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Night Mail -- W H Auden

Guest poem sent in by Bob Swallow
(Poem #1281) Night Mail
 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 and 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 the 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 the bedroom gently shakes.

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

 Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
 Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
 Receipted bills and invitations
 To inspect new stock or 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 in 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 Hebrides
 Written on paper of every hue,
 The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
 The chatty, the catty, the boring, 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 at Cranston's or Crawford's:
 Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
 Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
 They continue their dreams,
 And 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?
-- W H Auden
When I need the text of a poem or indeed to check any poetic reference
I generally turn first to "Wondering Minstrels".

The other day I needed a copy of "From a Railway Carriage" by R. L.
Stevenson.  It was for a music lesson where strong rhythms were being
illustrated under the theme of trains. And that poem of course was the
obvious choice.

Naturally I found it on this wonderful site but was rather surprised to find
that another 'railway' poem Was not in your list. This poem "Night Mail" was
written by W. H. Auden for a film advertisement for "British Rail".

The rhythms and rhymes are wonderfully evocative of the railways in the
steam age and bring back to me memories Of railway journeys on which my
sisters and I  worked out phrases to fit the rhythms we could hear as the
wheels clicked over the joins.

I offer this for the collection partly because it has so many memories for
me and partly to ensure that it is Available when I next need to use it.

Bob

50 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Sarah Bennett said...

I remember hearing this peom as a child, and the rhythm of it stays with
me still. As a footnote, a couple of weeks ago the Royal Mail here in
the UK announced that they were going to stop sending any letters by
train - so it looks like it's the end of the Night Mail.

A MARTIN said...

Hi, Great to see this poem amongst your collection. It dates back a bit
before the days of British Rail, which lasted from 1948-1994, being made in
the 1930s. The film was one of the documentaries popular then and made on
behalf of the Post Office. Auden was asked at the last moment to write a
poem, as up to then there was noting in the film about what the letters the
train was carrying were about or how they might affect people's lives. In
those days we were still,justifiably, proud of our railways in Britain, and
they were not the sad joke they have become in recent years. And now even
the Travelling Post Office is doomed!!!

Tony Martin

TPO 1837-2003 RIP

BThomasburton said...

It was very nostalgic to come across this poem by W H Auden. I remember the
British Rail film which brought back memories of my days as a LMS signalman.
Thank you
Tom Burton

Steve Kane said...

I looked this up tonight as I have been longing to see (and hear) again the
Post Office Public Information film that the poem accompanied, but so far
without luck, as someone else has said, once heard the rhyme of the poem
remains with you for life! lets hope the TV shows it again soon esp as the
service it extols is being axed,

Mike Grinter said...

Anyone know where you can get the film on video or dvd or even just the
audio?

Chris Bolton said...

Mike,

I saw your comments on the page
www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/1281.html for the poem Night
Train by W.H.Auden asking for an audio of the poem. I was wondering if
you ever tracked down a copy?

Cheers,

Chris.

t112jch.freeserve.co.uk said...

Saw the video at National Raiway Museum in York.
Was not available for publice purchase though.

Denise Burton said...

The Night Mail poem really invokes the sound's of a steam engine's sound so powerfully in your head that you smell that train too. Magic! Denise Burton

william mckeating said...

Noticed a few interested in the film....try this link peeps

Bart Connolly said...

Have you ever read "Junk Mail train"? :) - Bart Connolly

This is the Junk Mail crossing the border
Delivered by truck now, that's the order
None of it wanted, all of it waste
All of it tinged with commercial distaste
Delivering catalogues all unsolicited
Names on the mailing list slyly elicited
'Yearly subscription' that's the refrain
'Take out a loan or a time-share in Spain'
Unwanted brochures shrouded in plastic
Thousands of leaflets bound by elastic
All come unbidden, a waste of a trip
Bound for the landfill, bound for the tip
All come by lorries pounding the highways
Blocking the ring road and clogging the by-ways
No more will the Night Mail arrive at the station
De-railed by the forces of privatisation
'Victorian problem - Victorian answer'
That is an insult to the service they ran, sir
Imagine old Isambard taking this tack
'Sorry we're late sir, leaves on the track'!
Now, gone is the romance
Gone is the snobbery
The twenty-first century's Greatest Train Robbery
So while we're asleep the postman is driving
And the profits of shareholders quietly thriving
To bring us material for which none of us asked
To redress the balance is how we are tasked
Here comes the postman rounding the block
Here comes the postman, here comes his knock
With quickening heart I leap from my bunk
'Anything interesting, dear?'
'Nothing, just junk

Philipbrooks8 said...

After many years of searching I now have a copy of one of the greatest poems
EVER written.Long may it be remembered.
Philip Andrew Brooks

PRow792188 said...

There are eight lines missing from the text you quote (and from all the
other versions I've seen on the internet) - I only realised this when I compared
it with the version recorded by Nigel Hawthorne in 1996 (on Helios label) and
found they didn't tally. The full version begins as follows:

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 and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient's against her, but she's on time.

Thro’ sparse countries she rampages,
Her driver’s eye upon the gauges.
Panting up past lonely farms
Fed by the fireman’s restless arms.
Striding forward along the rails
Thro’ southern uplands with northern mails.

Winding up the valley to the watershed,
Thro’ the heather and the weather
and the dawn overhead.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

[It then continues as you have it.]

Marion O'Byrne said...

I recited this poem by heart when I was about 13 for the schools parents night and have always loved it. Amazingly enough, many of the words are still in my memory and I'm now 58!! My English teacher encouraged me to sound "like a train" when doing the recitation and I believe I did it quite well. I went to the library to look for the poem, trying to remember the parts that I had forgotten, and never realized the history of it (used for a commercial) so couldn't find it in any book. I came home and did a search for it on the internet and low and behold, there it was. Great poem!!!

Marie Francis said...

This poem takes me back to my childhood. We learnt it at school and the
sound it makes sound just like a train when a lot of voices say it together.
Wonderful memories! Thank you for sharing. I wish I could get a copy of
the video with the spoken naration.

Marie Francis

a childs said...

We have Adam Lindsay Gordon poem ( From the Wreck ) ADMELLA on supberb DVD and history of this 150 year old tragic ship wreck event .

Anonymous said...

I am from Darjeeling (India)...our English Teacher would sound like a steam engine while reciting this poem and we followed him...there was the hush sound of the train slowing, the chuggs of climbing up the mountain and the full throttle on the plain...Thank you Sir Andre LeferveSt.Joseph's College, Dareeling) for making us love this poem...thank you!!!...Prashant Pradhan

Anonymous said...

W. H. Auden describes the journey of life as a journey of a train...

Just Gloria said...

This has always been one of my favourite poems. Now it has become another chapter in the history of our once great country for sadly there is now no night mail train and the cheque and the postal order are on their way out.

Roger Davis said...

Wonderful poem bringing back lovely memories of the film of the night train with the poem being recited. Postal workers sorting the mail on the train and the noise of the engine and the clickety click of the rails. All unfortunately gone.

Anonymous said...

Gone but not lost, the original film has been put on U tube just search under "mail train". Takes me back to my childhood in the 1950's!

Anonymous said...

Love the "Junk Mail" poem - just remember, though, junk mail keeps a lot of people in jobs too! (Not railway workers though)

Robert said...

I travelled the night train in latter fifties being at university in london and family in glasgow and have loved the old steam trains ever since.

viagra online said...

W H Auden haves a very particular style, I wonder if you have the entire poem collection from this guy.

Anjali kumari mandal said...

I'm a class VII's girl and in our school just a few days before this poem was taught and W.H.Auden has done such a fabulous work that I just feel like as if I'm inside the poem,as if I can feel the rhythms.I appreciate the idea very much because over here the night mail is being so nice described that each and everyone could understand its importance in daily life when there was no telephone to communicate with people staying far away.

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Anonymous said...

great poem. I learn t this poem for literature.
This poem touched my heart because of its rhythm

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Anu said...

Thanks,I,d take it important as it saved my elocuion and poetry prize.

Anwika said...

Its an awwwwwwwwwwwesome poem as the lively description helps one to be the soul of this poem.Descriptions are interesting and one can itself feel the throb of the train.Its like observing the train.Please don't limit this extraordinarily vivid poem to books and notes.

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