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Brew the Locomotion for Whitman's Marvelous Machine

Most great American train songs are really about people. But Walt Whitman’s “To a Locomotive in Winter” and Emily Dickinson’s “I like to see it lap the miles” are machinist at heart. They don’t depict engineers, stokers, and passengers. They don’t take you home, and they won’t bring your baby back. Dickinson’s mechanical animal, a frolicsome iron horse, rounds mountains and crosses valleys before finally coming to a stop. But Whitman’s train keeps on coming, making a constant locomotion: throbbing, gyrating, shuttling, protruding, careering, rumbling, rousing. Two decades before the Lumière Brothers’ train arrived at its celluloid station, Whitman’s marvelous machine rocketed into the sky—anticipating the pipe-bridled locomotives in F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto. The poem’s newest incarnation is a smoked porter, the fourth offering in Bell’s ongoing Leaves of Grass Series celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial.[1]

First published in the New York Daily Tribune in February of 1876, “To a Locomotive in Winter” traveled to the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. It’s an oddly depopulated poem for Whitman. Invisible hands ring the train’s bell and swing its silent signal lamps. There are only three first-person pronouns. Whitman’s opening line claims the locomotive for my recitative (the most plainspoken lines in operas). Yet he veers from the vernacular in dubbing it a mechanical knight:

            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,…

We don’t expect to hear archaic diction like panoply from such an unabashedly American poet. “To a Locomotive in Winter” is Whitman’s Song of Thyself.

Unlike most Whitman poems, this one can be hard to read aloud. In fact, the robust reader in Bell’s promotional video skips the first 17 lines (all one sentence!), bypassing Whitman’s incantation of the locomotive’s astonishing attributes. Two minutes into the video, this Bell’s employee starts with the poem’s pithy second sentence—Fierce-throated beauty!—and continues to the end:

            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 of 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.

Whitman summons the boisterous train and its lawless music into his poem, overlaying its track with his lines.

The Bell’s version of “To a Locomotive in Winter” is a smoking smooth porter. Lifting the glass, you’ll first notice the beer’s malty-chocolate smell before the roasty flavors skip toward the middle of your tongue. Then the faintly acrid hops will tickle your tongue-tip, followed by a touch of dark chocolate sweetness that finishes about an inch behind. The mouthfeel is lighter than you’d expect from this beer’s rich tastes, which fall within the contemporary porter profile that Horst Dornbusch and Garrett Oliver include in The Oxford Companion to Beer. (I reviewed the book here for MR.) But there’s nothing “faint” about this porter’s delicious smokiness, which permeates your upper palate and nose after a few sips. So why the German malts? I can’t parse that, though I’ll note that German malt and hops flavored the first beer in the Leaves of Grass Series (Song of Myself).

Smoke and railway porters go with trains, of course, but beer history also links Bell’s liquid locomotive to Whitman’s poem. As Dornbusch and Oliver point out, British porter production kept pace with the Industrial Revolution’s innovations: “Steam engines were in use in London’s porter breweries within months of being patented.” Porter was also popular in the United States until lager eclipsed it in the 1870s, the decade that Whitman penned his great American train poem. But its incarnations in American craft porters have resurged in our own century.

Whitman saw his mechanical marvel as a type of the modern, an emblem of motion and power. And the poet rides that locomotive like a modern centaur, fusing with the iron horse as his final lines shed formal diction. Abandoning thee and thy, Whitman transports the poem to us through the free skies with an unfettered voice: unpent and glad and strong. I’ll be reading this poem and drinking Bell’s liquid locomotion throughout this winter season.

[1] Derek Mong intakes this beer over at Kenyon Review, offering a different take on the poem. If you missed my review of Bell’s third Whitman beer (O Captain! My Captain!), you’ll find it here at MR.

Marsha Bryant writes about modernism, poetry, women's writing, popular culture, and pedagogy. Her recent essays have appeared in Feminist Modernist Studies, The Classics in Modernist Translation, and The Conversation. Bryant is Associate Editor of Contemporary Women's Writing, and Professor of English & Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida.


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