We know that it was drafted early in 1918 and revised during the following summer. What we don't know for certain is its meaning, for its message is cryptic, bound up with Wilfred's sexuality and his association with gay literary figures such as Robert Ross and Charles Scott Moncrieff who, along with Sassoon, were doing much to forward Wilfred's career as a poet. Fortunately, if meaning is obscure, other elements within it are not.
Forget the nature and identity of the two ghosts who haunt Shadwell Stair in London's dock area. They are anonymous and irrelevant. What is more important is the sensory impression we get of that particular area.
In stanza 1, those 'wharves by the water-house' lead us into a world of trading ships and adventure on the high seas. That the slaughter house should be 'cavernous' suggests not just immensity but terror. 'Water-house' … 'slaughter-house' may be rhymes of convenience but the coming together of the life-giving and the life-ending is grimly ironic.
Stanza 2. Firm cool flesh and tumultuous eyes. The appearance of ghost number one illustrates not just the ghost but also his surroundings through the second part of the simile:
'…..eyes tumultuous as/the gems
Of moons and lamps in the full Thames
When dusk sails wavering down the Pool.' (6-8)
Owen describes both the light on the water and the complementary movement of time and river current in what becomes a single effective metaphor.
Stanza3. The romantic vision continues. 'A purple street-arc' (9) contrasts with the moons and lamps, after which comes not a visual but a sound image:
'Dolorously the shipping clanks' (11)
The onomatopoeic 'clanks' reminds us that this is a world of heavy work; 'dolorously (doloroso)' a world often of sorrows, trials and suffering. The Thames is first and foremost a working river, and this is underlined in
Stanza 4. The stars may wane (13) and dawn creep up (14) which is pretty enough, but still
'….the crowing sirens blare' (15)
so balancing the fancy-led poetic language with a reminder of the fuller picture.
It is a concise and illuminating picture drawn by one who liked the East End of London and the dock area. The West End meant much less to Wilfred Owen. Only once does he venture into metaphorical language about the capital's more fashionable parts when he describes on 21 October 1915 Tavistock Square as 'wadded with fog; skeletons of dismal trees behind the palings; but the usual perversion of ghostly aristocracy.'
The following year (23 August 1916) he was writing:
'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.'
And what delight he shows in the famous passage of 11 June 1915 when he tells us he was seized with desire to return to the Mile End Road and Whitechapel, that 'tired of the West End' he craved the East End's ugliness. 'Ugliness! I never saw so much beauty…….'
Further west was for getting to be known in the right circles and helping along his ambitions, but London's soul was to be found elsewhere as Wilfred Owen poet was quick to recognise.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2007