To achieve memorable badness is not so easy. It has to be done innocently, by a poet unaware of his or her defects. The right combination of lofty ambition, humorless self-confidence, and crass incompetence is rare and precious. (There is a famous anthology of bad poetry called The Stuffed Owl, which I recommend to those interested.)
For the student, having a genuine insight into the true badness of some poems is, I think, a necessary corollary of having a grasp of what makes good poems good. So these pages present some classics of badness: supreme achievements of the lame, the naive, the meretricious, the bathetic, and the sentimental.
Note: the canon of bad poetry is as fluid and open to discussion and emendation
as any other literary canon. Feel free to suggest additions or to defend
one of these specimens. (For a rich source of further examples, consult
The Great McGonagall
William McGonagall (1825 or 1830-1902), leading contender for the title
of the world's worst poet.
Julia Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan
Edgar A. Guest
For a sympathetic note on Guest and more of his writing, click
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
An eccentric and original woman, dismissed as "mad, conceited and ridiculous"
by the diarist Pepys and as "airy, empty, and ridiculous" by the wife of
another famous diarist, John Evelyn, she published Poems and Fancies
in 1653 and followed it with "many other works, including plays, letters,
and an affectionate, vivid, and informal biography of her husband (1667)." (--
Margaret Drabble, Oxford Companion to English Literature)
Wordworth's revolutionary innovations in Lyrical Ballads entailed
certain risks. Where is the line between touching simplicity and bathos?
Portions of this poem were mocked when it appeared (by Southey) and have
become classics of badness. Yet is it as a whole a bad poem? You be the judge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
My thanks to Alexandra Botelho for suggesting the next item. She writes,
"Many people consider 'A Tragedy,' by the minor Pre-Raphaelite poet
Theophilus Marzials to be the worst poem ever written in the English
language. It was published in 1874, in his book of poems entitled The
Gallery of Pigeons. Rossetti hated it." I must say I could scarcely
believe it wasn't a spoof, so I checked the first edition, and sure enough
this text is accurate and the book clearly had pretensions to be taken
This page has been visited times since May 5, 1996.
Last updated June 25, 2000.
Additions, July 18, 1999.