Monday, 23 April 2007

The Night Mail. By W H Auden.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient's against her, but she's on time.

Thro' sparse counties she rampages,
Her driver's eye upon the gauges.
Panting up past lonely farms
Fed by the fireman's restless arms.
Striding forward along the rails
Thro' southern uplands with northern mails.
Winding up the valley to the watershed,
Thro' the heather and the weather and the dawn overhead.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheepdogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers' declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston's or Crawford's:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

Night Mail, 1936.

Auden wrote the poem for this short film made by the G.P.O. (Post Office), music was by Benjamin Britten, Auden read the poem himself.
I'm definitely not a fan of Britten!
The last TPO, or 'Travelling Post Office', ran in 2004. These trains snatched mailbags from trackside gantries as they thundered past, dropping new bags into catch nets at the same time, letters were sorted as they travelled through the night, whilst writers and recipients slept.


  1. I have just done this poem at school and i must say that it hit me very much...i particularly love the rythm of the poem and the way that it is read because it symbolises the railway tracks.

  2. m just studyng it in colege 1st YEAR

  3. Interesting to see the different responses from Anonymous 1 and 2.
    now, obviously I know nothing about either, other than what I can deduce from their words.

    Anonymous 2, you find it boring? If it's W.H.Auden's voice reading it, that you object to, then I'd have to agree, in fact, I prefer to read poems than to hear them from others, and I'd say if anything could kill this poem, it's Auden's monotonous drone.
    However, if you're studying the poem, then the first thing you need is some knowledge of the context, the time when it was written. We all are used to instant global communication now, by email, text, cellphone, to live streaming TV news, satellite uplinks....
    This poem is from an era when most people in Britain did not have a telephone , neither in their pocket, nor in their house, where the written word, on paper, had to be physically carried all the way from the writer to the reader. There was no other way.
    And the steam-powered express mail trains were the fastest transport moving up the length of Britain, (yes, aircraft could get to Glasgow faster than the train, but not picking up, setting down, and sorting the mail as they travelled).
    So, Anonymous 2, I'd say, either look deeper, or quit studying english literature. You state that the poem is boring. It is not, that point is quite clear by how widely regarded it is. However, the truth is that you, yourself, are bored.
    Too bored to write in proper english.
    I'd suggest you drop that class now, you're wasting your time if it bores you.

  4. Anon 2, I was just thinking, maybe I was a little unfair, there, not sufficiently taking into account that you're not english, and might not have all the background information on Auden's context so easily at hand.
    Then I thought of my teenage years, reading books set in your country. Information is absorbed, never wasted.
    My advice?
    Still the same, if you find studying english to be boring, then quit, and do something does that interest you.

  5. Just keep thinking of the rhythmic sound that comes off the rail track as the train moves, just think of the tapping sound we, as travellers, make unconsciously - the tadak tak, tadak tak, tadak tak - sometimes slow, sometimes fast depending on the speed of the train.
    Just keep thinking of our (Indian) Mails - so called because they carry mails to get the people - far and near - connected.
    Children of all ages [from five to seventy five and more] love this.
    You love this poem when you love life. For others, it's boring!!!!
    I love the words of John Milton:
    "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."


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