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What's the Railroad to Me? -- Henry David Thoreau

Taking a break from epigrams...
(Poem #670) What's the Railroad to Me?
 What's the railroad to me?
 I never go to see
 Where it ends.
 It fills a few hollows,
 And makes banks for the swallows,
 It sets the sand a-blowing,
 And the blackberries a-growing.
-- Henry David Thoreau
Note: From Thoreau's novel 'Walden'

Today's piece forms an interesting counterpoint to poems like Stevenson's
'From a Railway Carriage'. Like roads, railroads (and trains) have garnered
a considerable body of poetry, and for much the same reason. There is a deep
fascination with travel that permeates the collective consciousness; that has
moved countless poets and writers and been responsible for some of their
best works.

In 'What's the Railroad to Me', Thoreau presents a rather different point of
view - that of the uninterested (one is tempted to say 'parochial') person
who 'never goes to see where it ends'. This is in one sense not a
particularly startling viewpoint - it finds echoes in every complaint about
future shock, or the increasingly pervasive intrusion of the 'modern' world
into every surviving enclave of the old one. I do, however, like Thoreau's
treatment of it - the railroad is viewed not as an intrusion, a slash across
the countryside, but rather an accepted part of it. 'What's the railroad to
me?' asks the narrator, and then goes on to answer his question - rather
than a mere rhetorical hook leading in to a rant about the railroad, this is
a genuine exploration of the railroad's place in the surrounding landscape,
from the point of view of someone who cares neither for point A nor for
point B.


  Bob Blair has a nice discussion of the poem within the context of Walden

  Here's an annotated etext of Walden:

  A biography of Thoreau:

  The Stevenson piece referred to: poem #84

And finally, by way of lagniappe:

  "I'm afraid you're going to have to accept it," said Mr Prosser gripping
  his fur hat and rolling it round the top of his head, "this bypass has got
  to be built and it's going to be built!"

  "First I've heard of it," said Arthur, "why's it going to be built?"

  Mr Prosser shook his finger at him for a bit, then stopped and put it away

  "What do you mean, why's it got to be built?" he said. "It's a bypass.
  You've got to build bypasses."

  Bypasses are devices which allow some people to drive from point A to
  point B very fast whilst other people dash from point B to point A very
  fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are
  often given to wonder what's so great about point A that so many people of
  point B are so keen to get there, and what's so great about point B that
  so many people of point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that
  people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to

  Mr Prosser wanted to be at point D. Point D wasn't anywhere in particular,
  it was just any convenient point a very long way from points A, B and C.
  He would have a nice little cottage at point D, with axes over the door,
  and spend a pleasant amount of time at point E, which would be the nearest
  pub to point D.

        -- Douglas Adams, 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'


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