Ringing Grooves of Change

In the first lines of Tennyson’s ‘Godiva’, it is made clear just how inspiring Tennyson found the railways of his time.

‘I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city’s ancient legend into this: --’ – Godiva

Perhaps not the most promising opening to a poem, what is nonetheless made clear by the first lines of Tennyson’s ‘Godiva’, is just how inspiring Tennyson found the railway. Now the domain of train-spotters, to the modern mind, the railway is not a particularly thrilling topic, however to the Victorians it came to symbolise the forwards motion of industrialisation. Even now, the railway is used as short hand for ideas about profit, success and modernity. Donald Trump even, in quite a traditional fashion, promised to build new railways as part of his inaugural address.

‘We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.’ – Donald Trump

It is Tennyson however, who has given us some of the most famous lines about railways, particularly in ‘Locksley Hall’, a poem which projects forwards into the industrial future.

‘There methinks would be enjoyment more than in this march of mind,
In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind.’
‘Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.’ – Locksley Hall

These are amongst the most quoted lines from ‘Locksley Hall’, a poem whose contents is otherwise far more problematic to the modern reader, or even many readers of the time, both in terms of the racism and sexism of the speaker.

‘Weakness to be wroth with weakness! woman's pleasure, woman's pain—
Nature made them blinder motions bounded in a shallower brain:’ – Locksley Hall

 ‘There the passions cramp'd no longer shall have scope and breathing space;
I will take some savage woman, she shall rear my dusky race.’ – Locksley Hall

However, the content of ‘Locksley Hall’ is perhaps unsurprising, given that the railways and trains in literature have a great habit of being associated with over-bearing masculine power – the pinnacle of which is perhaps shown in Anna Karenina’s death.

‘And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and drawing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage, and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees. And at the same instant she was terror-stricken at what she was doing. “Where am I? What am I doing? What for?” She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and merciless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. “Lord, forgive me all!” she said, feeling it impossible to struggle. A peasant muttering something was working at the iron above her. And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.’

I suppose that the homonym of train, the transport, and train the verb, rather sums it up. The trains themselves unified Britain, they brought us synchronised time, and the possibility for the dissemination of news and material. Neither the Industrial Revolution, nor the British Empire would have occurred without the train – hence the passion for them in Victorian Poetry.

‘Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.
Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart runaway in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!’ – ‘From a Railway Carriage’ Robert Louis Stevenson

Tennyson, however, was not blind to the associations between trains and the character that he drew in ‘Locksley Hall’, a character very much akin to the mad speaker of ‘Maud: A Monodrama’, whose father commits suicide at the beginning of the poem after a failed railway speculation.

‘Dead, long dead,
     Long dead!
     And my heart is a handful of dust,
     And the wheels go over my head,
     And my bones are shaken with pain,
     For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
     Only a yard beneath the street,
     And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat,
     The hoofs of the horses beat,
     Beat into my scalp and my brain,
     With never an end to the stream of passing feet,
     Driving, hurrying, marrying, burying,
     Clamour and rumble, and ringing and clatter,
     And here beneath it is all as bad,
     For I thought the dead had peace, but it is not so;
     To have no peace in the grave, is that not sad?
     But up and down and to and fro,
     Ever about me the dead men go;
     And then to hear a dead man chatter
     Is enough to drive one mad.’ – ‘Maud: A Monodrama

 Amusingly the passion for trains amongst the Victorians was something that principally came later, originally it was thought that the speed, motion and even sound of trains could cause a form insanity. It is these fears, perhaps, that inspire both ‘Maud: A Monodrama’ and ‘Locksley Hall’, for in this poem it is the constant noise, the ‘Driving, hurrying, marrying, burying,/Clamour and rumble, and ringing and clatter’ of trains, footsteps and carriages that cause the speaker’s madness, just as, perhaps, it is the ‘ringing grooves of change’ that bring about the ‘mad’ mood swings of the speaker of ‘Locksley Hall’.

Thankyou IOW Steam Railway for steam train image.








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