Steamboats Viaducts And Railways Poem Analysis Essays

In Wordsworth’s 1833 sonnet, “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” the poet of recollection and tranquility is forced to look into the future by these conveyances and conveyors, these “Motions and Means,” to consider how they might “mar / The loveliness of Nature” and “prove a bar / To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense / Of future change . . . whence / May be discovered what in soul ye are.”  Regardless of how “harsh” these features are, Wordsworth concedes that they should be embraced by “Nature” because they are products of “Man’s art.”

Motions and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this,
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe’er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar
To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown
In your harsh features, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man’s art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.

Although it is interesting to see how willingly Wordsworth makes art of metal and steel—the interchangeable part rushing to meet the assembly line—what is as equally interesting to me is the way the diction of the title stands in stark contrast to the diction of the poem itself. Steamboat, viaduct, and railway are all words that came into use during Wordsworth’s lifetime. This crowding in of the thingness and man-made particularity of the contemporary world is rare in the Romantic poets, who were apt to subscribe to John Baillie’s notion of the sublime in which “Vast objects occasion vast Sensations.” Nevertheless, in Wordsworth, more than in Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron, we can see it beginning to encroach, for example in “Book VII of the Prelude: London Residency” and, another sonnet, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” Wordsworth’s recognition of these things is grudging and one feels his conviction is powered more by an argument that attempts to extend the range of the sublime—an aesthetic notion—rather than by a deeply held belief.

Almost exactly a century later, Hart Crane can talk rather easily about the “Machine Age,” but like Wordsworth, he still needs to make a case for the worthiness of the machine as a poetic emblem. In his brief 1930 essay, “Modern Poetry,” he writes, “For unless poetry can absorb the machine, i.e., acclimatize it as naturally and casually as trees, cattle, galleons, castles and all other human associations of the past, then poetry has failed of its full contemporary function.” I don’t mean to suggest that no progress was made by poets grappling with the proliferation of man-made things between 1833 and 1930. In fact Crane is arguing that machines must lose their “glamour” so that they appear in their “true subsidiary order in human life as use and continual poetic allusion subdue [their] novelty.”  Both Wordsworth and Crane share notions about how language becomes imbued or endowed with human associations and how experience is “converted,” in Crane’s words, by the “spontaneity and gusto” of the poet. Wordsworth, for his part in “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” describes “. . . the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense / Of future change, that point of vision . . .”

At the end of Crane’s essay, which was included in Oliver M. Sayler’s Revolt in the Arts: A Survey of the Creation, Distribution and Appreciation of Art in America, he makes this statement: “The most typical and valid expression of the American psychosis seems to me still to be found in Whitman.” By “psychosis” he means the generally unstable conditions out of which art is made in America and the uncertain mixing of “influential traditions of English prosody which forms points of departure, at least, for any indigenous rhythms and forms which may emerge.” In Whitman, Crane found someone who “was able to coordinate those forces in America which seem most intractable, fusing them into a universal vision which takes on added significance as time goes on.”

While Wordsworth and Crane express differing levels of anxiety about the relationship of poetry to the materiality of the industrial and modern eras, Whitman expresses none. “I will make the poems from materials,” he writes in “Starting from Paumanok,” “for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems.” Instead of reserving the sublime for Baillie’s “Vast objects,” Whitman argues for a sublime of “objects gross” that are “one” with “the unseen soul” (“A Song for Occupations”). In Wordsworth it is rare to come upon steamships, viaducts, and railways. And in Crane we find them used strategically. But in Whitman they are common and ordinary. He catalogs things, places, occupations, tools, machines, and all manner of modern objects the way Homer lists ships and warriors or the Bible tribes. From “Song of Myself” to “Song of the Broad Axe” and “A Song for Occupations,” Whitman “peruse[s] manifold objects” and finds that no two are “alike, and everyone good, / The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good” (“Song of Myself”).

In his headlong, magpie manner, Whitman rarely lingers on these “adjuncts,” he merely piles them up like cord wood, which is in keeping with the inclusive method of his epic. Size and value are plentiful, while finesse and analysis are at a premium. Nevertheless, Whitman does occasionally stop his listing and cataloging obsessions and stares hard at an object, the way he does in “To a Locomotive in Winter,” published in 1876:

Thee for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm, even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling
        at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance,
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily-following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind, and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake,
        rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

What Whitman has created in this poem is a kind of template that could serve for writing odes about any number of things and objects found in his lists and catalogs, i.e., a “steam printing-press,” a “calking-iron,” a “cutter’s cleaver,” a “snow-sleigh,” an “electric telegraph,” or a “thrashing-machine,” etc., etc. These, like locomotives, are “type[s] of the modern” and emblems of “motion and power—pulse of the continent.” The emblematic nature of these objects demands that we regard them in the present. In order to emphasize this Whitman declares, “Even now,” in the second line of “To a Locomotive in Winter,” and later, “here I see thee.” The modern moment is present and urgent and the objects that occupy it contain its “motion and power.”  It is not something conjured in a spot of time and it is not something remembered or reflected upon in tranquility. It whistles “madly,” it rumbles “like an earthquake,” and it swells and “pant[s],” and “roar[s]” erotically. How different and unequivocal is this compared with the ambivalence Thoreau possessed for the Fitchburg Railroad that passed near Walden Pond.

One of the great contributions Whitman made to American poetry was the way in which he enlarged the range of its diction and almost single-handedly created the reservoir that all American poets have drawn on since. Leaves of Grass forms a duden, without pictures, of the American language and as such it will always function as an Ur-text for its poets. “To a Locomotive in Winter” is a thrilling example of how Whitman employs the diction of “golden brass and silvery steel . . . side-bars and connecting rods . . . springs and valves” to personify and humanize something mechanical to imbue a particular with his all-encompassing, inclusive, idiosyncratic, obsessive, and modern sensibility. For Whitman, the “loveliness of Nature,” to return to Wordsworth, was itself a “bar” to discovering “what in soul ye are,” if it did not overwhelmingly include the “harsh” features of “Man’s art.”

Michael Collier

Michael Collier is professor of English at the University of Maryland and director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Middlebury College. A new collection of his poems, An Individual History, is forthcoming from Norton in 2012. His poem, “The Bees of Deir Keifa,” from the Summer 2010 issue of VQR was reprinted in both Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.

William Wordsworth

Poems of William Wordsworth on Nature and Technology 
William Wordsworth was born and lived most of his life in the rural northwest of England known as the Lake District. Like many other Romantic writers, he saw in Nature an emblem of god or the divine and his poetry often celebrates the beauty and spiritual values of the natural world. In his some of works, Wordsworth contrasted Nature with the world of materialism. He wrote, "Because we are insensitive to the richness of Nature, we may be forfeiting our souls." His accommodating tone in the sonnet on "Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways," written in his late middle age (1833), marked his hesitant acceptance of industrial change.  However, this did not prevent him from mounting a campaign in his last years against the plan to bring rail service into his beloved Lake District where he made his home. The following selections illustrate Wordsworth's attachment to Nature as a moral and spiritual presence as well as his evolving and ambivalent view of industrial technology, both as a force destructive of natural environments and as the manifestation of human progress. 

Is then no nook of English ground secure 
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown 
In youth, and 'mid the busy world kept pure 
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown, 
Must perish;--how can they this blight endure? 
And must he too the ruthless change bemoan 
Who scorns a false utilitarian lure 
'Mid his paternal fields at random thrown? 
Baffle the threat, bright Scene, from Orresthead 
Given to the pausing traveller's rapturous glance: 
Plead for thy peace, thou beautiful romance 
Of nature; and, if human hearts be dead, 
Speak, passing winds; ye torrents, with your strong 
And constant voice, protest against the wrong. 

                                                  October 12, 1844. 

This sonnet appeared 16 October 1844 in the Morning Post. Wordsworth, who had been named poet laureate the previous year, was protesting the construction of a railway line from Kendal to Windermere. With the line, it was argued that large numbers of factory workers would be able to take day trips to the Lake District, thus escaping urban blight. To Wordsworth, in his beloved country home, it meant rural blight.

The world is too much with us; late and soon, 
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; 
Little we see in Nature that is ours; 
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! 
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, 
The winds that will be howling at all hours, 
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers, 
For this, for everything, we are out of tune; 
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be 
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; 
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, 
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; 
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; 
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. 

from The Excursion 1814 
 Meanwhile, at social Industry's command, 
How quick, how vast an increase. From the germ 
Of some poor hamlet, rapidly produced 
Here a huge town, continuous and compact, 
Hiding the face of earth for leagues-and there, 
Where not a habitation stood before, 
Abodes of men irregularly massed 
Like trees in forests,-spread through spacious tracts, 
O'er which the smoke of unremitting fires 
Hangs permanent, and plentiful as wreaths 
Of vapour glittering in the morning sun. 
And, wheresoe'er the traveller turns his steps, 
He sees the barren wilderness erased, 
Or disappearing; triumph that proclaims 
How much the mild Directress of the plough 
Owes to alliance with these new-born arts! 
-Hence is the wide sea peopled,-hence the shores 
Of Britain are resorted to by ships 
Freighted from every climate of the world 
With the world's choicest produce: Hence that sum 
Of keels that rest within her crowded ports, 
Or ride at anchor in her sounds and bays; 
That animating spectacle of sails 
That, through her inland regions, to and fro 
Pass with the respirations of the tide, 
Perpetual, multitudinous! ... 

... I grieve, when on the darker side 
Of this great change I look; and there behold 
Such outrage done to nature as compels 
The indignant power to justify herself; 
Yea, to avenge her violated rights, 
For England's bane.-When soothing darkness spreads 
O'er hill and vale,' the Wanderer thus expressed 
His recollections, 'and the punctual stars, 
While all things else are gathering to their homes, 
Advance, and in the firmament of heaven 
Glitter-but undisturbing, undisturbed; 
As if their silent company were charged 
With peaceful admonitions for the heart 
Of all-beholding Man, earth's thoughtful lord; 
Then, in full many a region, once like this 
The assured domain of calm simplicity 
And pensive quiet, an unnatural light 
Prepared for never-resting Labour's eyes 
Breaks from a many-windowed fabric huge; 
And at the appointed hour a bell is heard, 
Of harsher import than the curfew-knoll 
That spake the Norman Conqueror's stern behest 
A local summons to unceasing toil! 
Disgorged are now the ministers of day; 
And, as they issue from the Illumined pile, 
A fresh band meets them, at the crowded door 
And in the courts-and where the rumbling stream, 
That turns the multitude of dizzy wheels, 
Glares, like a troubled spirit, in its bed 
Among the rocks below. Men, maidens, youths, 
Mother and little children, boys and girls, 
Enter, and each the wonted task resumes 
Within this temple, where is offered up 
To Gain, the master idol of the realm, 
Perpetual sacrifice. Even thus of old 
Our ancestors, within the still domain 
Of vast cathedral or conventual church, 
Their vigils kept; where tapers day and night 
On the dim altar burned continually, 
In token that the House was evermore 
Watching to God. Religious men were they; 
Nor would their reason, tutored to aspire 
Above this transitory world, allow 
That there should pass a moment of the year, 
When in their land the Almighty's service ceased. 


'Triumph who will in these profaner rites 
Which we, a generation self-extolled, 
As zealously perform! I cannot share 
His proud complacency: -yet do I exult, 
Casting reserve away, exult to see 
An intellectual mastery exercised 
O'er the blind elements; a purpose given, 
A perseverance fed; almost a soul 
Imparted-to brute matter. I rejoice, 
Measuring the force of those gigantic powers 
That, by the thinking mind, have been compelled 
To serve the will of feeble-bodied Man. 
For with the sense of admiration blends 
The animating hope that time may come 
When, strengthened, yet not dazzled, by the might 
Of this dominion over nature gained, 
Men of all lands shall exercise the same 
In due proportion to their country's need; 
Learning, though late, that all true glory rests, 
All praise, all safety, and all happiness, 
Upon the moral law. 

 Motions and Means, on land and sea at war 
 With old poetic feeling, not for this, 
 Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss! 
 Nor shall your presence, howsoe'er it mar 
 The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar 5 
 To the Mind's gaining that prophetic sense 
 Of future change, that point of vision, whence 
 May be discovered what in soul ye are. 
 In spite of all that beauty may disown 
 In your harsh features, Nature doth embrace 10 
 Her lawful offspring in Man's art; and Time, 
 Pleased with your triumphs o'er his brother Space,
 Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown 
 Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime. 

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