Letters and Trains: Auden

The Night Mail by W.H. Auden (1907- 1973) combines two of my favourites things, letters and train journeys. It was written to accompany a General Post Office (GPO) film made in 1936 about a London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train from London to Scotland. In the film, the music was composed by Benjamin Britten and The Night Mail was recited by John Grierson.

As the poem was written to tie in so closely with a train journey it has a great rhythm for reading aloud.  At this point in the poem, the Night Mail train has almost reached Glasgow, with postal workers beavering away on board all night. My dad used to be a postman (though he never worked on the night mail train) and I ordered the DVD of the film for him a couple of years ago (see a clip below) as a Father’s Day gift.

Of course, the fascinating thing about this poem is that it shows just how much people would have relied on the post for all sorts of things that we receive digitally these days. But where’s the romance in an email?

I’ve taken this poem from a collection that I picked up in a charity shop in Dublin a few years ago. It’s an interesting collection in that the editor Kaye Webb (1914- 1996) made her selection from around 1,000 recommendations from children so it is genuinely a children’s poetry book. I may return to it later in the month as it contains a few old favourites of mine.

The Night Mail (part III)

book cover of I Like this poem

Puffin Books, 1979

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and 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 outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and printed and the spelt all wrong,

And I love the last lines – they always make me a little teary –

And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

I thought I’d include a clip from the original GPO film that features the poem. This is the final section of the film:

Credits: clip taken from YouTube with thanks (uploaded June 2008 by Stephen Dowd)

Now, go on – write a letter to someone today!


One comment on “Letters and Trains: Auden

  1. […] be a poem about a cat’. And you would indeed be right but it is also a poem that continues the train theme that I began yesterday. There are many magnificent cats (I might mention Cat Morgan, I might […]


Comments are closed.