Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Railway Station” (as translated by William Radice) is a meditation on the mutability – that is, the constant changing and changefulness – of life on earth.
The very title of the poem is paradoxical: a “Railway Station” is a place where trains visit and depart, come and go: it thus is a static place full of constant movement. The speaker visits the station not only early but also late in the day, whether as a passenger himself or as a fascinated mere observer (1). He claims to love watching the movement of the place (2), including both the movement of the trains and the movement of the passengers (3-4). Interestingly, these mechanical and human movements are associated with the natural back and forth movements of tides (5). A scene that might seem, to other eyes, boring, unremarkable, or even depressing seems, to this speaker, in some ways beautiful and intriguing.
The speaker finds the constant flux of the railway station symbolic of the constant flux of many different aspects of life, including the constant changes and developments of language (12-15). Paradoxically, this very poem gives some permanence and stability to the constant movement it describes. Thanks to this poem, the movement it depicts is forever frozen in time and becomes symbolic of more important movements. Movement, in a sense, thus becomes stable; what seems merely random is made meaningful by the speaker’s meditations. The relatively equal line lengths of the poem (at least in the Radice translation) contribute to this sense of stability and solidity.
At various points, the speaker mimics the actual sounds heard at a railway station. Thus, in lines 21-22 he reports that
Bho – Bho – blows the whistle,
Ruled by the clock’s division of time.
By mimicking such sounds, the speaker adds to the realism of the poem. He makes us feel as if we are actually present at the station, but he also in some ways makes the poem seem almost child-like, so that we see and hear the station almost with a child’s sense of fresh perception. Moreover, the speaker often also creates an appropriately rapid sense of movement and change in his own phrasing, as in the line “Succeeding, failing, boarding or remaining” (25), in which the rush of verbs makes us experience, as readers, some of the energy associated with the station.
Ultimately, the speaker suggests that earthly life is ephemeral. It is not solid and unchanging but is always flowing. Yet the present poem itself manages to give some real permanence and meaning to the very flux it describes. Change, the speaker seems to imply, is not merely pointless or chaotic. It can in some ways seem beautiful, and in any case it is deeply woven into the nature of human existence and therefore must be confronted and accepted.