Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
In many ways travel by train is a speeded-up version of what we are all doing – a here and now experience of what it's like to be human. Trains tend to make us reflective and introspective. For over 150 years poets have used railroad imagery in an attempt to enter into the universal experience of trains.
This thesis will examine the remarkably strong hold the railroad image has had on the consciousness of poets, ranging from the Transcendentalists to contemporary American poets. For many of the nineteenth-century poets, the image of the railroad expresses the promise and the danger of technology in modern industrial society, while the contemporary poets do not generally write poems “about” the railroad, but use train imagery to journey through the psychic landscape of the country and one's own mind and being. Today's train poems reveal why they must take a journey through the landscape of the self in order to be fully awake in the world. There are hundreds of railroad poems out there that reveal poets' psychic journeys.
Almost every major and minor American poet since Emerson has either written a train poem or has used railroad imagery in their poems. Trains continue to fascinate our poets' imaginations despite the railroad's demise, because they still represent profound metaphors in American consciousness- symbols of speed and power personifying industrial society itself; yet at the same time trains remain a symbol of time's passage upon our' scarred, native soil.
In examining railroad verse, we will look at how the consciousness of the poet explores what trains are, because like any good poem, railroad poems also probe into the language depths of the unconscious mind, which is the repository of primal, sensory images, and reach forth toward a harmony or wholeness with the rational, ordering, conscious mind. The first four chapters of the thesis invite us to travel along the nineteenth-century railroad of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, and Whitman. On their trains we find that the image of the railroad is incorporated harmoniously into the landscape. Succeeding chapters examine the poetry of the twentieth-century. I separated the chapters into the following themes to represent the diversity of the railroad in American poetry: "Come Serve the Muse,Again;” "Arrivals and Departures at the Station;" "Sketches of American People and American Landscapes;" "Troop Trains and Holocaust Trains;” and "Journeying Through the Landscape of Consciousness." In these chapters the image of the train will take us on an inward journey of personal and spiritual freedom.
Bodenstedt, James C., "The Railroad in American Poetry" (1992). English Master’s Theses. 120.