The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This lyric poem is composed of sixteen lines (counting lines 14 and 15 as a single unit) that follow the poet through two journeys: a solitary walk along a railroad track and a spiritual quest. The first two lines of the poem set the scene—the poet is walking “left over” ties of an unused train line, where “nothing” travels now but “rust and grass.” The next two lines reveal a surprising observation: Reminded of the use of railroad ties and track, the wanderer realizes he “could” find it worth his while to step in front of a train bearing down from behind. Strangely, the thought does not stir his emotions. He remains as detached as the imagined train itself, “Far off, indifferent” (line 6). The nature of trains accounts for machine indifference. Nothing yet accounts for the wanderer’s detachment, but the thought of the train’s indifference is associated with the “curfew’s wail” (line 6) on the gusting wind. The moon catches his eye and reminds him again of the train (lines 8-9), hinting of death, offering annihilation.

Threat is in the air; tension pervades the first eleven lines, and the night walker feels it. The hawk that swoops down is seen to “strafe” (line 9) the grass, which is “bristled” (line 10), and the hawk’s cry is “Like steel wrenched taut till severed” (line 11). If the threats of violence are projections of his own fears, the tension reflects his own as well. Although his mind has circled back...

(The entire section is 427 words.)