A SCOTTISH poet widely regarded as the worst writer ever may have produced bad work “deliberately”, according to a top academic.
William Topaz McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster became the butt of many jokes after its publication in 1880.
The poet even had to walk round his home town of Dundee with an umbrella to avoid having rotting fruit thrown at him.
But an expert in Victorian literature believes that McGonagall was not a fool and had the last laugh over his critics.
Prof Kirsty Blair, of the University of Strathclyde, has suggested that the terrible verse was deliberately written to capitalise on a contemporary desire for awful poetry, which could yield vast amounts of money.
Blair claims that recitations of such poems could yield up to 15 shillings per night.
She said: “William McGonagall has become known as the world’s worst poet, though he was actually part of an established culture of deliberately bad newspaper poetry and became a major comic poet through it.
Prof Blair has collated more than 100 poems published in Scottish journals from 1858 to 1883 and discovered that gifted wordsmiths often published terrible poetry.
She added: “Across Scotland there was a craze for publishing bad poetry. It became a huge draw for readers and a culture emerged where people would send in deliberately bad poems.
“He must have known that newspapers were more likely to publish a really good bad poem than they were to publish an ordinary one.
“I have found examples of really bad poets who mad a living out of getting people to pay a penny to see their terrible recitations. It was potentially more lucrative to be a bad poet than a good one at that time.
“When you put McGonagall’s poems in conjunction with his culture it is hard to see what he was doing as accidental.”
The Tay Bridge disaster occured on 28 December 1879 when a violent storm led to a bridge collapse, which killed an estimated 75 people.
But McGonagall’s poem is written in an upbeat style, in pentameter, with rhyming couplets and triplets.
One pair of lines reads: “Alas! I am very sorry to say/ That ninety lives have been taken away.”
Professor Blair is not the first to suggest that McGonagall may have been far more cunning than he is given credit for.
Late Scottish folk singer Hamish Henderson recalled instances where the poet was ridiculed by hosts and benefactors at several student parties.
He said: “McGonagall seems to have stood it all with good humour and was once observed leaving one of these functions with a rather curious satiric smile on his face.”
The poet’s gravestone in Edinburgh inspired JK Rowling to create the character of Professor McGonagall for the Harry Potter books and film series.