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Short poem

Selected Poetry of William McGonagall (1830?-1902)

from Representative Poetry On-line
Prepared by members of the Department of English at the University of Toronto
from 1912 to the present and published by the University of Toronto Press from 1912 to 1967.
RPO Edited by Ian Lancashire
A UTEL (University of Toronto English Library) Edition
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries
© 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto

Index to poems

  1. An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan
  2. Attempted Assassination of the Queen
  3. The Battle of Omdurman
  4. The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir
  5. The Burial of the Rev. George Gilfillan
  6. Descriptive Jottings of London
  7. The Famous Tay Whale
  8. Greenland's Icy Mountains
  9. Jottings of New York: A Descriptive Poem
  10. The Little Match Girl
  11. The Rattling Boy from Dublin
  12. The Tay Bridge Disaster

Notes on Life and Works

Born in about 1830 in Edinburgh of Irish parents, William McGonagall earned his living as a hand-loom weaver. He married Jean King on July 11, 1846. He heard, and obeyed, a call to write poetry in June 1877 and brought out a collection the next year, including a poem on the great Tay bridge in Dundee. An actor in Shakespeare plays performed locally, and a bard whom many held in contempt, McGonagall lived variously in Dundee, Perth, and Edinburgh. He travelled to London and New York, though very poor. In 1890 two volumes of his collected poems came out, many previously issued as broadsides or in newspapers. The King of Burma honoured him with the title of Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah. He died on September 29, 1902, at 5 South College Street, Edinburgh.

McGonagall's verse has always been popular and entertaining. It is easy to understand, treats important subjects (battles, deaths of famous people, and disasters), and adduces morals that are unexceptional. McGonagall always speaks personally in a highly dignified but still working-class voice. He had no sense of metrics and prosody. Lowden Macartney wrote:

So great indeed was our `poet' that he deigned to observe only a few [poetic conventions] -- and that the simplest of these. In rhymed verse a certain amount of harmony is usually considered necessary. It is one of the elements totally lacking in the writings of this wonderful man. (33)
McGonagall's lines, on the other hand, do have declamatory energy and, although not especially alliterative, resemble the two-part formulaic lines of oral bards. Self-important, melodramatic, and ponderous, his verse has been termed "bad" (although he is conspicuously absent from that great collection of bad verse, The Stuffed Owl). Yet the poet himself, often victimized and humiliated while he lived, earns sympathy as a literary underdog. Edinburgh erected a plaque in his honour; and Dundee honours his memory with the William McGonagall Appreciation Society, located in The Speedwell Bar in Perth Road, with an exhibition at the Dundee Central Library in September and October 2002, and with a special collection of manuscripts and rare printed documents in the Local Studies Department.

Many millions write verse deaf to metre, plagued by writing errors, and utterly banal in its self-regard. Such poems defy reading. In contrast, many cheer up when they see a McGonagall poem. Is it because he so seldom writes about himself? Child-like, he enthuses about the accomplishments of others or expresses his condolences for their misfortunes. Lowden Macartney observes, fairly enough, that he "immortalised the Tay Whale .... Read it, dear reader, and you will presently acknowledge that this Poem of a Whale is a Whale of a Poem" (21). McGonagall's country observations also capture well the strangeness of city places. The opening of "Descriptive Jottings of London," for example, anticipates T. S. Eliot's vision of London Bridge in Part I of The Waste Land. Despite his abundant faults in craftsmanship, and his simplicity, William McGonagall remains "wonderful" even today, if only in his sustained attractiveness for the common reader.

Biographical information

Given name: William
Family name: McGonagall
Honorific: Sir
Title: Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah
Birth date: March 1830?
Death date: 29 September 1902
Nationality: Scottish
Family relations
          wife: Jean King
Literary period: Victorian
Occupation: hand-loom weaver
Residence: Edinburgh, 5 South College Street to 29 September 1902
First RPO edition: 2002