The Little Match Girl, William McGonagall – an Analysis


Loved this story as a kid, even though it made me cry.

Gut Reaction
Yep. Still love it. Still makes me cry.

What does it all mean?
A girl who is one poor, ineffective roof away from homelessness dies in the street selling her matches.

It was biting cold, and the falling snow,
Which filled a poor little match girl’s heart with woe,
Who was bareheaded and barefooted, as she went along the street,
Crying, “Who’ll buy my matches? for I want pennies to buy some meat!”

I don’t know a vast amount about match girls but I imagine this girl was probably too young to have worked in the factory. Did her mother give them to her to sell? Bareheaded and barefooted – no protection from the elements in freezing cold London with barely a place to shelter. Can you imagine?

When she left home she had slippers on;
But, alas! poor child, now they were gone.
For she lost both of them while hurrying across the street,
Out of the way of two carriages which were near by her feet.

You can picture her wearing shoes too big, that kept slipping off, losing them but being too afraid to dodge back for them when two horse drawn carriages went passing by at speed.

So the little girl went on, while the snow fell thick and fast;
And the child’s heart felt cold and downcast,
For nobody had bought any matches that day,
Which filled her little mind with grief and dismay.

Imagine if the only way you could earn a living was walking the streets and selling items that yes, are useful but no, probably aren’t wanted. A rare stab of pity for the people who harass you inside and outside of every bar and cafe here…

Alas! she was hungry and shivering with cold;
So in a corner between two houses she made bold
To take shelter from the violent storm.
Poor little waif! wishing to herself she’d never been born.

Imagine. Snow heavy, wind raging, no food all day, inadequate clothing, no shoes… I think I would also be trying to find shelter, but a child having to make that decision. Unthinkable.

And she grew colder and colder, and feared to go home
For fear of her father beating her; and she felt woe-begone
Because she could carry home no pennies to buy bread,
And to go home without pennies she was in dread.

This kind of father….unable to provide but able to beat? Despicable. How could she not feel so low, and dread going home? Also, a sense of responsibility that a child shouldn’t have, to make enough money to take home bread. Sobbing is going to start any second now…

The large flakes of snow covered her ringlets of fair hair;
While the passers-by for her had no care,
As they hurried along to their homes at a quick pace,
While the cold wind blew in the match girl’s face.

She’s a pretty little thing who, in a different life, would be a loved and favoured child. No one sees her though, they just go about their own business, sheltering themselves, hurrying home.

As night wore on her hands were numb with cold,
And no longer her strength could her uphold,
When an idea into her little head came:
She’d strike a match and warm her hands at the flame.

So now the night is upon her and she can’t feel a thing, unless she uses up one precious match…

And she lighted the match, and it burned brightly,
And it helped to fill her heart with glee;
And she thought she was sitting at a stove very grand;
But, alas! she was found dead, with a match in her hand!

And now she’s hallucinating…an open fire in a kitchen somewhere, where she’s safe, warm, and about to be fed. But in reality, she dies from hypothermia. I just…sob.
Although. The story tells of a more glorious hallucination, first with the stove, then a goose offering itself to her to eat (which terrified me in some animation I remember seeing), and finally her dead grandmother, who comes to take her to heaven.

Her body was found half-covered with snow,
And as the people gazed thereon their hearts were full of woe;
And many present let fall a burning tear
Because she was found dead on the last night of the year,

Oh, that’s good. Nice. All notice this little street urchin now, why don’t you? The same one you’ve passed in the street all year. Now, on New Years Day, you feel pity at the sight of her corpse, but pity for who? Her? Or yourselves, for your new year starting off with such an unpleasant image? Shame on you.

In that mighty city of London, wherein is plenty of gold—
But, alas! their charity towards street waifs is rather cold.
But I hope the match girl’s in Heaven, beside her Saviour dear,
A bright reward for all the hardships she suffered here.

I like this stanza. I think it might be my favourite of the poem. You, London, with your prosperity and wealth, you don’t seem to notice those in need around you, in fact you see them as a nuisance. And then the poet ends with a hopeful ‘she’s better off in heaven’ – I thoroughly approve. I always have been a ‘happily ever after’ girl even if I know reality to be an entirely different thing.

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
10 stanzas of 4 lines, following the last night of the match girl’s life.

He isn’t a detached spectator, he’s quite…sympathetic towards her. He even admonishes those that have ignored her.

Suggested rhyme scheme

End stopped and run on lines, mostly masculine rhyme.

Similes and metaphors
Its a pretty straightforward kind of poem, can’t see much in the way of hidden meaning.

Author’s relationship with their subject

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
I loved the story by Hans Christian Anderson, and had no idea there was also a poem. I also didn’t know that William McGonagall was so..mocked…for his lack of poetic…grace. This might not be the best piece I’ve ever read but it’s… good enough. It tells the story. I like it.

Signing off
When I was younger I was introduced to poetry by my aunt. She had a few things published and there was this one journal I remember, sort of a self funded publication. It was the deepest navy blue and the cover was rough to the touch. In this journal there was a canine equivalent of this tale called something like Rover – I’ve never found it again but that broke my heart more than this. But then, this is the girl who was so upset by Old Mother Hubbard she made up her own ‘happily ever after’ for the dog with no bone. One of the lines that sticks in my mind from this poem is ‘He thinks of how a meaty bone would be so very nice.’ And I just… Dissolve. (And no. I had no idea about the links to Henry, Wolsey and Katherine either in Old Mother Hubbard either…)

So okay, we don’t really have little match girls anymore, although if you’re looking for a direct comparison here in Valencia guys go round selling bunches of cheaply made lighters.
We do, however, seem to have an explosion of poverty, beggars, homelessness. I guess this can be attributed to many things, but I can’t pretend to understand how, when this world is supposedly growing wealthier by the second. The divide between rich and poor is startlingly gaping and you wonder, or I wonder….how do we ever stop it? If, in allegedly powerful, wealthy countries, such things are such an issue, like our not so little dirty secret, then…what is the solution?


The Little Match Girl – Hans Christian Anderson

William McGonagall

When I read this I think of the song… Another Day In Paradise


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