Poem of the Day: ‘Mr. Nobody’

The story of a household where all the family’s mishaps are blamed on an unseen Mr. Nobody.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Rudolf Eickemeyer Jr., 'Caught in Mischief,' detail, 1901. Via Wikimedia Commons

For one of the lighter verses we offer as Poem of the Day on Wednesdays, how about this bit of 19th-century American verse, “Mr. Nobody”? 

The poem gained its first real foothold when it appeared as by an unnamed author in The Golden Book of Poetry, a popular 1947 anthology edited by the children’s author Jane Werner Watson (1915–2004). “Mr. Nobody” is sometimes oddly ascribed to Walter de la Mare (1873–1956), but the researcher Rebecca Perkins traces its first publication to the Riverside Magazine for Young People in 1868. An editorial error left it out of the table of contents, and though it also appeared that same year in a collection called “Little Lou’s Sayings and Doings” by Elizabeth Prentiss (1818–1878), the ascription to Anonymous, rather than Prentiss, became the default.

Prentiss’s light verse — eight-line stanzas in ballad meter, alternating three- and four-foot lines — tells the story of a household where all the family’s mishaps are blamed on an unseen Mr. Nobody.

Mr. Nobody
by Elizabeth Prentiss

I know a funny little man, 
    As quiet as a mouse, 
Who does the mischief that is done 
    In everybody’s house! 
There’s no one ever sees his face, 
    And yet we all agree 
That every plate we break was cracked 
    By Mr. Nobody. 

’Tis he who always tears out books, 
    Who leaves the door ajar, 
He pulls the buttons from our shirts, 
    And scatters pins afar; 
That squeaking door will always squeak, 
    For prithee, don’t you see, 
We leave the oiling to be done 
    By Mr. Nobody. 

He puts damp wood upon the fire
   That kettles cannot boil;
His are the feet that bring in mud,
   And all the carpets soil.
The papers always are mislaid;
   Who had them last, but he?
There’s no one tosses them about
   But Mr. Nobody.

The finger marks upon the door 
    By none of us are made; 
We never leave the blinds unclosed, 
    To let the curtains fade. 
The ink we never spill; the boots 
    That lying round you see 
Are not our boots, — they all belong 
    To Mr. Nobody.



With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul. 

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