Saturday, July 08, 2006

"...wasn't there again today"

(Ascended at Wikipedia)

Possibly everyone knows this little nonsense rhyme by William Hughes Mearns (1875-1965), even if they've never heard the author's name:

Antigonish, 1899

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish that man would go away.

But is this truly the original version? The good people of Wikipedia imply that Mearns originally penned it somewhat differently:
Antigonish, 1899

As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd stay away.
Wikipedia cites a 1939 news report on this as the original version but neglects to give the source, so take this with a dose of salt. Anyway, the report states that Mearns composed the rhyme in 1910, which -- I take it -- would imply that the date given in "Antigonish, 1899" does not refer to the date of composition but to the imagined non-event itself.

But why "Antigonish"? Was the town in Nova Scotia famous for nonexistent people? By the way, according to the fine scholars at The Global Oneness Commitment: Co-Creating a Happy World, "Antigonish" is:
Derivied from the Mi'kmaq word nalegitkoonechk, meaning "where branches are torn off".
They give as their scholarly source ... Wikipedia. Let's see that Wiki entry on Antigonish:
The name Antigonish is of Mi'kmaq origin and is believed to refer to the place where tree branches are torn off by bears gathering beech nuts.
Nothing here about the word nalegitkoonechk, but with Google, anything can be tracked down. The website Antigonish County Placenames says:
The word Antigonish is of Micmac origin. According to Dr. Silas Rand it is derived from Nalegitkoonechk (Nalegitkoontech or Nalegitkunech), meaning "where branches are torn off." It is said that there the bears broke down branches to get the beech nuts. The earliest known use of the name which persists as Antigonish is in Nicholas Denys, The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America which was published in 1672. In that book it appears as Articougnesche. On Jumeau's map of 1685 it is seen as Antigonieche and by 1755 it appeared in its present form Antigonish.
Interesting. Initially, I rather doubted the Mi'kmaq etymology, but given the variants on the name that this passage notes, that explanation looks a lot more likely.

But who was Silas Rand? As it turns out, he was one of those obscure Protestant missionaries to whom modern linguists owe so much. According to the Esther Clark Wright Archives, Silas Tertius Rand (1810-1889) lived among the Mi'maq Indians during the mid-19th century and accomplished a great deal:
He produced scriptural translations in Mi'kmaq and Malecite, compiled a Mi'kmaq dictionary and collected scores of legends, including the tales of Glooscap. His scriptural translations, Mi'kmaq dictionary and legends were all published.

Rand's work with the Mi'kmaq was recognized by three universities: Queen's University presented him with an honorary L.L.D. degree (1886); Acadia College with an honorary D.D degree (1886); and Kings College with an honorary D.C.L. degree.
Perhaps the fellow knew what he was talking about in deriving "Antigonish" from "nalegitkoonechk."

At any rate, while this trek has been very interesting, I've come no nearer to uncovering why Mearns titled his poem "Antigonish, 1899." I doubt that it had anything to do with Rand.

Anybody know the answer?

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22 Comments:

At 9:15 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I always liked the name Antigone. I'll bet he did too.

If someone goes away, then he's gone. If someone who is a non-person, perhaps even an anti-person, goes away, then he's anti-gone perhaps? Since we don't know whether or not he is or isn't, has or hasn't, then the suffix "ish" seems appropriate. Anyway, that's my theory and I'm stickin' to it.

 
At 4:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ Mollo, that's an interesting suggestion and may be correct. I can't think of a better theory, so I'll adopt yours.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:17 AM, Anonymous barone said...

Great writing!

I DO know the answer, but im not here to type it.

 
At 2:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Barone, at least I now know that there is an answer. I'll keep on searching...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:43 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

The idea of having a name for a branch that is broken off may have appealed to him. If a tree has a branching pattern that is interrupted by a gap, we see a branch that isn't there.

Antigonish, by the way, was the name of a Nova Scotian movement, starting in the 1920s, inspired by Distributism. This in turn was inspired by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum and later GK Chesterton. The movement involved cooperatives in fishing and lobstering as well as some early credit unions. It promoted adult education and study circles where participants were expected to find collective solutions to shared problems. FWIW.

 
At 3:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, your "missing branch" might explain the missing man ... if Mearns knew story behind the name "Antigonish."

I didn't know about the 'Catholic Collective' movement in Nova Scotia. Interesting. Did it work?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:20 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Of the political units of Canada, the maritime provinces represent the 3 poorest, in terms of per capita GDP, and probably in terms of poverty measures. To quote Wikipedia:

"The cause of economic malaise in the Maritimes is an issue of great debate and controversy among historians, economists, and geographers. The differing opinions can approximately be divided into the "structuralists," who argue that poor policy decisions are to blame, and the others, who argue that unavoidable technological and geographical factors caused the decline."

This is not to say that the movement didn't work. There was so much going on, the decline of the fishery, international competition, distance from the political centers of Canada, that it is impossible to say whether things could have been worse.

I have a bias in favor of collective action, though against restraint of trade in any form. The distributive way of thinking has caught my attention recently and I'm trying to understand why some places go poor. West Virginia, for example, had all the resources that should have made it rich. The settlers had all the same virtures as the New England farmers with similar land. New England had access to the sea and got rich, but Nova Scotia, more similar to New England, became poor. Very puzzling.

 
At 9:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not sure that collective action works very well, but I suppose that it depends on the activity. I used to belong to co-operative groceries in Berkeley, but I came to wonder why. We always heard that we were the "owners" but didn't seem to gain much by that. The service was often surly and slow, and the prices were not the lowest.

I like the idea of "community," having grown up where people helped each other, but artifical communities seem not to work so well.

On the poverty of West Virginia, I really don't know ... unless it's due to the influence of coal mining and owing one's "soul to the company store," as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to put it.

Jeffery "Sixteen Tons" Hodges

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At 1:29 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I sang that song to my children when they were little. He had an amazing voice. I listened to that 45 often as a child. I guess I learned more than the words. The flip side may have been "He Walks With Me", a beautiful church ballad.

The company store is a form of debt bondage, called a truck system, whereby people are paid in truck, or goods, rather than money. On paper they keep accumulating debt, which is just another hammer the employer holds over their heads. They don't want the employees to be able to save, because that would give them some leverage.

I don't know how prevalent the system was/is in WV. Company towns are associated in my mind with PA coal mines and railroads. WV miners were often small farmers as well. Farmers elsewhere had a certain amount of independence. It's puzzling that it didn't work that way in the Appalachians.

I'm in a co-op grocery myself. I have to put in half a week of work a year, but it's educational for me, social as well. The prices are no better, but the food is, and I trust the buyers more. They have a lot of bulk food, a lot of organic and a lot of really interesting things. They don't have a lot of junk, which is good too. They also apply certain political policies, such as stocking fair-trade coffee only. Since I agree with most of it, it's OK. I hope they don't start with the Berkeley silliness. A nuclear free grocery would be too much.

When I think of collective action, I think about church events and Agway and barn raisings, microloans, Consumer Reports, investment clubs, community adult learning cooperatives and yes, unions. There is a spectrum, and they're all artificial. Some work better than others. The Internet is mostly a collective enterprise of unprecedented diversity. I'm interested in promoting the idea of voters' unions myself.

 
At 4:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Ozarks people were the same stock as the Appalachian folks, and were just as poor, but there's no coal in the Ozarks, so people had to rely solely upon their family farm and never lost their sense of individualism and -- dare I say it -- self-reliance. Of course, they never forgot their extended families, either, so they're not radical individualists.

Yeah, Tennessee Ernie Ford had a great voice. I recall his television show from the early 60s.

The collectives that seem to work best are those where there aren't many free riders. The more institutionalized they become, the more they seem to ossify and serve the interests of those holding office. Well ... you know the old story.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:36 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

So you are saying that the coal was like Arab oil, a curse of riches that leads away from the "true path" of righteous economy building. And in Antigonish that would have been the riches of the sea, perhaps? Though, now that you mention it, there were mining and forestry industries. Maybe concentrated forms of wealth are cursed because of the kinds of people attracted -- robber barons and exploiters of every kind. So California was blessed because the gold was just a transitory phase and the oil didn't arrive until later.

 
At 6:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JJ, I think that when wealth comes as a windfall, like a lottery, it often ruins those 'lucky' individuals.

But in the case of coal, the windfall doesn't seem to have benefitted the locals, so the analogy might not work here.

Both cases, however, seem to be corrupting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well the verse itself is probaby taling about a man(in this case the author) who is living with a mental issue in wich he thinks he is 2 different people. his 'other' identity might be an ugly one, someone who does bad things, and is causing trouble to the 'other' identity of this man. dat is y he sais he saw a man...(himself) he wsnt there..(because the 'other identity isnt really there) and he wishes he wouldnt be 2 ppl anymore. the title is chosen as antigone bcuz a broken branch makes 2 things of what once was one. a piece from a tree, makes the tree incomplete and not its total self...as well as this man who has 2 identities and cant be his complete self.

 
At 7:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for an intriguing interpretation. Perhaps you're right.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here it is: Antigonish --> anti + gone-ish = anti + nearly gone --> not nearly gone, kind of (still) there).
Easy as 3,14...
:)

 
At 6:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks. Your suggestion is about the same as the first one above, which I believe is correct.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an answer on almost all your questions about the name and the date, here is the info I found.

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 about 1899. In 1910, Mearns put on 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.

 
At 8:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Great! Thanks!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:31 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you all so much for the refreshingly​ intelligent exchange of thoughtful ideas without the usual deterioration into a vicious competition. I have been wondering about what lies beneath this poem for some time and this discussion has nicely expanded the view!

 
At 11:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thank you! We do try.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:07 AM, Blogger Christian Stalley said...

Hiya, I'm pretty sure it's from a reported haunting in Antigonish. Nova Scotia was a pretty popular place for New Englanders to visit in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s, so it's not at all unlikely that he'd have heard of an interesting story, and also enjoyed the place name.

 
At 4:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CS, thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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