Friday, June 29, 2018

Today's poem by W. H. Auden (and today's video)

I am woefully (isn't that the best word?!) behind in writing blog letters and in reading other blogs. I haven't even read the June entries in the books by Susan Hill and Gladys Taber. I haven't had a chance to write back to the recent comments. It has been a full month without much time for reflection. But I wanted to pop in this evening and share a poem. I quoted two lines of it here, that were in Hill's April chapter. Just now I was watching series 5, episode 3 of Endeavour, and someone spoke more lines. I went right to my book of Auden's Collected Poems, and read the whole poem aloud. I thought some of you might like it as well as I do.

Night Mail
(Commentary for a G.P.O. Film)
by Wystan Hugh Auden 

This is the night mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient's against her, but she's on time.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.

In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends,
Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from girl and boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or to 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 on the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring,
The cold and official and the heart's outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep,
Dreaming of terrifying monsters
Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston's or Crawford's:

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
But shall wake soon and hope for letters,
And none will hear the postman's knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

July 1935

You will see that under the title of the poem it says (Commentary for a G.P.O. Film). I looked it up and it stands for General Post Office. When I searched for a copy of the poem to put here, one of the results was a 1936 documentary on YouTube called Night Mail. The poem is recited at the end. It is only 25 minutes long, and I couldn't understand all the words, [addendum - I didn't mean I couldn't understand the words of the poems, but the voices of the men] but oh, what a treasure. How lucky we are to be able to see such things via the internet. A little miracle really. You may watch it here:


  1. I love Endeavour. And fell in love with WH after reading Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie books, now have an old book of his poetry, working my way through it, not always understanding--make that "not often understanding"--but loving the words.

    But to get to hear it read will be a treat and I've pulled it off on my desktop to hear. Woefully is a good word and don't worry, just enjoy summer to the fullest.

    1. I pulled out my college copy of Auden and read with interest the notes I wrote in the margins to help in interpretation of the poems. Glad to hear you agree that much of his poetry is not as accessible as "Night Mail." ("Night Mail" wasn't in my compilation of his works.)

    2. It's too bad we couldn't all have college classes in poetry when we are 'grown up'! I do still have my books but would love to hear the voices of the professors now. I think I would 'get' it much better now that I am older.

  2. My friend Jenny ( sent me a handmade postcard on which she quoted part of Auden's poem, so I had to look it up and read the whole poem. After that, I've seen references to it several places. Isn't synchronicity strange when suddenly many people seem to be on a similar wave length.

    1. It really is an amazing thing that happens over and over. One of life's miracles.

    2. Looking for Auden....”today I thought of writing you a letter. Now after hours of staring at the shrubs we planted...”. All I can remember 😕 Send to

    3. I don't know any by heart, though I do so love his work. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thanks Nan for posting that video. It was made before I (or you!) was born, and I have only seen it once myself, many years ago on TV. I did know the poem but it was a joy to hear it to the rythm of the train. A fascinating bit of history -especially now that everything is computerised.

    1. I know! I loved the beat of the poem to the train. Such a treat.

  4. I have never heard of this poem, but Auden has always been one of my favorites, if only for his powerful poem, Funeral Blues. This one you share today may be the best I've read yet, though. I have always been a letter writer and I love receiving letters & cards (who doesn't?!) and this poem really spoke to me. I will watch the video later today! Thank you so much.

    Enjoy your summer with the grands. Blogging is wonderful and fun and fulfilling, but "real life" with those you love is so much more important.

    1. I don't write nearly as often as I used to, but that may be because my aunts and grandparents and parents are mostly gone. One aunt left, and I really should write to her. What I miss about blogging is that time to stop and reflect on what I've been doing or feeling. I am someone who thinks better when I write.

  5. I'm not a huge fan of poems, but Auden has a style that grabs my attention.

    1. So many people feel that way. Maybe it is about finding the 'right' poet and poems? I've put up a lot here in my letters that is mostly very accessible and meaningful. They are all under Poems under the blog header picture.

  6. I liked seeing some of the video. I skipped to hearing him read the poem. I love having people read to me so I enjoyed it. I am one of those people that hate to be forgotten. ;)

    1. I used to listen to books on tape, but once they went to cds and phones, I couldn't do it anymore. Something about the ease of fast-forwarding and rewinding that seemed easy.

  7. My son and I both really enjoyed this video, and the poem.

    1. It pleases me no end that both of you watched it!!!

  8. Nan, I just came back to the video tonight, watching it with fireworks going off outside. It was magnificent, the men working a treat, even if they were acting a little for the camera--I caught that wink. I also caught a please from one of the men, can you imagine! I'm going to keep this on my desktop to show my sons.

    1. Wonderful that you want to show it to them. It really is very special.


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