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:

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?”

A Poem For Arbor Day

April is National Poetry Month in the US. Today is also Arbor Day, a day on which the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer is recited all over the country during arboreal celebrations. Incidentally, Joyce Kilmer was a man. The first name led me to believe otherwise but on researching the poet I discovered, along with his gender, a lot of details about his life; he died during the fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 in World War 1 at the young age of 31. He was an atheist who found faith when his little daughter was afflicted with polio and lost the use of her limbs. He was derided for writing simple and sentimental rhyming poems at a time when ‘avant-garde’ poetry was all the rage. He is best known for ‘Trees”, inspired perhaps by a view of fall foliage from the window of his home in Mahwah, NJ. Surprisingly, even this poem which succinctly captures Nature’s beauty and God’s hand in creation was dismissed as trite by many critics.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

~ Trees, Joyce Kilmer

“Trees” is a short poem in iambic tetrameter with six rhyming couplets that make it flow in a sing-song fashion and make it easy to memorize. The rhyme scheme is aa/bb/cc/dd/ee/aa. The final words of the two lines in each couplet have the same sounds and the words of the last couplet have the same sounds as the first couplet.

Lines 1 and 2- The speaker starts by saying that a poem doesn’t compare to a tree. Humans can’t create anything as beautiful as God. It is interesting that being a poet himself, Kilmer is modest about his art.

Lines 3 and 4-  The tree depends on Mother Earth for sustenance. Nature is portrayed as a feminine entity who is generous, giving and nurturing. The roots of the tree suck water and nutrients from the earth as a child would milk from its mother’s bosom.

Lines 5 and 6-  The tree extends its limbs in supplication as if it were praying to God. The tree is personified in these lines and throughout the poem with human attributes like hair, arms, a hungry mouth and a bosom.

Lines 7 and 8 –  The tree is a place of refuge for creatures. The tree is the protector whose foliage offers shade and shelter to birds. The relationship of the trees and birds echoes the relationship of the tree and the earth. These lines beautifully highlight the interdependence of living things and the regenerative cycle of nature.

Lines 9 and 10- These lines describing the relationship between snow/ rain and the tree are vivid in sensual imagery. The tree with its bosom and knotted hair has feminine traits just like the earth. In describing nature, the poet resorts to anthropomorphic images which transport us to an emotional and spiritual plane. The tree is first portrayed as a child suckling from its mother and eventually as a young woman who lives intimately with the elements. The tree then could represent a person and God’s ingenuity in creating humans along with nature.

Lines 11 and 12-  The last two lines take us us back to the first stanza perhaps reinforcing the idea of the cyclical pattern of nature. Divine creation surpasses literary creation. The speaker/ poet is humble and there is a tinge of self-deprecation in his humility.

This poem is a hymn to nature’s beauty and bounty. The use of poetic devices like simile, personification, repetition and alliteration imbue it with a musical quality. In fact it has been set to music many times. It is also a poem with a spiritual bent, rich in religious symbolism. In a span of twelve brief lines, the visual and tactile imagery took me into the woods and up to the heavens and back. The poem is charming and striking in its simplicity. Let me not kill it by overanalyzing it. I’ll just end with this thought: I think that I shall never see a poem as pithy and profound as this poem.

Don’t you think the best way to pay tribute to this poet would be by going outdoors and planting a sapling?


To Edit Or Not To Edit, Enid?


Enid Blyton, the immensely prolific and widely read children’s author who enthralled generations of children with her escapist fiction, has been in the news lately. Her popularity waned in later years as her works were not only considered outdated but also replete with racial , sexist and elitist undertones. Many versions had already been edited over the years to soften the racist implications. For instance, the golliwogs of the Noddy books were replaced with goblins. Six years ago the publishers decided to go one step further and made revisions to the books to cater to the vocabulary and mentality of modern children. Old-fashioned interjections like ‘jolly good’ and ‘golly gosh’ were eliminated. Dame Slap of The Magic Faraway Tree became Dame Snap as corporal punishment is now frowned upon and even viewed as abuse. ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ were replaced with ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad”, ‘You Bet’ became ‘Definitely ’and ‘frocks’ changed to ‘dresses’. The word ‘queer’ morphed into ‘strange’. Unsurprisingly, the revised versions were not popular with the public and in a welcome move, the publishers Hachette (yes, they have decided to spare the hatchet) are going to revert to the original language of the texts without revisions or edits.

I grew up immersed in the world of Enid Blyton and constructed my own little world around her world. I spent many happy hours of my childhood reading the delightful books which introduced me and countless other children in the Anglophone world to the joys of reading. I envied the children who discovered secret passages and solved mysteries, went on hiking and camping adventures without adult supervision and to posh boarding schools where they played hockey and lacrosse and had midnight feasts in the dorm. How can I forget the sumptuous summer picnics of The Famous Five who feasted on crusty loaves of bread, currant buns, scones and jam tarts, tomato sandwiches with ‘lashings’ of boiled eggs and guzzled home made lemonade and ginger beer? The descriptions made me so ravenously hungry that I salivated at the thought of eating a pot of shrimp paste even though I was a die- hard vegetarian. It was a world alien to my own but provided plenty of fodder for my imagination. I devoured The Famous Five, The Five Find-Outers and The Secret Seven series and even formed a club called “The Exciting Eight” with my neighborhood pals, which later, with the addition of more members, became “The Thrilling Ten”. We had our own secret password like the members of The Secret Seven. At home, my siblings and I enacted the boarding school stories envying the lucky girls at Malory Towers and St. Clare’s. I particularly longed to attend the fascinating Malory Towers to join the girls to make fun of the strict and inquisitive Nosey Parker, the second form mistress, and to play pranks on Mam’zelle Dupont, the gullible French teacher. We weren’t alone. Apparently Enid Blyton received scores of letters during her lifetime from wide- eyed girls asking if the schools were real and if they could enroll there.

I didn’t detect the inherent sexism and xenophobia in the books when I was reading them through the eyes of a child. But as an adult I can see where the criticism comes from. There’s no denying that there is a dismissive and derogatory attitude towards girls. Let’s take the example of The Famous Five series. George is a tomboy who not only wants to dress as a boy but think and act like one too. But the boys are condescending. In Five On A Hike Together”, Julian tells George : “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” The girls are the ones who wash and cook when they go on adventures. They are depicted as envying boys and as not being as good as them. Peter of The Secret Seven Series is bossy and domineering towards Janet, his brave and sensible sister. The stories abound in stereotypes. Gypsies are dirty creatures who steal and kidnap children. Foreigners are more likely to engage in criminal activities. The N word has also been used on occasion. Some of the stories featured golliwogs. In Here Comes Noddy Again, golliwogs attack Noddy in the woods and steal his car. A ‘golliwog ’had no pejorative connotation in the beginning and was just a nursery toy but over time it started representing negative racial stereotypes.

Is there a danger of children internalizing the messages they receive from the stories? How do you handle books that are anachronistically racist and sexist with your children? Do you think publishers should make changes in keeping with modern thoughts and sensibilities? In my opinion, if we re- examine every story through our politically correct lens, we wouldn’t be reading anything at all. We wouldn’t be reading other children’s classics like The Secret Garden or Tintin. We wouldn’t be reading Roald Dahl or Dr. Seuss. These stories were the product of their time and reflected the ideas and values of the society portrayed. Most children don’t pick up on the racism and misogyny but assuming they do, why change history? Let them know of the attitudes that existed at the time. I believe in reading the books without censorship as long as we have a conversation with our children about uncomfortable or offensive passages. Blyton herself stated she wasn’t interested in the views of any critic over the age of twelve. And as far as the outdated language is concerned, why should we assume that children will not understand or appreciate its charm? After all, we adults read Shakespeare.

Somehow Enid Blyton’s books haven’t been popular in the US even with past generations, let alone modern children. My children read a few of them and found them interesting but they were not captivated as I was. They couldn’t relate or retreat to her world with the same sense of excitement as I did. They prefer the fantasy world of Harry Potter. As for me, I’m grateful that I fell under the spell of this marvelous storyteller who turned me into a book addict. And golly gosh, I’m no more racist or sexist than I’m likely to dig into a pot of shrimp paste!