Night email

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

From Night Mail (text) by English poet W.H. Auden, who was born 100 years ago today. Night Mail was used in a famous film (with music by no less than Benjamin Britten!) tracking the progress of a London-Scotland overnight mail train. It’s the perfect ‘communications’ poem, and therefore I’m happy to share the excerpt above in recognition of the Auden centenary.

More: Guardian editorial | previous post


2 thoughts on “Night email

  1. Great poet; great poem; thanks for the reminder. But do you think that Stephen Spender’s “The Express” might challenge Auden’s “Night Mail” for the title of the *perfect* communications poem?

  2. Thanks! I wasn’t familiar with Spender’s poem, but I dragged myself away from reading about judicial bias for ten minutes to locate and photocopy it:

    Beyond the town there lies the open country
    Where, gathering speed, she acquires mystery,
    The luminous self-possession of ships on ocean.
    It is now she begins to sing – at first quite low
    Then loud, and at last with a jazzy madness –
    The song of her whistle screaming at curves,
    Of deafening tunnels, brakes, innumerable bolts.

    A wonderful poem, and capable of being read at many levels beyond the obvious literal train journey – however what Auden achieves is bringing together the two traditional elements of communications (transport and information) in a particularly good way. In particular, the spoken rhythm in the Auden extract above gives a notion of how it is not just the train that is moving, but the ideas, hopes, issues etc that are carried in the letters on board.

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