The Railway Train

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop--docile and omnipotent--
At its own stable door.


  • prodigious: enormous;
  • supercilious: condescending, arrogant, proud;
  • Boanerges: a name Christ gave to the disciples James and John, meaning "sons of thunder"; also, a loud preacher or orator;
  • docile: obedient, submissive; 
  • omnipotent: all powerful.

Analysis of Poem

Adopting a childlike wonder and enthusiasm, Dickinson plays with the metaphor of the train as an "iron horse." In her day, the similarities would have had a vividness and an immediacy that have been lost in ours (after all, how often do you use a horse for transportation?). The charm of the poem has not changed, however, even though in our day the phrase "iron horse" has become a cliche.

Enjoying this poem requires a willingness to be delighted by the ingenuity, appropriateness, and whimsy of the detailed comparison.

What words and images describe a horse, e.g., "lap"? Do they accurately describe the characteristics and movements of the train as well as of a horse?

Note her use of sounds:

  • Alliteration:
    • "like," "lap," "lick"
    • "supercilious," "shanties," "sides"
    • "horrid, hooting"
    • "star," "stop," and "stable"
    • "docile" and "door"
  • Other repeated sounds:
    • "stop," "prodigious," "supercilious," and "pile"

Is there a reason why Dickinson emphasized these particular words? For instance, are they important words? Are they connected by meaning?

What qualities is Dickinson emphasizing in the horse/train metaphor? Is the presentation of this machine favorable or unfavorable? Is she presenting it as alien, threatening? does she make it familiar by incorporating it into nature and everyday life? or does she achieve some other effect(s)?

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

Core Studies 6 Page || Melani Home Page