If you’ve 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.
The poet Ford Madox Ford also noticed the rhythm of poetry with the rhythm of the train journey but he saw the connection as a bad thing. He described the poetry recitals was forced to listen to as a child as torturesome: 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.
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!