- Inhuman Rhythms:Working-Class Railway Poets and the Measure of Industry
In 1878, Alexander Anderson, or “Surfaceman,” produced the collection that cemented his reputation as one of Victorian Britain’s leading working-class poets, Songs of the Rail (1878). Five years later, inspired by Anderson’s example, another Scottish poet, William Aitken, a railway inspector in Glasgow, produced his own volume of railway poems, Lays of the Line (1883). Both volumes are remarkable for their emphasis on horrific accidents, on human flesh and blood “Tossed among the ruthless wagons, / Mangled by the gory wheel” (“William Morton,” Aitken 82). Eleven out of thirty-four poems in Songs of the Rail involve accident or death, while Lays of the Line was explicitly written, Aitken notes in his preface, to show that “of all other occupations either on land or sea, that of the ordinary railway employee is by far the most hazardous” (n.page.). [End Page 35]
While there is a strong element of sensationalism in these poems, many of which are dramatic monologues spoken by witnesses who caused, or failed to prevent, terrible losses of life, they are not necessarily inaccurate representations. As P.W. Kingsford’s study of Victorian railwaymen notes, this was one of the most dangerous professions: in 1871, the Casualty Fund of the Railway Benevolent Association estimated that the risk of injury or death for railwaymen was one in thirty-seven (47). There is no cause to disbelieve Aitken and Anderson when they assure us that the incidents described were drawn from life. Unquestionably, however, both collections capitalize on public interest in tales of excitement and catastrophe on the rails. As Nicholas Daly’s influential article on railway rescues in melodrama argues, this interest can be attributed to “a popular perception of something qualitatively different in all industrial-technology accidents: they occur in ‘machine time,’ not human time” (60). But what is different about the representation of human versus machine in the poetry of industry is that poetry, through its rhythms, can more easily showcase this “machine time” versus “human time” distinction. Anderson’s and Aitken’s poems are deeply self-conscious about “the voiceless measure ranging through our toiling day” (“A Song of Labour,” Anderson 30) and its relationship to metrical composition. This is poetry that uses form to represent how in the creation and running of railways, “mechanical regularity triumphed over natural irregularity” in terms of time, space, and the bodily habits of the labourer (Schivelbusch 23).
In doing so, it also engages with contemporary anxiety about how poetry and the poet might operate in a newly industrialized environment. Max Cavitch perceptively comments, in a suggestive consideration of the poetry of slavery, that “in an age of rapid industrialization and depersonalization of the labouring subject,” the “literal mechanization of poetic creation … was a very worrisome prospect” (99). To counter this, he suggests that poetry may have acted as “the assertion of rhythmic complexity and forms of dissonance against the mechanistic regularity of repetitive coerced labour” (100). This brief article cannot investigate these important ideas in any depth, but I want to suggest that these relatively neglected working-class poets offer us a sophisticated account of how rhythm might simultaneously collude with and celebrate the inhuman forces of industry, while also opposing them. Anderson and Aitken set the rhythms of their verse by the mechanical beat of the train and celebrate its “iron pulses,” but they also counterpoint the pulse of the rails with the fragile and easily damaged rhythms of the human body, and comment trenchantly on the impossibility of expecting human physiology to withstand the stress and strain of relentless industrial rhythm.“Iron pulses” is a phrase from Anderson’s “On the Engine by Night”:
On the engine in the night-time, with the darkness all around,And below the iron pulses beating on with mighty sound.(79) [End Page 36]
This clearly uses the rapid beat of three unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, in a long, fifteen-syllable line, to recreate the train’s rhythm. What every Victorian reader would also hear, however, was the beat of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”: “Let the great world spin for...