The Poem

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It could be said that Walt Whitman bridged the movements of the Romanticism that preceded him and the modernism that was to follow. In the spirit of Romanticism he wrote in praise of the beauty of nature, as in “O Magnet South,” “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” and “Germ.” He also championed the individual, as “Song of Myself” demonstrates so strikingly. His poetry shunned the classical emphasis on order and balance to the point of creating a style unique in his time. Yet many of Whitman’s poems move him some distance from the styles and objects of Romanticism. His abandonment of traditional modes of meter and rhyme makes Whitman the most important precursor of the style of free verse. Furthermore, he foreshadows the early twentieth century movement of modernism.

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His style was a self-conscious break with the traditional forms and subject matter of poetry. His use of unrhymed lines in a form without meter was a departure from all who preceded him in poetry. His innovation in subject matter is seen in such poems as “The Beauty of the Ship” and “Sparkles from the Wheel,” in which he celebrates the plain and the mundane. Yet nowhere does he do so more conspicuously as in “To a Locomotive in Winter,” in which he calls the locomotive a “Type of the modern.” Here is a conscious turning away from Romantic content to a very modern theme, the machine, as an object not only of interest but also of the poet’s admiration, even his adoration.

The poet calls his work a recitative, a declamatory recital of his praise for all the aspects of this great machine. Whitman was born as the railroad was experiencing its birth in the United States. He grew up during the rapid expansion of the network of steel, crossing and crisscrossing the eastern seaboard and soon the inland areas of the East Coast. “To a Locomotive in Winter” was written as the nation was celebrating and enjoying this new “pulse of the continent”; the transcontinental railroad, which joined East with West, was completed in 1869, only a few years before the poem was first published. Whitman’s response to modernization is his poem honoring this steel and steam phenomenon, which romanticizes this very utilitarian invention.

In two verses of twenty-five total lines, the poet recites his description of the locomotive “in action”—in winter, in its many aspects of style and behavior. The style of free verse fits well the unbridled behavior of a machine that cannot be bound by patterns imposed from without. That is the “Fierce-throated beauty” of this object, which not everyone would describe as beautiful. Impressive as the locomotive might be in itself, Whitman finds all that is to be admired in its parts and its motion.

The admiration of the locomotive as a manly creature makes it difficult to ignore the sexual orientation usually attributed to the poet. In spite of his idle boasts of having fathered several children, it is most likely that he had strong homosexual tendencies—although evidence that he acted out these impulses is lacking. Other poems by Whitman, notably “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” employ symbolism that suggests homosexual themes. There is here, however, no attempt at carrying any such theme to a conclusion. There is in “To a Locomotive in Winter” no story of a sexual encounter, only a description of the wonders of the adored male figure. There is no question of its gender: “No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine.” The theme of sexuality is allowed in no way to overwhelm the poem as a whole.

Forms and Devices

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Chief among the poetic devices Whitman uses in “To a Locomotive in Winter” is that of personification. He attributes human personality to the locomotive throughout. This is seen from the first word, “Thee.” Although the poem can be described as a paean, in the tradition of Greek lyrics of invocation addressed to Apollo, and later to other gods and to deified heroes, this address is not to be thought of as an ascription of divinity. Rather, terms such as “thee” and “thy” seem more human than divine. The terms were reminders of forms of address in the languages of American immigrants, which distinguished between the second person familiar tense and the second person formal. This is personal address. The poet sees himself on personal, familiar terms with the machine. He addresses the locomotive as a friend, dear, even adored, but in no way distant as formal address would suggest.

Whitman attributes numerous human characteristics to the locomotive, as the making of music: “all thy lawless music” and its “madly-whistled laughter.” Mainly the overall characterization is of a being that simply runs but also breathes and moves, acting of a volition all its own. It is a “Law of thyself complete.”

The appeal to the senses is paramount throughout the poem. The locomotive is seen clad in armor (“panoply”), with a black cylinder of a body, clothed also in brass and steel. The side bars, connecting rods, headlight, springs, valves, wheels, and lamps all create the visual image of the locomotive. Its action, with its “vapor-pennants” and clouds of smoke, can be easily visualized by the reader. The sounds the engine makes are described all through the poem: the throbbing beat, the ringing bell. Descriptions of movement and motion appeal to the sense of touch. The locomotive is described as an earthquake, convulsive, the “emblem of motion and power,” rumbling along. The heat of the engine contrasts with the feel of the wind and snow of winter. One can almost smell the “out-belching” produced by the smokestack.

In the poem the author uses alliteration in many places: “silvery steel,” “tremulous twinkle,” “thy silent signal lamps to swing,” “now swift, now slack.” There is no particular pattern to the use of the device; it appears almost incidental yet effectively heightens the sound wherever it appears. The power of the poem’s imagery reflects the power of the locomotive.

Bibliography

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Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1967.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999.

Gold, Arthur, comp. Walt Whitman: A Collection of Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Greenspan, Ezra, ed. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: A Sourcebook and Critical Edition. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Pearce, Roy Harvey, ed. Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Reynolds, David S., ed. Walt Whitman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sowder, Michael. Whitman’s Ecstatic Union: Conversion and Ideology in “Leaves of Grass.” New York: Routledge, 2005.

Woodress, James, ed. Critical Essays on Walt Whitman. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of a Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

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