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  • The Railroad Reverie in Contemporary Irish Poetry*
  • Lucy McDiarmid (bio)

I closed my eyes on a white horse pulling a plough In Poland …

—Michael Longley, "The Rabbit"

Alone in the compartment I have spent three of the sweetest hours I have experienced in a long time. … I was alone in my carriage. …the wheels rolled on indefatigably, with a uniform noise like that of a prolonged roaring note played on an organ. All mundane and social ideas faded from my mind. No longer did I see anything but the sun and the countryside, in bloom, smiling, all green and with a greenness so various and illuminated by that gentle rain of warm beams that caressed it.

—Hippolyte Taine, Carnets de Voyage

When Wolfgang Schivelbusch, in his cultural study The Railway Journey, quotes the passage about Hippolyte Taine's experience "alone in my carriage" on a train, he finds it "tempting" to offer a sexual explanation of the traveler's pleasure. Both Freud and Karl Abraham, he notes, "have indicated the connection between mechanical agitation and sexual arousal and have called the railroad the most powerful agent of that arousal."1

For those who read the passage carefully, there is no such temptation. As a key sentence makes clear, the material features of the train—the rolling of the wheels and their noise—produce a sensory experience with mental results: "All mundane and social ideas faded from my mind." The physical sensations create an almost hypnotic trance [End Page 78] so that rational, intellectual, knowledge-based thinking "fades" from Taine's mind. Another dominant feature of the carriage, its window, enables the passenger to use a mind now empty of "mundane and social ideas": The beauty of the passing landscape fills Taine's consciousness with more sensory impressions in a simple and benign manner. The cumulative effect of the moving of the carriage, the noise of the train, and the visibility of the continuously changing scene produces a different way of knowing, a mode of cognition that is nonrational.

Had Schivelbusch been able to read contemporary Irish poetry in English—poems not yet written in 1977, when his book was first published—he might have found another context for the passage from Taine.2 In recent poems by Michael Longley, Bernard O'Donoghue, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nick Laird, Gerald Dawe, Vona Groarke, Seamus Heaney, and Colette Bryce, a phenomenon I call the "railroad reverie" appears, a dreamy, passive, nonpurposive state of mind very like the one Taine describes. As it is amplified in many poems, this condition involves a surrender of agency, a suspension of concentration on chores and work, a kind of parenthesis or hiatus, and an openness of the imagination to whatever happens.3

Trains are ubiquitous in all kinds of literature, and there are train poems in many languages. Poems that are situated on trains may take as their subject intimate conversations between strangers, the view from the window, verse that imitates the rhythm of the train's motion, and train wrecks. But hitherto no one to my knowledge has analyzed the reverie.4

This surrender of agency, often a surrender to sleep or sleepiness, is a result in large part of the physical and material circumstances of the train ride. The fact that people tend to fall asleep on trains has often been noted, and scientists in Switzerland and the United States have studied this phenomenon and relate it to the regular rocking motions of the train, the vibrations of the engine, and the white noise [End Page 79] of the sounds.5 According to one explanation, "the low frequencies entering the body stimulate the vestibular/auditory system as well as the somato-sensory system, and it is this multisensory nature of rail-car vibration that is involved in inducing sleep."6 The rocking motion "synchronizes brainwaves." These auditory and kinetic features are mentioned in several of the poems that follow.

In the Irish poems, as in Taine's description, the mechanical and architectural features of the train—the sound, the movement, the window—separate the traveler from all that is outside the coach; they also create a provisional detachment from the world beyond the...


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pp. 78-100
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