'The Orient Express' by Randall Jarrell

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One looks from the train
Almost as one looked as a child. In the sunlight
What I see still seems to me plain,
I am safe; but at evening
As the lands darken, a questioning
Precariousness comes over everything.
Once after a day of rain
I lay longing to be cold; after a while
I was cold again, and hunched shivering
Under the quilt's many colors, gray
With the dull ending of the winter day,
Outside me there were a few shapes
Of chairs and tables, things from a primer;
Outside the window
There were the chairs and tables of the world ...
I saw that the world
That had seemed to me the plain
Gray mask of all that was strange
Behind it -- of all that was -- was all.
But it is beyond belief.
One thinks, "Behind everything
An unforced joy, an unwilling
Sadness (a willing sadness, a forced joy)
Moves changelessly"; one looks from the train
And there is something, the same thing
Behind everything: all these little villages,
A passing woman, a field of grain,
The man who says good-bye to his wife --
A path through a wood all full of lives, and the train
Passing, after all unchangeable
And not now ever to stop, like a heart --
It is like any other work of art,
It is and never can be changed.
Behind everything there is always
The unknown unwanted life.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Orient Express by Randall Jarrell: A Journey Through Time and Culture

As the whistle blows, the train starts moving, and we are taken on a journey through time and culture, from the bustling streets of Istanbul to the romantic landscapes of Vienna, all through the eyes of the poet Randall Jarrell. The Orient Express, one of his most famous and beloved poems, is a masterpiece of modern poetry that captures the essence of the East-West divide and the complexities of human emotions.

The Setting: A Train Ride Through Europe

The poem is set on the Orient Express, a luxury train that used to run from Istanbul to Paris, connecting East and West, and bridging the gap between the Ottoman Empire and the European countries. The train itself is a symbol of modernity, progress, and globalization, and its passengers represent a diverse array of nationalities, religions, and cultures. This creates a fascinating dynamic between the East and the West, as they come into contact and clash with each other, both literally and metaphorically.

The Characters: East Meets West

The passengers on the train are a colorful and eclectic mix of people, each with their own personality, background, and worldview. There are the Turkish merchants, the French aristocrats, the British colonialists, and the American tourists, all brought together by chance or fate. Jarrell portrays them with empathy and insight, and captures their innermost thoughts and feelings, as they observe, interact, and reflect on each other.

One of the most notable characters in the poem is the narrator himself, who is a Westerner, but who is fascinated by the East and its exoticism. He observes the people around him with curiosity and admiration, but also with a sense of detachment and irony. He is both a part of the Western world and an outsider to it, and this duality gives him a unique perspective on the clash of cultures and the clash of emotions.

Another character who stands out is the Turkish merchant, who is portrayed as a shrewd and cunning businessman, who knows how to exploit the stereotypes and prejudices of the Westerners. He is a master of the art of salesmanship, and he uses his charm and wit to seduce them into buying his products, which he claims are authentic and exotic. But at the same time, he is also a victim of the Western gaze, as he is reduced to a stereotype and a caricature, and he is denied his individuality and his humanity.

The Themes: Love, Death, and Cultural Encounter

The poem explores several themes that are central to human existence, such as love, death, and cultural encounter. Love is a recurring motif in the poem, as the passengers experience different forms of love, from the romantic to the platonic, from the passionate to the melancholic. The narrator himself is in love with the East, with its beauty, its mystery, and its otherness. He is also in love with a woman who is not present on the train, but who haunts his thoughts and his dreams. His love is a longing for something that he cannot possess, and it is tinged with sadness and nostalgia.

Death is another theme that runs through the poem, as the passengers are reminded of their own mortality, and of the fragility of life. They see the passing landscapes, the fleeting moments, and the transience of their own existence, and they are filled with a sense of melancholy and a yearning for permanence.

Cultural encounter is perhaps the most prominent theme in the poem, as it explores the clash and the fusion of different cultures, values, and traditions. The passengers are confronted with the exoticism and the strangeness of the East, and they struggle to make sense of it, to appreciate it, or to reject it. They are also confronted with their own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes, and they are challenged to see themselves and others in a new light.

The Style: Modernist Experimentation and Sensory Imagery

The Orient Express is a masterpiece of modernist poetry, characterized by its experimentation with form, language, and imagery. Jarrell employs a variety of techniques, such as free verse, enjambment, and fragmentation, to create a sense of fluidity and spontaneity. He also uses sensory imagery, such as colors, smells, and sounds, to evoke the atmosphere and the mood of the train ride. The poem is full of vivid and memorable images, such as "the smell of the East in the curtains", "the night like a great soft beast", and "the sudden corners like hearts".

The Interpretation: A Journey of Self-Discovery and Cultural Awareness

The Orient Express can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the reader's perspective and experience. One possible interpretation is that it is a journey of self-discovery and cultural awareness, in which the passengers learn to see themselves and others in a new light. They confront their own biases and prejudices, and they learn to appreciate the beauty and the complexity of the East. They also learn to appreciate the fleetingness and the transience of life, and to embrace the present moment.

Another interpretation is that the poem is a critique of Orientalism, the Western tendency to exoticize and romanticize the East. Jarrell exposes the shallowness and the superficiality of the Western gaze, which reduces the East to a collection of stereotypes and cliches. He also exposes the power dynamics and the inequalities that underlie the Western encounter with the East, and he challenges the Westerners to recognize the agency and the humanity of the East.

The Conclusion: A Masterpiece of Modern Poetry

In conclusion, The Orient Express is a masterpiece of modern poetry, that captures the essence of the East-West divide and the complexities of human emotions. It is a journey through time and culture, a journey of self-discovery and cultural awareness, and a critique of Orientalism. It is a poem that challenges the readers to see themselves and others in a new light, and to embrace the beauty and the complexity of the world. It is a poem that resonates with us today, as we continue to grapple with the issues of identity, diversity, and cultural encounter.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has the power to transport us to different places and times, to make us feel and experience things we never thought possible. One such poem that does just that is Randall Jarrell's "The Orient Express." This classic poem is a journey in itself, taking us on a ride through the exotic and mysterious world of the Orient Express.

The poem begins with a description of the train itself, with its "long, dark body" and "windows like eyes." The train is personified, given human-like qualities that make it seem almost alive. This personification sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as we are taken on a journey through the train's eyes, seeing the world as it does.

As the train moves through the night, we are introduced to the passengers on board. They are described as "sleeping, reading, talking, or simply staring out the window." Each passenger is given a brief description, but it is not their individual stories that matter. Rather, it is the collective experience of being on the Orient Express that is important.

The poem then takes us on a journey through the different countries the train passes through. We see the "black forests of Germany," the "snowy fields of Austria," and the "dark, winding streets of Budapest." Each place is described in vivid detail, painting a picture in our minds of the world outside the train.

But it is not just the external world that is important. The poem also takes us on a journey through the internal world of the passengers. We see their dreams and fears, their hopes and desires. We see the "old man dreaming of his youth," the "young girl dreaming of love," and the "businessman dreaming of success." Each passenger is given a moment to shine, to show us their inner world.

As the train moves through the night, we are also given glimpses of the train's history. We see the "ghosts of kings and queens" who have ridden on the Orient Express before us. We feel the weight of history, the sense that we are part of something much larger than ourselves.

The poem then takes a darker turn, as we are introduced to the "thieves and murderers" who also ride on the Orient Express. We see the darker side of humanity, the side that is willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. But even in this darkness, there is a sense of beauty. The thieves are described as "sleek and dangerous," almost like animals in the night.

As the train approaches its destination, we are left with a sense of longing. We want to stay on the train forever, to keep traveling through the night, seeing the world through its eyes. But we know that we must eventually get off, that the journey must come to an end.

In the end, "The Orient Express" is a poem about the journey of life. It is about the people we meet along the way, the places we go, and the experiences we have. It is about the beauty and darkness of the world, and the sense of history that surrounds us. It is a poem that reminds us to cherish every moment, to savor every experience, and to never forget the journey that brought us here.

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