In the 1800s it was not uncommon for a book to include a poem written by someone else, with no credit given to the poem’s author. In the course of adapting Little Lou’s Sayings and Doings by Elizabeth Prentiss (1818-1878),[see it here] I attempted to footnote the source of the poem Mr. Nobody. Most people have attributed Mr. Nobody to “Anonymous”, and a few sources credit Walter de la Mare. I have concluded that Elizabeth Prentiss is the author of this poem. For those not familiar with this author, Elizabeth Prentiss wrote numerous children’s and adult books, including the ever-popular Stepping Heavenward.
Little Lou’s Sayings and Doings by Prentiss was published in 1868 by Hurd & Houghton, NY. I have included photographs below of the book’s publication date and of the page containing the poem Mr. Nobody. During my research I could not find a printed version of Mr. Nobody that predated 1868. If you have any evidence to the contrary please contact me and I will correct this site immediately!
Many people have sought the source of this charming poem on the Internet, and numerous people have given valuable input to help track it down. The following links are some of the most helpful I have found:
According to Jim Dixon on this website http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=10073, the poem Mr. Nobody was published in Willson’s Intermediate Fifth Reader by Marcius Willson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1870). You can confirm this information through his link to Google Books.
According to Ilza on this website http://www.emule.com/2poetry/phorum/read.php?7,153292, Mr. Nobody was published in The Massillon Independent newspaper on Wednesday, June 09, 1869 in Massillon, Ohio. I have not confirmed this publication, but Little Lou’s Sayings and Doings by Elizabeth Prentiss still predates this publication.
Walter de la Mare has been given credit for the poem on a few websites. However, Walter was born in 1873, which is 5 years after the publication of Little Lou, and also after both of the above sources, so it’s impossible for him to have written any part of it.
Other books attribute Mr. Nobody to the Riverside Magazine, but do not give the actual author or date of that publication. The Riverside Magazine for Young People was published by Hurd & Houghton, New York, NY, from January 1867 to December 1870.
Hurd & Houghton printed a compilation of the magazine in a single hardcover volume each year. Mr. Nobody was published in the compilation, and I have included a photograph of the title page from my original “Volume 2” compilation for 1868. This volume contains the earliest publication of Mr. Nobody. But the poem itself and the author are not listed in the Table of Contents, which I must conclude was an oversight on the part of the publisher or printer, hence the lack of acknowledgment to anyone as its author.
Little Lou’s Sayings and Doings by Elizabeth Prentiss was published the same year, also by Hurd & Houghton, and contained the poem Mr. Nobody. The Riverside Magazine for Young People included chapters from Little Lou’s Sayings and Doings, and the Table of Contents correctly lists Elizabeth Prentiss as the author.
Additonally, I believe that Elizabeth Prentiss penned this well-loved and oft studied poem because she was a clever author of little rhyming stories for children, full of common sense, wisdom, religion and humor. She began writing for a magazine, “The Youth’s Companion”, at around age 16 and continued to write books and poetry throughout her life. Often during family play with her children and friends, she invented impromptu poems that kept everybody laughing. Her poetry followed a structured style with ending rhymes and repetition. Some early poetry examples from her Youth’s Companion contributions are presented below:
Oh! out in the woods and among the trees,
Dear friend, have you ever seen
The little, delicate, bell-shaped flowers
That grow on the winter green?
I have eaten the berries many a time
When I was a little child,
And gathered young leaves when early spring
Came forth with its whisper mild.
But ‘twas only a little while ago
That I happened to find one day,
Under the leaves, and quite out of sight,
Some blossoms hiding away.
I loved them then, and I love them now,
For their beauty and their grace;
For the humble spirit that made them choose
To bloom in a lowly place.
And I could not help but think a thought,
What if we were never known
By boasts, and resolves, and promises,
But by good ripe fruit alone?
~From Only a Dandelion and Other Stories
Is it Right?
Once I thought it quite a task,
Every day and every night,
Frequently to stop to ask
My own conscience—Is it right?
It was just the same to me
As to wear a heavy chain;
When I wanted to get free,
This would drag me back again.
And at first, I hardly tried,
I so hated to be good;
I was full of foolish pride;
Loved not what I knew I should.
With my wicked heart, I knew
I should often have to fight,
If I nothing dared to do
Without asking—Is it right?
But when afterwards I heard
How the Savior chose to die,
Leaving many a precious word
For poor sinners, such as I;
When I of those children read
Venturing the Lord to see,
How he blessed them, how he said
“Suffer (allow) them to come to me.”
Then I thought that I would never
Such a blessed Savior leave,
And I could not now, if ever,
Willingly his kindness grieve.
For this reason, it at present
Is my hourly delight,
Rather than a task unpleasant,
Always asking – Is it right?
~From Only a Dandelion and Other Stories
In conclusion, I believe that since Mr. Nobody was first printed in Prentiss’s book and in Riverside Magazine the same year, by the same publishers, and the style and the content are similar, we can definitively attribute this poem to Elizabeth Prentiss instead of the usual “anonymous”. If you have information to dispute this, such as an earlier publication of the poem than 1868, I would be grateful to hear from you. Please comment below or use the email form here.
Below is a fun riddle poem from March 1873, which Prentiss (age 55) wrote for her friend. Can you guess the answer to the riddle?
A hand I am not, yet have fingers five;
Alive I am not, yet was once alive.
Am found in every house and by the dozen,
And am of flesh and blood a sort of cousin.
Now cut my head off. See what I become!
No longer am I lifeless, dead, and dumb.
I am the very sweetest thing on earth;
Royal in power and of royal birth.
I in the palace reign and in the cot—
There is no place where man is and I’m not.
I am too costly to be bought and sold;
I cannot be enticed by piles of gold.
And yet I am so lowly that a smile
Can woo and win me—and so free from guile,
That I look forth from many a gentle face
In tenderness and truthfulness and grace.
Say, do you know me? Have you known my reign?
My joy, my rapture, and my silent pain?
Beneath your pillow have I roses placed—
Your heart’s glad festival have I not graced?
Ah me! To mother, lover, husband, wife
I am the oil and I the wine of life.
With you, my dear, I have been hand and glove.
Shall I return the first and keep the Love?
Prentiss sent this poem to her friend with a leather glove she was returning to her. Did you guess the answer? The innovation of Prentiss was in creating a riddle with two answers. In the first part of this poem she is describing a glove. When the speaking glove says, “cut my head off” Prentiss is referring to removing the g from the word so it now says love, which is, of course, the answer to the remainder of the riddle.
For those who are unfamiliar with this poem, here it is!
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 our books,
Who leaves the doors 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 doors
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!
See our version of Little Lou’s Sayings and Doings here.
Illustration for Mr. Nobody in The Golden Book of Poetry, illustrated by Gertrude Elliott