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Walt Whitman’s View of Railroads: To a Locomotive in Winter

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Michael Sconzo

The following guest post is by Michael Sconzo, an intern from the University of Virginia in the Science, Technology, and Business Division. Using inspiration and access to the extensive collections of the Library Congress, Michael was asked to write posts on the theme of transportation for the Division’s Inside Adams blog. After reflection, he chose to write on the impact of transportation, in the form of the railroad, and views on it by preeminent poets of the time. This post originally appeared on Inside Adams, through which you can also explore Michael’s other posts on the topic: “Thoreau’s View of the Railroad” and “Thoreau’s View of the Railroad: Thoreau, the Railroad, and the Cost of Industrialization.”

Photograph of Walt Whitman, 1876, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.

“To a Locomotive in Winter” by Walt Whitman, published February 19, 1876 in the New York Daily Tribune

Thee for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance,

Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Photograph of the No. 119 in winter. National Park Service.

Walt Whitman (1819-92) is one of America’s most significant 19th century poets and is recognized for his free verse and for the praises of the body and soul that persist in his work. His poem “To a Locomotive in Winter” first appeared in print February 19, 1876 in the New York Daily Tribune as part of a preview of the volume Two Rivulets (1876). Published just seven years after the union of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, Whitman’s poem “To a Locomotive in Winter” considers the dynamic relationship between the railroad and nature. The poem takes on an idealistic perspective which paradoxically encapsulates the railroad as both a part and a whole of nature while also existing separately from it. The railroad is separate from nature in that it exists according to its own laws, but Whitman’s train is transformed into a living symbol by the natural forces that embody it.

The poem begins with the line, “Thee for my recitative,” which initiates a description that gives form to the train as a symbol. In the first half of the poem, one notes the mechanical sounds and succinct images of the railroad that elucidate a representation of the train in the mind of the reader. In line with the former description, one considers the “measur’d dual throbbing,” the “beat convulsive” and the “metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance, ” which qualifies the train with a steady, rhythmic essence. Likewise, descriptive images such as the “black cylindric body,” the “great protruding headlight” and the “floating vapor pennants, tinged with delicate purple” clarify a symbolic representation of the railroad, but at this point there is little depth in regards to the meaning of the train as an “emblem of motion and power.”

Detail of Steam locomotives in the roundhouse of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Scenic Railroad. Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Towards the end of the first stanza, Whitman calls upon the railroad to “serve the Muse and merge in verse,” marking a stark transition from the poem’s role as a “recitative” to an intoxicating “chant” where Whitman subsequently instills the railroad with characteristics of life. This transformation from a descriptive symbol into a living thing is exemplified by the transition from the railroad as a “black cylindric body” to a living “Fierce-throated beauty.” Likewise, the locomotive expresses “lawless music” and even possesses “madly-whistled laughter” which “rumbles like an earthquake.” These are natural qualities that are now embodied by the railroad. In short, the Muse invokes a transition from a recitative to a chant that instills the railroad with qualities of nature. In this sense, the human chant transforms the railroad from a shallow, symbolic representation into a natural, lifelike form.

Despite existing as a symbol with the depth of nature, the railroad also exists as an entity that is separate from nature. Whitman writes of the train, “Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,” which means that the guiding principle of the railroad exists unto itself. In other words, the train abides by the law imposed by the rails that guide it along the track. Thus, it is strong and independent from the greater forces of nature. The train relies upon its own principle—the guiding force of the rails—which may be interpreted as a form of self-reliance, a quality which Whitman seems to speak of with admiration. Regardless, the train still responds to the life-giving force of the Muse.

Photograph of the Narrow-gauge steam locomotive at the Tweetsie Railroad. Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

If it were not already complex enough, one more layer invites the reader to consider the train as a part of nature as well. With the last two lines of the poem, Whitman writes that the locomotive is, “Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes, / To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.” This statement suggests that one might consider the railroad to be a part of a strong, boundless nature, a nature which is sufficiently abundant to encapsulate the train as a part of itself. In this manner, the train exists as a singularity in relation to Whitman’s all-encompassing understanding of nature.

Having analyzed tensions between the railroad and nature in “To a Locomotive in Winter,” the reader may find that Whitman’s railroad is an embodiment of nature that also exists separately from it. That said, attentive readers are apt to discover their own understanding of the poem because each individual understands an interpretative work from a different perspective. The symbolic, ordered structure of the poem might even arouse the Muse of the individual reader such that they find their own deeper meaning. In a manner not so different from how readers uncover the inner life of the railroad, they might uncover their own inner lives.

An October 2017 aerial view of the tidal terrain, including a lone railroad track near Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.

The Library has many Whitman objects in its special collections, including manuscripts and rare books, printed versions of Whitman poems, rarely seen photographs and art works, musical compositions inspired by Whitman, and book design and popular culture items. Use the Library’s Walt Whitman: a Resource Guide to discover and learn more about Whitman’s life and his writings.

Comments (3)

  1. Really enjoyed reading your post about my old friend Walt. Now I understand why I too love trains so much. And the photo of the track along Old Orchard Beach brought back memories of a favorite spot from vacations past. I’d love to be moving along that track, like walking on water, I imagine. Thank you, Michael!

  2. This was phenomenal. Thank you for stating parts of such a great poem as a realistic idea from many words and patterns, i find it highly interesting.

  3. Whitman is a poetic predecessor of the Indian Poet Sri Aurobindo, integrating Matter and Spirit as he welcomes every scientific and technological inventions. Please find out in Amazon a book entitled POETRY AND POETICS OF WALT WHITMAN AND SRI AUROBINDO. Which will enlighten more. The reference to rail tracks is also there in the first stanza of A Passage to India.

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