Introduction and Main Theme
Life is a perpetual journey into the unconscious regions of human mind, which brings up a new perspective each time an activity is stirred. The poem shows the poet sitting in a train heading towards a destination. He is not alone. There is a little girl who attracts his attention but only for a short time because later the people and scenes in and around the train capture his imagination. He feels in relation to the every thing around him.
According to Ashbery, ‘Life is in motion’. We spend our time in trains, boats and buses and time is fleeting like these four wheelers. Time is precious and unique. Melodic Trains is a journey of time. We come across various destinations, fall into confusions which have repercussions on our memories. We often reach destinations, not desired by us. Melodic Trains becomes a journey of life, the faces of passengers and what all the time is goes in their minds.
The poem is a nice piece of poetry full of thought provoking ideas. It is a realistic presentation of town life. It is a fine blend of subjective and objective views. It is just a poem but has been presented before us in such cinematic approach before our eyes that we feel a part of the whole train experience physically and spiritually. The poet has taken watch, travel, pipe, taxi and destinations as the raw material for the production of the poem and conveys humdrum routine of the town dwellers in many perspectives.
A CRITIQUE OF MELODIC TRAINS
The poem shows melodically sounding related series of thoughts that are developing in your mind. They are called Melodic trains for they have the power to transform the minds of people from some ordinary experience to some particular. The poem is a fine example of stream of consciousness technique.
The poem shows the complexity of thoughts as they pass through a sensitive mind of a poet. A poetic mind has a great capacity for associating this similar and distinct thought. That is why; the poem has more than one layer of meaning. The title itself suggests the thought process growing on within the poet’s mind. The outer journey in her real train is paralleled by a symbolic train of thoughts and melodies, poetic ideas running through the mind.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THOUGHT
Vanities expressed through appearances
The first thought or theme present in the poem is the expression of vanities through appearances, when the little girl in the stanza asks the poet what time it is:
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
It is surprising how children satisfy their vanity with toys and fake objects, which cannot fulfill their need. The toy watch doesn’t tell the time. It is not only children but adults also do the same and are caught up in vanities and appearances. The poet discovers that the color of his overcoat resembles the color of brown mountains; in fact the seams of his coat actually look like the white paths running down the slopes of the mountains. His thoughts drifting to his clothes suddenly discover that clothes are like a mask hiding the reality. Just as one cannot find out the reality under the clothes, we cannot find the reality of the appearances. The theme of appearance and reality and the vanities to satisfy one’s self on fake foundations starts right from the beginning. Delight in seemingly beautiful objects without any special unity is what associates the elders with the youngers because psychologically, they are the same. Basic instinct, at all levels, remains the same all over the world regardless of race, age, region or nation. But it is very difficult to understand human psychology only by appearances. As far as the appearances are concerned, we are all children. This is only one of the ideas and feelings that the poet experiences while traveling in the train.
The process of meditation and Meaning in Life
Though Melodic Trains is Ashbery’s secondary work, yet it was hailed as ‘Marvelous’ by David Bromwich and ‘great’ by Hollander. The poem is highly personal and in the words of Huybernsz, ‘throws the reader out of the poem’. According to one critic, the poem suggests ‘the premise of this marvelous poem is a journey around New York City.’ The opening metaphor is that of music which sets the poet in meditation and find meanings in life. The main purpose in life seems, how to live and what to do?
This process of meditation begins when a little girl asks the poet time. The poet is attracted towards the jagged peaks of the mountains by the seams of his coat and later caught up in the humdrum of every day life. Rather than a meaning, the poet finds confusion, crowds and tensions everywhere. A sense of entrapment encapsulates us, we find surrounded by troubles all around us and find no way out. The Pisa figures ultimately end this process of mediation and life seems a perpetual struggle against the odds of society. We keep oscillating between the complex beginning and peaceful end and sometimes, peaceful begging and complex and disturbing end.
Symbolic Elements – Melodic Trains as drama of life
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.
Next the train takes turns like a pencil and the poet experiences that life too is like a train full of complexity and running to its destination – death. As in an ordinary journey, the strain stops at various stations for brief moments. We also pause at some state of life before turning into a new direction. The faces of the passengers standing outside the platforms of different stations melt into the faces of those million faces, the poet reads different expressions. Some carry on eternal sadness. Some reflect disillusionment with life and its receptive appearance; some show anxiety about the future. There are questions in every mind. Will the taxi be available; will some one come to welcome me? These and many others perplex the mind of travelers. As the following lines show:
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 questions asked in ordinary life reflect those questions in the next world. The poet contemplates some spiritual and metaphysical issues at this point. The complexities of the world symbolize those of the hereafter and regarding the future of man in the next world. The is haphazard dimension in life which disturbs all routines and the same is to be found on the Day the Judgment when this haphazardness blends into a unique Death which rampages every thing on the earth.
One of these issues is the role of chance in the course of life. Although, chance is just a segment of the total certainty, but chance govern a large part of our existence. The total existence of human activity is controlled by chance, which may be termed as Fate.
Chance, fate, stages of journey and chorus lets us enter into the drama of life which is more visible in the following remarkable lines:
It’s as though a visible chorus called up the different
Stages of the journey, singing about them and being them
The train journey becomes a semblance to the drama in real life. As the play has acts and chorus as the character, so is the situation here. Every man and woman along with their family members act as chorus throughout all the stages of their life – tragic or comic may be.
Oneness and Identification
The platform or waiting to board the train are my brothers
In a way that really wants to tell me whey 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
Realizing the basic anxieties of the heart, the poet feels complete oneness and identification with the fellow travelers. Since this journey symbolizes life. It is a moment of human unity which the poet experiences. He wonders whether complete communication between the individual and community is possible. The journey of train is taken lightly by the little girl and the likes, but for the poet is a serious activity, perhaps a moment of contemplation which he identifies himself with the fellow travelers who also share the same problems and who are also human beings like himself. They are like brothers, as poet calls them and require our perfect sympathy and attention. And we need to convince each other because if there is little panic and disorder, why are we creating for ourselves. Sometimes, it is our attitude that makes us tense rather than the tension itself. The gap that exists between one man and the other in the modern period can be only bridged if communication barriers, such as alienation, estrangement and personal entrapment are removed.
The symbolic journey of the train ends when the poet receives a warm welcome and as the journey of the train stops, the melodic trains of his mind also stop as depicted in the following lines:
Of good fortune and colossal welcomes from the mayor and Citizens’ committees tossing their hats into the air
Style, Imagery and Technique
The poet employs a traditional image of train journey to denote life and its non-stop voyage. There are also associated images such as station, marking a temporary stopover and passengers representing fellow human beings. The images of toy and enameled nails signify the theme of false appearances and deceptions. This idea is further enhanced by the Big White Apples or the fumes of the train covering up the plat farm. The poem is a good example of stream of consciousness technique the poem’s start immediately by the little girl’s question about time began to express might issues like mortality, chance and time.
The poem is perfectly a representative of modern American Sensibility. The striking images of tweed coat and its seams and the enameled nails of the little girl are such powerful images that they transpose us to the very place in whose imagination, the poem was written. The natural imagery of date-palm trees and the Alps lend freshness to poem in contrast to the artificial imagery of tweed coat and enameled nails. The image of Pisa Tower is a true reflective the modern man’s psychological complexities. Melodic trains, in terms of images, techniques, symbols and style is a modern piece of poetry.
Melodic Trains is a fine piece of poetry in which the poet addresses a number of issues, political, social, familial and psychological. It is a journey of life and the end of the journey ends in optimism and happiness on the typical note of ‘Welcome Home!’ Even then the complexities of life surround us because home introduces new problems for us, the end of the poem is only a temporary happy moment of life.
The poem imparts a deep philosophy of life. Life is full of restlessness, tensions and discontentment, but it is also true that most of the problems in life are caused by the insane attitude of modern man.
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?
Clouds of anxiety are scattered everywhere, at each stop. During these anxious moments, we create more trouble for other people and forget that there are also humans like us and demand our full sympathy and respect. The poet raises the issue of sympathy and its importance in every day life. Haste and race has spread panic and disorder in our mechanical life. The hurry to reach home makes life only complex rather than solve any practical issue.
Critical Points to Remember
1. Melodic Trains is the journey of life in which the ordinary journey has been woven together.
2. Melodic Trains also symbolically reflect the thought process of the poet’s mind in which poetic ideas keep jumping from one issue to the other.
3. An ordinary mind will take the train journey as one of like many others, but a poet is sensitive and takes this common experience of life seriously, which binds him to the rest of humanity in terms of his brotherly relationship with it.
4. Poet presents the drama of life through the train journey realistically and effectively.
5. Ashbery’s style is in the poet is illustrative like that of a painter.
6. The issues raised by the poet are quite significant and command our attention hurriedly as they command the poet’s attention too soon through the images of toy watch, briar pipe and seams of his coat.
7. Melodic Trains has been so associatively and allusively written that it transposes the reader to the situations observed by the poet and respond to the problems felt by him.