‘Night Mail’ was commissioned for the film of the same name on which Auden was working in the 1930s. He was assisting with production and filming and it was determined that a spoken word poem, set to music, was needed for the end of the film. He wrote this piece for the occasion. Upon release, his work was received very well. It is now considered one of the best features of an un-noteworthy film. The poem speaks on themes of human relationships, connections, and industry.
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Summary of Night Mail
The poem conforms to a consistent rhyme scheme and metrical pattern that follows the path of a train. It carries letters from every part of the world on every topic up a hill and through the grasses. The smoke flies over the train and into the distance as it powers forward towards the city. Once there, in amongst all the sleeping people, it delivers the much longed-for notes from friends, associates, business partners, and family members. Each recipient is gladdened by the feeling of remembrance, of not being forgotten.
You can read more poetry from W.H. Auden here.
Structure of Night Mail
‘Night Mail’ by W.H. Auden is a twelve stanza poem that is divided into stanzas of varying lengths. The first eight stanzas are couplets, meaning that they contain two lines and rhyme perfectly. Stanza nine has eight lines, stanza ten: nineteen, stanza eleven: three, and stanza twelve has seven lines.
When one considers the background of this poem and the fact that it was written as a conclusion to a film about the delivery of mail, the meter of the text makes a great deal of sense. Those who knew Auden while he worked on this piece explained the care he took to make sure the meter resembled that of a train moving down the tracks. It is very steady, builds up, and then at the end slows down. One source reported that Auden even used a stopwatch in order to match each lineup correctly.
Poetic Techniques in Night Mail
Auden makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Night Mail’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, enjambment, simile, personification, alliteration, and sibilance. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For instance, “Letters” begins seven of the nineteen lines of stanza ten. Or, “Towards” in stanza nine, lines three and four, and “Asleep” in stanza twelve, lines one and two.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “Birds,” “bushes,” and “blank-faced” in lines one and two of stanza six or “For,” “feel,” and “forgotten” in the last line of the poem.
Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. In the case of ‘Night Mail,’ it can be seen in the second line of stanza four which reads: “Shovelling white steam over her shoulder” and in stanza five where the two lines of the couplet start with “Snorting” and “Silent”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines four and five of the ninth stanza and lines two and three of the eleventh stanza.
Two other techniques that are important to mention, simile and personification. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, lines four and five of stanza nine. They read in part: “the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen”.
Throughout the poem, the train is personified. It is referred to as a woman, called “she” on several occasions, and spoken of as noosing to do this and that. “She” speeds up or slows down. She also “Snort[s] noisily” like an animal.
Analysis of Night Mail
Stanzas One, Two, and Three
This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
In the first couplet of ‘Night Mail,’ the speaker begins by describing the initial progress of the night mail train “crossing the Border” into Scotland. It is heading “up Beattock” at a steady climb. The train is making good progress, doing what it does best. Onboard, there are “cheque[s] and the postal order[s]” as well as more personal items. These include “Letters for the rich, letters for the poor”. This line is only the first example of the repetition that Auden makes use of in ‘Night Mail’.
Throughout the poem, Auden uses a very steady meter. This was done to intentionally mimic the sound that rail cars make as they move along the tracks. Auden wanted the poem to refer in content and sound back to the film for which it was written. The sound is further emphasized by the use of repetition, as with words like “Letters,” which appears numerous times in the poem.
The third line of the poem, “Letters for the rich, letters for the poor” is a great example of the importance of the train and the institution of mail delivery. Everyone depends on the mail no matter who you are.
Stanzas Five and Six
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
A reader should also immediately notice how Auden uses personification to make the train seem more human and its efforts more relatable. The “gradient” is “against her” but she makes it up the hill. She remains on time as she travels through the different landscapes of the area. Another great example of personification comes in the second line of the fourth stanza.
Here, the poet describes the train as “Shovelling white steam over her shoulder”. This is, of course, a depiction of the smoke that travels out and over the train. It is pushed behind “her” by the pressure of the wind.
In the next couplet of ‘Night Mail,’ the poet depicts the train like an animal. She “snort[s] noisily” as she passes by the “wind-bent grasses”. The train is powerful and determined.
Stanzas Six, Seven, and Eight
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.
The next three stanzas are also couplets, following the same pattern as the five that came before them. The train has such a presence as it passes the birds still turn their heads to look at “her”. She pulls behind her “blank-faced coaches”. Each part of the locomotive is important and therefore it is all personified to an extent.
These stanzas take the reader through the landscape and speak, briefly, on different elements of it. The poet mentions the “farm[s]” where people are sleeping and the “sheep-dogs” that attempt to run alongside the train and turn its course. These are wonderful examples of the pictures the skillfully written imagery can create.
The train’s power is juxtaposed against the fact that no one wakes up as it passes. This is due to its steady rhythm but also its consistency. It’s likely that all those living close enough to the tracks to hear it are well used to hearing it pass and ignoring it. The train is a necessary and natural part of the environment at this point.
Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.
The ninth stanza is the longest so far. It breaks from the pattern of couplets with a nine-line stanza. Time has passed when this stanza begins. It is dawn now and the train’s climb up the hill is complete. The “d” consonant sound is repeated in these two first lines of the stanza. It can be seen in “Dawn,” “done,” “Down,” and “descends”. This kind of repetition helps with the overall rhythm of the poem, especially in this transition to moving downhill.
The train is headed towards Glasgow, Scotland in a much less natural and peaceful environment than that which “she” traveled through in the couplet section of the poem. There are “fields of apparatus” and “furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen”. This is a great simile that alludes to planning, building, and working.
Despite the transition into an industrial world, everything is still quiet. It all appears to be “wait[ing] for her”. At the end of this stanza is the first time that the human element of the mail is really brought into the text. There are men waiting for the mail train that “long for news”. The “news” they’re seeking is outlined in the tenth stanza.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
In the tenth stanza of ‘Night Mail,’ a reader will find several examples of anaphora. It can be seen through the repetition of the words “Letters,” “And,” and “The”. Each of these words begins with more than two lines, helping to establish a rhythm and pattern. This pattern alludes, again, to the movement of the train, but also to the necessary return of the train over and over again.
The letters that people are seeking are those of “thanks,” and those from “banks”. There are joyful notes and receipts and bills. They carry from “applications for situations” to “timid lovers’ declarations”. There is gossip from all around the world and “news” from different sectors.
Some of the litters are serious and others are frivolous. They come from all over the world and are written “paper of every hue”. There are light and dark colors and “chatty” and “boring” notes. Every variety of letters one could hope to find is there, as is every kind of writer, style of writing, and skill level.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
The eleventh stanza of ‘Night Mail’ is only three lines long. It speaks simply, but significantly, on the dreams of the waiting men and women. They are “still asleep” and dreaming of everything from tea to terrifying monsters.
The Scottish cities that the train was traveling through are mentioned once more in the final stanza of the poem. The people are sleeping, continuing their dreams, while the train continues its hard work. Soon this will change though. All those letters mentioned in the previous stanzas will be received.
The last lines of the poem are moving. The poet taps into the human need to be connected, appreciated, and loved. Everyone who hears the postman knock on the door will feel their heart “quicken” with anticipation. No one, Auden concludes, what’s to be forgotten.