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Who is in charge of the clattering train?

19 August 2010

Over the past couple years as I’ve watched the evening news, I’ve often had this poem below come to mind. It was quoted at least once by Winston Churchill in the thirties as he tried to inspire Parliament to do more to meet the growing threat from Germany. And it seems to me to describe the situation our country is in equally well. We have so many major crises looming in our future and our leaders just seem to be asleep at the controls as we barrel down the tracks toward an entirely predictable disaster.

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The poem came from a late nineteenth century issue of Punch Magazine. They explained it‘s inspiration with this way:

“Major MARINDIN, in his Report to the Board of Trade on
the railway collision at Eastleigh, attributes it to the
engine-driver and stoker having “failed to keep a proper
look-out.” His opinion is, that both men were “asleep, or
nearly so,” owing to having been on duty for sixteen hours
and a-half. “He expresses himself in very strong terms on
the great danger to the public of working engine-drivers and
firemen for too great a number of hours.”–Daily Chronicle.”


Who is in charge of the clattering train? 

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Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
Ten minutes behind at the Junction. Yes!
And we’re twenty now to the bad–no less!
We must make it up on our flight to town.
Clatter and crash! That’s the last train down,
Flashing by with a steamy trail.
Pile on the fuel! We must not fail.
At every mile we a minute must gain!
Who is in charge of the clattering train?

Why, flesh and blood, as a matter of course!
You may talk of iron, and prate of force;
But, after all, and do what you can,
The best–and cheapest–machine is Man!
Wealth knows it well, and the hucksters feel
‘Tis safer to trust them to sinew than steel.
With a bit of brain, and a conscience, behind,
Muscle works better than steam or wind.
Better, and longer, and harder all round;
And cheap, so cheap! Men superabound
Men stalwart, vigilant, patient, bold;
The stokehole’s heat and the crow’s-nest’s cold,
The choking dusk of the noisome mine,
The northern blast o’er the beating brine,
With dogged valour they coolly brave;
So on rattling rail, or on wind-scourged wave,
At engine lever, at furnace front,
Or steersman’s wheel, they must bear the brunt
Of lonely vigil or lengthened strain.
Man is in charge of the thundering train!

Man, in the shape of a modest chap
In fustian trousers and greasy cap;
A trifle stolid, and something gruff,
Yet, though unpolished, of sturdy stuff.
With grave grey eyes, and a knitted brow,
The glare of sun and the gleam of snow
Those eyes have stared on this many a year.
The crow’s-feet gather in mazes queer
About their corners most apt to choke
With grime of fuel and fume of smoke.
Little to tickle the artist taste–
An oil-can, a fist-full of “cotton waste,”
The lever’s click and the furnace gleam,
And the mingled odour of oil and steam;
These are the matters that fill the brain
Of the Man in charge of the clattering train.

Only a Man, but away at his back,
In a dozen ears, on the steely track,
A hundred passengers place their trust
In this fellow of fustian, grease, and dust.
They cheerily chat, or they calmly sleep,
Sure that the driver his watch will keep
On the night-dark track, that he will not fail.
So the thud, thud, thud of wheel upon rail
The hiss of steam-spurts athwart the dark.
Lull them to confident drowsiness. Hark!

What is that sound? ‘Tis the stertorous breath
Of a slumbering man,–and it smacks of death!
Full sixteen hours of continuous toil
Midst the fume of sulphur, the reek of oil,
Have told their tale on the man’s tired brain,
And Death is in charge of the clattering train!

Sleep–Death’s brother, as poets deem,
Stealeth soft to his side; a dream
Of home and rest on his spirit creeps,
That wearied man, as the engine leaps,
Throbbing, swaying along the line;
Those poppy-fingers his head incline
Lower, lower, in slumber’s trance;
The shadows fleet, and the gas-gleams dance
Faster, faster in mazy flight,
As the engine flashes across the night.
Mortal muscle and human nerve
Cheap to purchase, and stout to serve.
Strained too fiercely will faint and swerve.
Over-weighted, and underpaid,
This human tool of exploiting Trade,
Though tougher than leather, tenser than steel.
Fails at last, for his senses reel,
His nerves collapse, and, with sleep-sealed eyes,
Prone and helpless a log he lies!
A hundred hearts beat placidly on,
Unwitting they that their warder’s gone;
A hundred lips are babbling blithe,
Some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

-Anonymous

 

 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 August 2010 5:46 pm

    Really long, but I agree.

  2. 26 August 2010 11:59 am

    A+ would read again

  3. Linda permalink
    18 October 2010 8:47 pm

    This is not an anonymous poem, it was written by Edwin J Milliken. The accident happened on 12 July 1890. The driver was William Pitt who had been on duty for 14 hours when the accident occurred and Mr Turner the guard of another train was the man killed.

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