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Antigonish: eerie poem inspired by haunted house

“Yesterday upon the stairs
“I met a man who wasn’t there.
“He was not there again today.
“How I wish he’d go away.”

The opening of “Antigonish” – a short poem inspired by an allegedly haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada – features four of the most evocatively eerie lines in the English language, at least in part because of the deliberate, almost humorous paradox at their heart. On the one hand, there is something uncanny in the concept of meeting someone who is not there – presumably a disembodied ghost, though the text never states this explicitly. On the other hand, there is something darkly comical in wishing away someone who is already absent, suggesting the poem is more about semantics than the supernatural. Either way, the enigmatic nature of the poem is a far cry from the real-life “haunting,” which involved mysterious blue fires erupting in an isolated farm house

However, one reads it, “Antigonish” has earned it a long after-life in popular culture despite the fact that it was never a best-seller or an iconic part of the standard curriculum a la Poe’s “The Raven.” Even among horror fans, it is at best a little-known cult item – remembered, if at all, for those oft-quoted opening four lines. How this came to be is a bit of a mystery.

“Antigonish” was originally part of a play written around 1899 by academic Hughes Mearns for an English class at Harvard. Decades later, the poem was published in New York World magazine by columnist Franklin P. Adams, who apparently made a career of highlighting clever literary work (Dorothy Parker credited him for making her famous). Since then, “Antigonish” has take on a life of its own, being quoted, paraphrased, and spoofed in various ways. Mearns himself wrote several tongue-in-cheek variations, which he called “Little Antigonishes.” Much later, an anonymous politician mocked Prime Minister Gordon Brown by comparing him unfavorably to his predecessor: “At Downing Street upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t Blair.” Even Mad Magazine had a go: “He was not there again today; I think he’s from the CIA.”

In 1939, “Antigonish” was adapted into the song “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There,” which became a hit for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The recording emphasized the poem’s humorous aspect, adding a spoken-word dialogue in which a character is mocked for believing his house is haunted. Curiously, Mearns was not credited on the record label, though his name does appear on the sheet music by Harold Adamson and Bernard Hanighen. Other recordings followed, sometimes interpolating and/or remixing the Miller recording.

The poem’s longevity as a reference point for songs, parody, and satire is puzzling, since “Antigonish” has never been inducted into the official canon of poetry that should be studied in high school or even college. It was never widely anthologized; neither the poem nor the play where it originated, Psycho-ed, is currently in print from a legit publisher. Only a few fly-by-night operations offer “Antigonish” as a Kindle download or an audio CD.

One suspects that “Antigonish” would be mostly forgotten today if not for the way it keeps popping up in popular media: the 1975 TV show The Invisible Man, the 2003 film Identity, the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, Stephen King’s novel Dreamcatcher, and the Star Trek novel Q-Squared. The notion of an elusive, unseen figure seems particularly appealing to British murder mystery shows: “Antigonish” has been quoted in Midsomer Murders, Father Brown, A Touch of Frost, and Death in Paradise. Typically, these quotations include only the intriguing opening stanza.

At this point, the complete poem exists mostly on the Internet – disembodied, like a ghost. This makes it difficult to nail down the poem’s original text. The version published by Franklin P. Adams in New York World has not been archived online, and versions that are available sometimes use the lyrics from the 1939 sheet music, which were slightly altered. (The dead giveaway is when the text includes the word “slam!” in parentheses at the point where the song features a snare drum mimicking the sound of a slamming door.) The best we can do is provide the text as it appears on poem’s wiki page:

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…
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….

“Antigonish” deserves its small but impressive cultural footprint – it’s like a little, half-forgotten gem that occasionally catches the eye with a glint of light from the darkness. The original poem would make an interesting choice for a live reading during the Halloween season, and the Glenn Miller recording is worth a listen; if the recording’s dated style is not quite to your musical tastes, you might try out the electro-swing remix, which cleans up some of the old vinyl’s audio and boosts the tempo to a truly frantic pace.

Right now, it’s only a hazy dream, but someday we hope to produce our own musical setting of “Antigonish.” Maybe we will use the image below as the album cover. Cross your fingers, but don’t hold your breath.

Antigonish: The Man Who Wasn't There

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.