work featured in that era-defining periodical  The Yellow Book. He is now forgotten, though not entirely, and for rather a sad reason. His poem 'A Tragedy', included in his only published collection The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems (1873), has strong claims to being the very worst poem ever written in the English language. I first came across it the other day in Ross and Kathryn Petras' harrowing anthology Very Bad Poetry (1997). It isn't bad in the way (say) William McGonagall's oddly memorable and sweet-natured doggerel is bad. Marzial's astonishing perpetration has no mitigating qualities.

I've typed it out in full below for you to read and savour.

A Tragedy by Theophile Marzials

The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop,
Above, beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop...
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop...
And my head shrieks - "Stop"
And my heart shrieks - "Die."...
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."...
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air -
I can do,
I can dare
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip, drop.)
I can dare, I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Plop, flop,


  1. Here's another contender--but unfortunately there's an endless supply of worst poems out there. Here goes, though:

    My Garden

    by Thomas Edward Brown

    A GARDEN is a lovesome thing, God wot!
    Rose plot,
    Fringed pool,
    Fern'd grot—
    The veriest school 5
    Of peace; and yet the fool
    Contends that God is not—
    Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
    Nay, but I have a sign;
    'Tis very sure God walks in mine. 10

    He starts off like a Hopkins on a bad day and veers into the banal before fading away. I think it's the wot and plot rhymes that almost made me post this in another one of your columns, but I held back. The American poet Thomas Holley Chivers also came up with some good ones in his quest to reproduce the speech of angels. Jesse Glass

  2. Did Hopkins ever have a bad day? I certain agree that 'God wot'i is, and will always be, ridiculous. I'm reminded of a story in which a cycling vicar. passing a gardener one Sunday morning, grabs the opportunity for a homily and says "What a lovely garden! It shows what can happen when man and God work together" to which the gardener sullenly replies: "Yes, But you should see the place when God works alone:".

  3. Shouldn't we have a competition which is called, 'Can anyone do worse than this?' with David's example as the inspiration for competitors. The 'plop' feature is especially good as it has connotations of kids' words for pooing.

    1. Thanks Michael - a competition is a fine idea (restricted to adults?) and I shudder to think what could be worse than this. A question - does 'plop' really have any other connotations than pooing?

      'If a woman is false can a friend be true?' is magnificently stupid.

  4. Yes, it's the incongruity of juxtaposing one of the most solemn words in the language with the childlike, and therefore highly bathetic 'plop' which is actually hilarious. Made me laugh lots.

  5. Douglas Adams would have loved this.