"Autobiographies of great nations are written in three manuscripts – a book of deeds, a book of words, and a book of art.
Of the three, I would choose the latter as truest testimony." - Sir Kenneth Smith, Great Civilisations

"I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine." - Leo Tolstoy

I have never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think the pleasures of not writing are so
great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. - John Updike

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour
is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Collection of Railway Poems

Railroad/Train Poetry

Marigolds grow wild on platforms, Peggy Poole, Publ July 11, 1996; 192 pgs

The coming of the railways changed the economic and social fabric of Britain beyond recognition. Railways often generate an emotional response in people; the romance of travel, the excitement of departure and the pleasures of arrival, plus the thrill of the machinery itself, appeal to the emotions. This anthology of over 160 poems about railways and rail travel includes works by poets as varied as Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, Wendy Cope, Philip Larkin, John Betjeman and Louis MacNeice. The editor of this collection, Peggy Poole, is herself a poet, and was drawn to the magic of railways when changing trains at Preston station, which led to the publication of this anthology. The poems range from the simply lyrical to the rudely mechanical, and are grouped in six themes to represent the different aspects of rail travel.

Railway Lines - a website dedicate to railroad poetry:

  • 150017 by A.Boodoo

  • INTERCITY country by A.Boodoo

  • Leaves on the line by A.Boodoo

  • Night Mail 98 by A.Boodoo

  • Night Train Circa 1904 by Bill Burns

  • The First Hot Day in Spring by Martin Reed

  • The Little Toy Train by Bill Burns

  • The passing train by A.Boodoo

  • The train home by A.Boodoo

  • The Wimbleware song

  • Train Scape by Bill Burns

  • XC evening by A.Boodoo

  • Peter Ashley's Top 10 Railway poems

    Peter Ashley is the editor of Railway Rhymes, an Everyman collection of poems celebrating the railway and published to coincide with the opening of St Pancras International. Below, Peter Ashley picks his favourite poems from the anthology including commentary to select poems:

    Pershore Station, or A Liverish Journey First Class
    by John Betjeman

    The train at Pershore station was waiting that Sunday night
    Gas light on the platform, in my carriage electric light,
    Gas light on frosty evergreens, electric on Empire wood,
    The Victorian world and the present in a moment's neighbourhood.
    There was no one about but a conscript who was saying good-bye to his love
    On the windy weedy platform with the sprinkled stars above
    When sudden the waiting stillness shook with the ancient spells
    Of an older world than all our worlds in the sound of the Pershore bells.
    They were ringing them down for Evensong in the lighted abbey near,
    Sounds which had poured through apple boughs for seven centuries here.

    With Guilt, Remorse, Eternity the void within me fills
    And I thought of her left behind me in the Herefordshire hills.
    I remembered her defencelessness as I made my heart a stone
    Till she wove her self-protection round and left me on my own.
    And plunged in a deep self pity I dreamed of another wife
    And lusted for freckled faces and lived a separate life.
    One word would have made her love me, one word would have made her turn
    But the word I never murmured and now I am left to burn.
    Evesham, Oxford and London. The carriage is new and smart.
    I am cushioned and soft and heated with a deadweight in my heart.

    Betjeman usually makes an ideal travelling companion in his railway poetry but on this journey we would discreetly move to another compartment to leave him alone with his thoughts. This is the perfect evocation of the Sunday Fear, that dead time when thoughts crowd in of Monday's business. The sound of evening bells are as melancholy to me as the Antiques Roadshow theme tune.*

    Great Central Railway Sheffield Victoria to Banbury
    by John Betjeman

    "Unmitigated England"
    Came swinging down the line
    That day the February sun
    Did crisp and crystal shine.
    Dark red at Kirkby Bentinck stood
    A steeply gabled farm
    'Mid ash trees and a sycamore
    In charismatic calm.
    A village street {---} a manor house {---}
    A church {---} then, tally ho!
    We pounded through a housing scheme
    With tellymasts a-row,
    Where cars of parked executives
    Did regimented wait
    Beside administrative blocks
    Within the factory gate.
    She waved to us from Hucknall South
    As we hooted round a bend,
    From a curtained front-window did
    The diesel driver's friend.
    Through cuttings deep to Nottingham
    Precariously we wound;
    The swallowing tunnel made the train
    Seem London's Underground.
    Above the fields of Leicestershire
    On arches we were borne.

    And the rumble of the railway drowned
    The thunder of the Quorn;
    And silver shone the steeples out
    Above the barren boughs;
    Colts in a paddock ran from us
    But not the solid cows;
    And quite where Rugby Central is
    Does only Rugby know.
    We watched the empty platform wait
    And sadly saw it go.
    By now the sun of afternoon
    Showed ridge and furrow shadows
    And shallow unfamiliar lakes
    Stood shivering in the meadows.
    Is Woodford church or Hinton church
    The one I ought to see?
    Or were they both too much restored
    In 1883?
    I do not know. Towards the west
    A trail of glory runs
    And we leave the old Great Central line
    For Banbury and buns.

    Railway Rhymes
    by CL Graves

    "When books are pow'rless to beguile
    And papers only stir my bile,
    For solace and relief I flee
    To Bradshaw or the ABC
    And find the best of recreations
    In studying the names of stations."

    This poem was fortuitously discovered after I'd settled on the title for my anthology. This is a jolly romp through a railway gazetteer, seeking out station names that not only scan but also give us a sense of the decidedly odd in English topography. I've always loved the name Stogumber, (good name for a Dickens' curate perhaps), still on the West Somerset line.*

    Harviston End
    by Peter Ling

    "I looked out of the train,
    And I suddenly saw the empty station
    As we hurtled through, with a hollow roar . . .
    'Harviston End' . . . It was dark and dead"

    A quiet hymn to all that we've lost. It's all here, the sights, sounds and smells of a country station about to close. I've searched my railway book shelves to see if Harviston End existed, but it appears not. But the word 'end' in the title goes much further than the white-pebbled station name.*

    by Edward Thomas

    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. What I saw
    Was Adlestrop – only the name
    And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
    And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
    No whit less still and lonely fair
    Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
    And for that minute a blackbird sang
    Close by, and round him, mistier,
    Farther and farther, all the birds
    Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

    Restaurant Car
    by Louis MacNeice

    "Fondling only to throttle the nuzzling moment
    Smuggled under the table, hungry or not
    We roughride over the sleepers, finger the menu,
    Avoid our neighbour's eyes and wonder what"

    Watching waiters doing their staggering ballet down the aisles of restaurant cars with plates of roast beef and gravy jugs is a rare pleasure. As first class passengers stare meaningfully into their laptops, we steerage 'customers' queue for our red-hot microwaved sausages in flaccid buns.*

    On the Departure Platform
    by Thomas Hardy

    We kissed at the barrier; and passing through
    She left me, and moment by moment got
    Smaller and smaller, until to my view
    She was but a spot;

    A wee white spot of muslin fluff
    That down the diminishing platform bore
    Through hustling crowds of gentle and rough
    To the carriage door.

    Under the lamplight’s fitful glowers,
    Behind dark groups from far and near,
    Whose interests were apart from ours,
    She would disappear,

    Then show again, till I ceased to see
    That flexible form, that nebulous white;
    And she who was more than my life to me
    Had vanished quite.

    We have penned new plans since that fair fond day,
    And in season she will appear again—
    Perhaps in the same soft white array—
    But never as then!

    —‘And why, young man, must eternally fly
    A joy you’ll repeat, if you love her well?’
    —O friend, nought happens twice thus; why,
    I cannot tell!

    The Send-Off
    by Wilfred Owen

    Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
    To the siding-shed,
    And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
    Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
    As men's are, dead.
    Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
    Stood staring hard,
    Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
    Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
    Winked to the guard.
    So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
    They were not ours:
    We never heard to which front these were sent.
    Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
    Who gave them flowers.
    Shall they return to beatings of great bells
    In wild trainloads?
    A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
    May creep back, silent, to still village wells
    Up half-known roads.

    Some railways journeys were both sickening and mind-numbingly frightening in equal measure. One thinks of those trains of death approaching the watchtower gateway at Auschwitz. Here Owen, possibly the greatest first world war poet, drives home the experience of the ordinary soldier travelling to incomprehensible horror.*

    The Tourist's Alphabet
    by Mr Punch's Railway Book

    A is the affable guard whom you square:
    B is the Bradshaw which leads you to swear:
    C is the corner you fight to obtain:
    D is the draught of which others complain"

    The sadly lamented Punch magazine was always fertile ground for railway ribaldry. This ABC is rich in comedy with its juxtapositions of details like kettles and lemon drops with train crashes.*

    Changing at York
    by Tony Harrison

    "A directory that runs from B to V,
    the Yellow Pages' entries for HOTELS
    and TAXIS torn out, the smell of dossers' pee,
    saliva in the mouthpiece, whisky smells - "

    Oh we've all been here. The guilty phone call from a freezing phone box at a station. I once fell asleep on a train and had to get off at a place called Sole Street, and nearly died of cold when nobody came to pick me up. Serve me right, she said.*

    By Philip Larkin 1922–1985

    That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
    One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
    Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
    All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
    Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
    Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
    Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
    The river’s level drifting breadth began,
    Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

    All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
    For miles inland,
    A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
    Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
    Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
    A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
    And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
    Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
    Until the next town, new and nondescript,
    Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

    At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
    Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
    The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
    And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
    I took for porters larking with the mails,
    And went on reading. Once we started, though,
    We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
    In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
    All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

    As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
    To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
    More promptly out next time, more curiously,
    And saw it all again in different terms:
    The fathers with broad belts under their suits
    And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
    An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
    The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
    The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

    Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
    Yes, from caf├ęs
    And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
    Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
    Were coming to an end. All down the line
    Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
    The last confetti and advice were thrown,
    And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
    Just what it saw departing: children frowned
    At something dull; fathers had never known

    Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
    The secret like a happy funeral;
    While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
    At a religious wounding. Free at last,
    And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
    We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
    Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
    Long shadows over major roads, and for
    Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

    Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died,

    A dozen marriages got under way.
    They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
    —An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
    And someone running up to bowl—and none
    Thought of the others they would never meet
    Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
    I thought of London spread out in the sun,
    Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

    There we were aimed. And as we raced across
    Bright knots of rail
    Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
    Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
    Travelling coincidence; and what it held
    Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
    That being changed can give. We slowed again,
    And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
    A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
    Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

    Philip Larkin, “The Whitsun Weddings” from Collected Poems.
    Used by permission of The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Phillip Larkin.

    Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)


    1. Hi. I'm trying to track down any railway poems relating to Teignmouth. Do you have anything in your collection? Cheers. (See keatsghost, or Teignmouth in verse on wordpress)

    2. Hi. None that I know. If you find any please pass along your discoveries or a link I may post of your work. All the best!