Poetry can often be moving, but what about poetry that is about movement? What about poems that reflect on various types of motion, transport, and travel? Below are some of the very best poems about transport, travel, movement, and related themes – everything from walking, to driving, to travelling on the Tube.
Thomas Traherne, ‘Walking’. In terms of having the longest wait for a posthumous poetic reputation to begin, the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-74) may take first prize. Over a century before Romanticism, Traherne describes how walking amongst nature can provide us with an appreciation of the beauty all around us:
To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet.
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘From a Railway Carriage’. 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:
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.
Amy Levy, ‘Ballade of an Omnibus’. Levy (1861-89) achieved a lot in the short life, including writing a novel, Reuben Sachs, about the Jewish community in Victorian London. She was also a poet who embraced the new freedoms that the omnibus – the forerunner to our modern buses – allowed to independent women travellers:
Some men to carriages aspire;
On some the costly hansoms wait;
Some seek a fly, on job or hire;
Some mount the trotting steed, elate.
I envy not the rich and great,
A wandering minstrel, poor and free,
I am contented with my fate –
An omnibus suffices me.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘To Motorists’. It’s fitting that Kipling heads this pick of the best poems about cars for several reasons: first, in being born in 1865 and having made his name as a writer in the 1880s, Kipling was perhaps the oldest writer to see the potential of this new invention for the poet; second, Kipling wrote a whole collection, The Muse among the Motors, in which he parodied the styles of earlier poets and wrote poems about cars as Robert Herrick etc. would have written them. And here it is the short, pithy style of Herrick’s poetry that he pastiches as he offers a warning to motorists: ‘Since ye distemper and defile / Sweet Herè by the measured mile, / Nor aught on jocund highways heed / Except the evidence of speed …’
Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘The Little Car’. Apollinaire (1880-1918), a French avant-garde poet, was one of the first to incorporate the recent invention of the motorcar into his poetry. In this poem he recalls a car journey he made in August 1914 – the month of the outbreak of the First World War. The poem was written two years ago and is haunted by war: that fateful car journey saw Apollinaire and his friends heading off to fight.
Hope Mirrlees, Paris: A Poem. Bearing the influence of Apollinaire’s poetry such as ‘Zone’ (about the bustle of the city and the aeroplanes overhead), Paris: A Poem (1919) was actually written by a British female poet, born to Scottish parents in Kent in 1887. Helen Hope Mirrlees lived in the French capital during the early twentieth century, and this 445-line poem is remarkably bold and innovative, blending as it does street signs and advertisements in the Paris Metro with allusions to Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and French painting, as we follow the female narrator through the streets of the city over the course of a whole day, from dawn till dusk and through to the dawning of a new day. It was out of print for much of the twentieth century, until the publication of Mirrlees’ Collected Poems in 2011. Follow the link above to access a pdf of the first edition, via the Hope Mirrlees website.
Richard Aldington, ‘In the Tube’. The imagist poet Richard Aldington (1892-1962) had mixed views about modern London: on the one hand, his work displays a distaste for the commercialisation and industrialisation of the city, while on the other hand, it provided him with the subject-matter he needed to write much of his finest poetry. Here, Aldington captures the jerking and rocking of the Tube train on the London Underground as he travels under London with his fellow passengers, all of whom seem to harbour the same, sinister question behind their eyes. See the link above and scroll down to find Aldington’s transport poem among his 1916 volume Images Old and New.
W. H. Auden, ‘Night Mail’. Has any English poet better caught the rhythms of a railway train as it powers along the tracks? 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 and one of the greatest poems about the movement of a train ever written. 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.
Heathcote Williams, Autogeddon. Heathcote Williams wrote this long poem about the car and apocalypse – a very Ballardian combination of topics – in the late 1980s, before expanding it in 1991 for book publication. The poem attacks the modern fixation with the motorcar, its destructiveness and danger, and the way it – like the TV – rapidly changes our psychological outlook and attitude. See the link above to read the opening of Williams’s longer poem.
Mark Vinz, ‘Driving Through’. The American poet Mark Vinz (b. 1942) here uses the car journey through a nondescript town as a metaphor for deeper emotions relating to nostalgia and unfulfilled potential. Never has the expression ‘you’re only driving through’ been quite so poignant.
Thinking of the Heathcote Williams poem reminded me of the final song from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Final Cut’ which similarly twins the Armageddon and cars together (though very differently). Which also led me to think that I’ve been meaning to ask for some time (or maybe I’ve asked before and forgotten?) – how about doing a series on song lyrics as poetry? Long overdue I think!
I like that link (and now want to listen to The Final Cut again … maybe that’s what I’ll do tonight!). And you’ve read my mind: only yesterday I was thinking about starting a series of posts analysing classic song lyrics. Branch out and change it up a little. Suggestions welcome!
Great to hear! Well, there’s so many to choose from… Pink Floyd for Roger Water’s era; Lennon & McCartney of course; Dob Dylan, Paul Simon; Sting; Kate Bush; David Bowie? More recents might well include Lana Del Rey?
At least in Aldington’s later collections, ‘In the Tube’ is given an explicit date (1915) to put it in historical context. The crowd’s ‘sinister question’, ‘What right have you to live?’, could otherwise seem like general paranoia; but against the background of war, the poem’s speaker is obviously being judged for not having joined up.
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I had to learn “Faster than fairies, faster than witches” at primary school in about 1984 – you’d think that making kids learn poetry to repeat went out in the 1930s, but apparently not!