The train is crossing the border overnight with mail, bringing letters and checks and orders for rich and poor. Though the way is steep, she is still on time. She passes moors and boulders, her white steam flowing behind her. She noisily passes through the “silent miles” of grassland. Birds peer at her, and sheepdogs cannot make her alter her course. Passing one farm, the dwellers sleep on, but a jug “gently shakes.”
In the dawn she descends into Glasgow. There she heads toward dark furnaces set up like “gigantic chessmen.” All of Scotland craves her arrival, for the men want news.
There are letters of all sorts and for all people: receipts, invitations, applications, declarations of love, gossip from around the world, news both “circumstantial” and “financial,” letters from family members, letters with doodles in the margins, letters from all over Europe, letters of condolences, all written on papers of every color imaginable. The letters have all tones and styles: catty, friendly, cold, boring, clever, stupid, long, short. Some are typed, some are printed, some are misspelled.
Thousands still sleep and dream and have nightmares. They are asleep in Glasgow, asleep in Edinburgh. They dream on, but they hope that when they awake they will have letters. Their hearts will pound when they hear the knock on the door of the postman, for “who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”
The charming poem “Night Mail” was written in 1936 to accompany the documentary film of the same year and the same title. The film concerned a London, Midland, and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train traveling from London to Scotland. It was produced by GPO Film Unit, directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg. Auden’s poem was read toward the end of the film, set to music by Benjamin Britten. Lines were chopped and changed to fit the film. The basic intent of the film, at least superficially, was to reveal how the mail was distributed by train.
The rhythm of the film matches the train’s movement, and dreamy loneliness pervades much of it. It has become a classic in film circles. Auden is said to have written the verses with the aid of a stopwatch as he set them to the film. A reader can almost hear the train chugging along as it brings the letters to the people of England and Scotland, especially in the first part, made up of eight rhymed, four-beat couplets. Auden was happy to embrace the new medium of film, as well as to tout the accomplishments of 1930s laborers, perhaps influenced by Karl Marx.
The train brings a variety of letters to a variety of people. The mail is open to all, rich and poor. The train itself is personified as a calm, methodical, and kind being, no mere bureaucratic functionary. It is always on time despite the “steady climb” as it barely disturbs the countryside. Warmth and fondness about the train suffuse the poem.
The poem’s second section writes of the train’s descent into Scotland. The landscape is a bit more industrial, with “fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.” The one stanza’s eight lines have irregular meter. Scotland longs for its news with anticipation. International news was particularly important as Adolf Hitler was becoming increasingly aggressive and attempts at appeasement were faltering, far from the glens and lochs of Scotland.
In the third section one might imagine the excitement of a crowd receiving all the letters, though in reality most people are still asleep. Auden beautifully shows the vast array of things sent by post, things that most people have received at one time or another: letters, bills, applications, statements of love, gossip, news. In a sense this is the written version of the entire spectrum of human interaction, from the most quotidian to the most meaningful, everything that is worth communicating across the border. People are knit together by this correspondence, no matter how trivial the mail might seem.
More than 75 years later, a reader must remember the physicality of getting letters. While electronic communication was far from new, it was extremely common to communicate through the mail, and a postman might even knock on the door to deliver the mail. The diversity of people and communications is mirrored by the kinds of paper, “of every hue, / The pink, the violet, the white and the blue.”
In the final section Auden depicts local people asleep in their warm beds, dreaming of local things or of monsters. Soon they will be awake and eager for the mail. The end of the poem asks, after all, “Who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” The poem thus is deeply sympathetic and compassionate for individual human beings, expressing the “quickening of the heart” of the person who might learn he has been remembered by someone else as the mail comes to the door. The poem celebrates human connections. It is hopeful and sweet, charming and memorable.