Selected Criticism

"To a Locomotive in Winter" (1876)
Andriano, Joseph
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Having first appeared 19 February 1876, in the New York Daily Tribune, as part of a preview of the volume Two Rivulets (1876), "To a Locomotive in Winter" was added to Leaves of Grass in 1881, in the cluster "From Noon to Starry Night." Whitman probably wrote the poem in the winter of 1875, when he felt old and "shattered" by his recent stroke (1873). Feeling his own life in "winter-day declining," the poet attempts to tap into the potent power of the locomotive, invoking it to "serve the Muse."

In a note on the manuscript, Whitman conceived the train as an emblem of modern "Power & Motion." But "Locomotive" is not simply a poem celebrating a technological triumph. Nor is it merely a postromantic attempt to glean something poetic out of industry and technology. The poet transforms the train into a poem, then listens to its "lawless music." Whitman hears dissonant music—modern music—in the "shrieks" and "rumbling" of the train: "No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine." What makes the locomotive a "[t]ype of the modern," then, is not merely its synecdochal representation of technology but also its assertion that any subject may be poetical—and cacophony may be beautiful ("Fierce-throated beauty!").

The poem is divided into two unnumbered sections. The first (lines 1–17) is a chanting apostrophe, cast as a "recitative." In opera, the recitatives are the passages in which characters appear to be talking; the half-sung, half-spoken vocal style is rhythmically free so that the singer may imitate the natural inflections of speech. Thus Whitman is not only making his free verse more operatic, he is attempting to enter into a dialogue with the locomotive. In the first section he appears to do all the talking, but actually he embeds the locomotive's song in his sound effects. Most of the explicit imagery of the first seventeen lines is visual (as French has shown), but the implicit imagery is auditory: if the poem is read aloud (as it really must be), the locomotive comes alive—assonance ("serve . . . merge," "buffeting gusts") and alliteration ("pale . . . vapor-pennants . . . purple") especially compensate for the lack of auditory imagery that French noticed, and the iambic thrust of many of the lines ("Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel") more subtly suggests the pulsing power of the locomotive.

In the pulsing rhythm of the locomotive's poetry, Whitman finds the systolic and diastolic rhythm of heartbeat and spirit. But he knows that it is a living thing only when he instills it with life through his poem. It is not a poem until he makes it one; no one hears its song until he, the poet, writes the notes. So in the second section (lines 18–25), he implies that the only way the train can join the dialogue of the recitative is through him ("Roll through my chant"). An exchange has occurred: the machine has been animated and vitalized by the poet; and the man crippled by stroke has absorbed the energy of the locomotive.

Though Whitman's body was now feeble, his spirit could still find strength, and his language still had the power to move. "Locomotive" is often anthologized, not only because it begs comparison with a famous poem by Emily Dickinson ("I like to see it lap the miles—," also about a train that speaks dissonant poetry in "horrid hooting stanza"), but perhaps especially because it evokes—and invokes—the Ghost in the Machine.


Christ, Ronald. "Walt Whitman: Image and Credo." American Quarterly 17 (1965): 92–103.

Faner, Robert. Walt Whitman & Opera. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1951.

French, Roberts W. "Music for a Mad Scene: A Reading of 'To a Locomotive in Winter.'" Walt Whitman Review 27 (1981): 32–39.

Jerome, Judson. "Type of the Modern." University of Dayton Review 19.1 (1987–1988): 69–78.


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