Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Poets and trains

A new Emily Dickinson archive is online today, here. (An article about the archive appears in today’s New York Times, here.) At the archive you can find Dickinson’s poem “I like to see it lap the miles”

I like to see it lap the miles,
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 sides, 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. 

The poem never says what it” is, but you can guess, I think. Dickinson wrote the poem in or around 1862—by coincidence or not, the year Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. I like to see it lap the miles” and two other poems—Walt Whitman’s poems “To a Locomotive in Winter” and  “Passage to India” are mentioned in the author’s note in Locomotive as examples of the trains once commanding place in the culture. 

(And Boanerges? A surname given by Jesus to James and John in Mark 3:17. It’s Hebrew for Sons of Tumult, says Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but was commonly translated in the Bible as Sons of Thunder, and surely that’s how Dickinson meant to use it. Finally, says Brewer’s, Boanerges was also the nickname given to his Brough motorcycles by T. E. Lawrence—who at one point wrote the Brough company to say that he found the bikes as fast and reliable as express trains. Everything connects!)

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