To A Locomotive in Winter: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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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 smokestack,
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 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 over the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.


      Summary. To A Locomotive in Winter is a song in praise of the locomotive engine pulling a number of wagons. At the time when this poem was written, hardly half a century had elapsed since the invention of the locomotive. It was a wonder of wonders to the ordinary people and something to be proud of in the eyes of the intelligentsia. Walt Whitman calls the locomotive “Fierce - throated beauty” worthy of his “recitative”. By the latter word he means “poem to be recited.”

      Lines 3-11 describe the locomotive and its career with a train of cars behind “obedient, merrily following”. Its panoply (protective covering) is described in detail, the black cylindric body, ponderous side bars, parallel and connecting rods, the great protruding head-light fixed in front, the long vapor pennants, the smoke stack, springs and valves, the wheels etc. The poet apostrophizes the locomotive, calling it justifiably “the emblem of motion and power” and wants it to merge in his verse:

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...

      Critical Analysis. On reading this poem with its rapturous description of the career of a locomotive train everyone irrespective of his age will have a sort of childish innocent joy and thrill. When the poet mentions its “measured dual throbbing” we are reminded of our own phrase “Jhuk-Jhuk Gadi” for the locomotive. The realistic description of the various parts of an engine places in front of us a live engine as it were with columns of smoke rising from the chimney. The “tearful harp” or the “glib piano” cannot produce such a shrill sound as the engine’s. The graphic description and the forceful language will make us read the poem over and over again.

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