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Trains, from "The Railway Train," a poem by Emily Dickineson

Subthemes: Formidable Power, Speed, Metaphor or Restrictive Rails

In one of her happiest poems and most extended metaphors, Emily Dickinson imagines “The Railway Train” as a mighty steed, galloping powerfully across the land, yet well-trained (so to speak) when evening falls. Readers can spot several subthemes of Trains animated by this creative poem.

“The Railway Train,” by Emily Dickinson

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step
Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties, by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare
To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill
And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop–docile and omnipotent–
At its own stable door.

Formidable Power: Trains in the 19th century embodied power; Dickinson chose the apt word prodigious. They loomed above people, bellowed sound, poured out smoke, created a rush of wind, sped across the countryside, and hauled unimaginable tonnage. For hours a train could pull not only a string of passenger carriages but also tons of lumber, coal, grains, and other freight. Trains pass loudly, or as Dickinson put it neigh like Boanerges, referring to Jesus’ nickname for a disciple who preached loudly. The full-throated roar of a train blustering by reminded the poet of that stentorian voice. To this day, the blur and commotion of an Amtrak train plummeting by calls out its visceral power and dynamism. Or the stolid parade of a 100-car freight train in the Midwest signals a beast with scale and momentum almost too much to stop – one that is omnipotent. In the poem, the train stallion is easily able to

Around a pile of mountains

Trains have been and continue to be proud giants (supercilious) that surpass all else that moves on land with their broad shoulders of speedy steel.

Speed: Given stretches of track with no stations, trains can build up speed. Not so much commuter trains, which slow and stop at each station, but long-distance trains can lap the miles at above 50 miles an hour. In Dickinson’s imagination, trains could lick the valleys up, lickety-split. Today, according to Wikipedia, the Shanghai Maglev Train, opened in 2004, is the fastest magnetic levitation train in operation, at 258 mph (430 km/h). The Euroduplex TGV trains reached a record of 344 mph (574.8 km/h), making it the fastest conventional wheeled train. In their glory days, before automobiles appeared, trains were by far the fastest form of transportation on land.

Because of that speed and weight, however, trains take a long time to slow and come to rest.

Stop–docile and omnipotent–
At its own stable door.

Trains build up tremendous kinetic energy as everyone notices when an Acela roars by.

Metaphor of Restrictive Rails: Even with all its muscular force, however, a train must stay on its allotted tracks and switch only when directed by workers. Dickinson chooses to convey this constraint wit the word docile, which conveys the subdued obedience of the powerful genie train despite its imposing physique when it is let out. In comparison to other forms of transportation, trains must stick within a narrow gauge, so to speak. Horses can move any way and any where, cars enjoy much more freedom of movement (especially if we take into account off-roading), planes can change altitude but are locked into landing at or taking off from airports, while ships freely roam the seas.

Trains cannot climb much, so for the beast to ascend, construction workers must build tunnels or carve mountains:

And then a quarry pare
To fit its sides, and crawl between

because a heavy train can not climb more than a slight upward grade. Brawny trains have to follow the strait and narrow, and the flat.


Remarkable when Dickinson wrote, and even to this day, trains embody a powerful force harnessed to the needs of humans. They can outhaul anything and outrun most, yet they must obey the strictures of the level tracks on which they gallop.

If you are interested in subthemes of the concept “Trains,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview of this project, see this article that explains Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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