Themes and Meanings
Although it might appear the poem is external to the poet, “To a Locomotive in Winter” is clearly a reflection of Whitman’s self-image. Much of what he wrote is an extension of the theme of the poem “Song of Myself.” This is not an egotistical pride, but a very honest and open celebration of the self. As the opening inscription of Leaves of Grass (1855-1892) declares: “One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person.” He invites the locomotive to join the poet: “For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee.” The bold masculine imagery is a reflection of how Whitman thought of himself: manly, strong, capable of whatever was at hand.
Similarly, while the poem shares little of the patriotism exhibited in many of his works, it is about his beloved country. In the brief “To Foreign Lands,” he promises in his poetry to “define America, her athletic democracy.” His was no naïve chauvinism, but a hearty hope for what America might become. Near the end of Leaves of Grass he wrote in “One Song, America, Before I Go”:
As Life and Nature are not great with reference to the Present only,But greater still from what is to come,Out of that formula for thee I sing.
In “To a Locomotive in Winter” Whitman celebrates a machine that he knows will help make America fulfill that promise of what is to come.
Greater still is the hope and promise of the individual who is manly, capable, and strong. The locomotive’s is not an easy solo journey. It has a job to do: lug its “train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following.” It does so in the declining hours of a winter day, in the middle of a driving snowstorm. The moments of calm are more than matched by moments of gale, “with buffeting gusts of wind.” Through it all struggles the locomotive. To the accompanying sounds of its own echo, it traverses “the prairies wide, across the lakes,” and finally attains “the free skies unpent and glad and strong.”