To a Shade by W. B. Yeats

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.

A man
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.

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.


The opening stanza of the poem is addressed to the ghost of Parnell who is imagined as revisiting the town of Dublin with a yearning to look upon the monument that has been erected in Parnell’s honour or to see the ghostly splendour of eighteenth century houses along the quays. Yeats urges the ghost of Parnell not to linger on in Dublin, even though the occasion of his visit be the fact that a monument has been erected in his honour because the people of the town who had betrayed him before his death are still ‘at their old tricks.’ The poet’s bitterness against the Irish people is expressed very well as he wondered that the builder of Parnell’s monument may not necessarily have been paid for his pains. Perhaps, the ghost has revisited the town, insists Yeats, because of its own charms. In fact,Parnell loved Dublin so well that his spirit was bound to visit the place and feel happier due to a desire to taste once again the beauty of a Dublin evening when the saltish breeze blows from the sea, grey-gulls keeps flying around, and houses, which are otherwise old and haggard, wear a majestic look fora while. Parnell’s ghost is advised to leave the place and if it at all comes to pay another visit to Dublin,it should be satisfied with these tastes and sights and then go back to the grave because the people of the town have not yet given up ‘their old tricks’ which were responsible for causing frustration to Parnell.

The second stanza pays a tribute to Hugh Lane who was a man of passionate revolutionary zeal and emotional fervour equivalent of Parnell. Here, Yeats, referring to Hugh Lane controversy,reserves the highest praise for Lane who proposed to bring for the people of Dublin a gift in the form of a collection of French paintings if a proper art gallery could be provided for them. Had the Dubliners acknowledged its worth and accepted it, it would have influenced their children with impressive thought sand sublime emotions for generations. But instead of acknowledging the importance of such a gift and the artistic and aesthetic influence it would have exercised upon their children, insult was heaped upon Hugh Lane, ‘for his pains’ and disgrace ‘for his openhandedness.’ Rather than honouring him for his generous and genuine offer, abuses were hurled upon him by Dubliners. They came from a group of people who were incited by the newspaper-owner William Murphy, who was an enemy of Parnell earlier. The ideal of service is spurned by these men and a man who brings benefits is, like Parnell,‘driven from the place.’ The stanza rises to passionate scorn and links Parnell and Lane; Yeats reminds Parnell’s ghost that Ireland has learnt nothing from its mistakes in Parnell’s case; things are as they have always been and thus quite unsuitable for a man of Parnell’s kind is no time for Parnell’s ghost to return.

Having given the example of Hugh Lane to prove the ingratitude of Dubliners, the last stanza sounds off the opening image of Parnell’s memory with an appeal to the ghost of Parnell to return to its grave in the Glasnevin cemetery in north Dublin where Parnell was buried. Yeats asks the ghost to gather the cover provided by the earth around its head ‘till the dust stops your ear’ so that it may not hear what the ungrateful Dubliners would be saying all this while. The ghost, indeed, need not stay on because Parnell had already suffered enough of sorrow before he dies. The most poignant part of the poem comes when the poet catches up the image of Dublin’s beauty by saying that the time has not arrived for him ‘to taste of that salt breath/ And listen at the corners.’ The poem ends with a satiric thrust that Parnell is safer in the tomb than in Dublin which has heaped insult upon him as well as Lane.The stanza is remarkable for its ironic comment on the attitude of contemporary Irish society and becomes effective for its mixture of pathos and exhortation.


To a Shade is a poem which intermixes formal with colloquial rhetoric with remark; its imagery is economical as well as evocative. The beauty of Dublin stands as a contrasting image against the ugliness of ‘the pack,’ it shows how Yeats came to regard mob force as a negative influence. At the same time, the ‘old tricks’ echo through the ‘old foul mouth.’

A critic says that, ‘the aristocratic ideal of unselfish service is sketched in passionately yet entirely unsentimentally: its demands are passion, fullhands, pains; it rewards may be disgrace and sorrow. The sorrow is, ultimately, the poet’s as well as that of Lane and Parnell, but the real disgrace is Dublin’s.’

Yeats’s discontent with Irish politicians was founded on the opinion that they espoused hollow reason and practised hypocrisy. The public controversies that stirred Yeats’s imagination in his middle years roused him to wage a personal attack on the middle class in Ireland. They had destroyed Parnell and later Synge.

Yeats’s defence of Parnell, Synge and Hugh Lane – personally and through his voice as poet – contrasts his middle with his earlier period.In taking such a stand he sought to unify and strengthen his own personal ideal of Ireland that any national pride should be deep-rooted in the culture, tradition and history of the Irish nation itself.

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