Antigonish Poem Analysis Essay

"Antigonish" is an 1899 poem by American educator and poetWilliam Hughes Mearns. It is also known as "The Little Man Who Wasn't There" and was adapted as a hit song under the latter title.

Poem[edit]

Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada,[1] the poem was originally part of a play called The Psyco-ed, which Mearns had written for an English class at Harvard University, circa 1899.[2] In 1910, Mearns staged the play with the Plays and Players, an amateur theatrical group, and on 27 March 1922, newspaper columnist FPA printed the poem in "The Conning Tower", his column in the New York World.[2][3] Mearns subsequently wrote many parodies of this poem, giving them the general title of Later Antigonishes.[4]

Text[edit]

"As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there!
He wasn't there again today,
Oh how I wish he'd go away!" [5][6][7]

When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn't see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door...

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away...

Song[edit]

Other versions were recorded by:

Appearances in popular culture[edit]

Mearns' "Antigonish" has been used numerous times in popular culture, often with slight variations in the lines. Examples include:

Comics[edit]

...Upon the stair,
I met a man who was not there...
He was not there again today,
I wish to gosh he'd go away.

Films[edit]

Literature[edit]

Music[edit]

Multiple artists have used excerpts from or referenced "Antigonish" in songs. For example:

We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn't there
He said I was his friend…

  • Furthermore, in an example of meme, pop band Visage (a legacy of David Bowie) depict in their music video clip "Mind of a Toy" - a nighttime meeting/passing upon a staircase with a little man who fades away.
  • The poem is referenced in OTEP's song "Communion" from their album The Ascension (2007)
  • The poem is referenced in Chino XL's song "Skin" from the album Poison Pen
  • The psy-trance band Xerox and Illumination used an excerpt from the poem in the song "Paranoia", from their album XI
  • Imperial Vengeance's album Black Heart of Empire (2011) featured the song "Upon the Stair", inspired by the poem[citation needed]
  • Nuit quoted the poem in their song "Nobody There" on the album Mother Night (2000)[9]

Periodicals[edit]

There was a man upon the stair
When I looked back, he wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I think he's from the CIA.

  • A version appeared in The Times on 13 March 2008 that played on the contrast between UK Prime Ministers Tony Blair (1997–2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010). Allegedly it was composed by a minister in the Labour government.[10]

In Downing Street upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't Blair.
He wasn't Blair again today.
Oh how I wish he'd go away.

  • A version appeared in the 24 March 2015 edition of The Canberra Times, in a cartoon drawn by David Pope, wherein the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (as Ebenezer Scrooge) is reciting the lines while averting his eyes from a ghostly ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who sits on the stairs reading the report from the Moss Review into abuse in the Australian immigration detention centre on Nauru - a reference to Fraser's reputation as a moral compass and embarrassment to current sitting Liberal Party Members.

Last night I saw upon the stair
A tallish man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away!

Television[edit]

  • A Touch Of Frost[citation needed]
  • 'All My Children[citation needed]
  • Dave Allen At Large, season 1, episode 4
  • Death in Paradise, series 4, episode 1
  • Fear the Walking Dead, season 3, episode 5: "Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame"[11] - Jeremiah Otto's search party finds the sole survivor of one of their reconnaissance teams sitting bound in a chair, reciting the poem repeatedly, while a raven eats his exposed brain
  • Gallipoli (Australian TV series), season 1, episode 1
  • La Femme Nikita[citation needed] Season 1, Episode 14 "Gambit". Section One captures Kessler, a terrorist. He repeats a version to Madeline, changing it to a little girl upon the stair. When Madeline was very young, she and her sister were fighting over a doll at the top of the stairs. Her sister fell down the stairs and died.
  • Lost[citation needed]
  • 'Midsomer Murders, season 5, episode 5, "A Worm in the Bud"
  • 'Momniverse Animated: Fortunado[citation needed]
  • 'P.D. James, Cover Her Face (BBC miniseries)[citation needed]
  • Red Dwarf[citation needed]
  • Sapphire and Steel[citation needed] Assignment 4
  • Strike Back: Legacyseason 5, episode 7
  • 'The Gameseason 1, episode 1
  • True Detective - a reference to this poem is made in one draft of the script for the second episode[12]

Other uses[edit]

  • Lines from the poem are used as the only lyrics in a 2008 computer demo called "Rush by Singular Crew".[13]
  • In a dissent in the 2008 United States Supreme Court case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, Justice David Souter referenced the poem when he noted, "The State responds to the want of evidence with the assertion that in-person voter impersonation fraud is hard to detect. But this is like saying the 'man who wasn't there' is hard to spot".[14][15]
  • The Magnus Archives podcast centered the episode Upon the Stair around a man who confronted 'the man who wasn't there' and somehow swapped places with him, becoming a ghostly figure on a spiral staircase which kills any humans who walk up it.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^Colombo, John Robert (1984). Canadian Literary Landmarks. Dundurn Press. ISBN 978-0-88882-073-0. 
  2. ^ abMcCord, David Thompson Watson (1955). What Cheer: An Anthology of American and British Humorous and Witty Verse. New York: The Modern Library. p. 429. 
  3. ^ abKahn, E. J. (30 September 1939). "Creative Mearns". The New Yorker. p. 11. 
  4. ^Colombo (2000), p.47.
  5. ^Mearns, quoted by Hayakawa, Samuel Ichiyé & Hayakawa, Alan R. (1990). Language in Thought and Action. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 96. ISBN 9780156482400. 
  6. ^Mearns, quoted by Colombo, John Robert (2000). Ghost Stories of Canada. Dundurn. p. 46. ISBN 9781550029758. . Italics and exclamation points.
  7. ^Mearns, quoted by Gardner, Martin (2012). Best Remembered Poems. Courier. p. 107. ISBN 9780486116402.  Italics and exclamation points.
  8. ^"Lyrics: 'Occupation Double'", ParolesMania.com(in French). Accessed: January 27, 2017.
  9. ^Wildermuth, Elton (2007). "Nuit's 'Mother Night'". Leigh Ann's Home Machine. Retrieved 9 September 2014. 
  10. ^Parris, Matthew Parris (March 13, 2008). "Article 35". The Times. 
  11. ^Moog, Caitlin Penzey (June 25, 2017). "Fear The Walking Dead asks: What's the point of Bukowski?". AV Club. 
  12. ^Pizzolatto, Nic (2014). "HBO: True Detective- Chapter Two: 'Seeing Things'", docs.google.com.[need quotation to verify]
  13. ^"Rush". Pouët. 2008. Retrieved 25 January 2015. 
  14. ^Crawford v. Marion County Election Bd. FindLaw. 
  15. ^Crawford v. Marion County Election Bd. FindLaw. Retrieved January 27, 2017. 

Sightings looks for meaning in the abyss of chaos that currently challenges American, and global, culture. The experience of life in its shadows led me to remember “Antigonish,” an old poem (1899) by Hughes Mearns. Some readers may welcome an audio backup on YouTube, which makes available an old Glenn Miller recording, where I first heard and heard of it (see Resources). So far as Google and I can tell, the poem has always invited as many exegeses as it has had readers or listeners. Try this.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

Suddenly, some light entered among the shadows, in the form of a quotation from 20th-century theological titan Karl Barth, which appeared in an essay written by Paul Dafydd Jones for the University of Chicago’s Enhancing Life Project on “Patience, Impatience, and Political Life Today.” I first quote Jones: “What should an academic Christian theologian do in [the current chaos]?” And then Barth, who wrote “soon after the Nazis seized power in 1933”:

I endeavor to carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened. Perhaps there is a slightly increased tone, but without direct allusions: something like the chanting of the hours by the Benedictines nearby in the Maria Laach, which goes on undoubtedly without break or interruption, pursuing the even tenor of its way even in the Third Reich.

Jones concludes: “A recipe for political quietism? Certainly not.” Barth was personally applying his theological understanding of “calling,” on which he wrote at great, great length. (He was Karl Barth, after all.)

One need not be a Barth, or a theologian, or even a Christian to get the point. One “endeavor[s] to carry on… and as if nothing had happened.” Yes, there might be that “slightly increased tone,” given the circumstances. Barth referred to the chanting in the monastery, “without break or interruption, pursuing the even tenor of its way…” Many of us might still be tempted to interrupt with the poem’s command—“Go away, go away”—and “I wish he’d go away,” but it will be more creative if theologians, religious scholars, political philosophers, some politicians, commentators, communicators, and thoughtful people of all “callings”—in business, commerce, education, industrial life, homemaking, media, and so much more—“carry on… as if nothing had happened,” aware though they may be of diverse happenings which they will interpret in diverse ways.

At least in imagination, I hear the figurative monastery chant, “with slightly increased tone,” calling us to pursue “the even tenor of its way,” even now. Especially now.

Resources

- GregorysRecords. “Glenn Miller - ‘The Little Man Who Wasn’t There’.” YouTube. October 6, 2013.

- Jones, Paul Dafydd. “Patience, Impatience, and Political Life Today.” Enhancing Life Project at the University of Chicago. January 12, 2017.

- Mearns, Hughes. “Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there].” Poets.org. Accessed January 21, 2017.

- Nel, Malan, and Eric Scholtz. “Calling, is there anything special about it?” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies. July 15, 2016.

Image: Karl Barth at the University of Chicago in 1962 | Photo credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-00361], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.


Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Click here to subscribe to Sightings as a twice-weekly email. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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