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The Romance of the Rail

In these iron days of the dominance of steam, the crowning wrong that
is wrought us of furnace and piston-rod lies in their annihilation of
the steadfast mystery of the horizon, so that the imagination no
longer begins to work at the point where vision ceases. In happier
times, three hundred years ago, the seafarers from Bristol City looked
out from the prows of their vessels in the grey of the morning, and
wot not rightly whether the land they saw might be Jerusalem or
Madagascar, or if it were not North and South America. ``And there be
certaine flitting islands,'' says one, ``which have been oftentimes
seene, and when men approached near them they vanished.'' ``It may be
that the gulfs will wash us down,'' said Ulysses (thinking of what
Americans call the ``getting-off place''); ``it may be we shall touch
the Happy Isles.'' And so on, and so on; each with his special hope or
``wild surmise.'' There was always a chance of touching the Happy
Isles. And in that first fair world whose men and manners we knew
through story-books, before experience taught us far other, the Prince
mounts his horse one fine morning, and rides all day, and sleeps in a
forest; and next morning, lo! a new country: and he rides by fields
and granges never visited before, through faces strange to him, to
where an unknown King steps down to welcome the mysterious stranger.
And he marries the Princess, and dwells content for many a year; till
one day he thinks ``I will look upon my father's face again, though
the leagues be long to my own land.'' And he rides all day, and sleeps
in a forest; and next morning he is made welcome at home, where his
name has become a dim memory. Which is all as it should be; for,
annihilate time and space as you may, a man's stride remains the true
standard of distance; an eternal and unalterable scale. The severe
horizon, too, repels the thoughts as you gaze to the infinite
considerations that lie about, within touch and hail; and the night
cometh, when no man can work.

To all these natural bounds and limitations it is good to get back now
and again, from a life assisted and smooth by artificialities. Where
iron has superseded muscle, the kindly life-blood is apt to throb dull
as the measured beat of the steam-engine. But the getting back to them
is now a matter of effort, of set purpose, a stepping aside out of our
ordinary course; they are no longer unsought influences towards the
making of character. So perhaps the time of them has gone by, here in
this second generation of steam. Pereunt et imputantur; they pass
away, and are scored against not us but our guilty fathers. For
ourselves, our peculiar slate is probably filling fast. The romance of
the steam-engine is yet to be captured and expressed -- not fully nor
worthily, perhaps, until it too is a vanished regret; though Emerson
for one will not have it so, and maintains and justifies its right to
immediate recognition as poetic material. ``For as it is dislocation
and detachment from the life of God that makes things ugly, the poet,
who re-attaches things to Nature and the whole -- re-attaching even
artificial things and violations of Nature to Nature by a deeper
insight -- disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts''; so
that he looks upon ``the factory village and the railway'' and ``sees
them fall within the great Order not less than the bee-hive or the
spider's geometrical web.'' The poet, however, seems hard to convince
hereof. Emerson will have it that ``Nature loves the gliding train of
cars''; ``instead of which'' the poet still goes about the country
singing purling brooks. Painters have been more flexible and liberal.
Turner saw and did his best to seize the spirit of the thing, its
kinship with the elements, and to blend furnace-glare and rush of iron
with the storm-shower, the wind and the thwart-flashing sun-rays, and
to make the whole a single expression of irresoluble force. And even
in a certain work by another and a very different painter -- though I
willingly acquit Mr Frith of any deliberate romantic intention -- you
shall find the element of romance in the vestiges of the old order
still lingering in the first transition period: the coach-shaped
railway carriages with luggage piled and corded on top, the red-coated
guard, the little engine tethered well ahead as if between traces. To
those bred within sight of the sea, steamers will always partake in
somewhat of the ``beauty and mystery of the ships''; above all, if
their happy childhood have lain among the gleaming lochs and sinuous
firths of the Western Highlands, where, twice a week maybe, the
strange visitant crept by headland and bay, a piece of the busy,
mysterious outer world. For myself, I probably stand alone in owning
to a sentimental weakness for the night-piercing whistle --
judiciously remote, as some men love the skirl of the pipes. In the
days when streets were less wearily familiar than now, or ever the
golden cord was quite loosed that led back to relinquished fields and
wider skies, I have lain awake on stifling summer nights, thinking of
luckier friends by moor and stream, and listening for the whistles
from certain railway stations, veritable ``horns of Elf-land, faintly
blowing.'' Then, a ghostly passenger, I have taken my seat in a
phantom train, and sped up, up, through the map, rehearsing the
journey bit by bit: through the furnace-lit Midlands, and on till the
grey glimmer of dawn showed stone walls in place of hedges, and masses
looming up on either side; till the bright sun shone upon brown
leaping streams and purple heather, and the clear, sharp northern air
streamed in through the windows. Return, indeed, was bitter;
Endymion-like, ``my first touch of the earth went nigh to kill'': but
it was only to hurry northwards again on the wings of imagination,
from dust and heat to the dear mountain air. ``We are only the
children who might have been,'' murmured Lamb's dream babes to him;
and for the sake of those dream-journeys, the journeys that might have
been, I still hail with a certain affection the call of the engine in
the night: even as I love sometimes to turn the enchanted pages of the
railway a b c, and pass from one to the other name reminiscent or
suggestive of joy and freedom, Devonian maybe, or savouring of Wessex,
or bearing me away to some sequestered reach of the quiet Thames.

Kenneth Grahame