Poetry After the Steam Engine

Poetry After the Steam Engine

During my MA, I took a particularly interesting module entitled, “Poetry After Darwin,” which examined the effects of Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ on several poets of the era; how the book (and its geological predecessors) reshaped religion, identity, relationships, and the poets’ perception of the very Earth underfoot. It was not a subject that I would have expected to yield much material, but the Victorians were avid readers and writers of poetry and found it easy to consolidate discourse on scientific discovery into verse, in a way which seems strange and exciting (to me, at least) today. After commenting on the text of ‘The Origin of the Species’, we delved into James Thomson’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’, Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, Mathilde Blind’s ‘The Ascent of Man’, and the wonderfully comic poems of Constance Naden, among others.

As my readings on the industrial revolution reveal more and more poets who described steam engines in verse, and the varied reactions of critics thereto, I’ve been thinking how exciting it would be to take (or, if I must, to engineer) a course on ‘Poetry After the Steam Engine’. In a nice parallel, our study would surely include ‘The Botanic Garden’ of Erasmus Darwin, a fascinating (IMHO) text which was written as a versified popular science book in epic rhyming couplets. James Thomson and Tennyson would also surely recur.

A brief history of the industrial revolution would probably be a good place to start, to gain a basic understanding of the first steam engines; Savery’s pump, Newcomen’s atmospheric engine, the spinning mule, and Boulton and Watt’s improvements. The social repercussions were considerable, as evidenced by the frame-breakers of Luddite fame, and yet most of the poems I came across are laudatory, even those by the self-styled ‘corn-law rhymer,’ Ebenezer Elliott.  Earlier poems describe steam engines in mines, usually used for pumping out water, and it is difficult to draw a line between these and their later, more complex manifestations as locomotives and steamboats. As such a discussion on what constitutes an ‘engine’ might be of interest, especially considering ancient aeolipiles and even the etymology of the word itself.

Some themes to explore:

  • Epic poetry
  • Romantic poetry
  • Doggerel
  • The sublime
  • Nature vs. Machine
  • North vs. South
  • Invention
  • Technical language
  • Socialism, Capitalism & Communism
  • Religion
  • The working class poet
  • Colonialism – tracing the expansion of railways, etc.
  • The future – technological advance (“the ringing grooves of change”)

steam power

Early Poems on the Steam Engine

John Dalton’s cumbrously-titled, ‘Descriptive Poem Addressed to Two Ladies, at their return from viewing the mines near Whitehaven‘ (1755) may, suggests Asa Briggs, be the earliest description of a steam engine in poetry.

A different scene to this succeeds:
The dreary road abruptly leads
Down to the cold and humid caves,
Where hissing fall the turbid waves.
Resounding deep through glimmering shades
The clank of chains your ears invades.
Through pits profound from distant day
Scarce travels down light’s languid ray.
High on huge axis heaved above,
See balanced beams unwearied move!
While, pent within the iron womb
Of boiling cauldrons, pants for room
Expanded Steam, and shrinks or swells,
As cold restrains or heat impels;
And, ready for the vacant space,
Incumbent Air resumes his place,
Depressing with stupendous force
Whate’er resists his downward course.
Pumps moved by rods from ponderous beams
Arrest the unsuspecting streams,
Which soon a sluggish pool would lie;
Then spout them foaming to the sky.

The poem takes the form of a katabasis, though the dainty ladies who visit the mines are mere spectators. However, Ivanka Kovacevich in ‘The Mechanical Muse’ (Huntington Library Quaterly, Vol. 28, No. 3 (May, 1965)), mentions several poems that pre-date John Dalton’s. The first, ‘News from Newcastle’ by John Cleveland, though somewhat confused in subject, style, and by the apparent lack of a definitive version, already uses the theme of hellish heat but there is no specific mention of the steam-engine:

Yet why should hallowed Vestals’ sacred shrine
Deserve more honour than a flaming mine?
These pregnant wombs of heat would fitter be,
Than a few embers, for a deity.
Had he our pits, the Persian would admire
No sun, but warm his devotion at our fire.
He’d leave the trotting whipster and prefer
Our profound Vulcan ‘bove that Waggoner.
For wants he heat, or light, or would have store
Of both? ‘Tis here. And what can suns give more?
Nay, what’s the sun but, in a different name,
A coal-pit rampant, or a mine on flame?
Then let this truth reciprocally run,
The sun’s Heaven’s coalery, and coals our sun;
A sun that scorcheth not, locked up in the deep ;
The lions chained, the bandog is asleep.

Cleveland boasts of the Newcastle mines, which he values chiefly as an imperial resource to put other countries to shame:

England’s a perfect world, hath Indies too;
Correct your maps, Newcastle is Peru!

“For an accurate description of machinery,” writes Kovacevich, “poetry had to wait for a professional technician – and who could be better qualified for this task than Henry Beighton, engineer, inventor, and editor of magazine for the popularization of mathematics? In 1725 Beighton published an ‘Ænigma‘ (p. 81), possibly the first poem dedicated to the steam engine.” Ironically, since it is composed as a riddle, it mentions neither the word “steam,” nor “engine”.

I sprung like Pallas, from a fruitful Brain,
About the time of Charles the Second’s reign.
My father had a num’rous progeny,
And therefore took but little care of me:
An hundred children issu’d from his Pate;
The number of my birth was Sixty eight.
My body scarcely fram’d, he form’d my soul,
Such as might please the wise, but not the dull:
Yet sundry pictures of my face he drew;
As of many other of his children too :
These Pictures lay, whilst none my worth did know,
In Paul’s Church-yard and Pater-noster Row.
My father dead, my self but few did see,
Until a warlike man adopted me;
Destroy’d what Records might disclose my birth,
Said he begot me, and proclaim’d my worth.
Begetting me he call’d a chance ”
a Task Easie to him, assisted by a Flask.

He then to me strange education gave,
Scorch’d me with heat, and cool’d me with a Wave :
More work expected from my single force,
Than ever was perform’d by Man or Horse.
To mend my shape, he oft deform’d it more;
Which sometimes made me burst, and fret, and roar:
Then from my eyes, such vapours issu’d forth
As Comets yield, or Twilights of the north:
And like those Lights the Vulgar I surprize;
Not those that know my nature, or the wise.

My heart has ventricles, and twice three valves;
Tho’ but one ventricle, when made by Halves.
My Vena Cava, from my further ends
Sucks in, what upward my great Artery sends.
The Ventricles receive my pallid blood,
Alternate, and alternate yield the Flood:
By Vulcan’s Art my ample Belly’s made;
My Belly gives the Chyle with which I’m fed;
From Neptune brought, prepar’d by Vulcan’s aid.
My father (I mean he who claim’d my birth)
My dwelling fix’d in the Caverns of the earth;
And there he said, I shou’d in strength excel;
But there, alas! I was but seldom well.
Torrents he bad me stop: ” I wanted breath;
And Nature strain’ d too much, will hasten death.
In this sad state, to languish I begin,
Until a Doctor sage, new coming in,
Condemn’d the methods that were us’d before;
And said, “That I in caves shou’d dwell no more:
Then I shou’d dwell in free and open Air,
And gain new vigour from the atmosphere:
An house for me he built ” Did orders give,
I shou’d no weight above my strength receive;
And that I shou’d, for breath, and health to guard,
Look out of windows when I labour’d hard.

These gentle means my shape have alter’d quite;
I’m now encreas’d in strength, and bulk, and height;
I now can raise my hand above my head;
And now, at last, I by my self am fed.

On mighty arms, alternately I bear
Prodigious weights of water and of air;
And yet you’ll stop my motion with a hair.)

He that can find me, shou’d rewarded be,
By having, from my Masters, Liberty,
Whene’er he pleases, to make use of me.

A brief gloss to the riddle is as follows…
My Father = Marquis of Worcester.
A warlike man = Thomas Savery
Doctor fage = Newcomen
Ventricle = receiver
Vena cava = suction pipe
Artery = force pipe
Blood = water
Chyle = steam

Epic Poetry & the Steam Engine

The steam engine’s long history and its importance for industry, economy, nationalism, and way of life make it an apposite subject for epic poetry. In Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1791), the steam engine makes up only a chapter of scientific discovery, and yet it is mighty in its power to tame and shape nature. And Darwin’s predictions as to the future uses of steam power prove very accurate.

VI. NYMPHS! YOU erewhile on simmering cauldrons play’d,
And call’d delighted SAVERY to your aid;
Bade round the youth explosive STEAM aspire
In gathering clouds, and wing’d the wave with fire;
Bade with cold streams the quick expansion stop,
And sunk the immense of vapour to a drop.—
Press’d by the ponderous air the Piston falls
Resistless, sliding through its iron walls;
Quick moves the balanced beam, of giant-birth,
Wields his large limbs, and nodding shakes the earth.
“The Giant-Power from earth’s remotest caves
Lifts with strong arm her dark reluctant waves;
Each cavern’d rock, and hidden den explores,
Drags her dark coals, and digs her shining ores.—
Next, in close cells of ribbed oak confined,
Gale after gale, He crowds the struggling wind;
The imprison’d storms through brazen nostrils roar,
Fan the white flame, and fuse the sparkling ore.
Here high in air the rising stream He pours
To clay-built cisterns, or to lead-lined towers;
Fresh through a thousand pipes the wave distils,
And thirsty cities drink the exuberant rills.—
There the vast mill-stone with inebriate whirl
On trembling floors his forceful fingers twirl.
Whose flinty teeth the golden harvests grind,
Feast without blood! and nourish human-kind.*
“Now his hard hands on Mona’s rifted crest,*
Bosom’d in rock, her azure ores arrest;
With iron lips his rapid rollers seize*
The lengthening bars, in thin expansion squeeze;
Descending screws with ponderous fly-wheels wound
The tawny plates, the new medallions round;
Hard dyes of steel the cupreous circles cramp,
And with quick fall his massy hammers stamp.
The Harp, the Lily and the Lion join,
And GEORGE and BRITAIN guard the sterling coin.
“Soon shall thy arm, UNCONQUER’D STEAM! afar
Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car;
Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying-chariot through the fields of air.

Thomas Baker’s The Steam Engine or the Powers of Flame (1857) is yet another poem that anthropomorphises the steam engine into an epic hero, though it is longer and more thorough than others.

Our Hero, own’d almost divinely great,
Thus introduced, our Muse shall first relate.
In due accordance with his fame and worth,
His deeds on ancient record from his birth ;
His early frolics on the banks of Nile ;
His progress westward to this favour’d Isle ;
Where his young antics made a fresh display,
And gratified alike both grave and gay ;
Where learned men began to mark, elate.
His active powers, while yet in embryo state ;
Where full development of all his might
Was first achieved and witness’d with delight !
What nature, accident, and art supplied
To raise him thus supreme in vigour’s pride !
His sons, the SAILOR and the CHARIOTEER,
Of wide-spread modern fame, shall next appear ;

What pleasure, pain, what ridicule and praise
Their deeds excited in their early days ;
Their countless triumphs both by ” flood and field ; ”
And what the grand result to man must yield !
Their foster-sires besides, as we proceed.
Shall each of praise receive his rightful meed ;
Whose mental throes and patient care brought forth
This VAPOUROUS RACE of matchless power and worth !

Steam & Society

Quoted in ‘Ebenezer Elliott: The Corn Law Rhymer’ by Asa Briggs:

“Southey, with his fear of industry, became outdated, while Elliott became the poet of revolution. ‘I claim to be a pioneer,’ Elliott wrote, ‘of the greatest, the most beneficial, the only crimeless Revolution – the Bard of Freetrade; and through the prosperity, wisdom and loving-kindness which Free-trade will ultimately bring, the Bard of Universal Peace.'”

Elliott was a manufacturer himself, but he had known hard times and was determined to be voice of the poor man. He often mentions steam engines in his poems, and he seems to me the best at understanding the potential for good that the invention has for the working class, and his praise is the most down-to-earth and demonstrates the depth of his knowledge of the subject. I would recommend reading Steam, at Sheffield (1840) in its entirety.

Engine of Watt! unrivall’d is thy sway.
Compared with thine, what is the tyrant’s power?
His might destroys, while thine creates and saves.
Thy triumphs live and grow, like fruit and flower;
But his are writ in blood, and read on graves!
Let him yoke all his regimented slaves,
And bid them strive to wield thy tireless fly,
As thou canst wield it. Soon his baffled bands
Would yield to thee, despite his wrathful eye.
Lo! unto thee both Indies lift their hands!
The vapoury pulse is felt on farthest strands!
Thou tirest not, complainest not – though blind
As human pride (earth’s lowest dust) art thou.
Child of pale thought! dread masterpiece of mind!
To-morrow thou wilt labour, deaf as now!

As for Lord Byron, the most famous poet of the era, whose maiden speech to the House of Lords staunchly supported the Luddites, he was mostly silent on the subject of steam engines. All I have found is this amusing mention in Don Juan, and a couple of passing references to the steamboat:

Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes:
For ever since immortal man hath glowed
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.

From Don Juan, Canto X, II.

Does this conjure up Georges Méliès’s ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ for you, too? Byron’s prediction is sadly not as prescient as Darwin’s, but as it is clearly a flippant couplet, and since steampunk (& aether) will do what science could not, we will let it pass.

RELATED:  A Literary Walk Around Shrewsbury

Religion & the Poetry of the Steam Engine

I remember reading that the industrial revolution triumvirate was coal, cotton, and iron. Whenever man’s struggle against natural forces is depicted, religion is not far behind. While most of the poems I found focus on mythology rather than monotheistic religions, this fascinating poem by Nikolaus Pevsner describes Christ as having engineered the railway line to heaven:

The line to Heaven by Christ was made,
With heavenly truth the Rails are laid,
From Earth to Heaven the Line extends,
To Life Eternal where it ends.

In Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, the narrator considers moving to a warmer clime and taking a “barbarian” wife, but he can’t bring himself to do so because he believes that he is the heir of ages, and it would be beneath him, as a follower of Christ.

There methinks would be enjoyment more than in this march of mind,
In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind.
Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
Tennyson’s misapprehension of the railway as having wheels that ran in grooves is now well-known. It arose, he said, from his first nocturnal train journey.

Poems about steam-powered vehicles

The abundance of poems written on, or describing the course of steam-powered vehicles (steamboats, and locomotives especially) show the ease with which the creations of steam power were subsumed into everyday life and lyric. While there is still a physical perplexity at the speed of travel, most poets describe their mode of transport as an integral part of the landscape around them, and the engine’s rhythm often lends itself to the metre.

Steam Engine Imagery

As is often the case, poetry and painting portray similar visions of the steam engine. I saw these two by William Williams on my last visit to Shrewsbury. They are of nearby Coalbrookdale, the site of an early steam engine.

William Williams - Morning View of Coalbrookdale
William Williams – Morning View of Coalbrookdale
William Williams - Afternoon View of Coalbrookdale
William Williams – Afternoon View of Coalbrookdale

(images from the BBC’s Your Paintings site)

Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg - Coalbrookdale
Coalbrookdale by Night by Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg

(image from Wikimedia)

J.M.W. Turner had several of Loutherbourg’s sketches in his collection and was apparently inspired by his work when he painted, A Limekiln in Coalbrookdale (1825). The Tate’s description of the painting is as follows:

Colebrookdale in Shropshire, famous as the birthplace of modern heavy industry, became a popular tourist spot in the early-nineteenth century. The iron industry with its foundries and fuming towers is here cast as the source of Sublime light effects, perhaps tinged with Hellish menace.

Both Loutherboug and Turner paint the coal mines at night, when their fires create a strange, terrestrial light in the landscape. It is not difficult to see how the sight, and no doubt the sound, would conjure up the vision of hell. In the morning scenes of William Williams, the fires are less visible, but the smoke rising from the chimneys is always central to the paintings. Nevertheless, to me at least, the impression is one of an industry that nestles comfortably among the rolling hills, drawing to it the horse-drawn cart, a clear symbol of industry, while its smoke and steam rise to blend in with the clouds. Evidently an opportunity for genteel discussion and a Dalton-esque daytrip.

A Worthwhile Study?

What surprises me about all of these poems is how similar the imagery and the language are. Almost every poem compares the engine to a person in some way, specifically iron hearts and wombs, the former presumably because of the steady stroke of the pistons, and the latter because of the tightly enclosed chambers that capture the steam. Visions of hell recur, though often tamed by the power of titan machines, and all poems are similar in their praise. Perhaps I have chosen a biased canon; let my readers decide. Kovacevich’s conclusion is that “only the literary historian is likely to take much interest in the disciples of the Mechanical Muse.” Personally, as a lover of words and a writer of steampunk, I’m delighted by the poetic expositions of scientific processes that are now only described in dry and standardised technical language. If you have ever stood before a towering steam engine and felt its speed and grace and power and marvelled at its half-understood mechanics, then you know that only poetry is a proper vehicle for that genius. Don’t you think?