To a Locomotive in Winter

This winter, Boston’s record-breaking snowstorms paralyzed the already debt-stressed and out of date MBTA. The transportation system shut down entirely twice. Delays tripled and quadrupled in the days that followed. The general manager quit. Weeks (and weeks) later, plenty of commuters were still dealing with the aftermath.

So it was a treat to visit Switzerland at the end of February and zip around the country by train.

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The smooth, quiet comfort of its interior! The nearly to-the-second reliability! The gorgeous views, from spire-tipped Zurich to countryside, through winding bridge and tunnel to alpine village, up and up, all the way to the base of those singular, massive peaks!

Traveling by train is typically Swiss: in a sweeping way, it says so much about the country and its people, their priorities and preoccupations.

It makes me think of Whitman’s 1876 poem (shown below in its entirety), ¨To a Locomotive in Winter,¨ which celebrates the American train (and American perspective) of the Industrial Revolution.

But the Swiss train, with its punctuality, cleanliness, quality, precision, and range, seems worthy of its own ecstatic poetic apostrophe.

Thee for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm, even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
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,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily-following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind, and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.


The Glacier Express, travelling toward Chur, Switzerland

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.