Ten “New” Gems

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2019, on the 21st day of February at 11:35 am

I’ve added ten new poetic gems to the site, that come fresh from holdings of the Dundee Central Library. The library has a considerable collection of McGonagalia, including 41 manuscripts written in the poet’s own hand. But more treasures lie among their huge assemblage of 344 broadsheets, once hawked by the great man himself on the streets of Dundee.

McGonagall only produced two books of poems in his lifetime, the first and second volumes of Poetic Gems, published in 1890 and 1891 respectively. His usual practice was to have broadsheets printed with just one or two poems on them, that he could sell on the street for a penny or two. It is from these broadsheets that the content of all subsequent volumes of “gems” have been drawn.

But some have still managed to slip through the net. This latest trove brings their number up to 40, and the overall number of gems on the site to 257. Is that it? Is that the completion of Absolutely Final Poetic Gems? No it isn’t. I’m aware of one broadsheet, sold at auction a decade ago, that I don’t have in my collection, no doubt there are others out there too.

So, without further ado, here are ten works of dubious poetic genius, unseen outside the library’s reading room for over a century:

Taken as a whole, the selection makes quite a representative sample of the great man’s oeuvre. We have two dedicated to places in Scotland, and two describing appearances of Her Majesty in all the excruciating detail McGonagall could muster. Then there are two historical works: one involving, curiously, Willie’s only known portrayal of Mary Queen of Scots (whose life story could have furnished him with subject matter for a whole book of disastrous gems), the other concerns a spectacularly unsuccessful pirate. Two local clergymen are celebrated, one posthumously after his habit of bathing “at dangerous places where other swimmers were afraid” finally catches up with him. Finally, we have two moral tales, the main moral being “don’t be poor in Victorian Scotland.”

I hope these offerings entertain, and help distract from our current catalogue of disasters. Let me know what you think…

New Look for Gem of the Day

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2019, on the 13th day of February at 8:32 pm

If you are a subscriber to the “Gem of the Day” service, you should notice a difference the next time your regular dose of literary lunacy hits your inbox. The Gem of the Day post office has finally entered the 21st century, and is sending out Gems in HTML format instead of plain text. This means they look more like they do on the website, provided you have a reasonably up-to-date email client that can handle such things. Basic email clients (such as you may find on some phones) will still show the plain text version.

Another innovation is that a “What’s new this week” section has been added to the email. A list of content added in the last seven days (when there is any) will appear in just below the daily Gem. The “What’s New” box on the website home page will continue to show the five most recent additions, regardless of how old they are.

If, for some strange reason, you’re haven’t yet signed up to receive a regular dose of McGonagall (you can choose which day(s) of the week a Gem is sent to you), you should register now! Your email address and other details will not be passed on to anyone else – it’s bad enough receiving McGonagall poetry in your inbox without getting a load of spam too!

I hope people like the changes I’ve made, let me know what you think in the comments below.



Filed under: Site News; in the year 2018, on the 1st day of May at 12:53 pm

When I started writing this site, back in the mists of time when dinosaurs ruled the earth, it was often difficult to find sites to link to which dealt with the subjects of McGonagall poems. Pick any battle, place or Victorian celebrity – who would bother to build a web page about that? The answer, in the early noughties, was all too often “nobody.”

Well, that was then and this is now. We now have Wikipedia to give us a page of (mostly true) information about any subject under the sun, including many of the subjects of William’s poetic gems. As an indication of the factual nature of William’s oeuvre, almost exactly 60% of the gems can be tied to a Wikipedia article.

So, I have added a new section to poem pages linking to the wikipedia article(s) most closely associated with the poem in question. This is not intended to take the place of the background notes I add to some poems (and, one day, will have added to all of them), but acts as a useful supplement and/or stand in.

What’s New? What’s New!

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2017, on the 20th day of November at 6:51 pm

This site is a work in progress. I am steadily adding more snippets of McGonagalia as I find them – an article here, a press cutting there, even the occasional newly discovered gem. But there’s no way to highlight the new content unless I write a blog post to announce every addition I make (which I think we’d all get pretty bored with very soon).

That’s changed today with the addition of a “What’s New?” box to the home page, replacing one which simply identified the latest posts to this blog. You can now see at a glance what the latest additions are. I hope this helps you find some new McGonagall-related texts to enjoy.

McGonagall the Critic

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2017, on the 30th day of May at 7:06 pm

McGonagall wasn’t just a poet (unkind people would say that he wasn’t even a poet), he turned has hand to prose once in a while. His autobiographical writings are well known, but he could turn his hand to other things too. One such is a short essay in appreciation of the one writer to whom McGonagall always bent his knee– William Shakespeare.

Thanks to the good people at the Dundee Library, I’ve obtained a copy of this venture into literary criticism and published it on the site. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…

Shakspeare Reviewed

One Hundred McGonagall Stories

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2014, on the 19th day of June at 9:54 pm

A lot of new titles have been added to the online British Newspaper Archive since the last time I spent much time there, meaning that I’ve been able to bring the number of press cuttings about the great man on the Life page up to a hundred.

Amongst the new arrivals are a couple from 1901 which cast some light on the “was he real or was he faking it?” debate. The first condemns the Perth Lyric Club for making fun of a deluded old man. The second defends them saying McGonagall is a paid clown. You’ll still have to make up your own mind though.

Another story solves a long standing mystery (to me, anyway). Why was A Tribute to Henry M. Stanley subtitled “The Prize Poem” on broadsheets and some versions of Poetic Gems? The answer is simple: he won a prize for it, “for originality and other peculiar and obvious qualities.” Never was ten shillings better earned.

But, saving the best till last, the search has unearthed a hitherto unknown McGonagall “gem” that appeared in an 1893 newspaper story. Untitled in the original, I have taken the liberty of calling it “Lines in Praise of the Arbroath Oddfellows.” It’s unspectacular stuff, but if you read it you’ll be one of the first people in 120 years to do so.

Gem Outage Resolved Poetically

Filed under: Readers’ Gems,Site News; in the year 2013, on the 4th day of November at 9:04 am

On Friday, I made a quick change to the site to redirect visitors to the non-existent /gems/ directory to somewhere more useful. I checked it was working, and went off to enjoy my weekend; not (alas) in the “bonnie highlands floral”, but in the not quite so salubrious surroundings of Milton Keynes. Imagine my dismay as I returned to this email from alert reader Simon Levene:

Dear Mr Hunt, I see with no delight
That a celebrated McGonagall ballad has vanished from your site;
When I click on the link to find the “Fall of Coomassie”
I find that your webmaster must have fatally damaged his chassis,
Because although links to this poem are scattered thickly on the ground
A cruel error message says bluntly “Page not Found.”
Unless you can help me, the outcome of this situation will be far from funny –
I shall have to go and buy my own copy of the Great Man’s ballads, with my own money.

In fact, not only had my “fix” blocked access to the Fall of Coomassie, but to all the other gems as well! Fortunately, I immediately realised where I had gone wrong, and was soon able to put things right. A reply was sent to Mr Levene:

It’s worse than that! I know you will be shocked
To learn that access to each of the poetic gems was blocked.
It was due to my own hasty actions that the site was accidentally nixed
But thanks to your tip-off it has now all been fixed.
May your weekend continue happy and serene,
And without having to part with any notes bearing the image of Her Majesty the Queen.

An acknowlegement followed soon after:

Dear Mr Hunt, before you can say “Michael Finnegan”
The works of the Great Tragedian are filling up my screen again,
And this is a matter of great rejoicing down south, as you know
Because we have been having to make do with the works of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot and Co.
So although such laborious work must have interfered with your enjoyment of the Sabbath day
The Great Man’s followers all send you a heartfelt “Hooray!”

So the moral of this story, for me, is not to make major changes to the site on a Friday afternoon without properly testing the results. My thanks to Simon for pointing out the problem so promptly (and wittily). If you spot any issues on the site, please don’t hesitate to get in touch, whether or not you do so in verse!

Two Early Articles

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2013, on the 22nd day of August at 8:36 pm

For the quarter-century following the arrival of the “gift of poetry”, William McGonagall was probably the world’s best documented unemployed hand loom weaver. His exploits were a regular feature in the local newspapers, giving a vivid picture of his career as a would-be poet.

But before 1877, his life is shrouded in a darkness pierced only by the odd official document, a couple of press mentions, and McGonagall’s own unreliable autobiographies. So anything that casts light on any part of the “McGonagall Dark Ages” is to be welcomed – and I’m glad to be able to light a couple of candles to that affect today.

Professor Kirstie Blair of Stirling University is a well-known scholar in the field of Victorian poetry with particular interests in working-class poets. She’s currently engaged in research for a project on Victorian Scottish poets,particularly the poetry columns in the newspapers. That means poring through mountains of old newspapers – 20 years worth of the People’s Journal, for example – in the course of which she has uncovered a couple of hitherto undiscovered mentions (one possible, one definite) of our favourite bard. As a result, she’s kindly contributed two articles to the site:

My thanks go to Kirstie for taking the time and trouble to share her discoveries like this.

Lamentations Online

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2013, on the 2nd day of July at 1:12 pm

In 1885, a 16-page booklet appeared for sale in the streets of Dundee entitled The Book of the Lamentations of Poet Macgonagall. This slim volume, “dedicated to himself knowing none greater,” told – in his own words – of the poet’s struggles to achieve the fame he felt he deserved.

It was a complete hoax.

The true author was a man called John Willock, local agent for Levers Soap and Vice-President of the Dundee Burns Society. Taking an interest in the rather lower reaches of the poetic food chain, he printed 300 copies of his McGonagall “autobiography” and sold them for sixpence a copy.

Willocks may have hoped that his orotund Latin-studded hatchet job would go over the head of an uneducated handloom weaver, so he’d be unaware of the calumnies that were being heaped upon him. If so, he had badly underestimated his man. McGonagall realised exactly what was going on, and was furious about it. A solicitor’s letter was sent threatening legal action – and Willocks swiftly withdrew the booklet from sale and penned this letter of apology:

So why have I published the Lamentations in the Life section of this website?

Well, if you ignore the gratuitous insults to the poet’s parents (probably motivated by the widespread and casual prejudice against Irish immigrants), and dial back the self-regarding bombast just a little, what you’re left with is not all that far from one of McGonagall’s genuine autobiographies.

The coming of the gift of poetry and the trips to Balmoral and London are described broadly in line with McGonagall’s own later accounts. The unsuccessful concert in the Thistle Hall (paired, incidentally, with a brilliant parody of The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna) is in line with a contemporary press report of the event. I’ve yet to track down any corroborating account of the second concert at Lochee, but it sounds entirely plausible.

Much of this information could probably have been gleaned by a careful combing of the Dundee newspaper archives, but why would a man who was quite prepared to lie about his subject go to all the bother of doing so?

Surely it’s more likely that such a detailed knowledge of the poet’s life and career originated from the man himself. Willocks interviewed McGonagall about his life, either with a hidden objective or with a view to producing an “autobiography” as a joint venture (modern celebrities aren’t alone in engaging ghost writers!). Only after McGonagall had seen the end result did the two men fall out.

For that reason, there’s something for the student of McGonagalia to learn from the Lamentations, and that’s why it’s filed alongside the genuine autobiographies.

John Willocks retained an ambivalent attitude to McGonagall. On the one hand, he must have been involved in comissioning him to write about Sunlight Soap; on the other, once William was safely in his grave, he re-published an expanded and even more insulting version of Lamentations. Whether I publish that version remains to be seen.

My thanks to reader Duncan Soutar for scanning and sending me a copy of Lamentations and the above letter from Willocks.

In The News Today

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2012, on the 11th day of April at 11:26 am

Thanks mainly to the impressive  British Newspaper Archive, I’ve been able to considerably expand the collection of newspaper stories on the Life page in recent weeks. These stories chart our hero’s misadventures through the words of newspaper reporters both locally and as far away as Manchester or Yorkshire.

In an effort to draw people to this section of the site, I’ve changed the way the top right panel on the home page works. Previously, if today’s date is the same as a date given in one of the poems, you get a link to that poem as an “on this day” link. Otherwise you’d get a random couplet of the day.

Now, if no “on this day” poem is found, a second check is made to see if any McGonagall newspaper stories were published on this date. If they were, a link is given to the “In the news today in 18-whatever” page instead of a random couplet. So, for example, today there’s a link to a story published on 11th April 1893. Once you’ve read the story, you can use the next/previous buttons to explore the others.

Keep reading, and if anyone out there finds a newspaper cutting that I’ve missed, I’ll be happy to add it.

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