Who Was the Better Poet? Kipling or William McGongall?

This article, by Shamus O. D. Wade,  first appeared in the June 2008 edition of the Kipling Journal (house magazine of the Kipling Society), to whom I am indebted for granting me permission to republish it. It was originally preceded by the following note from the editor:

Shamus Wade is a very long-serving member of our Society, and a regular at the London meetings. Over the years he has contributed many letters to the Journal, written reviews, chaired discussion groups, and eventually in issue No.284 we printed his article based on an unrecorded address on the subject of “Kipling, Robeson, Zilliacus’s Dog and an Elephant”. He claimed that he only wrote it in order to see his name in the Journal Index following his disappointment at finding that the authors of “Letters to the Editor” were not then being recorded.

On the assumption that members will have copies of Kipling’s verse readily accessible, only one stanza from his quoted works is given in full. – Ed

At the Kipling Society’s Annual General Meeting on July 6, 2005, I nearly did another member a serious injury. But to begin at the beginning.

I have been a member of the Kipling Society since the year dot. I was on the Council in the days when the Journal had fewer pages than it has today.

Until recently I was also a member of the Literature Circle of the Ealing [London] House of Arts, This was formed by ex-service men and women at the end of the Second World War. Originally there were Art, Music and Drama Circles as well. The Literature Circle was the last to survive. It came to an end shortly before our 2005 A.G.M.. Everyone used to read from whatever poet or poets they chose for seven minutes. More often than not I would read from the same three poets – Kipling, Betjeman and McGonagall. I always read McGonagall straight and the membership listened to him straight (no one had told them they were supposed to giggle).

At the Kipling Society’s 2005 A.G.M. I overheard someone talking about a group reading the works of McGonagall. “Great!” I thought. “There is a McGonagall Society that I can join.” But it turned out to be just the usual exam-passing classes making mock of the heroic William.

The son of Irish immigrants, William McGonagall was a Scottish hand-loom weaver, born in 1825, whose only schooling was a mere eighteen months before the age of seven. Yet at the age of fifty he decided to become a poet. A full time poet – not writing a bit of poetry on the side, while working at some other job. Not writing short stories and throwing in a few poems for good measure. 25 years later he was still, alive not dying until 1902 (he thus lived longer than Kipling). This achievement alone is worthy of respect.

Who was the better poet? Kipling or William McGonagall? Anyone who works full time at a specific job and manages to fill the family rice bowl is better at that job than someone who only works part time. The only way McGonagall had of filling the family rice bowl was by poetry and poetry alone. With five children to feed (Mary, Jamie, Charlie, Jock and Willie) his rice bowl was larger than Kipling’s.

McGonagall’s sole source of income was poetry. Kipling had various sources of income of which poetry was certainly not the largest.

McGonagall’s tragedy was that his public appreciation came only after his death, after all those years of hunger, rock-bottom debt and public humiliation.

But appreciation did come. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) took him very seriously indeed (he warranted almost a full page). Here are two excerpts:

McGonagall’s triumph was to forge by some unfathomable alchemy the commonplace effects of popular-print rhetoric into an unmistakably personal style. Nobody had ever sounded quite like him. And he had positive strengths: a sense of wonder, a childlike ability to enter absolutely into what he depicted, and a real gift for narrative that could shape appropriate material into racy little verse-novellas with a rough but genuine graphic power.

* * * * * * * *

A number of strands of Scottish popular culture came together in McGonagall – the bellowing street-corner elocutionists, the urban broadsheet and song-slip patterers, the penny readings, which mixed entertainment with self-improvement, and, most of all, perhaps, a line of genuinely popular poetry. He was the heir not of Burns and Hogg and Lady Nairne, but of chapbook writers such as Claudero and Dougal Graham, and through them a tradition of metrical journalism going back to the broadsheet poets of the seventeenth century.

Peter Pindar’s poems in the Sunday Telegraph and William Rees-Mogg’s in Private Eye were not making mock of McGonagall but rather recruiting him as an ally in making mock of the rich and the powerful – Tony Blair (4 times), Cherie Blair, George Brown, John Prescott, President Chirac, the G8 leaders and John Major, most “With apologies to William McGonagall”. Amongst them are:

  • “The Mound”: On the opening of the new Scottish Parliament.
    Sunday Telegraph, 4 July 1999.
  • “Safe mitts”: John Prescott looks after the shop
    Sunday Telegraph, 4 November 2001.
  • “The G8 disaster”: G8 leaders are upstaged by tragic reality
    Sunday Telegraph, 10 July 2005.
  • “The Last of Scotland”: The Blairs make their final visit to Balmoral
    Sunday Telegraph, 3 September 2006.
  • “Lines On The Historic Return Of The Stone of Destiny To Its Rightful Resting Place In Bonnie Scotland”: By Sir William Rees-McGonagall
    Private Eye, 12 July 1996

When this splendid poem was published, written, as was their custom by The Queen and a group of those on board H.M. Yacht Britannia, in praise of the hospitality received during a three-day visit to the Castle of Mey, a correspondent in the Daily Telegraph (not me) wrote “I strongly suspect that Her Majesty was paying a witty tribute to the great William McGonagall”.

Although we must leave you,
Fair Castle of Mey,
We shall never forget,
Nor could ever repay,
A meal of such splendor.
Repast of such zest,
It will take us to Sunday,
Just to digest,
To leafy Balmoral,
We’re now on our way,
But our hearts will remain,
At the Castle of Mey.
With your gardens and ranges,
And all your good cheer,
We will be back again soon,
So roll on next year.

[Printed with the permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II]

I would not for one minute suggest that Her Majesty belongs to the “School of McGonagall” but this poem and some of McGonagall’s have one thing in common. They are both writing about something they want recorded, and, to make it easier to remember, writing it in rhyme. In fact they are acting as bards.

In The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, the country’s favourite author, there is a major character William the gonnagle, a battle poet. Battle poets do not make up heroic songs about famous battles. They recite poems that frighten the enemy.

One of the most important differences between Kipling and McGonagall is that McGonagall is impossible to fake. It has been tried. There is a squalid little attempt in Arnold Silcock’s Verse and Worse (Faber and Faber, 1952) but this was written by a someone called John Wilcocks after McGonagall was dead. Wilcocks also published a false autobiography of McGonagall in which his sober God-fearing parents are described as “poor but bibulous”.

There exist poems that nobody is quite certain whether they are by Kipling or not. A recent speaker at a Royal Over-Seas League meeting mentioned how Kipling (for a perfectly respectable reason) claimed to have written a poem written by somebody else.

Once, when opening a new issue of Durbar, the Journal of the Indian Military Historical Society, I thought that I had discovered a hitherto, undiscovered McGonagall poem. I will quote the first stanza:

The War With Baba Sahib (The Chief of Nurgoond) and the Capture of that Town by the English, A.D. 1858

The brave English, the great kings, took Nurgoond on earth;
The wicked chieftains were taken prisoners from their hearth;
The bad rebels were broken and fled in the midst of their mirth.
Have the English their equals? To their power must stoop even Lady earth!

Strife rose in the North; searching swords, daggers, and diverse arms
Throughout the Empire in towns, villages, and farms,
Besieging houses and creating alarms,
They came to Dharwar, with a great force collecting arms.

It was pure McGonagall and ran to 87 verses. Sadly it turned out to be a Canarese epic translated into English by Mr Kies, a German missionary. It describes events in the Dharwar Collectorate of the Southern Maratha country of the Bombay Presidency, now part of Karnataka State. It is included in Western India, Before and During the Mutinies by Major-General Sir George Le Grand Jacob K.C.S.I., C.B. (Henry S. King & Co, 1871).

There are a few other comparisons that could be made between Kipling and McGonagall. According to the Dictionary of National Biography “an estimated 200,000 people were regularly writing poetry in Victorian Scotland”. If poetry were Kipling’s sole source of income, how well would he compete?

Most books about Kipling provide a great deal of information about all of his useful relations. Margaret Jean (neé King) of Edinburgh, McGonagall’s wife was a splendid lady but she could not read.

To be fair to Kipling, he was probably better at hatchet jobs than McGonagall. However Lines in Praise of Tommy Atkins, McGonagall’s hatchet job on Kipling, read by Roger Ayers at the 2005 A.G.M., is quite effective, the first stanza of which runs:

Success to Tommy Atkins, he’s a very brave man,
And to deny it there’s few people can;
And to face his foreign foes he’s never afraid,
Therefore he’s not a beggar, as Rudyard Kipling has said.

The last of the 10 verses does rather echo Kipling however:

And in conclusion I will say,
Don’t forget his wife and children when he’s far away;
But try and help them all you can,
For remember Tommy Atkins is a very useful man.

McGonagall provides a voice for Colour-Sergeant J. Sheldon Reading of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and all the other British soldiers in South Africa, who did not feel grateful to rich Mr Kipling with his begging bowl. (see Kipling Journal, No.316, Dec 2005, pp.48-50). This was not petty spite (McGonagall was not Max Beerbohm) but just a job that needed to be done.

It has been said that McGonagall recorded events and facts, Kipling the colour and ambience. It is interesting to compare poems on roughly the same subject by the two poets.

On Royal Occasions

The Royal Review, 25 August 1881
by William McGonagall

All hail to the Empress of India, Great Britain’s Queen —
Long may she live in health, happy and serene —
That came from London, far away,
To review the Scottish Volunteers in grand array:
Most magnificent to be seen,
Near by Salisbury Crags and its pastures green,
Which will long be remembered by our gracious Queen —

And by the Volunteers, that came from far away,
Because it rain’d most of the day.
And with the rain their clothes were wet all through,
On the 25th day of August, at the Royal Review.

And to the Volunteers it was no lark,
Because they were ankle deep in mud in the Queen’s Park,
Which proved to the Queen they were loyal and true,
To endure such hardships at the Royal Review.

Oh! it was a most beautiful scene
To see the Forfarshire Artillery marching past the Queen:
Her Majesty with their steady marching felt content,
Especially when their arms to her they did present.

And the Inverness Highland Volunteers seemed very gran’,
And marched by steady to a man
Amongst the mud without dismay,
And the rain pouring down on them all the way.
And the bands they did play, God Save the Queen,
Near by Holyrood Palace and the Queen’s Park so green.

Success to our noble Scottish Volunteers!
I hope they will be spared for many long years,
And to Her Majesty always prove loyal and true,
As they have done for the second time at the Royal Review.

To take them in general, they behaved very well,
The more that the rain fell on them pell-mell.
They marched by Her Majesty in very grand array,
Which will be remembered for many a long day,
Bidding defiance to wind and rain,
Which adds the more fame to their name.

And I hope none of them will have cause to rue
The day that they went to the Royal Review.
And I’m sure Her Majesty ought to feel proud,
And in her praise she cannot speak too loud,
Because the more that it did rain they did not mourn,
Which caused Her Majesty’s heart with joy to burn,
Because she knew they were loyal and true
For enduring such hardships at the Royal Review.

Recessional (1897)
by Rudyard Kipling

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

However, two of Kipling’s prose pieces about Military Reviews are closer to McGonagall, at least in climatic terms – “To Meet the Ameer” (C&MG, 1885) and “Her Majesty’s Servants” (The Jungle Book, 1894).

Early Soudan Campaigns

The Rebel Surprise Near Tamai
by William McGonagall

’Twas on the 22nd of March, in the year 1885,
That the Arabs rushed like a mountain torrent in full drive,
And quickly attacked General McNeill’s transport-zereba,
But in a short time they were forced to withdraw.

And in the suddenness of surprise the men were carried away,
Also camels, mules, and horses were thrown into wild disarray,
By thousands of the Arabs that in ambush lay,
But our brave British heroes held the enemy at bay.

There was a multitude of camels heaped upon one another,
Kicking and screaming, while many of them did smother,
Owing to the heavy pressure of the entangled mass,
That were tramping o’er one another as they lay on the grass.

The scene was indescribable, and sickening to behold,
To see the mass of innocent brutes lying stiff and cold,
And the moaning cries of them were pitiful to hear,
Likewise the cries of the dying men that lay wounded in the rear.

Then General McNeill ordered his men to form in solid square,
Whilst deafening shouts and shrieks of animals did rend the air,
And the rush of stampeded camels made a fearful din,
While the Arabs they did yell, and fiendishly did grin.

Then the gallant Marines formed the east side of the square,
While clouds of dust and smoke did darken the air,
And on the west side the Berkshire were engaged in the fight,
Firing steadily and coolly with all their might.

Still camp followers were carried along by the huge animal mass,
And along the face of the zereba ’twas difficult to pass,
Because the mass of brutes swept on in wild dismay,
Which caused the troops to be thrown into disorderly array.

Then Indians and Bluejackets were all mixed together back to back,
And for half-an-hour the fire and din didn’t slack;
And none but steady troops could have stood that fearful shock,
Because against overwhelming numbers they stood as firm as a rock.

The Arabs crept among the legs of the animals without any dread,
But by the British bullets many were killed dead,
And left dead on the field and weltering in their gore,
Whilst the dying moans of the camels made a hideous roar.

Then General McNeill to his men did say,
Forward! my lads, and keep them at bay!
Come, make ready, my men, and stand to your arms,
And don’t be afraid of war’s alarms.

So forward! and charge them in front and rear,
And remember you are fighting for your Queen and country dear,
Therefore, charge them with your bayonets, left and right,
And we’ll soon put this rebel horde to flight.

Then forward at the bayonet-charge they did rush,
And the rebel horde they soon did crush;
And by the charge of the bayonet they kept them at bay,
And in confusion and terror they all fled away.

The Marines held their own while engaged hand-to-hand,
And the courage they displayed was really very grand;
But it would be unfair to praise one corps more than another,
Because each man fought as if he’d been avenging the death of a brother.

The Berkshire men and the Naval Brigade fought with might and main,
And, thank God! the British have defeated the Arabs again,
And have added fresh laurels to their name,
Which will be enrolled in the book of fame.

’Tis lamentable to think of the horrors of war,
That men must leave their homes and go abroad afar,
To fight for their Queen and country in a foreign land,
Beneath the whirlwind’s drifting scorching sand.

But whatsoever God wills must come to pass,
The fall of a sparrow, or a tiny blade of grass;
Also, man must fall at home by His command,
Just equally the same as in a foreign land.

“Fuzzy-Wuzzy”
by Rudyard Kipling

’E ’asn’t got no papers of ’is own,
’E ’asn’t got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill ’e’s shown
In usin’ of ’is long two-’anded swords:
When ’e’s ’oppin’ in an’ out among the bush
With ’is coffin-’eaded shield an’ shovel-spear,
An ’appy day with Fuzzy on the rush
Will last an ’ealthy Tommy for a year.
So ’ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ your friends which are no more,
If we ’adn’t lost some messmates we would ’elp you to deplore;
But give an’ take’s the gospel, an’ we’ll call the bargain fair,
For if you ’ave lost more than us, you crumpled up the square!

Many more examples from the works of both poets could be given but, regrettably, lack of space means that these must be left to members to investigate for themselves. There is a very comprehensive website devoted to William McGonagall and his Works at http://www.mcgonagall-online.org.uk/, which reports that a new paperback of William McGonagall Collected Poems was published in 2006 (ISBN 1841584770).

At the 2007 Annual Luncheon I was talking about McGonagall to Julia Hett. She very kindly sent me a photocopy of an interview with the eighty-five year old Willie Smith in the Scotsman of 1902. He was the former managing director of David Winter & Son Ltd., the company who published the original broadsheets of McGonagall’s work, sold in the streets at a penny each, and also No Poets’ Corner in the Abbey, McGonagall’s biography. He had lectured on McGonagall all over the world and once addressed an audience of 3,000 McGonagall enthusiasts in Manchuria. Does anyone know what was the largest live audience that ever listened appreciatively to the poems of Rudyard Kipling?

On a personal note, I am a member of the Labour Party, which I first joined in 1948. When Enoch Powell, the Conservative politician, died and his library came up for sale, I found that my library and his had only two books in common:

  • Wanderings among South Sea Savages by H. Wilfrid Walker.
  • No Poets’ Corner in the Abbey McGonagall’s biography by David Phillips.

Comments (1) »

  1. JoAnn Cee
    In the year 2016, on the 19th day of December at 1:25 pm

    I am currently seeking means of procrastination from my Master’s dissertation on Mr Kipling (not he of the cakes). I had not heard of William McGonagall, but reading this article I realise I could love him! When I have more time to appreciate his poetry I will return. Thank you for the introduction.

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