The Man Who Wasn’t There

Yesterday, upon the stair
I saw a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh how I wish he’d go away.

My first version of this blog was, I will admit, entirely different, mainly because I’d always thought this poem was written by someone else and wrote the entire blog about that person. This means, of course, that my wonderful theory about the underlying message in a piece of nonsense verse has become, of itself, nonsense. Poetic really.

That said, the story behind this poem is still quite interesting. It was written by William Hughes Mearns, a child psychologist who believed that silly poems which attracted children’s attention would improve their language development and encourage creativity. It’s certainly easy to remember, and the silliness of seeing a man who wasn’t there is something that a lot of children do find appealing. And, because I thought it was written by Spike Milligan, led me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about mental illness that I’m going to share them anyway – even though they bear no relation to the poem whatsoever.

At the time that Milligan was writing some of his best known nonsense verse – including my favourite, In the Land of the Ning Nang Nong – a common way of referring to people who suffered from mental health issues was to say that they “weren’t all there”. It’s not such a leap, especially for a child, from “not all there” to “not there”. As Milligan himself suffered from mental health problems, including depression, I’m quite sure he would have seen this aspect of the poem quite clearly.

Looking at the poem in that light, it loses its silliness and becomes quite poignant. Can you imagine – being the man who wasn’t (all) there, not (all) there again today, and someone wishing you’d go away? What an indictment on how we treat the mentally ill!

Although the next time I write a post about a favourite piece of nonsense verse, I’ll make sure I’ve established who wrote the poem well in advance of writing.

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