My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (5)

When I was a little boy, my Dad, Fred, used to be a teacher at Hastings Road School in Gresley. Unfortunately excessive mining operations underneath the school led to its premature collapse.  My Dad is at the right hand end of the back row:

My Dad had to move to the Woodville Church of England Junior School, the school I attended, where, after a number of years, I finished up in his class, which was possibly Class 4. This is the school now.

One afternoon,  I can recall being one of the many children who were all so very frightened when my Dad read out to the fifty of us the narrative poem, “Flannan Isle”, by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, written in 1912. Here’s the author:

The Flannan Isles incidentally are pretty much as remote as you can get in Britain. The orange arrow is 553 miles from London, in a straight line, slightly less than London-Berlin:

On an unknown date in December 1900, the lighthouse on Flannan Isle suddenly failed to shine. A few days later, when a group of lighthouse men came to investigate, they found that the whole island was completely deserted. The three lighthouse keepers had completely disappeared.

Fred used to recite this poem regularly to his classes, and I can still recall how intriguing many of us found this true story, and how animatedly and at what great length we discussed all the possible reasons for the disappearance of those three unfortunate lighthouse keepers only sixty years previously. We were all convinced that the men had been magically transformed into seabirds,  an absolutely horrific idea for nine year olds in that more innocent age of the early 1960s. Anyway, here’s the first section:

“THOUGH three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steered under the lee, we caught
No glimmer through the night.” A passing ship at dawn had brought
The news; and quickly we set sail,
To find out what strange thing might ail
The keepers of the deep-sea light.
The Winter day broke blue and bright,
With glancing sun and glancing spray,
As o’er the swell our boat made way,
As gallant as a gull in flight. But, as we neared the lonely Isle;
And looked up at the naked height;
And saw the lighthouse towering white,
With blinded lantern, that all night
Had never shot a spark
Of comfort through the dark,
So ghostly in the cold sunlight
It seemed, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
That sets the scene, although, initially, when I came back to this poem after 60 odd years, I was a little disappointed with the quality of the poetry. Gibson seems so often to add an extra phrase or an extra couple of words, when the poem would actually read better without them.
Anyway, a possible solution is hinted at by the description below of the three strange seabirds:
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we neared, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.

Those three birds, guillemots or shags, were the very things that would go on to terrify a bunch of 9-year olds.

And still to ‘mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climbed the track in single file,
Each wishing he was safe afloat,
On any sea, however far,
So it be far from Flannan Isle:
And still we seemed to climb, and climb,
As though we’d lost all count of time,
And so must climb for evermore.
Yet, all too soon, we reached the door—
The black, sun-blistered lighthouse-door,
That gaped for us ajar.

 

As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seemed to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ‘t were some strange scent of death:
And so, yet wondering, side by side,
We stood a moment, still tongue-tied:
And each with black foreboding eyed
The door, ere we should fling it wide,
To leave the sunlight for the gloom:
Till, plucking courage up, at last,
Hard on each other’s heels we passed,
Into the living-room.
Actually, at this point, I might well retract what I said before. The further I went into the poem, the more I realised, that it is clearly meant to be slowly and deliberately declaimed out loud. Have a go. You’ll see what I mean. And sincere apologies, Wilf !
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But, all untouched; and no one there:
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come; and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat:
For at the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor. We listened; but we only heard
The feeble cheeping of a bird
That starved upon its perch:
And, listening still, without a word,
We set about our hopeless search.
We hunted high, we hunted low;
And soon ransacked the empty house;
Then o’er the Island, to and fro,
We ranged, to listen and to look
In every cranny, cleft or nook
That might have hid a bird or mouse:
But, though we searched from shore to shore,
We found no sign in any place:
And soon again stood face to face
Before the gaping door:
And stole into the room once more
As frightened children steal.
Aye: though we hunted high and low,
And hunted everywhere,
Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
Of any kind in any place,
But a door ajar, and an untouched meal,
And an overtoppled chair.
And, as we listened in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room—
A chill clutch on our breath—
We thought how ill-chance came to all
Who kept the Flannan Light:
And how the rock had been the death
Of many a likely lad:
How six had come to a sudden end,
And three had gone stark mad:
And one whom we’d all known as friend
Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
And long we thought
On the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.
Like curs, a glance has brought to heel,
We listened, flinching there:
And looked, and looked, on the untouched meal,
And the overtoppled chair.
We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought, on three men dead.
Hopefully, you made it this far. It is definitely a great poem to be declaimed out loud. But you’ve got to take it slowly and deliberately. If you stumble at the words, go back and give it another go.
And here’s the three birds that we children all thought the lighthouse keepers had been transformed into:

In the future, I hope to produce some blog posts looking at the possible reasons that the three men disappeared.

Portrait of Gibson borrowed from poeticous

16 Comments

Filed under Criminology, Cryptozoology, History, Literature, my Dad, Personal, Science, Wildlife and Nature

16 responses to “My Dad, Fred, and his favourite poetry (5)

    • It certainly is, and I think that fact that the events are known to have happened makes it even more intriguing. It’s sad really that we will never know the true explanation!

  1. Good poem, I like it.Mystery disappearances are always spooky.

    • They definitely are, and for me, the chief one is poor Madeleine McCann. I have this strange idea that one day a 23 year old woman will come into a police station and it will be her, released by her captor after years of confinement. Sadly, it’s not a very likely outcome, although some mystery disappearances such as the Franklin expedition and Amelia Earhart do now seem to have been solved.

      • The Madeleine McCann mystery (in my opinion) is no mystery and is based on a tissue of lies. She will never turn up no matter how much the UK tax payer funds the pointless search. Sorry.

  2. Chris Waller

    This is a intriguing story. I read the poem as you suggested and, you’re right, it does improve thus read. I recall seeing a television programme quite recently about lighthouses and the story of the Flannan Isle light was mentioned. A number of theories were offered but no conclusion drawn.

    • I suppose that Flannan Isle was one of the great mysteries of the Victorian era, along with Jack the Ripper, Spring-heeled Jack and the Sea Serpent. All we can offer nowadays is just a selection of the possibilities rather than a 10 out of 10 correct answer.

  3. Looking forward to hearing more.

  4. That’s quite spooky John. I can imagine as a young child it would be a bit scary and why you would discuss it with your friends so eagerly. Why would three grown men, presumably fit and strong, simply just disappear in a way that suggests a flee from something. I’m intrigued by what suggestions you come up with!

  5. Well, I’ll do my best. The huge problem is that there is no correct answer, so, presumably, I’ll just have to give a list of possibilities, rather like I had to do with the Beast of Gévaudan.

  6. Thank you for sharing!!.. a wonderful story in the manner of poetry… think the story does more to stir the imagination and curiosity than if it were written as a regular news article… will be interesting to see if there are any evidence as to the final destiny of the three…. I am trying to recall the names of all the fables of sea monsters I read in the past as a child… perhaps it were the Sirens or Mermaids… 🙂

    Until we meet again…
    May your troubles be less
    Your blessings be more
    And nothing but happiness
    Come through your door
    (Irish Saying)

  7. The poem conveys the atmosphere of the place and the mystery. Waiting for your posts about the men. I wonder what they did the whole day, where did their family live.

    • Many of the men did not have families, but for some, there families lived in the family house on shore. On the island, I suppose there was always plenty of what we could call “housekeeping” to do, with meals to prepare, cleaning to be done, and walls to be repaired and painted. All of the jobs associated with the light had to be done by a particular time, and the preparation for the lighting of the light would have been very much the biggest and most important task of the day.

  8. Pingback: The Flannan Isle disappearances (1) | John Knifton

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