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“To a Locomotive in Winter” by Walt Whitman Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 26th, 2020


Walt Whitman “is a poet, journalist, and essayist. He is one of the most influential American poets because of how he presents his poems” (Blake 12). He reflects the nature of America and American experiences in his poems in a very complicated, but beautiful way. His first collection is titled Leaves of Grass and up to now is part of America’s history. Whitman’s works portray the utmost patriotism for his country, and this is partly attributed to his parents who were also patriots.

The parents admired their country so much that Walt’s younger brothers were named after American heroes. The heroes who they were named after include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. At “the age of three, Whitman and his family moved to New York City, which had at this time developed economically, hoping to get a better life there” (Blake 20). The plan did not work as expected and the family faced many challenges and, as a result, Whitman had to stop schooling at the tender age of eleven.

He searched for a job at a printing business, and this marked the landmark of his writing career (Kennedy and Gioia 1). He started his “writing career at the tender age due to financial problems in his family, a blessing in disguise as some scholars put it” (Blake 10). At seventeen years, he became a mediocre teacher and started writing his observation in a book. This not only became the foundation of his writing, but also built up his work.

Apart from his collection Leaves of Grass, he wrote yet another beautiful poem, To a Locomotive in Winter. Just like the first collection, this poem was received well by his audience, and it is being used in American literature classes as a case study (Kennedy and Gioia 2). Some critics have raised issues about this particular poem, some positive, while others are negative. This paper analyzes the poem, examining what literary critics have to say about it. I also give my opinions and recommendations with respect to the publication.

To a Locomotive in Winter

The poem is written using the Shakespearean English that is commonly referred to as the old English, whereby the poet uses words, such as “thee” and “thy” throughout the writing. When one reads the poem for the first time, it is not easy to comprehend the meaning, but the beauty of the words used is sufficient. The poem is about a train in winter, but it has been used symbolically to represent something else.

In the poem, Whitman praises the train for the work it is doing, working diligently without fatigue and working no matter the time of the day and environmental condition. He personifies it to the extent that one might believe he is talking to a real person that he loves so much. The love for his subject is shown by the way he describes it to the extent that readers can actually draw a picture of the presentation.

When analyzing this poem, it is quite clear that Whitman was talking about both his country America that he loved so much and himself. The consideration is owed to the fact that the poem that is followed by this is titled Song of Myself, which he entirely talks about himself and is closely related to this particular poem. In the writing, he calls upon the subject of his poem to join him by saying that “For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee” (Whitman 76).

The imagery used in this poem about strong masculinity possibly reflects on what Whitman thought of himself. As mentioned in the introduction to the poet being a patriot, this poem does not miss that point. In it, Whitman is talking about his country by using the image of a train. The song does not define America, but it presents the hopes the poet has for his country. Before he concluded Leaves of Grass, a predecessor to this poem, he wrote One Song, America, Before I Go, which displays his love for America as well.

Apart from using the train to represent his country, he also uses it symbolically to talk about the new technology that America was experiencing at that time. He does this with the hope that the country could improve. According to the poem, the US cannot run on its own. People need to unite and work together to improve their lives and the economy of the great nation. The country is likened to how a locomotive works on its journey.

With the help from different parts of a locomotive, it can move no matter the conditions in the surroundings (Hoffman 34). This reflects on how citizens should unite and work together for positive results. He uses several stylistic devices, but the most prominent one is onomatopoeia, which implies the use of words to describe sounds. He does not use onomatopoeia directly for that matter, but only in parts where he uses words, such as a roar.

Furthermore, he uses a blend of words to represent sounds. The vivid description that he creates by using long lines, for example, creates a clear picture of a moving train in readers’ imaginations. As a result, the poem also achieves a beautiful rhythm, making it a song. In fact, it is important to note that he begins the poem by referring it to a song by using the word “recitative”.

The poem uses the train to represent America, and how hard the country is working to ensure that people reach their ‘destinations’, regardless of the environmental conditions (Ceniza 45). The poet also urges citizens to work hand-in-hand with the government just like trains of cars that merrily follow a locomotive (Lewis 17).

The poem, therefore, literary focuses on winter, beauty, patriotism, time, and train. Does this mean that citizens should not question the government? The question is answered in the next section of the paper, whereby an analysis of various critics is conducted.

What do critics say about the poem?

The poem, being one of the most famous writings in American history, has elicited both positive and negative criticisms. Some critics think that the poem is devoid of anything that can be criticized. Some other critics, however, point out many negative things in the poem. One critic compares this poem with I Like to It Lap the Miles, a poem by Emily Dickinson (Boggs 37). According to the critic, the two poems are different, but on the same subject, that is a steam engine.

The two poets, however, have a different way of writing. The critic refers to Whitman’s style of writing as grandiose and Dickinson’s as arrogant (Boggs 41). Whitman uses old English and free verses without following any rules, while Dickinson follows standard practices, including the structure of the poem. Therefore, Whitman knows his license as a poet and utilizes it to the maximum to acquire uniqueness. His choice of words is splendid and anyone who reads his work can follow it with ease.

He describes a locomotive so elegantly using some words, such as “the shining brass”, which makes the audience see what he is trying to communicate. The onomatopoeia he uses in his poem cannot be overlooked since it forms the rhythm and, to some extent, makes it a song of its kind. He describes the beauty of America, using a locomotive in a way that one will not need an explanation to comprehend.

The critic suggests that the descriptive words that Whitman uses do not only strike a visual imagery, but also an audio representation, indicating that one can actually hear the sound produced by the train. Regarding technique, the critic focuses on Whitman’s way of writing. According to him, he uses the free verse style to represent the free movement of a locomotive. The poem does not adhere to any regular pattern of writing, which is akin to a locomotive and its movement (Boggs 45).

Some other critics, however, have different views on Whitman’s writing. One critic feels that the use of old English in the poem makes it complicated. In this context, the message might not reach the audience as expected by the poet (Garrison 302). According to the critic, Whitman does not consider the interest of the ordinary people, but the government. In his prior poem, Song of Myself, he uses the first person narration to include the common people, but in this poem, he has not.

He is too idealistic and expecting too much from his country (Parini and Millier 65). Due to the fact that literature should mirror society, he goes wrong again by focusing on the government, instead of citizens. The critic argues that he is not against the poet being patriotic, but he should at least have put some reality into his work (Garrison 310).

With regard to the structure, the reviewer says that although the author has a poetic license to do all that he wants with his work, the physical appearance matters. The audience is more likely to pick a poem that is well versified than the one that adopts the free verse style. After his analysis, the reviewer agrees that his choice of words is beyond his explanation (Garrison 317).

My opinion on the poem

When I first read the poem, I only understood one thing that it was talking about a train and nothing else. Although I enjoy the works of Shakespeare, I found the English used by Whitman to be a bit boring at first. The physical structure of the poem did not please me at all, which was typified by several long verses and a short one. I think that the poet should have arranged the verses in such a way that a reader would be willing to read with ease.

When I read the poem for the second time, however, I started to gain some insights. Using the knowledge from my literature and poetry classes, I was able to put words together to get a different meaning. I discovered that the poem was not only about a train, but America as a country. As a result of this, my anxiety rose. I started to find out the theme of the poem and the various stylistic devices used. Finally, I developed an actual picture of what Whitman was trying to put across. When I understood the poem, I must say my perception changed.

I liked the poem and forgot all about its structure and the old English used in it. I started analyzing words and associating them with the message of the composition. I even went ahead and read some other works by Whitman, such as Leaves of Grass and A Song for Myself, which improved my understanding of the poem. I like how Whitman addresses such an important message in a freestyle manner.

The topics of politics and patriotism are crucial aspects of society, which should be discussed with utmost care, indicating that people should not to incite others. Whitman has a different style of presenting the two topics to his audience. His admiration for his country is an opinion, but I would like to disagree with him on the issue of being patriotic and following what the government is doing. Literature should be used to educate the public on important matters like this, but not mislead them.

In my opinion, Whitman is not realistic in this piece of writing. He presents a picture on how the government struggles to help its people no matter the time and/or the environmental conditions. This is a good thing, but it is not the reality on the ground. Some critics, however, defend him by saying that he is describing a country that he expects to see, but this might or might not be true.

Conclusion and recommendations

From the critical analysis in this paper, one learns that there is more than just the physical structure of the poem and the words used. An individual learns that poetry is a work of art and for one to understand it, he or she must first appreciate it. One may dislike a poem just because it looks too rigid, but on reading it severally, he or she gets a different feeling.

I felt so sad about the poem at first, but it is now one of my best writings I have read in the recent past. Some critics should consider important aspects when commenting on other people’s works because some scholars tend to read a critical analysis of works before reading the work itself. If a person only reads a negative interpretation, then his or her mind would not be prepared to read the critiqued writing. The poem, To a Locomotive in Winter, is not analyzed by many critics, yet it is a famous piece of art.

I would, therefore, urge more scholars to do an analysis of the poem so that people may have different views on the same. Teachers and lecturers should also encourage their students to read widely in order to broaden their perspectives. I thank my literature tutors for cultivating this culture in me through this research assignment. I believe that I am that have gained a lot in terms of critical analysis. I have known new literary critics and authors through the assignment.

Works Cited

Blake, David. Walt Whitman and the culture of American celebrity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.

Boggs, Colleen. “Specimens of Translation in Walt Whitman’s Poetry.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 58.3 (2002): 33- 56. Print.

Ceniza, Sherry. Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Women Reformers. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2013. Print.

Garrison, Jim. “Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and primordial artistic communication.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy 47.3 (2011): 301-318. Print.

Hoffman, Tyler. American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Print.

Kennedy, Joseph, and Dana Gioia. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2007. Print.

Lewis, Tom. Divided highways: Building the interstate highways, transforming American life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. Print.

Parini, Jay, and Brett Millier. The Columbia History of American Poetry. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman: Selected Poems 1855-1892. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2013. Print.

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