Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, WHAT THE ENGINE SAYS, by ALEXANDER ANDERSON



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WHAT THE ENGINE SAYS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: What does the mighty engine say
Last Line: Butting space backward with his head.
Alternate Author Name(s): Surfaceman
Subject(s): Labor & Laborers; Railroads; Work; Workers; Railways; Trains


WHAT does the mighty engine say,
Rolling along
Swift and strong,
Slow or fast as his driver may,
Hour by hour, and day by day,
His swarthy side
Aglow with pride,
And his muscles of sinewy steel ablaze?
This is what the engine says:

First his breath gives a sudden snort,
As if a spasm had cut it short,
Then with one wild note
To clear his throat,
He fumes and whistles—"Get out of my way,
What are you standing there for—say?
Fling shovel and pick
Away from you, quick!
Ere my gleaming limbs with out-reaching clutch
Draw you into your death with a single touch.
For what care I for a puppet or two,
A little over five feet like you?

I must rush to the city with one long stride,
Add a wave of men to the streets' wild tide,
Bring friends to friends,
And gather the ends
Of all the trailing threads of use,
So that no single ply may be loose,
Run in the front of traffic, and shape
A way for its thousand feet, and fling
This planet into fashioning,
That others unknown to us may ape.
So I say,
Stand clear from the way."

"O, well," I said,
And I shook my head,
But all the while taking care to clear
The way, for the iron fellow so near.
"You carry things just a little too far,
For great, and swarthy, and strong as you are,
With the strength of a hundred Titans within
Your seething breast with its fiery din,
And your iron plates that serve you for skin,
With a single twitch
Of this crow-bar,
I could make you welter within the ditch,
As if Jove himself had open'd war;
So you see
You must pay a little respect to me.
I keep the rail
Tight and firm with chair and key,
Fasten the joints as firm as may be
So that your pathway may not fail.
Why, if I twitch'd a rail from the chairs,
Where would you be? At your smoky prayers,
Lying alone,
With only strength to mutter a groan,
And fifty fellows about my size
Scrambling upon you with shouts and cries,
Till they get you bound up in a coil of chains—
Click goes the jack, and rasp the crane,
What a labour to get you up again!

"Why, when your feet are once clear of the rail,
You're as weak as an infant and as frail;
Now look again,
You are panting and snorting as if in disdain,
For the fever of fire leaps like mad in your breast,
Toiling and seething,
And fuming and breathing,
Yet always bent upon spoiling your rest.
But look at your driver—one touch of his hand
Makes you stop or go on as he likes to command.
Talk of your strength!
Why, not to go to the utmost length,
I could almost blush if I had to speak"—

Here he gives a sudden shriek,
And a wild long bound
That shakes the ground,
Then clearing his dusky throat to speak,
He pauses as if to gather strength,
Then hoarsely thunders out at length:

"So you want me to bow to you,
And to give you praise for the little you do.
Why, if I,
As I thunder by
Thought that you had such a whim in your head,
I would hurl right and left the rails that I tread
In utter contempt of your paltry pride,
That is making you think"———

"Stop a moment," I cried,
"You are taking me up just a little too quick,"
And here I flung down at my feet the pick,
"You are the thought and the force of my kind,
The monster of fire,
Whose boundless desire
Clutches at all—nay, the very mind
Of this iron age
Is heard in your rage.
But here I stand as a help to you,
Proud of the task which I have to do,
Yet a touch of pride made me let you see,
That great as you are you depend on me.
Come, own at once you were hasty and strong,
And I'll sing your terrible strength in a song."

Here he thought for a moment, and then
With a snort and a whistle, his mighty limb
Clutch'd at the rail
That was like to fail,
Then as if thought had come back to him
He cried, "The world and toiling men
Great and small are bound in one chain,
Each must help each or they work in vain;
So here with a whistle I own I was wrong,
And start when you like to sing your song."

That was what the engine said,
With a whoop and a hail
As he kept the rail,
Butting space backward with his head.





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