The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 1 (April 1, 1938.)
New Zealand Railway Lines in Prose and Verse
It is true in a sense that is quite distinctive and, moreover, peculiar to our history, that the railways made New Zealand. The boundless vision of Sir Julius Vogel used a far leaping railway building policy to serve a double purpose; to bring a magnificent class of immigrant here; and to give the settlers their badly needed transport. The building of our railways was a titanic achievement. They had to be driven through a terrain of lofty mountain, myriad river torrents, ravine, precipice, and swamp. The countless scenic wonders that make our land a universe of natural beauty, created a cascading riot of engineering problems.
The achievement itself was a romance, and it is strange that so little of this gripping epic of human endeavour has been preserved in our literature. There are more than thirty thousand New Zealand volumes in the Turnbull Library. I have spent weeks of search, and I have been observing and writing about New Zealand railways so many years that I can claim to be completely “railway-minded.”
I find that the total output of imaginative literature inspired by our railways is quite small, amounting to one collection of short stories, and a few scattered platoons of verse. I can say, however, by way of comfort that New Zealand has produced the best railway verse of any land.
The world's imagination has always been stirred by great engineering deeds. Such books as “The U.P. Trail,” “Whispering Smith,” “The Iron Trail,” and a dozen others have thrilled readers by the tens of thousands, bringing home to them the breathless romance of the linking by rail of the American coasts.
When “Brogden's Babies,” the handpicked lusty giants of immigrants, started the task of railway construction in New Zealand, they needed all their mighty thews and roaring vitality to overcome the formidable obstacles in the way of road making.
From daylight to dark, New Zealand skies resounded with the thundering strains of “So Early in the Morning,” and other hearty ditties, as “Brogden's Babies” tunnelled, dug, ripped and tore their way through range and swamp, bridging foaming rivers, and levelling huge earth barriers. As the work went on, we mobilised here an imposing army of engineering miracles. The Main Trunk line has thirty-two tunnels and the bizarre and amazing Raurimu Spiral; the Otira tunnel piercing the towering Southern Alps, is the longest tunnel in the Empire, and is approached by the incredible “Staircase” with fourteen tunnels in seven miles and an awesome complexity of slopes and steps. In the words of an American engineer of my acquaintance it was the “height of human impudence to build a railroad through such an Alpine geological curiosity shop.” I suppose it takes time to embalm great deeds in poem or story. While men are doing things, they have no time to write about them. Still we are approaching our hundredth year as a country, and we have established claims to a literature of our own. Our sheep stations have sponsored many good novels; but never our railway stations; our Maori wars have produced fine romances, but never our battles with flood and fire, rubbled slips and quaking morasses. Even the quiet suburban life of our town dwellers has its meed of story-tellers and verse writers. I find, after thorough research that there is not one novel dealing either with railway building or the lives of railwaymen. There is one collection of brilliant short stories, written by C. A. Jefferies, himself an ex-stationmaster. He had the makings of a great writer. His “Shepherd Kings of Canterbury” was a vivid picturising of an epoch that is past, the wide and prodigal days of the squatter ruling classes and their feudal splendour and boundless riches. “By Rail and Semaphore,” however, is sparkling from first page to last. I select from it “Driver Bruce's Walpurgis Night,” a roaring comedy of the rail, set round the innocent consumption by a Scottish driver of a bottle of Benedictine which had been well warmed, according to hopelessly muddled instructions. The subsequent nightmare drive from Duntroon to Timaru is described with rich gusto, but there is no train wreck. The driver's railway training asserted itself… . “There was a screech of brakes. They shot past the distant signal, but beyond it again, the starting signal (sic) gleamed blood-red. A short succession of jerks brought them to a standstill at the platform.” It is a noble effort, a story utterly and completely impossible, but the atmosphere is authentic, and Driver Bruce is a figure from a railway Homer.
I should have thought that, in page 10 modern times we would marvel at the ineffable power and majesty of a great express engine, the mystery and beauty of a train night journey, the glory of the twin steel lines over mountain and plain, the breathless speed of an express journey through the wildest work of old Mother Earth; the homely rattle of a suburban train through the crowded outskirts of teeming cities; all these should have produced high poetry in every land where the railroad runs.
But the whole panorama is disappointing. Yet we find no less a person than Mr. Edmund Vale declaring that “Railway rhythm in its perfected form is one of the most profound poetical manifestations of the mechanical world.”
This has not permeated English verse to any extent. The commoner mood is a sort of weariness as in Harold Monro's “Week End.”
“Now we sit Reading the morning paper in the sound
Of the debilitating heavy train. London again, again. London again.”
The great Robert Browning made a queer mistake in his “Easter Eve,” thinking that the rhythmic clacking he heard was made by the engine and not by the turning wheels of the coach on the lines.
“A tune was born in my head last week Out of the bump, bump and the shriek shriek
Of the train, as I came by it, up from Manchester
And when next week I take it back again
My head will sing to the engine's clack again.”
Now I am going to show quite easily, I think, that not only the august loveliness of steam and steel, but the human warmth and romance implicit in the craft or calling of the railway service, has reached its highest expression in the verse made in New Zealand.
I ran across a book of railway verses by a poet from the railways of Scotland, that land where “one pen in ten is a poet's quill.” Alexander Anderson was a surfaceman and he lived in Dumfrieshire, where Burns spent the last years of his life. There is a sincerity about the work of this poet and he had the culture common to his race, but his feelings are stronger than the poetic value of his work.
Here is a verse from “The Engine.”
“But how well he can bear it, this Titan of toil
When his pathway yields to his tread,
And the vigour within him flares up to its height Till the smoke of his breath grows red.
Then he shrieks in delight as an athlete might When he reaches his wild desire,
And from head to heel, through each muscle of steel, Runs the cunning and clasp of the fire.”
Many of the poems are stories of real life in rhyme, and they have a definite homely beauty of their own. His Muse was naturally not assisted by his job, and this is finely said.
“I leap aside, the train roars past, And all my fancies, worn and sick, Come slowly back, to die at last In the sharp raspings of the pick.”
However, I am not being over-patriotic when I say I like the following sample better. It is from George Gordon's “The Driver.”
“What makes a driver? From the time his little heart could thrill, His little ears could hear the magic train,
The movements in the shunting yard, the engine's whistle shrill…” and then—
“School done, he seeks a cleaner's job, and loves it from the start, The healthy smells of oils and waste cheer his full-engined heart,
Delight he feels in ponderous wheels, in steam-dome burnished bright,
In ‘pinching’ engines round the shed, and setting fires alight.”
There is a ring of reality about this, and it is touched with the true gleam.page 11
Here is another craftsmanlike set of verses, “When the North Express Comes In,” by John MacLennan. This is the real thing:
“It's a dusty road from the North to the South, A dusty road and long,
And the glinting cranks must needs be true, And the boiler tight and strong.
The driver sits on the right-hand seat,
And his heart keeps time with the rhythmic beat
Of the valves, and he's grimed with the smoke and heat, When the North Express comes in.”
And here is the splendid last verse:
“There's a prayer in the cab of the North Express, As the driver shuts off steam,
And grips the lever of the brake, For the home-light soon will gleam
On the tired train; then he'll leave his seat
On the right-hand side; and sound and sweet
Is the sleep of a man and his mate, dead-beat, When the North Express is in.”
There is a railway sound about these, and both poems are worth reading as a whole.
The railway train is also mentioned in Quentin Pope's polished and brilliant “The Song of Speed.”
“The engine stutters its fiery song As the things of earth flash by,
The race to the swift and the strong, the strong, The turn to the sure of eye.”
I have left Will Lawson to the last for he made the railways his private province, and explored it assiduously. Many a night journey he spent in the cab of a hurtling train; he spent hours and hours in engine sheds and clattering workshops. The engine room of a steamer and the form of an A.B. engine were twin sources of his highest inspiration. He spared no pains to plumb the mystery of this fascinating organism of steel and steam, of speed and human travail.
Listen to this.
“Stoking on the ‘Paekok’ With thirty wagons on,
Choking in the ‘Paekok'. When air and daylight's gone,
And hear her roaring funnel
A-thrashing in the tunnel, A-firing in the ‘Paekok'
With just your trousers on.”
Then there is a real pulse in the tragic poem “The Cattle Train.”
“With thump and rattle of springs And clatter of undergear
The long train rumbles and swings Till the tail-lights twinkle clear
From the plain lands down to the coast, Over the hills between
That is the engine's boast,
That is where she has been A thousand times; and each time she brings
A load of quivering, captured kings.”
Here is a vital memory of a night drive—“The Flyer.”
“And e'en when the day is ended,
And heavier builds outstrip,
She'll come in the moonlight splendid,
And blow where the crossings dip,
And men laid dead in the distance
Will turn in their sleep, I know
To hear the rush of her pistons,
And smile when they hear her blow,”
But my choice is “Drivin',” with its curious refrain:
“Oh, I'm drivin'—drivin'
There's many thousands strivin’ Some men drive cows, Some foamin’ bows,
I set six wheels a-drivin’ …
Now hear the words my engine speaks Slow, rhythmic yet not singin'
As by the peaks and tumblin’ creeks Her eighty tons goes ringin'
Man's life is just two far-stretched rails, With many a curve and crossin',
The levels change, the wide curves range Up grades and down, a-tossin'
And men must live and men must die,
So what's the use of growlin',
The ‘Danger’ falls, the whistle calls
Full Steam—and take it howlin', These words are cheerin’ like to those
Whose lives are full of strivin', The smooth valves gape, the smooth valves close, And I am drivin'—drivin'.”
I am proud of New Zealand achievement in the matter of poetry about the railway. However, It is not enough. As time goes on, the mightiest industrial brotherhood of our country must and shall produce its writers of epics-and its creators of romances. There is so much glowing material; the superb fellowship of the service; the selfless-gallantry of all ranks; the panorama of gigantic past difficulties overcome; the weird and wondrous beauty of the land through which our iron lines are laid; the mightiness and mystery, the power and magic of modern mechanisms; these should produce a continuous fountain of great literary creativeness.
There is a novel in every journey of a night goods train; there is a poem in every white jet of steam as a “K” locomotive climbs to Horopito. They will be written.