To a Locomotive in Winter
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 cylindrical 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 knotted 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 tee,
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.
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.
In the American literature section of the written exam at the end of my first year of graduate school, I was given a choice of essay topics, one of which was to defend or refute the premise, "All modern American poets are followers of either Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson." That's one of those "well, duh" premises that turn out to be harder to defend or attack than they look at first glance. Whitman is to Allen Ginsberg as Dickinson is to Elizabeth Bishop, except....
But it's true that superficially, Whitman and Dickinson seem poles apart. Here's her poem about a locomotive to contrast with Whitman's:
I like to see it lap the miles --Both poems are about motion and power and noise, and yet Dickinson's is about something familiar and tamable, like a horse, docile but still omnipotent. Whitman's locomotive is some alien monster, lawless and fierce, and yet Whitman hopes to tame it, to make it serve as his Muse. Both trains are also whimsical: Whitman's cars merrily following, Dickinson's chasing itself downhill.
And lick the valleys up --
And stop to feed itself at Tanks --
And then -- prodigious step
Around a Pile of Mountains --
And supercilious peer
In Shanties -- by the sides of Roads --
And then a Quarry pare
To fit its Ribs
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid -- hooting stanza --
Then chase itself down Hill --
And neigh like Boanerges --
Then -- punctual as a Star
Stop -- docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door --
Whitman's is the darker poem, perhaps because it was written some 20 years later than Dickinson's, the "dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack" suggesting the encroachment of industrial pollution. Dickinson, though herself reclusive, sees the train as an emblem of freedom, of the ability to reduce mountains to molehills, and yet there's something arrogant about the train's peering into shanties.
Myself, I prefer Dickinson, but I have to give Whitman his due. As original as she was, there's still something Old World about her. Whitman is the echt American, loudmouthed and expansive, while secretly filled with doubts and evasions.