Book Review: Poet McGonagall – The Biography of William McGonagall

Poet McGonagall: The Biography of William McGonagall, by Norman Watson (Birlinn, 2010, Hardback £20.00, ISBN 978 1 84158 884 1)

Watson reconstructs a life not unlike that of other working class Dundonians. William McGonagall was probably born in Edinburgh, in 1825, to a family of Irish emigrant handloom weavers who moved to Dundee in the 1830s.

He worked as a handloom weaver for the first two thirds of his life, marrying Jean King in 1846. By 1870 they had eight children, six boys, two girls, one of whom died in infancy. The surviving daughter had an illegitimate child, brought up by the family. This daughter and two sons appeared before the bailiffs for fighting and drunkenness, as did McGonagall for not paying the grocery bills. He was teetotal. One son died in an asylum. They lived in tenements, one or two rooms for the whole family, and were always poor.

What made McGonagall so different? Despite no more than three years of formal education, he revered Shakespeare and Burns, mastering the speeches of Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet and Othello. This early grounding in Shakespeare fed his passion for acting, which he kept alive with plays and entertainments among his fellow handloom weavers.

McGonagall’s acting debut came on 2 December, 1858, when he appeared as Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Dundee. He refused to die during the final sword fight. Macduff had to wrestle him to the ground.

Although McGonagall never again played such a major public role, he continued to give speeches and recitations at Dundee theatres, pubs and music halls, later combining them with poetry. So we should not be surprised that when he turned to poetry, he gave it a theatrical spin. McGonagall became a performance poet.

This decision, in 1877, to follow the muse of poetry might seem quixotic for a 52 year old man, but it might well have been a calculated response to the declining demand for handloom weavers, and the increasing use of machinery in the jute mills. Not everyone in his situation would have thought of poetry. McGonagall, however, was an original and he did have extensive experience of amateur dramatics.

McGonagall took the production of poetry in new directions. As well as performing in public venues, he sold it on broadsheets and in pamphlets, writing enough to fill three books of collected poems by the end of his life. He toured other towns around Dundee, even travelling briefly to London and New York to drum up business.

In Watson’s sympathetic account you feel for the man, working so desperately hard to feed his family and earning so little. McGonagall was finally driven out of Dundee by the jeers and missiles of his audiences, settling in Edinburgh in 1895 until his death there in 1902.

The enduring question is whether he really believed he was a great poet. Watson discusses autism as a possible reason for McGonagall’s complete, if misplaced, self-confidence. But it’s only a suggestion. I prefer to think he knew what he was doing, that poetry presented itself as a viable way of making a living. The pity is that in so doing, he condemned himself to a lifetime of public ridicule.

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