The Express – Stephen Spender – Commentary

The Express

After the first powerful, plain manifesto
The black statement of pistons, without more fuss
But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station.
Without bowing and with restrained unconcern
She passes the houses which humbly crowd outside,
The gasworks, and at last the heavy page
Of death, printed by gravestones in the cemetery.
Beyond the town, there lies the open country
Where, gathering speed, she acquires mystery,
The luminous self-possession of ships on ocean.

It is now she begins to sing — at first quite low
Then loud, and at last with a jazzy madness —
The song of her whistle screaming at curves,
Of deafening tunnels, brakes, innumerable bolts.
And always light, aerial, underneath,

Retreats the elate metre of her wheels.
Streaming through metal landscapes on her lines,
She plunges new eras of white happiness,
Where speed throws up strange shapes, broad curves
And parallels clean like trajectories from guns.

At last, further than Edinburgh or Rome,
Beyond the crest of the world, she reaches night
Where only a low stream-line brightness
Of phosphorus on the tossing hills is light.
Ah, like a comet through flame, she moves entranced,

Wrapt in her music no bird song, no, nor bough
Breaking with honey buds, shall ever equal.

Stephen Spender (1909 – 1995)

S1 … manifesto – a declaration, a platform – fitting for this poem
She is a queen gliding slowly as movement starts without fuss or ceremony she leaves the station … as passengers we all know that sensation as the train starts to move … passing the gasworks reminds me of taking the train from Waterloo to the country, there was always that prominent feature … the heavy page of death printed by gravestones … another memory of the journey and death seen as a heavy page is so appropriate as a metaphor considering the gravestone inscriptions … and beyond the town there is the mystery of the beyond, especially relevant for those taking the journey for the first time … she is now a ship on the ocean of discovery as she gathers speed and she starts to know herself (self-possession … a growing in confidence)

Do you think the change of metaphor adds or detracts?

S2 … fewer lines, S1 was the slow start needing more lines … she is now a jazzy singer as she speeds along carefree with all the noises of her motion as she negotiates curves and tunnels and applies her whistle … (tis but the freedom of unrestrained youth)

S3 … she knows her way … where she is going is pre-determined (but perhaps not so for all of us who journey without such direction) … and she is happy as she plunges new areas of white happiness … and she moves like being fired from a gun … (well I guess we are all happy when fully focused and speeding along towards our goals)

S4 … this Express train is going some distance! … and as night comes you can see her disappearing in the fading light like a comet through the hills and emotionally entranced (an interesting state of mind for the ending of her journey … she knows where she is going in the dark … beyond the crest of the world)

S5 … and again ending in song … a song that is totally hers – beyond nature her creation and she appears to be in some state of ecstasy … (well what a way to end in such happiness as her journey perhaps continues to unknown places)

The glorification of the peronified train as it makes its journey … a symbol of modern travel and industrial achievement and perhaps that of life too from a slow beginning to a happy end … if you stay on the tracks of course!

Here is a link to Stephen Spender on Wikipedia …