Friday, September 28, 2007

Antigonish by William Hughes Mearns


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...
--William Hughes Mearns

Hughes Mearns, who wrote this poem, was an educator around the turn of the century who dabbled in child psychology, especially as it relates to creativity. He pretty much invented "creative writing" as it's taught in schools. He thought that kids were naturally creative and eloquent, and they just needed to be shown how to let the natural poetry of their language come out as they put their thoughts down on paper. He said, "Poetry is an outward expression of instinctive insight that must be summoned from the vasty deep of our mysterious selves. Therefore, it cannot be taught; indeed, it cannot even be summoned; it can only be permitted." (quoted in Creative Writing And The New Humanities By Paul Dawson) He also talked about writing as a "transfer of experience" from writer to reader. He sounds like a fascinating person, and I'm surprised I didn't hear about him in my Education classes at college.

As for the man who wasn't there, I love how ambiguous this poem is. Is it a bit of nonsense rhyme? Is it talking about something prosaic like his shadow? Is it a ghost or fairy or spirit of some sort? A "man in black" government agent? A scandal that has little basis in reality, but won't stay out of the tabloids? A reference to some sort of mental illness? The answer is YES. It doesn't matter what he had in mind when he wrote it (though it might be an interesting bit of trivia to know), when I read it, it can mean any of those things or something else entirely.

Here's a good quote on that topic from a blog called Knocking From Inside:
One way that poetry can communicate is to make clear, simple statements with which the reader either agrees or not. Another way, perhaps more characteristic of poetry, is to deploy images or ideas whose “meaning” is not completely specified; this allows the reader to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Readers will associate these signifiers with whatever seems most emotionally immediate or relevant to the reader. Thus readers can tailor-make their own “meanings”, within a framework suggested by the poem.

This is why we sometimes read a poem written by a complete stranger and feel as though it was written expressly for and about us. In a sense, it is; as readers, we become co-authors. We write our own thoughts, feelings and experiences into the spaces between the poet’s lines.


  1. I got to your blog by way of your "Tiggywinkle" page, which I found when I Googled "tiggywinkle" to see where my blog was at in the results. Nice to find someone else who loves hedgies and read Beatrix Potter!

  2. I walk into your old bedrooms and see my little children who aren't there and still aren't there today. I don't wish they would go away.


  3. I believe the poem was meant to show the darker side of a person. The man who isn't there because he's a part of you and the man you wish would go away but he won't because he's a part of you.

  4. I love the cover Nirvana did of Bowie's song, that was inspired by this poem; The Man Who Sold The World. I think it's about multiple personalities.

  5. The poem was inspired by a news story about a "ghost man" wandering a house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in about 1899. It was used to emphasize multiple personality disorder in the movie Identity, which featured John Cusack.

  6. Such a beautifully intriguing piece of poetry, isn't it? Whether it expresses a man's fractured mentality or ghosts of his past or any of the other possible interpretations presented, it inspires in me an eerie, unnerving feeling.

  7. One bright day in the middle of the night
    two dead boys got up to fight.
    Back to back they faced each other
    drew their swords and shot each other.
    The deaf policeman heard the noise
    he came and shot the two dead boys.
    If you don't believe this lie is true
    ask the blind man he saw it too.

  8. I know mental illness I am a paranoid schizophrenic and a poet. The thing with schizo is that you become detatched from reality and thus oneself, because we are reality, a human soul or mind is reality our brain waves. Thus its by no mean coincidence that he quotes from other schizophrenic patients in my mind. Look at the very basic poem I wrote when I was ILL. You cannot understand this poem for me, if you are too well.


    I�m at the end of my tether
    Somebody else is here
    Is this a dream or
    A waterfall using broken promises
    Perhaps a world of surrealism will know
    Only time can heal the wounds
    But the real victim is love
    For who wants to be left alone
    Together we meant so much
    A touch on the lips
    Maybe I�m lost
    What has happened to me?
    Now the only happiness I have
    Is watching the darkness of this room
    A shadow is dancing in my heart
    While I contemplate the demons ahead
    A strange creature is persuading me to
    Look for the silhouettes of a tarnished soul
    Only then can I escape this nightmare
    And be reunited with reality
    She is hiding and I will find her

    By Silverfox (2005 copyright)

  9. I had this poem going round and round my head, I asked my 11 year old what it meant cos I figured a child would be the best person to know. He told me it was a paradox and when I asked him what it meant he said it was about something that was too absurd to be real but was real nevertheless. That makes sense to me

  10. He is being haunted by a splinter in his mind. The congealed guilt that has manifested as a phantom.

  11. I think he's talking about himself and his own identity crisis. He's saying in an oblique way that he doesn't know who he truly is and this nagging thought continues to bother him, as the answer continues to elude him. He'd rather it didn't bother him but it's in is nature to wonder. It really is a wonderful poem that can be interpreted in so many ways but strip it down and I think it's simply a "Who am I?" conundrum.