To A Shade: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      In the First Stanza, the poet addresses the ghost of Parnell which has revisited Dublin and asks it not to stay on because the people who had betrayed him before his death were still at their old tricks. A monument had been erected in the memory of Parnell around this time. Yeats’s bitterness against the Irish people’s betrayal of Parnell is expressed very well in the line, “I wonder if the builder has been paid.” At the same time Yeats insists that Dublin has its own charms and that Parnell loved Dublin so well that his spirit was bound to visit the place and feel happier by drinking of that salt breath of the sea. Evening is the time, Yeats says when grey gulls flit about instead of man and the gaunt houses put on majesty. These lines are a tribute to the beauty of a Dublin evening when the saltish breeze blows from the sea, grey gulls (a bird) keep flying around and houses which are otherwise gaunt, look majestic.

      In the Second Stanza, Yeats refers to the Hugh lane controversy. Calling Parnell a man of passionate serving kind, Yeats reserves the highest praise for the gift. Hugh Lane proposed to give to Dublin in the form of a collection of French paintings if a proper art gallery could be provided for them. The influence of these painting, Yeats says would have been so healthy for the people of Dublin (had they only known) that this would have given their children’s children loftier thought, “Sweeter emotion, working in their veins like gentle blood.” In other words, the influence of these paintings would have had a very healthy affect on whole generations of Dubliners. This would have made their thoughts loftier and their emotion sweeter. Instead of acknowledging the importance of the gift, Hugh Lane was giving to Dublin, he had been driven from the place. For his open handedness, disgrace had been heaped on him and for his pains, he had been showered with insult. A whole pack of barking dogs had been set upon Hugh Lane by ‘an old foul mouth’—the newspaper owner William Murphy whom Yeats calls Parnell’s enemy also. This stanza tries to tell Parnell that Ireland has learned nothing from its mistakes in Parnell’s case. Things being what they are (as Hugh Lane’s case very well illustrates) this is no time for Parnell’s ghost to return.

      The Third Stanza begins with an appeal to the ghost of Parnell who is seen as an unquiet wanderer and Yeats asks the ghost to go back to Glasnevin the cemetery in north Dublin where Parnell was buried on October 11, 1891. Yeats asks the ghost to gather the cover provided by the earth at Glasnevin around its head and go on doing so till the dust stops its ear. The most poignant part of the poem come with the lines: “The time for you to, taste of that salt breath. And listen at the comers has not come.” These lines are an attack on the Irish people and a reminder to Parnell that things are still what they were before his death. The poem ends by telling Parnell’s ghost that a safe place for its is in the tomb only and as Parnell had enough of sorrow before death, his ghost need not come back to a Dublin whose people are ‘at their old tricks yet.’


      L. 1. Revisited—visited again; visited a second time. L. 1. Thin shade—ghost of the Irish revolutionary (Parnell). L. 2. Monument— memorial. L. 5. Salt breath salt-laden breeze (which blows from the sea). L. 6. Grey gulls—a type of sea-bird which is grey in color. L. 6. Flit about—to make short flights. L. 7. Gaunt houses—Id and tottering (falling) houses. L. 7. Put on majesty—look grand and majestic. L. 8. Content you—make you satisfied. L. 11. A man serving kind—Hugh Lane, the nephew of Lady Gregory, like Parnell, was a person full of passion for service. L. 13. Loftier thought sublime thoughts; thoughts of a higher order. L. 16. Heaped—piled. L. 16. Upon him—upon Hugh Lane. L. 16. For his pains—for his efforts. L. 19. Pack—mob. L. 20. Unquiet wander the ghost of Parnell—an Irish revolutionary.

Explanation: L. 19-25

      Go, unquiet wanderer, You are safer in the tomb—The lines in question are from the poem To A Shade by W.B. Yeats. This poem is a powerful comment on the state of affairs in Ireland, of Yeats’s times. The lines are addressed to the ghost of Parnell who was one of the greatest political figures of those days. Having told Parnell’s ghost that the Irish people are still at their old trick and having given the example of Hugh Lane to prove the ingratitude of Dubliners, Yeats, in these lines, tells Parnell’s ghost: “You restless wanderer, it is better if you do not stay on. You will be much safer in your tomb because this is just not the right time for you to revisit Dublin. You had enough of sorrow before you died and you will only be adding to your sorrow by staying on. You would have very much liked to taste the saltish breeze of the Dublin sea and to listen at the comers. But this is not the right time for that. The best things for you would be to go back to the cemetery at Glasnevin (the cemetery where Parnell was buried). Having gone back to your grave you would do well to cover your ears with dust and your head with the cover provided by the grass there so that you do not hear what the ungrateful Dubliners may be saying all this while.”

Critical Comments

      These lines form a befitting conclusion to this moving and very-effective poem about the state of affairs in the Ireland of Yeats’s time. Not only are these lines remarkable for the thrust and profundity of their comment on contemporary Ireland, but they are also remarkable for their mixture of pathos and exhortation. At the same time, the lines are a reflection of Yeats’s genuine feelings about the whole thing.

Critical Analysis


      To A Shade is published in the volume Responsibilities. It is written in 1913. It is one of Yeats’s most effective political poems and gives expression to Yeats’s disgust with the way the Irish people treated Parnell. Parnell’s betrayal had become the talk of the whole of Ireland around this time.

      Another incident to which Yeats makes a reference in the second stanza of the poem concerned Hugh Lane who was Lady Gregory’s nephew. Being an art dealer, Hugh Lane whom Yeats liked greatly, had brought together a very good collection of French paintings. He had enthusiastically offered the large part of his collection. Thus, Dublin was provided with a good permanent gallery of modern art. As a controversy developed the Dublin nationalists started, attacking first Hugh Lane and then the paintings themselves.

      It was during this controversy that Yeats had written another poem called To A Wealthy Man who promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were proved the People wanted Pictures. The newspaper owner William Murphy who is referred to in the poem as ‘an old foul mouth’ thought that Yeats’ attack was directed against him. So he began a campaign of abuse against Hugh Lane, the pictures themselves and Yeats as well.

Development of Thought

Stanza I

      If you have revisited the town, ghost of Pamell (Shade), whether it is due to the desire to look upon your monument whose builder may not necessarily have been paid for his pains, or (in a better and happier frame of mind) due to a desire, at the close of day, to taste once again the salty breath coming from the sea at a time when instead of men, grey-colored sea-gulls (a bird) keep flitting about (flying around the gaunt, houses which look majestic for while), If at all you come to pay another visit to the town (Dublin) be satisfied only with these sights and tastes and go back again to your grave. Do not try to revisit the people of the town because they have not yet given up their old tricks, the tricks which were responsible for frustrating not only you (Pamell) but Hugh Lane also.

Stanza II

      Hugh Lane, the nephew of Lady Gregory was another person, who like you was of a passionate and serving nature. He had intended to make to the Dubliners a gift. The Dubliners had acknowledged its (the gift’s) worth and accepted it, which would have given to a whole generation of the Dubliners loftier (more sublime) thoughts and sweeter emotions. The gift was a collection of French painting which Hugh Lane wanted to give to Dubliners if only they could construct a proper gallery to house them. This gift would have worked in the veins of the coming generations of Dubliners like gentle blood due to the artistic and aesthetic influence it would have on the viewer. What Hugh Lane has been given instead of honor for his offer is that they (the Dubliners) have heaped insult upon him for the pains he took for them. All he had got from the Dubliners instead of his generosity (open-handedness) is disgrace. The insult heaped upon Hugh Lane came mainly from a group of people (here compared to a pack of hounds) who were incited by the newspaper owner William Murphy. He was an enemy of Parnell earlier. William Murphy is called ‘an old foul mouth’ due to the abuses he had hurled, earlier at Parnell, Synge and others.

Stanza III

      You unquiet wandering soul (Parnell) it is better for you to go back to your grave because you are safer there in the tomb. Go and. gather the cover provided by the dust at the Glasnevin cemetery around your head. Go on doing this till dust stops your ear. As it is you had enough of sorrows during your life-time itself Why do you want to taste all that bitterness again. Time is not yet ripe for you to taste the saltish breeze coming from the sea or to listen at the comers. All this is because the people who caused you sorrow before you died are still at their old tricks even after your death and Hugh Lane’s case is an example of this. So go back to your grave.


      The style of the poem is such that it blends formalism with a colloquial tone and rhetoric is used to help the political comment in the poem. The remarkable thing about the imagery of the poem is that it is very evocative yet it is quite economical at the same time, There is also a subtlety and sophistication about the poem. The juxtaposition between the deformity of the people who hounded Parnell and Hugh Lane and the beauty of Dublin which constantly serves as the background of the poem, also serves to add to the effect of the poem. Above all, the poignancy and the sorrow both of the poet and that of Pamell and Hugh Lane is vividly expressed.

Critical Opinion

      In both his ‘poetry and experience’ the famous critic Archibald Macleish says about To A Shade: “To A Shade is an action on the great stage of national politics. It is addressed to Pamell, the Irish leader of the 1880’s who was the hero of Yeats’s youth before the reactionaries of church and business bought him down with the despicable slanders which were the political weapons in Ireland at that time. Dublin with its monument and its unpaid builder and its gaunt houses and the glorious gulls, is a Dublin where a man could walk around and the dead passions here exhumed are passions that have life in them still and the blow struck at Parnell’s enemy who is now Hugh Lane’s too, is a real blow which hurt and which will go on hurting as the old foul mouth is remembered—which may well be as long as this poem is read—which may well be a long time indeed.


      To A Shade, thus is a powerful poetic comment on the treatment given to its political and cultural leaders by the Irish people in general and by Dubliners in particular. The main sources of the poem’s strength are first the parallel drawn by Yeats between Parnell and Hugh Lane and secondly, the tone of the poem. Beginning with an address to the ghost of Parnell the poet takes up the treatment given by the Dubliners to Hugh Lane in the second stanza and comes back to Parnell in the third stanza. The poem thus, comes to have a special roundedness and circularity which adds to the appeal of the poem.

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