Wilfred Owen is, for many (including myself) the greatest poet of the First World War. Memorable works such Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth are part of the GCSE syllabus; Owen himself features in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy alongside fellow poet and mentor Siegfried Sassoon and his life and work are the subject of important 20th century biography and criticism. However – how many know him as a poet of London? Of the East End; of the Thames; of life in the capital?
Born in Oswestry- the border country where Shropshire meets Wales- in 1893, Wilfred Owen was introduced to the fashionable London circle which included literary figures such as Robbie Ross and Charles Scott Moncrieff, who with Siegfried Sassoon, were doing much to promote his career as a poet. However, he had earlier expressed how he much preferred the reality of lives as experienced in the East End, around the docks, to the more fashionable areas where he would later mix with London literary life. In 1915 he described Tavistock Square as..
wadded with fog; skeletons of dismal trees behind the palings; but the usual perversion of ghostly aristocracy
Earlier that year he had written of how tired he was of the West End; his longing to visit Whitechapel and Mile End again, despite the usual view that by comparison their streets were hostile and ugly.
Ugliness! I never saw so much beauty…….
In a lyrical passage dated 1916 he wrote:
The dawn broke as I crossed the Bridge (Waterloo) and the Dome and the East End showed so purply against the orange infinite East that in my worship there was no more care of trains, adjutants or wars.
Shadwell Stairs and the Shadwell Basin lie within the heart of London’s Docklands, close to Wapping and the famous (or infamous) Prospect of Whitby public house and Execution Dock, so named because Judge Jeffries would apparently sentence prisoners to hang and watch their death throes as he enjoyed his Sunday pub meal. It is not a place one immediately associates with Owen. However, this poem, written in 1818 in Scarborough where his regiment the 5th Manchesters were stationed, is I think stunningly evocative of both the area and the mood of a man about to return to the trenches.
I am the Ghost of Shadwell Stair
Wilfred Owen 1918
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 the 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 syrens blare
I with another ghost am lain.
There is some debate over the meaning of the poem. Does it, as some suggest,refer to Owen’s troubled feelings about his homosexuality and represent an image of ‘cruising’ around the seedier areas of London looking for dangerous sexual encounters? Or is the main figure – the ‘ghost’ – a prostitute that links this work to that of Oscar Wilde in poems he admired, such as Impression du Matin?
Or perhaps the poem refers to the soldier, haunted by memories of the front – itself a ‘cavernous slaughterhouse’. Wraith-like he walks the streets, unable to sleep, until the stars of London wane/And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair and he is woken from his reverie only by the reminder of the Docks as a place of work as the ‘crowing sirens blare’?
For me it little matters that we have no definitive answer as to the poem’s meaning. Images in the second and third stanzas of the gem-like moon and lamps reflected in the dusky waters of the Thames and the reference back to his writing of the East End showing ‘purply’ in the ‘purple street-arc’ are so very lovely, that the mysterious identity of the second ghost simply adds to the overall atmosphere. Its setting is specific but its meaning is as hard to grasp as the wraiths it depicts, the two linked by the reality of the ‘clanks’ of the shipping and noisy sirens.
Although it is one of his lesser known poems, I feel that Wilfred Owen offers us London, the Thames and docklands, as possessing a real and ever -present wraith-like humanity and we are tracing and re-tracing its steps as we read. As John Keats (a poet Owen was greatly influenced by) would say, in following Owen the experience is ‘proved upon our pulses’….
For more information about Wilfred Owen and his work, and the work of other war poets, the following websites are useful: