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Walt Whitman’s Poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter” and Emily Dickinson’s “I Like to See It Lap the Miles Essays

Walt Whitman’s poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter” and Emily Dickinson’s “I Like to See It Lap The Miles” are two different poems about the same subject, the steam engine. Where Whitman uses solely free verse, Dickinson’s poem more closely follows standard writing practices, with very structured line breaks. Another key difference in these works is the speech they use; Whitman uses “old English” laden with thee and thy, whereas Dickinson uses fairly modern terminology. Whitman describes the elegant and powerful grandeur of the locomotive from the shining brass and steel to the twinkling of the wheels.
Dickinson describes the arrogance and nuisance of it as she imagines it staring down upon the impoverished towns is passes through and by. The descriptive words used by Whitman makes for striking visual and audio imagery with him describing not only how the train looks armored and cylindrical garnished in “golden brass and silvery steel” (Whitman line 4), but he also describes the smoke billowing from the train as being “tinged with delicate purple” (Whitman line 8) and the “dense murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack” (Whitman line 9).
Whitman even makes use of the silence of the trains’ lamps swinging in the night and even the landscape sings praises to the mighty locomotive, “Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d” (Whitman line 23). Dickinson mainly focuses on the audio imagery of the locomotive struggling violently up hill “Complaining all the while” (Dickinson line 10), but she does note how it seems to look down upon the towns it passes and steps “Around a Pile of Mountains” Dickinson line 5).
Technique is another major disparity in these pieces; Whitman uses free verse to show the free spirited train, the poem does not adhere to any normal or accepted pattern and the locomotive follows suit, it goes its own way and no soul can impede it. Dickinson, conversely, uses very prompt line breaks and hyphens to separate the lines, her goal is to tame the engine. It gives the poem a choppy, stop and go feeling, much like a train pulling out of the station.
Whitman’s poem seems to pick up speed, both visually and in verse, he starts off with short stanzas composed of staggered lines with a hanging indent thrown in to separate the next building stanza, each progressively becoming longer and faster paced. His last stanza seems to run away, like a train going down hill without brakes, he wants the train to run free. Although both Whitman and Dickinson make use of personification throughout their respective poems, their end goals are polar opposites. Whitman attempts, and succeeds at making the train come to live as a regal and powerful entity.
The engine’s “madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all” (Whitman lines 20-21) can be neither silenced nor tamed by mere mortals. Dickinson sees it as a devilish miscreant, forcing itself upon both terrain and mankind, stepping around mountains, cutting through quarries, and gazing down upon mankind. Not a care for the surroundings, she says that the train “neigh like Boanerges” (Dickinson line 14) crying out with its own deafening voice. Like the biblical disciples John and James, she sees the locomotive as loud and boisterous.
Both poets seem to admire the locomotive, but it is evident that Whitman has a love affair with the machine calling it a “Fierce-throated beauty” (Whitman line 18) and an “emblem of motion and power” (Whitman line 12). He is writing an ode to it beckoning it to “serve the Muse and merge in verse” (Whitman line 14), he wants the locomotive to work for him and become one with his poem. Dickinson, in contrast, merely admires the iron beast as she watches it “stop to feed itself at the Tanks” (Dickinson line 3) and look down upon the “Shanties-by the sides of the roads” (Dickinson line 7).
She sees the locomotive as thinking itself superior to the humans, structures and landscape it passes, that is until it comes to a hill and makes its way up, “Complaining all the while” (Dickinson line 11). For all of its awkwardness Whitman’s poem is vibrant and a joy to read, with a dictionary close at hand. He makes the steam driven locomotive come to life on the page with the “ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating” (Whitman line 5) you can see the metal violently swinging back and forth.
When he describes the thick, purple hazed, smoke rising from the machine one can almost feel the oily vapors on the face and nostrils. As the “warning ringing bell … sounds (sic) its notes” the reader can’t help but hear it in the distance, and at the end as the machine “Launch’d o’er the praries wide, across the lakes, To the free skies unpent and glad and strong” (Whitman lines 24-25) the same reader can glimpse the ghost train gliding into the sunset. Works Cited Whitman, Walt. “To a Locomotive in Winter. ” Literature; An Introduction to
Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 6th Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. Boston: Longman, 2010. 426. Print. Dickinson, Emily. “I like to see it lap the Miles. ” Literature; An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 6th Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. Boston: Longman, 2010. 427. Print. – I really liked how you analyzed the two poems, and their tone towards steam-engine trains. Here is something that you said that caught my attention: o “Whitman attempts, and succeeds at making the train come to live as a regal and powerful entity.
The engine’s “madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all” (Whitman lines 20-21) can be neither silenced nor tamed by mere mortals. Dickinson sees it as a devilish miscreant, forcing itself upon both terrain and mankind, stepping around mountains, cutting through quarries, and gazing down upon mankind. Not a care for the surroundings, she says that the train “neigh like Boanerges” (Dickinson line 14) crying out with its own deafening voice. ” – To me, this paper addresses the thesis quite well: Two different perspectives on steam-engine trains. I think you should include this some more. Overall, good job.

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