If you’ve ever read a Thomas the Train Engine story, you might have noticed that the trains tend to speak in a particular rhythm. “I’m going to burst! I’m going to burst!” cries Thomas when his boiler is plugged with fish. “I hope it’s all right, I hope it’s all right,” Annie and Clarabelle (the train cars) whisper to each other. There’s a rhythm to the train cars speech that resemble the sounds of the train wheels jostling over the tracks. The stories are of course in prose but well written prose often contain elements of poetry.
Thomas the Train Engine’s original author, Revered Wilbert Awdry, isn’t the only writer to notice the poetry of the train’s rhythm. The poet Ford Madox Ford saw the connection as a bad thing. He described the poetry recitals was forced to listen to as a child as torturous: monotonous, polysyllabic, unchanging rhythms,
And it went on and on – and on! A long, rolling stream, of words no-one would ever use, to endless in which rhymes went unmeaningly by like the telegraph posts, every fifty yards of a railway journey.
I decided to share a collection of train poems with my kids as part of a discussion about the industrial revolution and because trains are just a fun topic to play with. Here are the links to where I found the poems online, but you can also download the version I put together with all but Auden’s poem.
- From a Railway Carriage” by Robert Lewis Stevenson
- Wordsworth and an opponent argue in poetry about the railway.
- Dickinson’s Poem about the railway
- “The Egg and the Machine” by Robert Frost
- “Night Mail” by W.H. Auden
“Night Mail” and “From a Railway Carriage” have a similar meter and both resemble the chugging sound of a train passing. After reading them both separately I read lines from each interspersed together to show my kids the similar sounds.
“From a Railway Carriage” and “The Egg and the Machine” make a good contrast for talking about the experience of the train from inside compared to outside. “From a Railway Carriage” talks about the view outside flitting past:
“And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!”
“The Egg and the Machine” is from the point of view of a man standing as the train passes.
Then for a moment all there was was size
Confusion and a roar that drowned the cries
He raised against the gods in the machine.
Then once again the sandbank lay serene.
Wordsworth and his opponent arguing about benefit and hindrance of the train provide an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons the trains. How did it change life? How did it fit with the industrial revolution? The arguments they bring up are applicable to other modern situations. The subdividing of lakeside land or the building of a new resorts will allow more “town-cramp’d soul[s]” to have access to the beauty of nature but will also disturb the serenity of those already there. One thing missing from both poems is the knowledge of environmental damage to be caused. The engineer’s description of the train companies paying for the land they take creates an interesting contrast with the land that is being expropriated for oil pipelines these days, since the pipelines with their risk of leaks do not increase the value of the remaining land.
If from “paternal fields” we take a part,
We pay most handsomely by way of smart;
We give a double value for the slice,
And make the remnant worth a double price.
Train poems contain so much to discuss!
Originally published March 27, 2014. Updated April 30, 2020.