‘To A Shade’ by William Butler Yeats is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first contains nine, the second, ten, and the third, seven. The lines follow a rhyme scheme that alternates in its structure and consistency. The first set of lines conforms to a pattern of ababcdcde and then the second and third stanzas are slightly different. The second includes a number of half-rhymes, such as that between “man” and “known.” Otherwise, the lines rhyme similarly. By the time a reader gets to the third stanza the lines are almost completely made up of slant or half-rhymes. Specific examples include lines one and three and lines five and seven.
The stanzas also conform, mostly, to a metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. This means that a great number of the lines contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. A perfect example is the first stanza in which almost all of the lines stick to this pattern.
The poem was published in the collection Responsibilities and Other Poems in 1914. It is among Yeats’ most political pieces. The work expresses a speaker’s, likely Yeats’ own, dislike for how the politician Charles Stewart Parnell was treated by the public. He was the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and was widely known in Ireland at the time.
Summary of To A Shade
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the ghost of Charles Parnell. He returned to the earth and the speaker is not sure why. It might be to see his monument or to simply breathe in the air of the sea. Either way, Yeats is worried that he will again be subject to the abuse he suffered before his death. He became very unpopular with the public and they’re still angry.
In the next set of lines the speaker goes on to address the way the public treated Hugh Lane, an art dealer. This man sought to bring some of his paintings to Dublin, but was rejected. Yeats sees this action, and those taken against Parnell as being similarly self-destructive. The poem concludes with the speaker returning to Parnell and informing him that he might be better off returning to his grave than wandering the earth any longer.
Read more poetry from William Butler Yeats.
Analysis of To A Shade
If you have revisited the town, thin Shade,
Whether to look upon your monument
(I wonder if the builder has been paid)
Or happier-thoughted when the day is spent
To drink of that salt breath out of the sea
When grey gulls flit about instead of men,
And the gaunt houses put on majesty:
Let these content you and be gone again;
For they are at their old tricks yet.
In the first stanza of ‘To A Shade,’ the speaker begins by addressing his listener, the ghost of the politician Charles Stewart Parnell. He wonders over the reason for the ghost’s arrival. He thinks that possibly it is because he wants to look upon his own “monument” or to “drink of that salt breath out of the sea.” The speaker sees these as being equally reasonable options, although the second would be better. It is also important to note the relaxed tone of his speech. His mind moves to the builder of the monument (and whether or not he was paid) in the middle of another thought.
He paints an image of the sea that Parnell might want to see. There would be “grey gulls” flying around in the sky. They would be the most interesting, fastest, and most numerous creatures around, with no men in sight. Additionally, he adds that the “gaunt houses” by the sea, those that normally appear as sickly and dilapidated, seem to give out “majesty.” The world is aligned to perfection.
In the last lines of this first stanza, the speaker warns Parnell that he should stick to the sea and the monument. The people are not worth visiting. They are still “at their old tricks.” This is a reference to the way in which the people stymied his efforts to reform the country’s land laws.
Yeats saw the actions of the public as a betrayal of their own best interests and of the man who was willing to fight for them.
Of your own passionate serving kind who had brought
In his full hands what, had they only known,
Had given their children’s children loftier thought,
Sweeter emotion, working in their veins
Like gentle blood, has been driven from the place,
And insult heaped upon him for his pains,
And for his open-handedness, disgrace;
Your enemy, an old foul mouth, had set
The pack upon him.
In the second stanza, Yeats begins with a very short line of only two words, “A man.” This is a reference to another Irishman, Hugh Lane. Yeats speaks of him in the same way, using the word “man” in his work ‘To a Wealthy Man…’ He was an art dealer and collector and is best-known for establishing Dublin’s Municipal Gallery.
Yeats is comparing the efforts Lane made to improve the city to those which Parnell attempted. Both were repudiated by the public. Lane thought to bring some of his best paintings, by artists such as Manet and Degas, to Dublin. The city thought otherwise. The building to house them was going to cost a great deal of money and the public itself pushed back against the idea that foreign art was needed to improve Ireland.
The poet speaks on how the works Lane sought to bring to Dublin would have bettered the city. They would have “given” the children of the city “loftier thought” and created “Sweeter emotion” in their veins. These are human characteristics the speaker saw has having been driven from the city.
Rather than appreciate Lane for his efforts, there were “insult[s] heaped upon him for his pains.” He was being “open-handed…” and was met with “disgrace.” The speaker sees the actions of the public as shameful, but only what could be expected at this time. The way Lane was treated is more than comparable to the treatment of Parnell.
Go, unquiet wanderer,
And gather the Glasnevin coverlet
About your head till the dust stops your ear,
The time for you to taste of that Salt breath
And listen at the corners has not come;
You had enough of sorrow before death —
Away, away! You are safer in the tomb.
In the third set of lines, the speaker returns to addressing Charles Stewart Parnell. He tells the man, who a reader must remember has returned to the earth as a “shade” or ghost, to “Go.” He is now but a “wanderer.” The speaker also asks the ghost to take with him his “Glasnevin coverlet.” He is referring to the cemetery in which Parnell was buried in the north of Dublin. Yeats wrote another poem, ‘Mourn, and then Onward’ to mark the death of Parnell at the time. Parnell should go back to the dirt in which he was buried until the “dust stops” his ear.
The speaker believes that Parnell will be safer and less sorrowful beneath the earth than above it where the public can still offend him.