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   Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)

                    Flannan Isle

    "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.
    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.

    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.

    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.


The above poem can be found, for example, in:
  • Gibson, Wilfrid Wilson. Fires. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912.

    The disappearance described in this poem is reported to have occured on December 15, 1900. Built in 1899, the lighthouse still stands 15 miles west of the Scottish, Isle of Lewis in the Atlantic. Part of poem is quoted in the Dr. Who episode Horror of Fang Rock (descriptions of which often contain the misspelling "Flannen"). It is also the inspiration for Hector Zazou's song Lighthouse that was performed by Siouxsie on the compilation Songs From the Cold Seas. The Genesis song The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse (on Archive 1967-75) and the opera The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies are also based on the incident.

    In attempts to locate information on Gibson, it should be noted that his first name is sometimes also spelled Wilfred.