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.
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.
Shuddering a purple street-arc burns,
Where I watch always. From the banks
Dolorously the shipping clanks.
And after me a strange tide turns.
I walk ‘till the stars of London wane,
And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
But when the crowing sirens blare,
I with another ghost am lain.
This poem was first drafted at Scarborough between January and February 1918, then in July or August it was revised just prior to Owen’s tragic death. If you walk down to the Thames, near Shadwell Basin, the stairs can still be found, leading down from the docks to the Pool of London. Forgotten now by most they are still the haunt of Mudlarks who can be seen retrieving London’s detritus when the tide is low.
The ‘Pool’ of London referred to in the poem as it would have appeared to Owen
The beauty of poetry is that it can often be read on many levels with the meaning belonging to the individual who decides to engage with the verse. For me Owen’s ‘ghost’ is not some spectral presence drifting ethereally above the Stairs, or haunting the shadowy passages that surrounded the docks at that time.
Although there would of course be many reasons to write of a ghost at Shadwell Basin given its history of murder, intrigue and accidental death. A quick glance at the newspapers of the 19th century reveals tales of gruesome murders and tragic deaths. Dragging bodies from the dirty waters of the Shadwell Basin was probably a regular occurrence in Dickensian London just as it was at Tower Bridge just a short distance away.
The Ghost of Shadwell Stair has a striking resemblance to the famous Oscar Wilde poem – ‘Impression du Matin’ – almost as if it is a further exploration of the “pale woman all alone” with “lips of flame and heart of stone” and the ghost could perhaps be Wilde’s prostitute.
But one pale woman all alone,
The daylight kissing her wan hair,
Loitered beneath the gas lamps’ flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.
But we have to ask the question as to whether or not Owen’s shade was indeed a prostitute or if the use of the first person indicates that the entire poem is instead an abstract reflection of his own sexuality or even a description of a homosexual liaison driven to take place in London’s shadowy alleyways. You will have your own views on this I am sure. There is a little-known and stumbling stanza that was deleted from later versions of this poem – it reads as follows and was meant to be the third in the original draft after ‘Pool’:
And I have lips that are fresh o’ night,
And ways like the river mists, and hands
Like the gradual tide upon the sands,
To feel and follow a man’s delight.
The final line is crossed out hesitantly on the manuscript and the flow of the verse is stilted almost as if Owen’s mind were somewhere else. He finally replaces the last line of this with “To feel what is wrong and smooth it right” but appears to have abandoned it in later versions. This part of the poem never appeared in Blunden’s celebrated collection and is missing also from Stallworthy’s definitive work.
It may be that Owen removed it because it was simply not up to his usual standard although ‘The Ghost’ is, in any case, a lesser poem that never fully realised its potential. Rather it is the back story that is so fascinating for there is no doubt but that Owen was gay although his brother Harold denied it vehemently, describing it as “sheer nonsense” when interviewed by the Times in August 1970 following the publication of “Owen Agonises” a paper attributed by the Times to “an American” as if that were enough to discredit the entire theory. When considered in context ‘The Ghost’ has a poignant beauty for me, especially relevant at a time when newspapers across the world are filled with homophobic rhetoric and oppressive nations are riding a tidal wave of blind hatred pushed to the degree of fervour by intolerant and ignorant people across the globe. The fact that Owen had to hide his feelings, like Wilde before him and countless others since is a sad reflection of humanity at its worst. What drives these individuals to persecute people for their love is quite beyond my understanding.
It is difficult now to imagine what Shadwell Dock looked like in Owen’s time “Along the wharves by the water-house, And through the cavernous slaughter-house” is very evocative of times when the slaughterhouses here discharged straight into the Thames. It was a place of noise and smell and hard physical work, brought to life in the poem by the clank of the shipping and the wail of the siren.
Other aspects of the poem are also open to interpretation – the ‘strange tide’ that turns after the Ghost could of course be a tide of men if we take the Ghost to be either Owen or a prostitute (male or female) but perhaps you have your own ideas?