Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Abbottabad – pretty Himalayan town, pity about the poem

The town's founder, a British general, loved it so much that he wrote a poem about it. But as Stephen Moss found out it might be one of the worst poems ever written

There is some argument over whether General Sir James Abbott founded Abbottabad. Herbert Edwardes, another soldier and administrator in the Punjab, has his claims. But it was Abbott who managed to put his name to the place, and he really should have left it at that. The encomium he composed when he left the hilltown he loved must be one of the worst poems ever written.

Perhaps Abbottabad, as Abbott rather unenterprisingly called the poem, sounds better in Urdu. I haven't been able to locate a copy in that language, though there is said to be a translation and it surely can't be any worse than the English version. Or maybe it was written in Urdu and this is a literal translation by someone for whom English is not their first language. The oddly garbled line "And we leave our perhaps on a sunny noon" suggests that may be the case.

William McGonagall was a contemporary of Abbott, and evidently an influence. "The trees and ground covered with snow / Gave us indeed a brilliant show" is pure McGonagall. Indeed, in many respects, Abbott out-McGonagalls the master. The Tay Bridge Disaster reads like Homer after Abbottabad.

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