Melodic Trains is a poem of music and musings. It captures its metaphors and symbols from the experience of traveling by train. Ashbery compares this to the journey of life and tries to establish that common worries consume too much of our energies and leave us little time to see that others have similar problems which we can share and lessen. The corner stone of his poem is the question that occurs in the middle of the poem: “Why couldn’t/We have been more considerate?”
The title of the poem sets a tone of harmony and concord. The trains are melodic not because the round of the wheels is so rhythmic, but because Ashbery sees all passengers as his brothers. He empathises with them and feels that on our individual journey of life we must share each others’ experiences and together establish a world more in harmony with love, happiness, and brotherhood. This is possible only if everyone hears and shares the music of life. Thus all the complaints of his fellow passengers “strikes silver bells” in his heart.
The poem has the form of a reverine started by a little girl’s asking the poet what time it is the poet muses that the watch she is wearing is a toy, which she is wearing to show that she is grown up. This starts a chain of musings in which the poet thinks that the “tweed” coat and pipe he has put on establish him only as an actor playing a serious role. These clothes hardly show what kind of person is hidden inside. This helps Ashbery bring the comparison of people as “unfathomable valleys” that must be explored. They live before the background of huge mountains.
Ashbery equates the train to a “pencil guided by a ruler” to show that life seems certain and planned and the way seems “flat” and smooth against the “photomural of the
Alps”. On this journey the distances between stations and those between passengers intrigue the poet. In his typical way of paradoxical statements Ashbery thinks that personal distances may be something “unofficial and impersonal” though they may sometime be correct like a stopped watch “right twice a day”.
Against this background of train journey as life, Ashbery paints the picture of wait and worry at the stations. This brings in the theme of the poem in clearer perspective. The “clouds of anxiety, of sad regretful impatience” picture the problems of life and the poet feels that the panic and disorder of the work is so little at the cost of so much unhappiness. This journey does not allow us to see the people with us and the only memory of the journey is of what we saw outside the train. The journey will end happily but people do not know that and keep pushing with dogged impatience.
This poem of music and musings is typical of Ashbery’s method of paradoxes and metaphors. His comparisons and metaphors are always based on his maxim that “Artists are no fun once they have been discovered”. The poem therefore presents several surprising metaphors. The train journey is set against the photomural of the
Alps and the train is a pencil guided by a ruler. The thick white clouds of steam look like “great white apples” and seem to be wearying and world-weary. Such figures may still be easy to understand and lead to an artistic appreciation of the poem but the final description of citizen’s committee headed by the mayor hardly brings home to us if Ashbery is referring to a happy end of life or of a simple journey. We are led to agree with David Lehman writing in Beyond Amazement when he asks: “Does Ashbery’s poetry view meanings, or does it militate against the very possibility of articulating them?”
Ashbery draws his metaphors from many sources. Sometimes they are from Greek notions of perfectness of the circles as when he refers to the segment of chance in the circle of certainty. Similarly last stop means getting home, Ashbery relates this to life and the end of life but how getting home is related to the visible chorus evades us completely.
Equally ambiguous is the figure of the zipper which is related to eh earlier image of dress but how it opens the scenery is quite far fetched. The passengers’ voices have descending scales the town being nothing but a windmill and the welcome at the last stop with the furniture of the air can hardly be taken as embellishment of the poem.
The poem is quite musical as the title suggested and Ashbery’s frequent use of sonorous words adds to the music. He creates this effect of melody with assonance and consonance repeated in every line. The verse paragraphs follow one after the other like the scenes and acts of a drama reaching its natural finale. On the whole the poem is a good example of optimistic and sunny side of 20th century literature.