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Wilfred Owen At Shadwell Stair

December 11, 2014
by the gentle author

When I published my pictures of Wapping Stairs this week, a reader reminded me of Wilfred Owen’s enigmatic poem of 1918, Shadwell Stair, sending me back to the river to take this photograph for you

.
Shadwell 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.
.
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.
.

Wilfred Owen (1893 -1918)

Shadwell Stair in 1937

Shadwell Church

The Prospect of Whitby

Shadwell Church seen from the entrance to Shadwell Basin

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. December 11, 2014

    I love Wilfred Owen.
    Thanks reader and GA for a lovely pause in the morning before it all starts :)

  2. December 11, 2014

    Who is the other ghost?

  3. December 11, 2014

    Wonderful poem, and lovely to see more photos of my childhood playgrounds! Valerie

  4. Zena Sullivan permalink
    December 11, 2014

    Some great pictures – love the 1st & last two!

  5. Jill permalink
    December 11, 2014

    Thank you GA and reader for opening up another door. The Wilfred Owen Association website has an interesting analysis of the poem, including some insight to Owen’s preference for the East End over the West End.

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    December 11, 2014

    Thank you gentle author for yet more evocative photos.

  7. Roger Carr permalink
    December 11, 2014

    The Shadwell Basin Bridge – another lovely piece of industrial architecture. If only modern public art could be as impressive as this.

  8. Richard permalink
    December 12, 2014

    Caroline the other ghost must be another dead soldier as he seems to be talking about being at the front as well as at Shadwell, in the poem.

  9. July 19, 2015

    The other ghost was a ‘renter’; a homosexual rent-boy.
    Owen’s nickname in the army (as he reported in his ‘Collected Letters’, Letter 661, p. 579.) was ‘the Ghost’.

    ‘Haunting’ was the word used in Owen’s time to describe what today is termed ‘cruising’ in gay parlance.

  10. Inga-Stina Westman permalink
    July 30, 2015

    “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” One of my fav lines ever in poetry. And put into music by Britten in his “War Requiem.” (written before his death. As though he predicted his own death in the battlefield.) (yes his ghost didn´t write it.) :o )

  11. Roland Wilbraham Turner permalink
    November 6, 2017

    It seems that people were keen to gloss over what I think is the truth behind Owen’s poem, Shadwell Stair. There’s ample evidence that Shadwell Stair, near the Rotherhithe Tunnel, was in the early 1900s, a well-known gay cruising area (or in the vernacular of the day, a “haunting” area). Hence, I think, the references to ghosts and shadows. But Owen states that, though a walking shadow on the stairs, he is yet flesh “both firm and cool.” I believe that the key to Owen’s real intent in the poem is in the final line: “I with another ghost am lain.” I infer that Owen has lingered on the stairs until, as dawn breaks, he connects with another man and has sex. Some speculate that this other “ghost” is a rent boy, but there’s no evidence in the poem to suggest that.

    The efforts over the years to minimize, or even ignore, Owen’s homosexuality, does a disservice to the poet. We understand his poetry best when we understand the man.

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