W Walt Whitman

To a Locomotive in Winter by Walt Whitman

‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ by Walt Whitman is a memorable poem written in Whitman’s skilled free verse. It addresses a train and celebrates its sounds, images, and strength.

To a Locomotive in Winter by Walt Whitman Visual Representation

This poem was written in the winter of 1875. Whitman was in the latter part of his career at this time and some scholars have suggested that this poem represents his attempt to regain some strength in life and in his verse. The latter is clearly seen through his address to the locomotive and request that it join in with his verse. 

To a Locomotive in Winter 
Walt Whitman

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.
To a Locomotive in Winter by Walt Whitman


Summary

To a Locomotive in Winter’ by Walt Whitman is a celebration of a locomotive’s strength and melodic, “metrical” sound.

The poem starts with the poet describing his work as a “recitative.” That is, a dialogue that’s usually part of an opera and sung with the cadence of ordinary speech. Such is the case with much of Whitman’s verse. But it’s clear he was seeking out a more melodic feeling in this poem. 

He addresses the train, explores its various sounds and parts, and asks it to join in with his verse. He needs it as part of his muse to continue writing. By the end of the poem, the train seemingly becomes a symbol, representing a greater strength in the country and in its people. 

Structure and Form 

To a Locomotive in Winter’ by Walt Whitman is a two-stanza poem that is divided into one set of seventeen lines and one set of eight lines for a total of twenty-five lines. The poem is written in free verse, a style that does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is common to Whitman’s verse. In fact, Walt Whitman is famously known as the “father of free verse poetry.” His work in this style inspired countless poets to come. 

Readers will notice several interesting techniques at work in the poem, including examples of repetition. It is through other literary devices that Whitman provides his work with a feeling of unity beyond a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Apostrophe: seen through the speaker’s address to the locomotive throughout the poem. The speaker is talking to the train as though it can hear and understand him. 
  • Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “modern” and “motion” in line thirteen of stanza one. 
  • Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Thee” which starts the first three lines and “Thy” which starts several others in the same stanza. 
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple” is quite evocative and should inspire readers senses. 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

Lines 1-9

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,

The first stanza of ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ by Walt Whitman is seventeen lines long and is written in free verse, as the vast majority of Whitman’s poetry was. This section is described as a recitative. The stanza uses very long lines, making it resemble a paragraph more than a stanza of poetic verse. Whitman uses numerous literary devices within this stanza including alliteration and caesura

The poet begins by celebrating the sound of a locomotive moving through a winter storm. It creates a “panoply” of sound. Through the gyrating of its pieces, including the “parallel and connecting rods…shuttling at thy sides,” the train creates a melody. It’s a regular one, metrical in nature. 

The poet also uses an example of personification in the sixth line. He refers to the train’s sounds as “swelling pant and roar.” This suggests that the train is animalistic in nature. Its sound tapers as the train moves into the distance. 

The speaker isn’t just interested in the sound the train makes. He also comments on the sight of the light on the front of the train and the “floating vapor-pennants” that emerge from “thy smoke-stack.” 

Lines 10-17 

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.

In the next few lines, the speaker also talks about the “tremulous twinkle of thy wheels.” He’s celebrating each part of the train, elevating it to a poetic level. This should inspire the reader to appreciate it in the same way. Using personification again he describes the following train cars as “obedient” and “merry.” 

The train can travel through any weather with power. It is the “emblem of motion and power.” The phrase “pulse of the continent” is quite impotent at the end of the thirteenth line. Here, the speaker brings in an image of the continent, North America, that this train and others like it, services. It’s easy to draw a comparison between the train and the strength of the land it’s traveling through. 

He asks the train to join in with “verse.” He appreciates the “sound” of the various notes of its bell and the silence of the “signal lamps.” There is beauty in the train and everything around it. 

Stanza Two 

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.

The second stanza of ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ by Walt Whitman is far shorter than the first. It is eight lines long, a stanza form that’s known as an octave. The speaker again asks the train to join in with his poetic verse/“lawless music.” He uses a refrain, “swimming lamps at night,” and several other examples of personification in this stanza as well. 

The poem ends with another reverential description of the train. It moves “across the lakes,  / To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.” It’s likely the poet was thinking about the train as a symbol of the strength of the United States and its people in the modern age. The train’s strength is imbued in its sound, making its sound lovely to hear. 

FAQs

What is the purpose of ‘To a Locomotive in Winter?’ 

The purpose is to celebrate the sound of a train, its strength in traveling through all types of weather, and the way it can inspire the poet’s verse. He uses the lines to elevate the train’s melodic sounds as well as speak to its power. He also uses the poem to celebrate the United States and the promise of the future as the country becomes more modern. 

What is the subject of ‘To a Locomotive in Winter?’

The subject of ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ is a locomotive, or train. Specifically, the speaker is imagining it traveling through a winter storm that for another means of transportation would be impossible to withstand. 

When was ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ written? 

This poem first appeared in February 1876 in the New York Daily Tribune. It was likely written around that time. Some have suggested in the winter of 1875. It was added to Leaves of Grass in 1881. 

What themes are used in ‘To a Locomotive in Winter?’ 

The themes present in this piece are resilience and strength, as well as progress/the future. The poet utilizes all of these through his depiction of the locomotive and his allusions to its use as a symbol, depicting the future of the United States.

 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ should also consider reading some other Walt Whitman poems. For example: 

  • Animals’ – a poem describing the poet’s love for animals and their nature.
  • A Clear Midnight’ – a simple, yet impactful poem that depicts a speaker’s desire to free his soul from the confines of day to day life.
  • I Dream’d in a Dream’ – depicts a speaker’s dream of a utopian world in which love is the reference point for all decisions and actions. 

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To a Locomotive in Winter by Walt Whitman Visual Representation
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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