Since the early days of Midnight Weekly, it’s snuck its way inside the various articles we’ve sent into your inboxes each week. However, poetry’s intimate relationship with the railways in fact goes back nearly two centuries, trains acting as muses to the world’s writers.
To get a sense of what we mean, it suffices to read Jean Cocteau at the start of his 80-day world tour on his way to Rome, to witness the encounter between Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the Petit Prince on board a train heading to Moscow, or the scandalous side of the rails immortalised by Guillaume Apollinaire and Alphonse Allais. Writers of all stripes have drawn inspiration from the railways over the years, and this week, we’ll be zooming in poets in particular.
Why? Quite simply because ‘the job of the poet is not to recount things that have actually happened, but to tell of things that could happen’. Jean Giono sure was right, and let’s see what it means in the context of poetry about trains.
Take Emile Verhaeren, a poet from Antwerp, who was particularly transfixed by sleeper trains. You can see this in a number of his poems. Here’s an extract from Further than the Stations, the Evening.
‘The guileful country and the savage forest
Absorb it turn by turn in their nocturnal fright;
And the giant mountain, the narrow tunnel
And a whole ocean, there at the journey’s end.
(...) And all is forgotten – the tunnels and carriages,
The stations covered with soot and coal –
Before the wild and febrile summons of horizons
And in full sun the doors of the world stand open.’
The irony of the story? This bewilderment when faced with the rails would in fact cost him his life. On November 27 1916, hemmed in on a crowded station platform, he attempted to climb aboard a train that was already in motion. He slipped, fell, lost his legs and died soon afterwards. A few years before his tragic death, another poet, Valéry Larbaud recounted his trance-like state on board the Orient-Express in his poem Ode.
‘Lend me your great sound, your great and gentle motion,
Your nighttime glide across illuminated Europe,
(...) For the first time I felt all the sweetness of living
In a Northern Express compartment, between Wirballen and Pskov.
(...) Lend me, O Orient Express, South-Brenner-Bahn, lend me
Your miraculous and muffled sounds and
Your vibrant trilling voices,
Lend me the light and easy breathing
Of tall slim locomotives, with motions
So free, express locomotives,
(...) Ah! these sounds and this motion
Must enter my poems and say
For me the unsayable in my life,
My stubborn childish life that moves only
Toward an eternal aspiration for vague things.
The methodical, slightly unsettling pace of train travel has a tendency to mess with your perceptions, if poets are to be believed. That foremost of poets, Victor Hugo, also wrote of the hallucinatory aspect of train travel when he left Antwerp for Brussels in 1837:
‘In the evening, I returned as night fell. I was in the first carriage. The engine flamed in front of with a terrible sound, and great red rayes that tinted the trees and hills, turning with the wheels. The convoy moving toward Brussels met ours. Nothing frightening about those two speeding vehicles travelling alongside each other, seeming to travellers like they were multiplying each other. We couldn‘t tell each convoy apart; we couldn’t see the carriages, the men, women: just whitish and dark forms in a whirlwind. We made out shouts, laughter, boos. There were 60 carriages on each side, more than 1,000 people being whisked away, some to the north, others to the south, as if pulled apart by a hurricane.
‘It takes a lot of effort to avoid imagining the railway is a real beast. You hear it breathing as it rests, moan as it departs, yapping en route; it sweats, trembles, whistles, neighs, slows, loses its temper; it excretes growing piles of coal and a boiling water-urine; enormous sparks emanate at every moment from its wheels or feet, however you want to view them; and its breath flies over your heads in beautiful clouds of white smoke that collide with the trees along the way (...) It’s true that you mustn’t catch sight of the railway beast; if you spot it; all the poetry disappears.’
So where would the poetry disappear to? No doubts its lair would be the station, that space which has its own language: a portal into an extraordinary world. Here clues as to the city you’re travelling to are concealed: hints, winks at the experience to come. Jacques Prevert perhaps understood the feeling best: ‘Le Temps nous égare, le Temps nous étreint ; le Temps nous est gare, le Temps nous est train.’ It doesn’t quite work in the same way in English, but here’s a rough translation: ‘Time loses us; Time embraces us; Time is our station; Time is our train.’