Going Home (Burlington Route)

Willa Cather


Willa Cather

Willa Cather is a well-known and well-regarded American poet and author born in 1873.

She is best known for her novels which include O Pioneers!

‘Going Home (Burlington Route)’ by Willa Cather is a three-stanza poem that is separated into two sets of eight lines, known as octaves and one set of twelve. Cather did not choose to imbue this piece with a rhyme scheme but that doesn’t mean it is without unity or rhythm. She makes use of a number of poetic techniques that give the structure and pattern of the verses, just like for other of Cather’s poems.

Going Home (Burlington Route) by Willa Cather



‘Going Home (Burlington Route)’ by Willa Cather describes the change that comes over the train once it passes over the Missouri river.

The poem begins with the speaker complimenting the way a train runs. When one passes “beyond the Missouri” everything goes calm. The speaker personifies the train, describing how its wheels turn so smoothly that they seem to be “glad to go” down the track. Or, later on, that they run as if they have youthful energy.

Once over the Missouri River, everything seems calm because all the dangerous bits of the road are left behind. The speaker is moving closer and closer to her home, and whatever happiness she feels is projected onto the train.


Poetic Techniques

One of the first a reader will encounter is anaphora. This is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In the first stanza Cather begins seven lines in a row with the word “the”. By utilizing this technique in such a straightforward way, she creates a list-like rhythm to the lines. They come one after another, building off of what came before and expanding on the details of how and where the “trains run”. There is a second example in the third stanza where she uses the phrase “They run” three times. 

Cather also uses repetition, in its simplest form, throughout the poem. She speaks multiple times on how “The wheels turn”. Then in the last stanza, she uses the line “singing and humming” two times in a row. This was done in order to emphasize the chugging, consistent movements of the train and give more detail to how the wheels turn. There are other examples noted in the body of the analysis. 

Another technique Cather makes use of in order to give the poem a sense of rhythm is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the last line of the first stanza the words “places plain”. Or, in the second stanza “wake” and “weary”. The third stanza has examples as well, with “run remembering” and “run rejoicing”. 



There is also a structure to the lines that is obvious when one glances at the text. The third line of all three stanzas is noticeably shorter than the rest. In the first and third stanzas it is two words: “the river,” and in the second stanza it is only one word: “sleeper”. These short third lines are conclusions to a phrase started in the second line. The way that Cather has brought the second line to a halt, forcing a reader to find the conclusion in the third line, is a technique known as enjambment.

 It is commonly used within poetry and occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  It 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.  A reader must go to the third line in the first stanza in order to find out what the speaker “crossed” in the second line. 


Analysis of Going Home (Burlington Route)

Stanza One 

How smoothly the trains run beyond the Missouri;

Even in my sleep I know when I have crossed

the river.

The wheels turn as if they were glad to go;

The sharp curves and windings left behind,

The roadway wide open,

(The crooked straight

And the rough places plain.)

In the first stanza of ‘Going Home (Burlington Route)’ the speaker begins by complimenting the way the train runs. When one passes “beyond the Missouri” everything goes calm. It crosses the river, and even if the speaker is sleeping she knows that things are different. It is not entirely clear why, perhaps the speaker’s own preference, but the world seems to change when she enters the other side of the United States. The last stanza prides the reader with an important detail, when she takes the train she’s always on the way home. Crossing the river is a big step and means she is that much closer to getting where she wants to be. 

The speaker personifies the train, describing how its wheels turn so smoothly that they seem to be “glad to go” down the track. Now, all the dangerous stretches of track are in the past. All that faces the train is the “wide open,” and therefore any curves or “rough places” are very clear from a distance. 


Stanza Two 

They run smoothly, they run softly, too.

There is not noise enough to trouble the lightest


Nor jolting to wake the weary-hearted.

I open my window and let the air blow in,

The air of morning,

That smells of grass and earth –

Earth, the grain-giver.

The second stanza picks right up where the first left off. The speaker is still talking about the train’s wheels and reemphasizes the fact that they run both soft and smooth. As she stated before, she is not aroused from sleep by their sound. In the second and third lines she adds that in fact there are no sleepers on the train that are bothered by the noise or the movements. 

She moves into the present, describing how she opened her window and let the “air of morning” into the train car. The smells of the earth and its grasses greet her and fill the space around her. Nature moves into the train, just as the train moves smoothly through the natural scene. 

The last line is emphasized as at is a standalone phrase, preceded by a dash in the seventh line. She calls the earth the “grain-giver”. It is the provider of life and sustenance and in this moment she feels at one with it. 

Who was Willa Cartha? Find out

Willa Cather, whose full birth name was Wilella Sibert Cather, was born in Winchester, Virginia in December of 1873.
Read Willa Carther's Biography

Stanza Three 

How smoothly the trains run beyond the Missouri;

Even in my sleep I know when I have crossed

the river.

The wheels turn as if they were glad to go;

They run like running water,

Like Youth, running away…

They spin bright along the bright rails,

Singing and humming,

Singing and humming,

They run remembering,

They run rejoicing,

As if they, too, were going home.

The third stanza of ‘Going Home (Burlington Route)’ is longer than the first and second, with twelve lines instead of eight. In the beginning of the stanza she repeats the first four lines of the first stanza exactly. Here, she is emphasizing, again, the simple peace and incredible calm that comes over all aspects of the train. 

In this stanza things do change a bit. This time she compares the turning wheels to “running water”. They move as if they really want to travel forward, as a youth would “run…away”. 

Repetition is used again in seventh line when she describes the wheels as turing brightly “along the bright rail”. There is nothing of the dinginess of train travel in these lines. It is as it should be, ideally. She is also interested in the consistent, yet subtly, sounds and movements the train makes. It is “Singing and humming” along the track. By using this line twice she mimics the turning of the wheels and how they always come back around again. 

The poem ends with Cather’s speaker describing the wheels as running joyously forward. She imbues them with the same emotions she feels. The speaker is emotionally moved by the trip because she’s on her way home and the wheels act as if they too are as thrilled. She felt as if they “too..were going home” and were as pleased about it as she is. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
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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