The Railway Children

This touching poem portrays a world reduced to the dimensions of a child’s imagination.

The speaker is one of a group of youngsters, brothers and sisters perhaps, exploring their neighbourhood. Their play brings them to the railway line. Mounting the slopes of the cutting brings them to the same height as the overhead cables (eye-level with the white cups/ Of the telegraph poles)and within hearing-range of the sizzling wires.

The child is mesmerised by the cables: their written-script-like curvature Like lovely freehand; their extent as they stretch out miles/ east and miles west beyond us; the tests to which Nature subjects them: sagging/ Under the burden of swallows.

The children’s understanding of telecommunications provides an attractive alternative to the truth: at that point they were below school age (We were small and thought we knew nothing/ Worth knowing) but blessed with a fertile imagination: We thought words travelled the wires/ In the shiny pouches of raindrops.

Close observation of these natural raindrop phenomena Each one seeded full with the light/ Of the sky brought mirror images both the gleam of the lines and, in miniature ourselves … infinitesimally scaled.

If they proved to be good children, so a story heard at Sunday school promised, this miraculous reduction in size would enable them to stream through the eye of a needle and enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

  • the cups that the children see are of porcelain, used to act as an insulator between the copper wires and the wood of the poles;
  • the route taken by the railway provided the ideal location for telecommunications; poles and wires were routinely part of the railway landscape;
  • the closed circuits of the telegraph system were always ‘turned on’ even when not in use and the low level electric current was accompanied by a perceptible sound;
  • the eye of a needle: New Testament Gospels provide Sunday school material using the story of the camel and the narrow gate through which it could gain access to Jerusalem but only when unloaded;
  • Heaney identified a specific railway cutting close to his childhood home near Broagh DOD (p254);
  • Heaney’s title echoes E.Nesbit’s charming study of children and childhood in her book of the same name (1906);
  • The Railway Children recreates beautifully a child’s-eye view of the world, through the repeated use of 1st person plural pronouns … the choice of child-like images and diction (MP pp190-1);
  • the railway cutting is a place where the Heaneys’ deductions about the material world become coloured by their experience of sacred metaphor -words, water, seeds, light – and culminates with their belief that given God’s grace they would enter Heaven (MP p191);
  • four triplets and a single line; length between 7 and 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • a four sentence construct with copious use of enjambed lines;
  • the children’s presence enters make-believe; use of onomatopoeia lends sound to moving electricity;
  • simile likens wires to writing;
  • ‘burden’ offers a neat dual possibility: clearly to do with ‘weight’ but also possessing a birdsong connotation;
  • vocabulary of childlike assumption; electronic messages physically contained in raindrops; raindrops are ‘seeded’ for reproduction; smallness may allow the children, Alice in Wonderland like, to achieve a spiritual goal identified elsewhere in their upbringing;
  • the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: T1 features voiceless alveolar plosive [t], pairs of bilabial plosive [p] and alveolar [l]; in T2 intitial bilabial fricatives [f] [v] give way to alveolar fricative [s]; T3 features front-of-mouth sounds: nasals [m] [n], bilabial [w] and a pair of alveolar [d]; ll. 10-13 offers a cluster of alveolar [l] a pair of bilabial [f] [v] and alveolar [k].

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