chapter  43
MODERNISM
ByT. HUGH CRAWFORD
Pages 10

Although they long predate the official emergence of Modernism proper, two American poems, both written within a few years of each other, in many ways embody the tensions and, ultimately, the direction of the arts and literature in the first part of the twentieth century. In “I like to see it lap the miles,” Emily Dickinson attempts to domesticate what was, for her historical moment, the radically transformative technology – the railroad, which brings a change in relation not just to space, but also to nature, and, perhaps most significantly, to time. Dickinson gently raises these questions: her train is obedient, docile, punctual, supercilious, and “licks the valley up” (Dickinson 1976: 286). And her trope is nothing if not inventive; comparing the train to a horse – a new form of transportation to an old, familiar one – is simultaneously absurd and apt. Still, one cannot help but sense that her attempt to clothe such a massive and distributed technological system in a rhetoric of the agrarian familiar is strained, if not a bit desperate. Dickinson’s train is completely domesticated, purely docile, and is even sung to a familiar tune: the old and comfortable hymn meter that characterizes her poetic form. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, presents the reader with a profoundly

different train, in part tricked out in operatic finery, but defined primarily by a simple articulation of its parts, perhaps an attempt to depict both its bulk and complexity. His poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter,” first published in 1876 (within a few years of the composition of Dickinson’s poem), includes the following list:

Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel, Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides,

Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance, Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front, Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple, The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,

Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels.