abstract illustration of a locomotive on tracks surrounded by the hustle and bustle of silhouetted people in a train station

Overture to a Dance of Locomotives

by William Carlos Williams

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2231

Lines 1–4 The opening lines of the poem might be confusing for some readers, as it seems like Williams is describing a man yelling in a museum. However, upon further reading, it’s clear that this is no ordinary museum, though it might still be unclear what exactly the setting of the poem is. One clue might be the fact that the men “with picked voices chant the names of cities.” The fact that they are yelling the names of cities might lead the reader to believe that the poem takes place somewhere where travel is done. When one considers that the poem was written in 1916 and 1917, there are very few other locations this poem could have taken place but in a railway station.

The reader might also notice the form of the poem. Early on, the lines are unrhymed, but they find formal use in Williams’ tetrameter, a line containing four metrical feet. The first three lines of the opening stanza feature end rhymes, but, overall, the stanza feels less orchestrated and more random.

Some scholars have noted that the opening stanza creates a dark, almost spooky, underground world resembling T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, or worse, yet, hell.

Lines 5–10 Williams continues the disturbing description here, noting the “rubbing feet of those coming to be carried.” For those readers familiar with Dante’s Inferno, this passage might sound like Dante’s description of the thousands of souls being marched through hell before being carried across the river Styx. But just as it appears the poem will continue on a downward spiral toward something doleful and nefarious, the poet informs us that the feet of the passengers transform the “grey pavement into soft light that rocks to and fro.” So rather than the nameless, bodiless feet walking their way into the underworld, these feet magically change the “pale earthcolored walls of bare limestone” into something luminous. This magical transformation might remind readers of some of Williams’ other poems like “This Is Just to Say” or “The Red Wheelbarrow” in which ordinary items are transfigured into enchanted objects that reflect the hidden beauty of the world.

Willliams does a fine job of setting the stage of the poem here. Notice how these first two stanzas are rather slow and plodding. The reader is given very little information. Because Williams eases into the poem, the energy of the voices that comes later seems all the more unexpected and wonderful.

Lines 11–15 In this stanza, Williams diverts the gaze of the reader away from the passengers and toward the “great clock” in the station. But just as quickly, the camera of the poem pans down on the masses of bodies shuffling into the terminal, and, again, the poem embraces an infernal landscape. Williams’ image of “shuffling ants” being “done forever” predicts lines 60–68 of Eliot’s The Wasteland in which Eliot, paraphrasing Dante, offers a description of the masses of people flowing over London Bridge. In both poems, the modern industrial landscape seems burdened, darkened by seas of mechanical bodies moving, not in time with their internal clock, but as slaves to the great clock overhead that determines their destinies.

Again, Williams is playing with the notion of an overture here. An overture is the prelude piece of music to an orchestra. Generally, it is slower, more understated than the rest of the composition. Williams is setting the reader up for the crescendo that awaits.

Lines 16–20 The last movement in the overture, stanza four, shifts from describing the shuffling ants of stanza three to a rarified portrait of light in the...

(This entire section contains 2231 words.)

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great station. Here, Williams asks the reader to consider the station itself as art. The “leaning pyramid of sunlight” that streams through the “high window” creates a myriad of associations. First and foremost, Williams implicitly draws subconscious comparisons with Egyptian pyramids and the modern railroad stations, certainly the grand architectural designs of Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Station. Secondly, the image of light filtering through high windows probably makes the reader conjure up images of churches or cathedrals. The pyramid image is a favorite of Williams, also making appearances in the poems “March” and “History.” Without question, Williams wants the reader to think of these stations as secular, modern equivalents to the great pyramids of Egypt and the great cathedrals of Europe. In so doing, Williams does sound a bit like a futurist, here, in that he suggests that the triumph of man’s ingenuity in the modern era rivals the grace and mystery of past architectural structures.

Additionally, the description of light might recall the reference to a “gallery” in stanza one. Postures that are “indefinitely repeated” might be referring to a museum in which portrait after portrait lines the walls. Whether it is a museum or a modern day cathedral, Williams takes the reader out of the mundane and into an entirely new world.

Lines 21–24 Without warning, without introduction, the methodical rhythm of the overture surges into a cacophony of sounds and shouts. The tetrameter of the first four stanzas gives way to the fragmentation of human voices shouting out numbers, directions, suggestions. Here, the monotony of one voice narrating the poem becomes a symphony of human voices, each creating their own music.

The shift in tone is reflected in the poem’s form. The first twenty lines of the poem, though unrhymed, look and sound relatively conventional. Many readers might be used to somber, earnest, poetic descriptions of interior spaces. But all of a sudden, lines like “two-twofour-twoeight!” make their way into this poem. Such fragmentary lines are uncommon in lyric poetry. What might Williams be thinking?

Notice also how the lines suddenly gain some space in between them, as if each is their own stanza. What’s more, it seems like the voices of the porters demand their own stanzas, as if they are music themselves. In this sense, Williams is less a futurist and more a humanist. It is finally the hu- man voice and only the human voice that can break the monotony of the overture. Like a symphony itself, the poem makes a wonderful shift from solo to orchestra. In other words, in these stanzas, the poem moves from monologue to dialogue.

Lines 25–26 This brief stanza marks a movement away from the voices in the previous stanzas and a return to the narrator, the omniscient voice, whose mission appears to be one of commentary. Once more, the speaker draws the reader’s gaze upward toward the light. It’s unclear what Williams’ motive is in this stanza, but most likely, he wants the reader to be aware of movement and beauty, both above and below. The obvious action is the people rushing to make their trains, and that dance requires poetic attention. But there is a quieter dance going on; one in the ether of the station—the dance of light. So wonderful is the light that Williams describes it in artistic terms. It “hangs” like a painting that needs to be straightened, and like a painting, it demands and deserves the reader’s sense of aesthetics.

This and previous descriptions of light suggest another poetic reference, the pastoral. A pastoral is, traditionally, a short, lyrical poem set in a natural setting. The poet, once he enters the setting, admires the beauty of nature and comes to some sort of realization about himself and the world about him. The repeated references to light in this poem recall hundreds of pastoral poems that laud sunlight sifting through the clouds and illuminating the leaves, the gentle brook, the dewy grass. Williams’ poem reads like an anti-pastoral, a modernist version in which a man-made industrial building, not nature, provides insight and beauty.

Lines 27–31 Williams continues the pastoral language in this stanza. He describes the station in decidedly lush and overtly sexual language. Perhaps the most opaque and most complex stanza in the poem, the sexual overtones have raised a number of comments from scholars. One can hardly overlook the erotics of this section, and given their clarity, one begins to go back over the poem to see if equally sexual imagery appears elsewhere.

Perhaps the best way into this section is to pay close attention to the language Williams’ employs. He repeatedly depicts the station in feminine terms. In fact, one critic goes so far as to suggest Williams’ representation of the station is “womblike.” Indeed, Williams describes the light as “soft” and that it “rocks / to and fro.” Conversely, the trains, classic phallic symbols, surge into the station, disseminating passengers into the tunnels of the station. However, it would appear that the trains also carry feminine characteristics, as they are “[p]oised horizontal” and possess a “warm glow-inviting entry.” Always the iconoclast, Williams turns conventional sexual metaphors and archetypes on their heads here. For him, trains carry both masculine and feminine qualities, like people themselves, and, not surprisingly, like dances. To Williams, the entry and egress of trains and people remind him of human behavior: dances and sex. Thus, not even the most mechanized space can escape the most human of endeavors.

Lines 32–34 This short stanza returns to the dynamism of the trains. The sexuality of the last stanza continues here. The pause and anticipation of the “fixed posture” finds exuberant release in the whistle, an almost climactic discharge of sound and energy. Placing the two-lined stanza almost flush with the right margin in it’s own stanza, provocatively recreates the surprise and anticipation of the signal that the train is about to leave the station, that the big machine is about to pull out, en route to another city and another station.

Again, the shouts of the porter are heard, giving a warning to avoid train 28 and train 24, and to go for train 2. This line interrupts the narrative flow of the poem just as the last interjection of voices did. This technique suggests that for Williams, the singular narrative of the poet will give way to the plurality of voices in the station.

Lines 35–38 In this stanza, the poet returns to his position as tour guide. He describes, for the reader, what he sees as the trains depart from the station. He sees windows glide past and African American cooks “sweating in small kitchens.” Then, like that, nothing but “Taillights.” After all that waiting, after all that anticipation and pent-up energy, the train is gone in seconds. Again the poet’s monologue is interrupted by the porters informing the reader that trains “twofour” and “twoeight” will depart in time.

A point of interest in this stanza is Williams’ bizarre observation of “colored cooks.” One possible reading of this line cites Williams for racism by subtly reminding us that blacks are found sweating in tight kitchens, not as passengers on the trains themselves. This reading would suggest that Williams is both implicitly racist and classist, linking race with menial tasks. No other races or groups of people are mentioned, so why single out African Americans? Yet, another reading of the poem might argue that Williams’ inclusion of blacks reveals an egalitarianism, a sense of equality. Very few other poets would have even considered incorporating a black person into their poems, whereas the only ethnic group warranting mention in Williams’ text is African Americans. So an equally persuasive interpretation could argue that Williams is attempting to break down racial barriers in his poem. Most likely, it is a little bit of both.

Lines 39–43 Here, Williams drives home the idea of the modern pastoral. Williams brilliantly compares the underground tunnels, bridges, wheels, and rails to rivers and “oozy swampland.” For Williams, manmade landscapes and so-called “natural” landscapes are equally beautiful and equally deserving of poetry. This tendency to link natural beauty with industrial efficacy stands as yet another futuristic characteristic of Williams. Note how nature seems plundered, transcended by technology, as if the great inventions of man triumph over the chaotic and brazen natural world.

The repetitions that seemed lifeless and monotonous at the beginning of the poem now appear not only exciting, but immanent. The promise of returning trains on parallel tracks functions as a constant, a reminder, a marking of the land. The earth will always wear the trace of railroad tracks, an inscription of the covenant between man and industry. Trains will always run. Like the great clock in the station, they are a permanent fixture on society’s external and internal landscape.

Line 44 The final stanza in the poem is also the final line: “The dance is sure.” The certainty of the railroad system drives home the point of the previous stanza. You can always count on railroads. However, this dance serves as a larger metaphor for America. The sureness of the railroads functions as a metonym, a kind of metaphor or stand-in, for the industrial power that was rebuilding America in the 1910s and 1920s. The promise of reliable travel, of conquering the landscape, of barreling like a train headlong into the glorious future are all ancillary meanings encoded in the final line.

What’s more, the last line serves as the final movement in the symphony. The dance, which has taken the reader all over the station and all over the nation, has come to an end. But the reinforcement of this final line suggests a dance, a glorious, powerful dance, in which trains, people, and the modern metropolis all move together, in step, in time.