Steam and speed


I came across a quote in the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre which captured a passenger’s first experience of train travel:

Everything is near, everything is immediate – time, distance, and delay are abolished.

Of course, it conjures immediately Turner’s famous painting, and it happens that I went to look at Rain Steam and Speed in the National Gallery a few months ago. Reproductions, by their nature, emphasise the rain and the steam. The picture itself has much detail of the world that is about to disappear under the onslaught of speed; the boat on the river, the figures below, in the fields, the hare on the bridge trying to escape the train. (There’s a charming animation of this by Kathryn Miller from the hare’s perspective at the National Gallery site).

It’s hard to see this detail and not to be reminded of Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

But there’s an important inversion. In Auden, and in the Breughel painting which inspired it, the ploughman (and the passengers on the ship, a couple of lines later), can get on with their lives even as Icarus falls out of the sky. In Turner’s painting, there is no turning back from the age of speed. Everyone’s life will be affected, sooner or later, as distance and delay are abolished.

The reproduction of Rain Steam and Speed is from The National Gallery.

The videographer Jim Clark has made a ‘virtual video’ of Auden reading Musee des Beaux Arts, which can be found here.

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