Wednesday 3 September 2014

On the train

A wonderful little poem by Thomas Hardy:


At nine in the morning there passed a church,
At ten there passed me by the sea,
At twelve a town of smoke and smirch,
At two a forest of oak and birch,
And then, on a platform, she:
A radiant stranger, who saw not me.
I queried, 'Get out to her do I dare?'
But I kept my seat in my search for a plea,
And the wheels moved on. O could it but be
That I had alighted there!

Hardy understood trains and their passengers. Tennyson did not. In fact the poet laureate's ignorance about many simple matters was quite impressive - he not only thought that all cigars cost the same regardless of size, but (and here's the link to Hardy) didn't understand that railway trains ran on rails.

How do we know that he didn't know that trains run on rails? Because of something he wrote in Locksley Hall, a magnificent line that resonates still:

            Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

He later wrote that his odd metaphor originated in his first journey by rail in 1830 (when he was 21 years old):  "When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester, I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line."

This prompted me some years ago to perpetrate some doggerel (on a train journey, as it happens) which began:

          Lord Tennyson, a silly man
          Believed that locomotives ran
          In grooves,
          Which proves
          That poets can be clueless too . . 

I can't remember any more, which is perhaps just as well.

The Victorians had some other difficulties coming to terms with the new railway. For the first time in history a man-made object could travel faster than a horse over great distances and this produced a weird kind of optical illusion - that a train steaming rapidly across the open landscape appeared not to be getting closer but getting bigger.  (Think of Lewis Carroll's protean Alice) This inability correctly to 'read' the rapid approach of a train may have contributed to the very first railway accident casualty, William Huskisson, M. P. 

Here's Wikipeida:

While attending the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, on 15 September 1830, Huskisson rode down the line in the same train as the Duke of Wellington. At Parkside railway station, near the midpoint of the line, the locomotives made a scheduled stop to take on water. Although the railway staff had advised passengers to remain on the trains while this took place, around 50 of the dignitaries on board alighted when the Duke of Wellington's special train stopped. One of those who got off was William Huskisson, former cabinet minister and Member of Parliament for Liverpool. Huskisson had been a highly influential figure in the creation of the British Empire and an architect of the doctrine of free trade, but had fallen out with Wellington in 1828 over the issue of parliamentary reform and had resigned from the cabinet. Hoping to be reconciled with Wellington, he approached the Duke's railway carriage and shook his hand.

Distracted by the Duke, he did not notice an approaching locomotive on the adjacent track, Rocket. On realising it was approaching he panicked and tried to clamber into the Duke's carriage, but the door of the carriage swung open leaving him hanging directly in the path of the oncoming Rocket. He fell onto the tracks in front of the train. His leg was horrifically mangled.
The wounded Huskisson was taken by a train (driven by George Stephenson himself) to Eccles. When he reached hospital he was given a massive dose of laudanum. After being told his death was imminent he made his will, and died a few hours later

No comments:

Post a Comment