Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah William McGonagall


One of Scotland’s best-known poets, William McGonagall was the working-class son of Irish handloom weavers, and was born in Edinburgh and raised in Dundee. McGonagall’s first career, as a Shakespearean actor—as Macbeth, he once reputedly refused to die onstage—informed the crowd-pleasing performance that was central to his second career as a poet. He had an epiphany at the age of 52 that prompted him to devote the rest of his life to poetry. His romantic verse—often sparked by recollections of war or natural disaster—is strictly narrative, without lyrical or metaphorical gestures, a style the Guardian’s James Campbell dubs “poetry of information.” His poems have been criticized for their lack of imagery and lapses in rhythm and meter, and his style has been frequently parodied. His work is immediately recognizable and memorable, however, and emotionally driven.

McGonagall published only a single volume of poems in his lifetime, Poetic Gems (1890), but made a living selling broadsides of his work and offering dramatic performances of it. He traveled extensively despite his limited means—including a 50-mile trek on foot to see Queen Victoria (he was refused at the gate)—and late in life claimed to have been given the title “Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah” by the king of Burma. Though the story is today presumed to be a hoax, McGonagall adopted the name for the rest of his career. He died in Edinburgh in 1902 in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave.