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On Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter”

ISSUE:  Spring 2005

In Wordsworth’s 1833 sonnet, “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” the poet of recollection and tranquility is forced to look into the future by these conveyances and conveyors, these “Motions and Means,” to consider how they might “mar / The loveliness of Nature” and “prove a bar / To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense / Of future change . . . whence / May be discovered what in soul ye are.”  Regardless of how “harsh” these features are, Wordsworth concedes that they should be embraced by “Nature” because they are products of “Man’s art.”

Motions and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this,
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe’er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar
To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown
In your harsh features, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man’s art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.

Although it is interesting to see how willingly Wordsworth makes art of metal and steel—the interchangeable part rushing to meet the assembly line—what is as equally interesting to me is the way the diction of the title stands in stark contrast to the diction of the poem itself. Steamboat, viaduct, and railway are all words that came into use during Wordsworth’s lifetime. This crowding in of the thingness and man-made particularity of the contemporary world is rare in the Romantic poets, who were apt to subscribe to John Baillie’s notion of the sublime in which “Vast objects occasion vast Sensations.” Nevertheless, in Wordsworth, more than in Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron, we can see it beginning to encroach, for example in “Book VII of the Prelude: London Residency” and, another sonnet, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” Wordsworth’s recognition of these things is grudging and one feels his conviction is powered more by an argument that attempts to extend the range of the sublime—an aesthetic notion—rather than by a deeply held belief.

Almost exactly a century later, Hart Crane can talk rather easily about the “Machine Age,” but like Wordsworth, he still needs to make a case for the worthiness of the machine as a poetic emblem. In his brief 1930 essay, “Modern Poetry,” he writes, “For unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function.” I don’t mean to suggest that no progress was made by poets grappling with the proliferation of man-made things between 1833 and 1930. In fact Crane is arguing that machines must lose their “glamour” so that they appear in their “true subsidiary order in human life as use and continual poetic allusion subdue [their] novelty.”  Both Wordsworth and Crane share notions about how language becomes imbued or endowed with human associations and how experience is “converted,” in Crane’s words, by the “spontaneity and gusto” of the poet. Wordsworth, for his part in “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” describes “. . . the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense / Of future change, that point of vision . . .”

At the end of Crane’s essay, which was included in Oliver M. Sayler’s Revolt in the Arts: A Survey of the Creation, Distribution and Appreciation of Art in America, he makes this statement: “The most typical and valid expression of the American psychosis seems to me still to be found in Whitman.” By “psychosis” he means the generally unstable conditions out of which art is made in America and the uncertain mixing of “influential traditions of English prosody which forms points of departure, at least, for any indigenous rhythms and forms which may emerge.” In Whitman, Crane found someone who “was able to coordinate those forces in America which seem most intractable, fusing them into a universal vision which takes on added significance as time goes on.”

While Wordsworth and Crane express differing levels of anxiety about the relationship of poetry to the materiality of the industrial and modern eras, Whitman expresses none. “I will make the poems from materials,” he writes in “Starting from Paumanok,” “for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems.” Instead of reserving the sublime for Baillie’s “Vast objects,” Whitman argues for a sublime of “objects gross” that are “one” with “the unseen soul” (“A Song for Occupations”). In Wordsworth it is rare to come upon steamships, viaducts, and railways. And in Crane we find them used strategically. But in Whitman they are common and ordinary. He catalogs things, places, occupations, tools, machines, and all manner of modern objects the way Homer lists ships and warriors or the Bible tribes. From “Song of Myself” to “Song of the Broad Axe” and “A Song for Occupations,” Whitman “peruse[s] manifold objects” and finds that no two are “alike, and everyone good, / The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good” (“Song of Myself”).

In his headlong, magpie manner, Whitman rarely lingers on these “adjuncts,” he merely piles them up like cord wood, which is in keeping with the inclusive method of his epic. Size and value are plentiful, while finesse and analysis are at a premium. Nevertheless, Whitman does occasionally stop his listing and cataloging obsessions and stares hard at an object, the way he does in “To a Locomotive in Winter,” published in 1876:

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.

What Whitman has created in this poem is a kind of template that could serve for writing odes about any number of things and objects found in his lists and catalogs, i.e., a “steam printing-press,” a “calking-iron,” a “cutter’s cleaver,” a “snow-sleigh,” an “electric telegraph,” or a “thrashing-machine,” etc., etc. These, like locomotives, are “type[s] of the modern” and emblems of “motion and power—pulse of the continent.” The emblematic nature of these objects demands that we regard them in the present. In order to emphasize this Whitman declares, “Even now,” in the second line of “To a Locomotive in Winter,” and later, “here I see thee.” The modern moment is present and urgent and the objects that occupy it contain its “motion and power.”  It is not something conjured in a spot of time and it is not something remembered or reflected upon in tranquility. It whistles “madly,” it rumbles “like an earthquake,” and it swells and “pant[s],” and “roar[s]” erotically. How different and unequivocal is this compared with the ambivalence Thoreau possessed for the Fitchburg Railroad that passed near Walden Pond.

One of the great contributions Whitman made to American poetry was the way in which he enlarged the range of its diction and almost single-handedly created the reservoir that all American poets have drawn on since. Leaves of Grass forms a duden, without pictures, of the American language and as such it will always function as an Ur-text for its poets. “To a Locomotive in Winter” is a thrilling example of how Whitman employs the diction of “golden brass and silvery steel . . . side-bars and connecting rods . . . springs and valves” to personify and humanize something mechanical to imbue a particular with his all-encompassing, inclusive, idiosyncratic, obsessive, and modern sensibility. For Whitman, the “loveliness of Nature,” to return to Wordsworth, was itself a “bar” to discovering “what in soul ye are,” if it did not overwhelmingly include the “harsh” features of “Man’s art.”


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