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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 27 March 1922, 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.
"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!"
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...
- 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 12 July 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, and
- 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.
Appearances in popular culture
Mearns' "Antigonish" has been used numerous times in popular culture, often with slight variations in the lines. Examples include:
- 52, issue 33 (DC Comics), written by Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, and Mark Waid – published a version spoken by The Question:
...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.
- Doom Patrol Volume 2 (DC Comics), written by Grant Morrison
- The Question (DC Comics), written by Dennis O'Neil
- Sin Titulo (self-published), written and illustrated by Cameron Stewart
- The Detective, also known as Father Brown (1954)
- Velvet Goldmine (1998)
- Logan's Run (1976)
- The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), the title was taken directly from this poem
- Identity (2003 film)
- Hide and Seek (2005)
- Being Cyrus (2006)
- The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
- A Game Of Ghosts (Charlie Parker Novel 15) (2017) – John Connolly
- A Long Hard Look at "Psycho" – Raymond Durgnat
- Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington
- Being Human
- Dead Guilty
- Death is a Lonely Business – Ray Bradbury
- Doctor Who: Falls the Shadow
- Existence-David Brin
- Halting State
- I Met A Man Who Wasn't There – Mary Rose Callaghan (1996)
- I Saw a Man – Owen Sheers
- Kes – Robin McKinley
- King of Thorns (2012)
- Lost by Maguire
- Major Operation – James White
- Methuselah's Children – Robert A. Heinlein
- Night of the Jabberwock by Fredric Brown (in which Brown suggests that the little man's name is Yehudi)
- Prometheus Rising
- Shades of Grey 1: The Road to High Saffron
- Solar Express – L. E. Modesitt Jr.
- The Ambler Warning
- The Damned Utd
- The Immortal Highlander – Karen Marie Moning
- The King of Thorns – Mark Lawrence
- The Man Who Folded Himself – David Gerrold
- The Silent Tower
- The Taken – Sarah Pinborough
- The Tommyknockers – Stephen King
- Shrink Michael Slade
Multiple artists have used excerpts from or referenced "Antigonish" in songs. For example:
- Billy Bragg used the first verse in the song "Goalhanger", on his William Bloke album (1996)
- Lil Wayne's Free Weezy Album Track 15 "Pick Up Your Heart" (2015)
- The Swedish Black Metal band Shining used the first four sentences as an intro to their song "Ytterligare Ett Steg Närmare Total Jävla Utfrysning" the first track from their album V: Halmstad (2005)
- In 1971, on their eponymous album, the Danish band "Midnight Sun" (A.K.A. "The Rainbow Band") released the song "Nobody", which has as its lyrics the first verse of the poem.
- The American aggrotech band Psyclon Nine featured a sample of the poem in the song "The Unfortunate", from their album INRI (2005)
- The U.S. Christian metal band Nodes of Ranvier features the first verse of "Antigonish" in their instrumental song "Novocain For No Reason" (2005)
- The poem is sampled in the EBM song "Recognition" by The Parallel Project
- The Canadian hip hop group from Québec Loco Locass used the first four sentences in their song "Occupation Double" the tenth song of their album Le Québec est mort, Vive le Québec ! (2012)
- Similar lyrics can be heard in the song "The Man Who Sold the World" by David Bowie:
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
- Nuit quoted the poem in their song "Nobody There" on the album Mother Night (2000)
- The Man Who Isn't There by Oren Lavie (2009, "The Opposite Side Of The Sea")
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.
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!
- A Touch Of Frost
- 'All My Children
- 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" – 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 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
- 'Midsomer Murders, season 5, episode 2, "A Worm in the Bud"
- 'Momniverse Animated: Fortunado
- 'P.D. James, Cover Her Face (BBC miniseries)
- Pensacola: Wings of Gold Season 1, Episode 1
- Red Dwarf
- Sapphire and Steel Assignment 4
- Strike Back: Legacy season 5, episode 7
- 'The Game season 1, episode 1
- True Detective – a reference to this poem is made in one draft of the script for the second episode
- Lines from the poem are used as the only lyrics in a 2008 computer demo called "Rush by Singular Crew".
- 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".
- 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.
- 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. (30 September 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.
- 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. Italics and exclamation points.
- "Lyrics: 'Occupation Double'", ParolesMania.com (in French). Accessed: January 27, 2017.
- Wildermuth, Elton (2007). "Nuit's 'Mother Night'". Leigh Ann's Home Machine. Retrieved 9 September 2014.
- Parris, Matthew Parris (March 13, 2008). "Article 35". The Times.
- Moog, Caitlin Penzey (June 25, 2017). "Fear The Walking Dead asks: What's the point of Bukowski?". AV Club.
- Pizzolatto, Nic (2014). "HBO: True Detective- Chapter Two: 'Seeing Things'", docs.google.com.[need quotation to verify]
- "Rush". Pouët. 2008. Retrieved 25 January 2015.
- Crawford v. Marion County Election Bd. FindLaw.
- Crawford v. Marion County Election Bd. FindLaw. Retrieved January 27, 2017.