Melodic Trains by John Ashbery: Summary and Critical Analysis

In the poem Melodic Trains, the narrator is boarding inside a train. There is a little girl beside him. He can see the scenes and people passing by as the train travels ahead. The journey doesn't end; nor is it any meaningful.

John Ashbery (1927-2017)

The poem is the sum totality of the ruminations of the speaker about anything that occurs to his mind, when it is provoked (consciously and unconsciously) to think about them. He ‘happens to’ think about many different types of things, some of which are important and the others are all nonsense. But why should one be selective? The speaker thinks about so many and all unrelated things, but he seems to be (perhaps not very conscious) mainly preoccupied with the ideas about the nature of reality, the human mind, life and anxiety, time and change.

 In the first stanza, the random thoughts and ruminations of the man give us an almost clear idea about the occasion. Sitting in a train, he notices a little girl wearing nail polish, when she asks what time it is. He also notices that the child is also wearing a watch, but it is a toy watch, that tells the accurate time twice a day! This kind of description immediately tells us the nature of this special kind of poetic meditation. But, he compares himself with the girl when he says that it is fun for him to wear the kind of clothes he is wearing, as it is fun for the girl to put on a toy watch. But as he looks carelessly at his clothes, his mind indulges in another ‘useless’ thought; he feels that the stripes on his shirt are submerging into the valleys of the background color and coming out down there again! He links even that fantastic thought with his childhood memory of making a train out of a pencil and letting it run along the edge of a scale (perhaps with an imitative noise!)

 In the middle of the third stanza, the subject abruptly changes. He begins to think about ‘distance’. This kind of sudden changes of subject matter is typical of the free thought that goes on in the mind all day long. There is no logic, structure, grammar, rules or anything of the sort in the mind. The thought about time merges into a wonder about time. The speaker links time with the stopped watch again; the logic is however inverted. Then he somehow begins to think about ‘wait’; “only the wait in stations is dimensionless, like oneself”. After some time – it seems that the train has reached another stop – he talks about the sad faces of (homeless?) children. In the typical ‘surrealistic’ manner, he links (without any logical connection) taxis to the ruminations. Within this seemingly very serious, indeed philosophical concern about chance and the final stop (death) in life, however, there is something that cannot be sanely related to the ongoing strain of thoughts: “… of uncertainty is what gives these leaning tower of Pisa figures their aspect of dogged impatience, banking forward into the wind”!

After these many shifts in the subject of the poem, within stanzas and within the lines, and after many insignificant and unrelated issues coming and going randomly in and out of the poet’s mind, he happens to think about one thing that is serious, starting at about line 32, but even that is told in an inverted manner: “why is there so ‘little’ panic and disorder in the world.” He then thinks of how he can convey the many concerns and worries of his mind to others. As we move ahead, it becomes more and more difficult to untangle the threads of thoughts. “They become more and more jumbled, unrelated to each other in any way. What the reader needs to do is to go on guessing what the worry may be in the speaker’s mind; and that is possible if we understand that he is a modern man vexed with many problems and a poetic sort of personality who meditates over them in an emotive manner. The poem develops to become more surrealistic; there are more fantastic ideas like “furniture of the air”, as we read on.

The title of the poem suggests that it is about a train journey, and it really is in the literal sense. But with the rhythm of the train, there are also the rhythm of the thought process, and the rhythm of some kind of music. The poem is made of a set of unrelated ruminations, somehow anchored on a tentative situation of a train journey and somehow associatively related by the concerns of a man thinking over life, time, and chances and so on. The digressive “train” of thoughts is sometimes childish and sometimes philosophical, as the mind actually is.

The persona compares human gatherings of platforms with chorus singing about various stages of the journey of life. Here he is not concerned about the distinct faces of people standing on stops bout blurring faces lost in the landscape. Both people and scene become one and united. It is an implication of how human life is unified with nature, both being inseparably knitted together. One does not know his position because he is not aware of where he is while the train is moving. The poet now comes down to earth and pictures the atmosphere which surrounds him after he gets off the train; warm colossal welcomes from mayors and citizens and their choric song. He calls it the ‘furniture of the air’ which is a philosophical remark about human life; it is a dream too short lived.

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Shrestha, Roma. "Melodic Trains by John Ashbery: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 11 Nov. 2013,

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