Stephen Spender’s ‘The Express‘ explores the effects of the presence of modern technology on rural environments. By weaving the language of modernity into his poetry, Spender achieves a level of incongruity which reflects the paranoia and unease with which these technologies were first greeted, even though they were admired and despite the fact they are now taken as normal.
‘The Express‘ depicts the movement of an express train which becomes synonymous with the urgent path of progress.
The poem begins by describing the moment the express train leaves the station, possibly for the first time, and how enraptured the surroundings appear to be at the sight of it. As the poem continues, however, the train seems increasingly out of sync with its surroundings and Spender uses this juxtaposition to create a sense of foreboding. Ultimately, the passage of the train becomes symbolic of broader societal change which feels unstoppable, even though it may do ordinary people more harm than good.
You can read the full poem here.
Stephen Spender was born in London in 1909 and was a respected poet, essayist, and novelist who spent time with some of the most iconic literary figures of the twentieth century including Ernest Hemingway, T.S Eliot, and Pablo Neruda. In later life, Spender was a Professor of English at University College London. His poetry shows his sensitivity to the human toll that modernity was taking. Spender’s work often engaged with technology, so much so that he became known, alongside other 1930s writers, as one of the ‘Pylon Poets’. This interest in modernity is clearly present in ‘The Express‘ as the poem is primarily concerned with the uncanny presence of the train and its ability to distort the otherwise familiar environment.
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.
Spender uses plosive alliteration in the first line to create a bullish and uncompromising tone, possibly reflecting the unapologetic roll-out of technology that Spender and his literary circle were concerned by. The use of the word “manifesto” suggests the train is not just a means of travel, but a statement for the future. Spender’s use of the simile to describe the train “like a queen” belies the earlier brutality by emphasizing the gracefulness and elegance of its movements. It could also be an attempt to celebrate the new train by aligning it with symbols of the British nation like the royal family.
The houses are personified when they “humbly crowd” outside the station, seemingly to create a sense of awe and wonder. However, Spender could also be reminding the reader that the houses are crowded because of cramped, unsafe housing that was ignored in favor of the new train. The mention of the gravestones reinforces the fact that spending vast sums of money on technological improvements means less could be spent protecting the vulnerable. Finally, the train would have made lots of noise which juxtaposes the expected silence of a cemetery to show how intrusive the express train must have been.
Beyond the town there lies the open country
Where, gathering speed, she acquires mystery,
The song of her whistle screaming at curves,
Of deafening tunnels, brakes, innumerable bolts.
These lines evoke the simultaneous positive and negative qualities that Spender identified as an innate part of the commencement of modernity. On the one hand, the train has a mythic quality, as demonstrated through the metaphorical claim that “she acquires mystery.” Similarly, a sense of adventure and possibility is evoked by the association with “ships on the ocean” as it suggests the passengers are no different from great explorers, even though their journey is in fact rigidly certain.
However, Spender also imbues the lines with uneasy images to imply his distrust and dislike of modernity. The personified train’s songs soon give way to screams which indicates that modernity may seem beautiful and serene but soon gives way to suffering. Likewise, the hyperbolic description of the “innumerable bolts” serves to illustrate the scale of the modern world, perhaps implying that there will be no escape from its clutches.
And always light, aerial, underneath
And parallels clean like the steel of guns.
Spender uses these lines to mirror the manic energy that one would feel aboard a high-speed train for the first time. The use of enjambment in lines 15 and 17-19 increases the readers’ pace in order to embody the train’s quick movements. The train appears to be moving so fast that it can alter the passage of time, as shown through the metaphorical description that it “plunges new eras of wild happiness.”
However, there is an underlying sense that this excessive speed obscures a more sinister reality. The poet describes the strange shapes that were visible through the windows, implying the speed of the train makes it difficult to see things as they really are. The use of sibilance on line nineteen lends a sinister tone to this description, perhaps implying people were being deliberately misled. Finally, Spender’s use of the simile on the last line establishes a connection between the train and the enactment of violence, potentially showing that is where he felt modernity would lead.
At last, further than Edinburgh or Rome,
Beyond the crest of the world, she reaches night
Wrapt in her music no bird song, no, nor bough
Breaking with honey buds, shall ever equal.
The use of hyperbole in lines 21-22 once again emphasizes the limitless potential of technology. However, it also suggests a degree of arrogance as it suggests the train will leave two great, iconic, and historical cities in its wake as well as, eventually, the entire world. Spender could have used these lines as an appeal to caution. The simile in line twenty-five both reinforces the speed of the train but also it’s destructive and unsustainable consequences because, while comets move incredibly fast, they also cause immense damage when they reach their destination. Spender uses the final lines to imply that technology has surpassed nature in its beauty and elegance. One imagines that these lines contain a degree of irony, as Spender could in fact be warning against the belief that human technology can ever leach nature in its wake.
It is difficult to identify a sole message in the poem, as its attitudes towards the train are not always consistent. There is certainly a sense of wonder and it is clear the sight of the train has left an impression on the narrator. However, there is an underlying paranoia to the poem that belies the view it is a simple celebration of the new technology.
Spender belonged to the ‘Auden Circle’ of poets in the 1930s and his work is primarily concerned with the plight of ordinary people, especially the ways in which their lives were being affected by the technological advancements of the age. Spender was a pacifist and his experiences of visiting Spain during its civil war also left a lasting impression on his work and political thought.
The voice of the poem appears to be a proxy for that of Spender himself. In terms of its attitudes, the voice is easily swept along by the train’s impressive nature but retains a degree of skepticism throughout.
On the one hand, the train is simply an object of poetic interest for the same reason non-writers were interested in it. It was new and utterly unlike the slow trains that came before it. However, it also embodied the relentless path of modernity that Spender was worried could move so quickly that it would spiral out of control and now longer benefit the population. One might regard the mechanized nature of death in WWII and the development of the atomic bomb as the realization of these fears.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Express‘ might want to explore other Stephen Spender poems. For example:
- ‘A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map‘ – A tragic poem about the death of a man in the Spanish Civil War.
- ‘Air Raid‘ – A vivid exploration of the effects of a bombing run during WWII.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Wrong Train‘ by Ted Berrigan – A poem about life and death told through the story of a train journey.
- ‘Going Home (Burlington Route)‘ by Willa Cather – Another poem that explores the experience of traveling by train.