‘All Legendary Obstacles’ by John Montague is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, or sextets. Montague did not choose to imbue this piece with a specific pattern of rhyme, but there are moments of the half and full rhyme scattered throughout the text. For instance, in the first stanza the words “plain” and “rain” rhyme, as do the words “shifting” and “dripping” in the second stanza. In regards to half or slant rhymes, one example exists in the third stanza between the words “met” and “but.” This is known as a consonant rhyme. Another appears in the fourth stanza with the words “glass” and “darkness.”
In regards to the meter, there is also not one specific pattern. But, the majority of lines are around the same length, between seven and twelve syllables.
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The poem begins with the speaker describing how there seem to be endless obstacles in his way. They are standing between where he is now, a train station, and his lover who is journeying towards him. This person is on a train, moving through the flooded, imaginary landscape. He does not know exactly what’s there, but it’s in the way.
In the next lines, the speaker expresses his worry that his lover won’t get there. Another train goes by and it’s not the one he wanted. Finally, at midnight, his partner’s train arrives and this person disembarks. They embrace while observed by an old woman through one of the fogged-up train windows.
One of the most consistent images present in ‘All Legendary Obstacles’ is that of water. It is in every stanza, appearing in the first as “Flooding” and then as “winter rain.” Initially, it contributes to the obstacles that keep the two lovers apart. Then it becomes the backdrop to the emotional narrative. The speaker waits for a train to arrive and takes note of the “water dripping / From great flanged wheels.” At the same time, words like “sail” are used, forcing a reader’s mind back to water and bodies of water.
When the speaker and his lover are finally reunited, it is within a rainstorm. It, and the tears the speaker cries, blind him when his lover approaches. Finally, in the last line, there is a reference to the “wet darkness” that takes over as the two come together and kiss. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of All Legendary Obstacles
All legendary obstacles lay between
The hissing drift of winter rain.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by utilizing the phrase that became the title of the poem, “All legendary obstacles.” This refers to everything that sits between the speaker and his lover. To him, and perhaps to his partner as well, the distance that separates them and all the terrible things in the way, seems insurmountable. These things “lay between / Us,” the speaker states.
The next lines infuse something ephemeral and strange to the space. The “plain,” or flatlands, are “long” and “imaginary.” There is also a “monstrous ruck of mountains.” (A “ruck” refers to a tightly packed group.) The mountains are numerous, close together, large and imposing. The word “monstrous” refers to their size, but also to their unfortunate positioning between the speaker and his lover. It is as if they chose to be there and impose their bulk upon the lovers.
There is a third “legendary obstacle” in-between the speaker and his lover, the rain. There is a “hissing drift” of rain. It doesn’t sound like a strong storm, but the speaker notes that it has flooded the “Sacramento” and “San Joaquin.” This is the first, but certainly not the last mention of water.
All day I waited, shifting
From great flanged wheels.
In the next set of lines, the speaker refers directly to himself. The language becomes more mundane as he describes how he waited “Nervously” all day at the train station. He’s waiting for his lover to arrive, to surpass all the obstacles and make it to his arms. He is worried that this person is not going to be able to get through those mountains, the rain and the “imaginary plain.” The speaker is having a hard time even picturing them reaching him. While he was waiting, he saw,
[…] another train sail
It was an impressive one, with “great flanged wheels.” This type of wheel has a flange on the side that keeps it from running off the track. It is easy to imagine the train flying away from the speaker, kicking up water. The speaker mentions two names, he can’t remember which one he actually saw on the train. If the previous references to “Sacramento” and “San Joaquin” weren’t enough, these possible train names confirm that the narrative is taking place in, or is at least intimately connected to, California.
A reader should also take note of the word “sail” in the third line. This is another reference to water, as if the train is a great ship, navigating treacherous territory. This relates back to the Epic, heroic-like journey the speaker’s lover is on.
At midnight you came, pale
Until our chilled hands met.
At the beginning of the second half of the poem, the speaker describes the arrival of his lover. It was late, midnight, when this person arrived. He was overcome with emotion at the sight of his partner and they,
Reached from the platform
Until [their] chilled hands met.
There is a man escorting this person from the train. He is a “negro porter,” a black man whose job it is to work on sleeper trains. Nowadays, both parts of this description are considered to be inappropriate and offensive. The job description “porter” has been replaced by titles, such as ‘sleeper car attendant.’ When the speaker first saw his lover he didn’t know what to think. The emotions were numerous, and he was overrun with “doubt.” He was not sure if it was really possible his lover was there in the dark.
At midnight you came, pale
Kising; still unable to speak
In the final sextet, the speaker describes why it is his lover looks “pale,” as was mentioned in the third stanza. This person has been,
[…] travelling for days
With an old lady,
This elderly woman is still on the train after the speaker’s partner disembarks. She looks out her window, through the fogged up glass, and rubs a clear circle with “her glove.” This way she is able to “watch” the two meet and kiss.
Their embrace is shared in the “wet darkness,” yet another reference to water. Since the beginning of the poem, water has traveled along with the speaker’s lover. At first, it was a huge impediment, then simply a part of the background. Finally, in the last line, it stands in the way again but is wiped away easily.