Describe the tone of Walt Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter.”

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kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The tone of this poem is celebratory and full of admiration. This is shown in the first stanza when Whitman describes the locomotive in action. Notice how Whitman uses positive and flattering language: the locomotive has a "great" head, for example, and is "tinged" with a "delicate purple." He also describes the twinkling of the wheels and the obedience of the cars behind. By describing the locomotive in this way, Whitman encourages the reader to see the inherent beauty of this engine. 

In addition, this tone is created through Whitman's use of praise. He calls the locomotive an "emblem of motion and power," for instance, and he says it is the "pulse of the continent." For Whitman, the locomotive is clearly an invention for the nation to be proud of.

Finally, Whitman celebrates the various capabilities of the locomotive. He talks about how it can move loudly in the day, for example, while being silent at night. He also mentions how it is capable of moving across the country, from the "prairies" to the "lakes." By highlighting these varying capacities, Whitman reinforces his celebratory tone in a final bid to convince the reader of his opinion.

lit24 | Student

Whitman's "To a Locomotive in Winter" (1876) is a majestic ode celebrating the grandeur of the locomotive - symbol of America's scientific achievement and  technological might:

Type of the modern--emblem of motion and power--pulse of the continent,

Unlike the romantics who wrote odes celebrating the flora and fauna of Nature, Whitman glorifies the mechanical marvel, the steam locomotive.

Throughout the poem Whitman is in awe not only of the raw power of the locomotive but also of its aesthetic design which is encapsulated  in the expression:

Fierce-throated beauty!

echoing Keats' admiration for his nightingale which sings with "full-throated ease." Unlike Keats' nightingale whose bewitching music held him in thrall forever, Whitman's locomotive is characterized by "lawless music" which is expressed in,

Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake,

The tone of admiration and reverence is foregrounded by Whitman's repeated use of the archaic second person singular pronouns "thee" and "thy" at the beginning of thirteen lines in the poem.

Whitman's poem celebrates the conquering of the Wild West by scientific and industrial progress symbolized by the mechanical monster the steam locomotive. The poem is characterized throughout by a sense of awe and reverence of this technological marvel.

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