‘Shadwell Stair’ by Wilfred Owen is a four stanza poem that it told from the perspective of a ghost. The stanzas of this piece each contain four lines and can be referred to as quatrains. Each set of lines follows an independent rhyme scheme of abba, alternating according to the poet’s word choices.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is in fact a ghost, and spends his nights walking the “wharves” and “slaughter-house” around Shadwell Stair. He considers himself to be “the shadow” that walks and lives there. He continues on to state that while he may be a ghost, he is not without physical form. He still feels things, and his skin is cold to the touch. Additionally, he says that his eyes are like the reflections of lights in the water of the Thames.
In the second half of the poem, the peaceful imagery has come to an end, and the speaker describes the turmoil he feels as night ends. He has walked until the stars are gone and conclude his wanderings by laying down beside another ghost.
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Analysis of Shadewell Stair
I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair.
Along the wharves by the water-house,
And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.
The poem begins with the speaker introducing himself in a quite unusual way. The first line informs the reader that the narrator of this piece is not alive, he is a “ghost.” This entity is conscious enough to have the ability to convey his personal story, as well as delve into the details of the places he currently inhabits.
He immediately tells the readers that he is from “Shadwell Stair.” If one is unaware, it becomes clear later in the poem, that this is an area of London. What is not made clear is the fact that “Shadwell Stair” was located in the London docks and was known for being the meeting place for homosexual liaisons. When provided with this background material the history of this person, whose life is never very well defined, becomes much deeper and more interesting.
The rest of the first stanza is used to describe the way that the narrator haunts the areas around the dock. He trails “Along the wharves” beside the “water-house” and even ventures into the “cavernous slaughter-house.” These locations are one in the same to him. As a ghost, he is only a “shadow” that moves from one place to another without constraint.
Yet I have flesh both firm and cool,
And eyes tumultuous as the gems
Of moons and lamps in the full Thames
When dusk sails wavering down the pool.
In the second stanza the speaker moves on to describe his own personal state of being and how his body is constructed. Contrary to the typical depictions of ghosts the speaker describes himself as having “flesh both firm and cool.” He appears to have a real, physical body that responds to the world the same as any other’s.
Additionally, he states that his eyes are like the “gems / Of moons and lamps” as they appear in the “Thames” at night. The “Thames” refers to the river that runs through central London and would be the body of water onto which this dock abuts. The speaker’s eyes are alive, they are not vacant or in anyway empty. In fact, they resemble the reflections of lights in the water; they are glowing.
Shuddering the purple street-arc burns
Where I watch always; from the banks
Dolorously the shipping clanks
And after me a strange tide turns.
In the third stanza the night is beginning to come to an end. The gentle feelings that proceeded this section of the poem have come to a close, and now the speaker is “Shuddering,” watching the “purple steet-arc burns.” The day is starting to dawn and the “banks” of the river are coming alive with “shipping clanks.”
It is clear that the speaker finds a peace in the night that he does not feel during the day. As soon as the sun rises, “a strange tide turns,” and it is time for him to move on from this place.
I walk till the stars of London wane
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the crowing syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.
The speaker concludes his narrative in the last stanza. In the final four lines he speaks on his nightly routine. The ghost’s life is filled with a deep loneliness that is easy to infer through his nighttime walks on the dock. He is alone, and wandering from place to place seemingly without any purpose. The only companions he has are the sounds that come from the dock, the workers who labor there, and finally, the reader is informed, another ghost “with” whom he is “lain” at the conclusion of the poem.
While it remains unclear who these ghosts are, or why exactly he is wandering this particular part of London, one can speculate that the speaker is seeking something in death that he could not find in life. When considering the background of the poet, Wilfred Owen, his sexuality, and his time serving in the military, it is possible to conclude that this laying down that occurs in the last lines refers to his feared death while in battle.
Owen served during WWI and would have faced the possibility of death on a daily basis. This is supported by the sounds of the “syrens,” or sirens, that could signal an impending attack.Contrastingly, it could also refer to his own homosexuality and desire for a relationship that was not deemed morally acceptable, or legal, while he was alive.
About Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen was born in March of 1893 in Oswestry, Shropshire. His family was of Welsh descent and he grew up, one of four children, in various homes in Wales. When he was a young man he attended the Birkenhead Institute from 1900 to 1907. He later graduated from Shrewsbury Technical School at the age of 18.
Owen was unable to attend the university of his choosing, and instead entered into the church as an unpaid lay assistant. It was in this role that he developed his humanitarian beliefs and began to write poetry. In 1913 he was forced to return home due to a respiratory infection. After his recovery he spent time teaching and tutoring in France.
By October of 1915 he had enlisted in the military and a year later, left for France with the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was wounded in combat and evacuated to a war hospital. Owen was diagnosed with shell shock. It was during this time that he wrote some of his most important work.
He would rejoin the fight in June of 1918 and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. Owens was killed later that year at the age of 25. Today, Wilfred Owen is considered one of the greatest poets of World War I.