Night Mail

A Still From The 1936 Documentary Film “Night Mail”.

The postal service has been in the news lately in the US, embroiled in political controversy. The discussion made me reminisce about the good old days when the dull post office building was imbued with enchantment and adventure with the comings and goings of letters from near and far and from near and dear ones. I thought of a delightful poem entitled Night Mail written by W.H. Auden in 1936 for a British documentary film of the same name which follows the LMS ( The London, Midland and Scottish Railway) mail train from London to Scotland. The poem is especially charming to me as it combines my love of trains and of letters, evoking the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era.

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to visit relations,
And applications for situations,
And timid lovers’ declarations,
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to the Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

This simple rhyming poem describes the journey of The Night Mail train as it leaves London and crosses the border into Scotland. It passes through the countryside of cotton fields, rocky lands and steep slopes almost merging into the landscape, for even the birds and sheep dogs have become used to its presence. From the countryside, it reaches the industrial world of Glasgow ” Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes / Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.”. It stands for punctuality and efficiency reaching its destination on time. It carries all sorts of letters from all over the world for all sorts of people who are still asleep, and whether they are having happy dreams or horrid nightmares, they will wake up with the joyous anticipation of receiving news.

I immediately notice that the train is personified as a woman and referred to as ‘she’, emphasizing its emotional impact. I am also struck by the hypnotic rhythm of the poem. Auden paid special attention to the meter to mimic the movement of a train as it moves down the tracks. The pace is steady, builds up to match the acceleration of the train and eventually slows down as it approaches stations. The repetition of words throughout the poem gives the effect of the monotonous chugging along of the train. As the pace picks up, the rhymes become quick and become internal rhymes ( “Letters of thanks, letters from banks.. Letters of joy from girl and boy” ).

The poet has made inventive use of poetic devices like alliteration, enjambment and anaphora. There are many alliterations and in one instance, the poet has employed a poetic technique called ‘sibilance’ as there is a hissing or sibilant quality to the alliteration ( “Shovelling white steam over her shoulder /Snorting noisily as she passes”). The use of ‘enjambment’ or the continuation of a line to another without a punctuation mark ( “In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs / Men long for news.”) helps to achieve a fast pace to emulate the ascent of the racing locomotive as the reader moves on to the next line without pause. ‘Anaphora’ or the repetition of a word at the beginning of successive lines ( “Letters”, ”And”, “Towards” “The” and “Asleep” ) is an effective rhetorical device to emphasize a repetitive and mechanical action.

As you can see, this is a poem that begs to be read aloud. In fact Auden is believed to have written it with the aid of a stopwatch for the film Night Mail. The poem was set to music by Benjamin Britten and was narrated towards the end of the film by John Grierson in a distinctive and almost modern rapper style rendition. These talented men endowed the prosaic documentary about the functioning of the railways with a unique poetic charm. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmciuKsBOi0

In today’s world of digital communication, letter writing seems like an old fashioned practice. I don’t think there is any ping that could compare to the tactile sensation of writing on pretty stationery with a delicate fountain pen and sticking the stamp with your saliva to the envelope. There are so many other joys that go along with epistolary delights– penmanship and philately to name two. But the moment that brings the most happiness is the anticipation of receiving a letter whether followed by elation or disappointment at the news- a fat or thin envelope from a college, a letter of congratulations or rejection, a billet- doux from your beloved or a break up letter, the announcement of a new arrival or a condolence letter. At the end of the day, whether it is a text message on a smartphone or a letter that arrives by mail, it is all about tapping into the human need for connection. “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”


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