A summary and analysis of a fine Stevenson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘From a Railway Carriage’ belongs to a considerable poetic tradition: that of conveying the experience of a railway journey through the rhythm of verse. The poem was published in Robert Louis Stevenson‘s 1885 volume of poetry for children, A Child’s Garden of Verses, a couple of years after he’d had a runaway bestseller with Treasure Island. ‘From a Railway Carriage’ is a masterly piece of versification, using its sprightly rhythm to evoke the movement of a train. Here is the poem, followed by a few words by way of analysis of its meaning and its effects.
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river;
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
The rhythm of the poem echoes the rhythm of the train, with the rhyme scheme suggesting the sense of repetition – the poem being written in rhyming couplets, i.e. witches/ditches, battle/cattle, plain/rain, etc. (This metre and rhyme scheme must lend themselves to railway poetry: W. H. Auden’s popular ‘Night Mail’ uses a similar rhythm, and the same rhyme scheme, as Stevenson’s poem.) But whilst the rhythm of the poem’s lines, like the rhythm of the train moving on its lines, is regular and steady, the view from the train window is constantly changing. In other words, there’s an interesting counterpoint, and interplay, between the aural rhythm of the poem (‘aural’ relating to hearing and sounds, of course), which remains steady, and the visual images the poem is describing, which are altering from one line to the next.
The poem’s rhythm and syntax establish the speed and exhilaration of a railway journey, while the poet looks out of the window at the fast-moving array of images outside: a boy gathering blackberries or brambles, a tramp standing and gazing, a man with a cart in a road, a mill, a river, and so on. The world whizzes past with great speed, almost like a magic lantern show (the forerunner to the modern cinema), which Stevenson would have been familiar with.
Like many such poems – John Masefield’s ‘Cargoes’ is another favourite – ‘From a Railway Carriage’ is the kind of poem that best works when read aloud, to convey its extraordinary energy and excitement.
If you enjoyed this discussion of Stevenson’s poem, check out our analysis of Simon Armitage’s ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’ and our post discussing the story behind Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Photo of Robert Louis Stevenson (by Lloyd Osbourne, date unknown), Wikimedia Commons.