Melodic Trains by John Ashbery

Melodic Trains by John Ashbery

Q. Critically explain the poem Melodic Trains by John Ashbery.

John Ashbery’s “Melodic Trains,” which appeared in “Houseboat Days” (1977), presents a unique poetic journey. It reflects on life’s fleeting moments and emotions through subtle shifts and movements.

Explanation of Melodic Trains by John Ashbery

Stanza 1

A little girl with scarlet enameled fingernails
Asks me what time it is—evidently that’s a toy wristwatch
She’s wearing, for fun. And it is fun to wear other
Odd things, like this briar pipe and tweed coat

In the opening of “Melodic Trains,” we see a little girl with bright red nails who asks the speaker what time it is. However, she is wearing a toy watch, which shows she is just playing.

This moment leads the speaker to think about how people, not just kids, like to wear things that are more about fun or looking a certain way than being helpful.

For example, the speaker discusses wearing a briar pipe and a tweed coat. This part of the poem sets up a playful look at how we all sometimes choose style or fun over practicality.

A “briar pipe” is a special kind of smoking pipe that is known for being tough and good at not getting too hot. However, it is more about the look or the fun of pretending to be someone who might smoke such a pipe.

Stanza 2

Like date-coloured sierras with the lines of seams
Sketched in and plunging now and then into unfathomable
Valleys that can’t be deduced by the shape of the person
Sitting inside it—me, and just as our way is flat across
Dales and gulches, as though our train were a pencil

In these lines, the speaker compares the tweed coat they are wearing to mountains (sierras- mountain range in Spain) that have a colour similar to dates (brownish or tan).

The coat’s seams resemble lines drawn on these mountains, creating an image of ridges and valleys on the fabric.

This comparison suggests that the coat’s texture and design give it a landscape-like appearance, with depths that do not necessarily match the simple shape of the person wearing it.

The speaker then extends this imagery to describe the journey, comparing it to a pencil moving flat across the paper, drawing lines representing dales (valleys) and gulches (deep ravines).

This metaphor suggests that the literal and metaphorical journey is like a drawing, creating a path through landscapes on a map or in life.

It depicts the journey defined by its route (like a pencil guided by a ruler) and is mysterious in its depth and complexity, much like the valleys on a mountain or the folds in a coat that hide the person within.

Stanza 3

Guided by a ruler held against a photomural of the Alps
We both come to see distance as something unofficial
And impersonal yet not without its curious justification
Like the time of a stopped watch—right twice a day.

This passage reflects on the subjective nature of understanding distance, using measuring a photomural of the Alps as an example. Using a ruler against a photograph highlights the limitations of applying concrete measures to abstract concepts like distance.

Our perceptions of distance are shaped by context and are not always aligned with official or formal measurements.

The characterization of distance as ‘unofficial’ not only challenges the dominance of numerical measurements but also opens up alternative ways to think about or experience the concept of space between objects or places.

And impersonal yet not without its curious justification
Like the time of a stopped watch—right twice a day.

This passage highlights how distance is perceived as distant and unrelated to personal experiences, yet this perception is not without its exciting logic.

The analogy of a stopped watch being correct twice daily illustrates this point. Despite the watch’s inability to function normally, it still provides accurate time at two moments daily.

Similarly, while impersonal, distance has a valid justification that might take time to notice.

Stanza 4

Only the wait in stations is vague and
Dimensionless, like oneself.
How do they decide how much
Time to spend in each?
One beings to suspect there’s no
Rule or that it’s applied haphazardly

In these lines, the speaker reflects on the experience of waiting at train stations, describing it as “vague and dimensionless.”

It is similar to a feeling of uncertainty about one’s own identity or purpose. The waiting period at each station raises questions about how long one should stay in a particular place or moment in life.

It suggests there is a clear or consistent way to determine this. The speaker hints at a suspicion that there may not be any set rules for these waits, or they might be applied inconsistently if there are rules.

This reflects a lack of control over how we experience time and transitions, both in the context of a train journey and in life’s broader journey.

Stanza 5

Sadness of the faces of children on the platform,
Concern of the grownups for connections, for the chances
Of getting a taxi, since these have no timetable.
You get one if you can find one though in principle

These lines depict a scene at a train station, highlighting the emotions and concerns of those waiting. The “sadness of the faces of children” suggests a loss or disappointment, perhaps due to the departure or the anticipation of leaving.

Meanwhile, the adults are portrayed as preoccupied with practical worries, such as making connections or finding a taxi, which, unlike trains, do not operate on a fixed schedule.

This situation underscores the unpredictability of certain aspects of travel and, by extension, life itself.

While trains might follow a timetable, taxis, representing the next steps or stages in a journey, require a small quantity of luck or timing to secure.

Stanza 6

You can always find one, but the segment of chance
In the circle of certainty is what gives these leaning
Tower of Pisa figures their aspect of dogged
Impatience, banking forward into the wind.

This stanza describes the mix of predictability and unpredictability in life using the metaphor of securing a taxi as a “segment of chance in the circle of certainty.”

While many aspects of life may seem inevitable or predictable, there is always an element of randomness or luck involved, like finding a taxi when you need one.

The people waiting likened to the “leaning Tower of Pisa,” are portrayed as slightly off-balance or anxious, stubbornly leaning into their future.

The Tower of Pisa, officially known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, is a freestanding bell tower in Pisa, Italy.

It is famous worldwide for its unintended tilt to one side. The tower began to lean during construction in the 12th century due to soft ground on one side that could not adequately support the structure’s weight.

Construction was completed in the 14th century, and efforts have been made to stabilize the tower over the years to prevent further tilting and collapse.

The image of “banking forward into the wind” captures the blend of anticipation and resilience people experience as they navigate the unpredictable elements of their journeys.

Stanza 7

In short any stop before the final one creates
Clouds of anxiety, of sad, regretful impatience
With ourselves, our lives, the way we have been dealing
With other people up until now. Why couldn’t
We have been more considerate? These figures leaving

This stanza reflects on the emotional turmoil often accompanying life’s transitional moments, akin to a train’s stops before reaching its final destination.

Each pause, or stop, prompts anxiety and a mix of sadness and impatience, not just with the situation at hand but also with oneself.

It leads to questioning one’s actions, decisions, and interactions with others. This introspective process brings regrets and self-doubt to the surface.

This highlights the human tendency to reassess life’s choices and relationships during times of waiting or uncertainty.

Stanza 8

The platform or waiting to board the train are my brothers
In a way that really wants to tell me why there is so little
Panic and disorder in the world, and so much unhappiness.
If I were to get down now to stretch, take a few steps

This part of the poem contemplates why there is still so much unhappiness among people despite the relative order and lack of chaos in daily life.

It suggests a moment of connection and empathy with those around the speaker—those leaving the platform or waiting to board the train—who are seen as “brothers.”

This kinship is not about literal family ties but rather a shared human experience. It highlights a collective journey through life’s ups and downs.

The speaker reflects on the possibility that much of the unhappiness could stem from a lack of consideration for one another. The observation implies that while society maintains order and avoids panic, it lacks personal interactions and care, which leads to sorrow.

This part of the poem shows the significance of empathy and understanding in reducing unhappiness even when there is no apparent chaos.

Stanza 9

In the wearying and world-weary clouds of steam like great
White apples, might I just through proximity and aping
Of postures and attitudes communicate this concern of mine
To them? That their jagged attitudes correspond to mine,

The line “wearying and world-weary clouds of steam like great White apples” shows exhaustion and ennui, perhaps signalling deep fatigue with the world or a situation.

The speaker imagines leaving the confines of the train to stretch and walk among the clouds of steam, likened to “great white apples.” It adds a surreal, almost dreamlike quality to the scene.

This passage reflects on whether physical closeness and mimicking the body language of others enable the speaker to share his feelings and concerns with those around them.

By “aping of postures and attitudes,” the speaker wonders if it is possible to convey empathy and shared understanding without words, simply by mirroring physical expressions and the silent communication of body language.

“Jagged” generally refers to something with rough, sharp, uneven edges or points.

The reference to “jagged attitudes” suggests a recognition of shared restlessness or dissatisfaction among the passengers, hinting at a common ground of emotional experience that could bridge the gap between strangers.

It makes their internal unease and contemplation visible and understood through mutual silent acknowledgement.

Stanza 10

That their beefing strikes answer silver bells within
My own chest, and that I know, as they do, how the last
Stop is the most anxious one of all, though it means
Getting home at last, to the pleasures and dissatisfactions of home?

This stanza shows people’s shared emotions and anticipations near the end of a journey. The “last stop” of a train ride symbolizes returning home.

“Beefing” generally means complaining or expressing grievances about something. It represents a strong, perhaps distressing or challenging, emotional expression or situation.

Strikes answering silver bells within
My own chest,

It could mean that these expressions or situations find a corresponding response within oneself, triggering deep, internal reactions or feelings.

This imagery suggests a deep, empathetic connection with those around him, feeling what they feel as they all approach the end of their journey.

Getting home at last, to the pleasures and dissatisfactions of home?

It suggests the mixed feelings one might have upon returning home after a period of absence.

On the one hand, the comfort and joy of being in a familiar, safe place surrounded by loved ones or personal belongings bring happiness. These are what are referred to as the “pleasures” of home.

On the other hand, “dissatisfactions of home” speaks to the idea that no situation is perfect, including being at home. This could involve routine domestic challenges and interpersonal conflicts.

It also touches upon the sense of restlessness or confinement some feel when in one place for too long, even if it is their home. This duality reflects the human experience of navigating familiar environments’ comforting yet sometimes stifling aspects.

It reminds us that home, while often a source of strength and refuge, can also be a place to confront personal limitations and unresolved issues.

Stanza 11

It is as though a visible chorus called up the different
Stages of the journey, singing about them and bringing them:
Not the people in the station, not the child opposite me
With current fingernails, but the windows, seen through,

This section of the poem describes a unique perspective on observing life’s journey, not through people or direct interactions, but through the less obvious, like the views from train windows.

The “visible chorus” could symbolize the collective, unspoken stories and experiences of those encountered during the journey.

Instead of focusing on the individuals directly, such as the passengers or the child with “current fingernails,” the attention is drawn to the windows.

These windows are the medium through which the journey is experienced, offering a literal and metaphorical view.

They allow the observer to see and reflect upon the various stages of the journey, each landscape or scene contributing to the overarching narrative of the travel.

Stanza 12

Reflecting imperfectly, ruthlessly splitting open the bluish
Vague landscape like a zipper. Each voice has its own
Descending scale to put one in one’s place at every stage;
One need never not know where one is

In these lines, the poem describes how the reflections seen through the train’s windows imperfectly mirror the passing landscape, creating a vivid, dynamic image of the outside world being “split open” like a zipper.

This action reveals the landscape in parts and pieces, not as a whole, suggesting a fragmented or partial understanding of the places the train traverses.

The use of “bluish vague landscape” evokes a sense of mystery and distance, emphasizing how our perception of the world outside is often incomplete or altered by the medium through which we view it.

Furthermore, the poem introduces the idea that each “voice” or perspective provided by these reflections has its unique way of grounding us in the present moment, described as a “descending scale.”

This metaphor suggests that with each change in the landscape and each new reflection, passengers are reminded of their place within the journey’s progression.

The notion that “one need not know where one is” speaks to the constant presence of markers and signs, both literal and metaphorical, that orient us within our travels and, by extension, within our lives.

Despite reality’s imperfect and sometimes distorted reflections, an underlying structure and sequence guide us, ensuring we are never truly lost.

Stanza 13

Unless one give up listening, sleeping, approaching a small
Western town that is nothing but a windmill. Then
The great fury of the end can drop as the solo
Voices tell about it, wreathing it somehow with an aura

In these concluding lines, the poem describes a transition from observing the landscape through the train windows, which “imperfectly” reflect and dramatically reveal the outside world, to the moment of nearing a journey’s end.

Initially vague and “bluish,” the landscape outside becomes sharply defined, like being opened by a zipper, suggesting a clear unveiling or discovery as the destination approaches.

The narrative then shifts to a more specific scene, imagining the arrival at a small Western town characterized mainly by a windmill. This detail evokes a sense of simplicity and perhaps isolation, typical of remote towns.

The anticipation builds towards the “great fury of the end,” which might culminate in the journey’s emotions and experiences.

However, this intensity is softened, transformed into a celebration as imagined through “solo voices” that narrate this concluding phase, imbuing it with a sense of welcome and good fortune.

Stanza 14

Of good fortune and colossal welcomes from the mayor and
Citizens’ committees tossing their hats into the air.
To hear them singing you’d think it had already happened
And we had focused back on the furniture of the air.

The mayor and citizens’ committees enthusiastically greet the traveller, symbolizing a communal celebration of return or arrival. Tossing hats into the air is a traditional gesture of joy and celebration, painting a vivid picture of a warm and exuberant welcome.

The final lines reflect an almost dreamlike state, where the singing of these welcoming voices blurs the line between anticipation and reality.

The mention of “focusing back on the furniture of the air” implies a return to the abstract, contemplative space of the mind, where the tangible elements of the journey merge with thoughts and reflections.

It shows the ephemeral nature of the experience and the lasting impact of the journey’s emotional and psychological landscapes.

The reference to “focused back on the furniture of the air” is intriguing and more abstract. It could symbolize returning to the immaterial aspects of life, such as dreams, thoughts, or the natural flow of life after a significant event or achievement.

The “furniture of the air” suggests something intangible yet essential, possibly indicating the underlying support or structure of our experiences and realities, which, unlike physical furniture, cannot be touched or seen but is felt and acknowledged.

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