Poetry Monday : Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was a British poet who lived from 1878 – 1962. He published poems on a variety of subjects, often referencing folk tales or folk songs of Northern England. You can read more about him here. This poem, Flannan Isle, is based on the actual mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse-keepers on Flannan Isle in the year 1900. (The Flannan Isles are a cluster of small islands off the coast of the Scotland.) I discovered this poem in the anthology The Twentieth Century in Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae. A note : this poem is, of course, a spooky, scary, rhyming story. Therefore it is truly best read aloud. I encourage you to share this poem with someone else — it’s a great Halloween story — or just read it aloud to yourself. 

Flannan Isle

Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
To keep the lamp alight,
As we steer’d 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 near’d the lonely Isle;
And look’d 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 ghastly in the cold sunlight
It seem’d, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.

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 bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef :
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.

And still too mazed to speak,
We landed; and made fast the boat;
And climb’d 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 seem’d 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-blister’d lighthouse door,
That gaped for us ajar.

As, on the threshold, for a spell,
We paused, we seem’d to breathe the smell
Of limewash and of tar,
Familiar as our daily breath,
As though ’twere 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 pass’d
Into the living-room.

Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table, spread
For dinner, meat and cheese and bread;
But all untouch’d; 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 on the table-head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
We listen’d; but we only heard
The feeble chirping 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 ransack’d 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 frighten’d 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 untouch’d meal,
And an overtoppled chair.

And, as we listen’d in the gloom
Of that forsaken living-room —
O 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
Of the three we sought,
And of what might yet befall.

Like curs a glance has brought to heel,
We listen’d, flinching there:
And look’d, and look’d, on the untouch’d 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.

— Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

19A
This picture might seem arbitrary, but it isn’t (entirely). The best guess for what happened to the men on Flannan Isle in 1900 is that they were taken into the ocean by a freak wave. Hence : beware of sneaker waves! (And yes, that’s me, at age 19. Photo credit to my mother.)

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