Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, 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. In 1910, Mearns staged the play with the Plays and Players, an amateur theatrical group, and on March 27, 1922, the newspaper columnist FPA printed the poem in "The Conning Tower", his column in the New York World. Mearns subsequently wrote many parodies of this poem, giving them the general title of Later Antigonishes.
"Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there!
He wasn't there again today,
Oh how 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....
Use in media
- Horror fiction podcast The Magnus Archives focuses its 85th episode "Upon the Stair" on a paranormal entity inspired by the poem. The poem is mentioned and read aloud in the episode.
- In the miniseries Gallipoli, Season 1, Episode 1, General, Sir Ian Hamilton recites the poem.
- In the TV show Death in Paradise, Season 4, Episode 6 "Stab In The Dark", Detective Inspector Humphrey Goodman references the poem while solving the murder of a distiller.
- In the TV show Fear the Walking Dead, Season 3, Episode 6 "Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (Fear the Walking Dead)", Madison Clark and other Broke Jaw Ranch dwellers find a conscious man with his brain exposed, reciting the poem out loud.
- In the TV show Midsomer Murders, Season 5, Episode 5 "Worm in the Bud", Chief Detective Inspector Barnaby quotes the first stanza of the poem when mentioning the case he was working on made no sense.
- In the TV show Sapphire & Steel, Season 2, Episode 10 The first stanza of the poem is heard three times in a ghost story about children trapped in photographs by a man (spirit) with no face.
- In the TV show McDonald and Dodds, Season 2, Episode 1 The first stanza of the poem is spoken by two members of the Bath police force during the investigation of a man who apparently plummeted to his death, falling from a hot-air balloon.
- In The Trial of Christine Keeler, based on the chain of events surrounding the Profumo affair in the 1960s, Dr. Stephen Ward - played by James Norton - recites the poem several times.
- The movie Identity opens with convict Malcom Rivers reciting the poem, claiming to have made it up when he was a child. It's also one of the closing phrases in the film.
- In 1939, "Antigonish" was adapted as a popular song titled "The Little Man Who Wasn't There", by Harold Adamson with music by Bernie Hanighen, both of whom received the songwriting credits.
- A July 12, 1939 recording of the song by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, with vocals by Tex Beneke, became an 11-week hit on Your Hit Parade and reached #7.
Other versions were recorded by:
- Mildred Bailey & Her Orchestra
- Larry Clinton & His Orchestra with vocals by Ford Leary
- Bob Crosby & His Orchestra with vocals by Teddy Grace
- Jack Teagarden & His Orchestra with vocals by Teagarden
- In 2016 The Odd Chap released an Electro Swing version using soundtrack from the Glenn Miller Band recording.
- In 2018, the experimental industrial group The Reptile Skins released an EP entitled Antigonish with the two lead singers having a different interpretation of the poem.
- The opening verse is featured on the opening track "Ytterligare ett steg närmare total jävla utfrysning" off the album Halmstad by Swedish band Shining
- The Man Who Sold the World (song), a song by David Bowie
- Colombo, John Robert (1984). Canadian Literary Landmarks. Dundurn Press. ISBN 978-0-88882-073-0.
- McCord, David Thompson Watson (1955). What Cheer: An Anthology of American and British Humorous and Witty Verse. New York: The Modern Library. p. 429.
- Kahn, E. J. (September 30, 1939). "Creative Mearns". The New Yorker. p. 11.
- Colombo (2000), p.47.
- Mearns, quoted by Hayakawa, Samuel Ichiyé & Hayakawa, Alan R. (1990). Language in Thought and Action. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 96. ISBN 9780156482400.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- Mearns, quoted by Colombo, John Robert (2000). Ghost Stories of Canada. Dundurn. p. 46. ISBN 9781550029758.. Italics and exclamation points.
- Mearns, quoted by Gardner, Martin (2012). Best Remembered Poems. Courier. p. 107. ISBN 9780486116402.