The greatest poems about trains and railways selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Ever since the advent of the railways in the 1820s, poets have been drawn to trains and railways, whether because they saw them as a threat to the English landscape, or they sought to capture the romance of rail travel, or they saw the potential of the train journey to carry significance beyond the literal. Here are ten of the finest poems about trains from nearly two centuries of English literature.
William Wordsworth, ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’.
Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ’mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish; – how can they this blight endure?
And must he too the ruthless change bemoan
Who scorns a false utilitarian lure
’Mid his paternal fields at random thrown?
Baffle the threat, bright Scene, from Orresthead
Given to the pausing traveller’s rapturous glance …
The Kendal and Windermere Railway was first proposed in 1844, and opened in 1847. Wordsworth opposed the building of the railway, believing it would destroy the beauty of the Lake District, and in addition to various letters to the Morning Post, he penned this sonnet, using poetry to put across the nature of his objections.
In doing so, he became one of the first high-profile poets to write about the arrival of the railways – though admittedly, he is writing about the land before the railway was built. Nonetheless, Wordsworth’s impassioned plea shows poetry and the railways beginning an uneasy coexistence.
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘From a Railway Carriage’.
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 …
This poem was published in Stevenson’s 1885 volume of poetry for children, A Child’s Garden of Verses. ‘From a Railway Carriage’ is a masterly piece of versification, using its sprightly rhythm to evoke the movement of a train.
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’.
Pound arrived at this two-line poem in 1913, after writing a much longer draft which he then cut down, line by line. The poem, which is often cited as the archetypal Imagist poem, describes the sight of the crowd of commuters at the Paris Metro station, using a vivid and original image. We’ve offered a close analysis of ‘In a Station of the Metro’ here.
F. S. Flint, ‘Tube’.
Like Pound, F. S. Flint (1885-1960) was an Imagist, though he and Pound disagreed over the precise form an Imagist poem should take. But one thing uniting them both – and, for that matter, their fellow Imagist, Richard Aldington – is an attraction to underground railway networks as a subject for poetry. Here, Flint conveys the bewildering and relatively modern experience of travelling on the London Underground.
Edward Thomas, ‘Adlestrop’.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform …
The origins of the poem lie in an event that took place on 24 June 1914, while English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was on the Oxford to Worcester express train. The train made an unscheduled stop at Adlestrop (formerly Titlestrop) in Gloucestershire, a tiny village in the Cotswolds with a population of just over 100.
Thomas took the opportunity to fill his notebook with his observations of the place before the train started up again. The poem, then, had its origins in an unexpected event, a chance occurrence, that occurred one summer’s day in 1914. Thomas would later write up his observations into this fine, understated poem, which has since become a national favourite.
John Betjeman, ‘Baker St Station Buffet’.
We couldn’t compile a list of the greatest railway poems and not include something from Sir John Betjeman, who did so much to try to preserve Victorian railway stations and wrote and presented the celebrated Metroland documentary. The other two railway poems by Betjeman included in the link above are also well worth reading.
W. H. Auden, ‘Night Mail’.
Thanks to the classic film which featured it – and for which it was specially written – ‘Night Mail’ remains one of Auden’s best-known poems. The film in which it features, about the night train carrying mail from London to Scotland, remains a classic of British documentary filmmaking; you can watch the excerpt from the film featuring Auden’s poem here.
Philip Larkin, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’.
Inspired by an August train journey from Hull to Loughborough, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is Larkin’s fictionalised version of this railway journey, transposed to Whitsun weekend and a train bound for London. At every new station the train stops, Larkin notices newlyweds getting aboard ready to go on their honeymoons, and he begins to muse upon the significance of this train journey for the young couples.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Getting There’.
In this poem, Plath uses a train journey to explore her struggle to regain her sense of self and emerge ‘pure as a baby’ – the journey described is, then, both literal and metaphorical. If you will, it’s about her determination to get herself ‘back on track’ after she has come ‘off the rails’ – although needless to say, Plath avoids such obvious turns of phrase here in this loose, free poem.
Tony Harrison, ‘Changing at York’.
We find ourselves in a phone-box in that focal point for so much railway history, York, for this wonderful Meridithian sonnet. ‘Changing at York’ focuses on the poet’s calling home late one night to break the news to his father that the poet’s mother has died, and how he heard his father ‘for the first time ever, crying’. Like many of Harrison’s poems about the death of his parents, this one is brilliantly observed, and very moving.
That concludes this pick of the best poems about trains and railways. Have we missed any off? Get us back on track with your recommendations below…
For more classic poetry, see these poems about roads, these classic religious poems, and these poems about birthdays. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
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 (top): Great Central Railway by Duncan Harris, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): The Flying Scotsman steam locomotive at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, UK, October 2005 – Photo Michael J. Irlam, via Wikimedia Commons.