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The Night Mail: ICSE, BSEM Class 9 English summary, notes

The Night Mail icse class 9

Get notes, line-by-line explanation, summary, questions and answers, critical analysis, word meanings, extras, and pdf of the poem The Night Mail by W.H. Auden. However, the notes should only be treated for references and changes should be made according to the needs of the students.

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Summary of the poem

The poem begins with the Night Mail train’s journey across a border, carrying various forms of mail for its recipients. As it ascends the Beattock, it maintains a consistent pace, ensuring it remains punctual. Propelled by a steam engine, the train releases plumes of white steam as it traverses diverse terrains. Birds, startled by its passage, gaze at the train’s emotionless carriages, which are depicted with human-like attributes.

As the train moves forward, it passes by farms where residents are deep in slumber. With the break of dawn, the uphill journey concludes, and the train’s direction shifts towards Glasgow. This Scottish city, known for its industrial landscape, is still quiet in the early morning hours. Yet, its inhabitants eagerly await the train, hoping for news and messages.

The poet elaborates on the myriad contents of the train: a plethora of letters varying in purpose, tone, and appearance. These letters range from formal invitations to heartfelt confessions of love, from meticulously typed documents to those with errors. They capture the essence of human communication in all its diversity.

While many still rest in cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh, they harbor the hope of waking up to letters. The mere sound of the postman’s knock will set their hearts racing, for in the poet’s words, who wishes to confront the pain of being overlooked or forgotten?

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Line-by-line explanation of the poem

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
The poet introduces the Night Mail, a train, as it travels across a boundary or border.

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
The train carries various types of mail, including checks and postal orders, indicating its importance in commerce and communication.

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The mail serves everyone, regardless of their economic status.

The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
The train carries letters for businesses as well as individuals, emphasizing its universal service.

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The train faces a challenging ascent at Beattock, a location in Scotland.

The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Despite the uphill battle, the train remains punctual.

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
The train travels through scenic landscapes, highlighting the beauty of the countryside.

Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
The steam engine releases steam, emphasizing its power and movement.

Snorting noisily as she passes
The train’s noise is likened to a creature’s snort, giving it a lively presence.

Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.
The contrast between the noisy train and the quiet, windswept landscape is highlighted.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Nature reacts to the train’s presence, showing its impact on the environment.

Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Birds curiously observe the passing train, emphasizing the interaction between man-made and natural worlds.

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
The train’s path is unyielding, not even affected by animals.

They slumber on with paws across.
The dogs sleep undisturbed, indicating the routine nature of the train’s journey.

In the farm she passes no one wakes,
The train’s passage is so regular that it doesn’t disturb the inhabitants of the farm.

But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.
Its presence is subtly felt, as indicated by the slight movement of a jug.

Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
As morning approaches, the train completes its uphill journey.

Down towards Glasgow she descends
The train now moves towards Glasgow, a major city in Scotland.

Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
The industrial sounds of the city contrast with the earlier natural scenes.

Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
The train approaches industrial areas, emphasizing the connection between rural and urban.

Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
Industrial structures are compared to chess pieces, suggesting their strategic importance.

All Scotland waits for her:
The entire country anticipates the train’s arrival, showing its significance.

In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
The scenic beauty of Scotland is described.

Men long for news.
People eagerly await the letters and news the train brings.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
The train carries various types of letters, from expressions of gratitude to official bank correspondence.

Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Personal letters filled with happiness from everyday individuals are mentioned.

Receipted bills and invitations
The train carries bills that have been paid and invitations to events.

To inspect new stock or visit relations,
Some letters might be business-related, inviting someone to check new inventory, while others are personal, inviting family visits.

And applications for situations
Job applications are also among the mail, indicating people’s hopes for employment.

And timid lovers’ declarations
Love letters, possibly from those too shy to express their feelings in person, are also transported.

And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
The train carries letters filled with news and rumors from various places.

News circumstantial, news financial,
Different types of news, both personal and financial, are conveyed through the letters.

Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Photographs from vacations, perhaps to be developed or enlarged, are also sent.

Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Some letters might have doodles or drawings, adding a personal touch.

Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Family correspondence from various relatives is highlighted.

Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
The train carries international mail, connecting distant places.

Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands Sympathy letters sent to various regions of Scotland are mentioned.

Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Even remote islands like the Hebrides receive international mail.

Written on paper of every hue,
The letters come in various colors, adding to the diversity of the mail.

The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
Specific colors of the letters are mentioned, painting a vivid image.

The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The content of the letters varies, from casual chats to love letters.

The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Some letters are formal, while others are deeply emotional.

Clever, stupid, short and long,
The letters vary in intelligence, length, and content.

The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Different methods of writing are mentioned, from typed to handwritten, with some having spelling errors.

Thousands are still asleep
Many people are still sleeping, unaware of the train’s journey.

Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Some might be having nightmares.

Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Others dream of pleasant moments, like having tea at popular spots.

Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
People in major cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh are still in slumber.

Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
Even in Aberdeen, known for its granite buildings, people are asleep.

They continue their dreams,
The sleepers remain in their dream worlds.

And shall wake soon and long for letters,
Soon, they’ll awaken and eagerly await their mail.

And none will hear the postman’s knock
Everyone anticipates the postman’s arrival.

Without a quickening of the heart,
The sound of the postman evokes excitement and anticipation.

For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
The poem concludes by emphasizing the universal human desire for connection and the fear of being overlooked or forgotten.

Critical analysis of the poem

“The Night Mail” by W. H. Auden is a captivating portrayal of a mail train’s journey and the profound significance of the letters it carries. The rhythmic and rhyming structure of the poem mimics the steady chug of a train, creating an immersive sense of movement and pace. This rhythmic quality lends the poem a song-like aura, enhancing its auditory appeal.

Auden’s use of imagery is masterful, painting a vivid landscape through which the Night Mail travels. From the serene “cotton-grass and moorland boulder” to the bustling heart of industrial Glasgow, the poem captures the diverse terrains and atmospheres of Britain. This imagery not only sets a picturesque scene but also offers a striking contrast between the untouched natural world and the man-made marvel of the train.

Throughout the poem, the train is endowed with human-like qualities, emerging as a dutiful entity that tirelessly works to bridge distances and deliver messages. The description of “blank-faced coaches” evokes an image of stoic, unemotional compartments, emphasizing the train’s mechanical nature. Yet, this imagery is juxtaposed with the deeply emotional and varied cargo they carry, from love notes to official documents.

At its heart, the poem is a celebration of communication and connection. In an era before the ubiquity of instant digital communication, letters were tangible tokens of relationships, memories, and emotions. The diverse nature of the letters carried by the Night Mail underscores the train’s impartiality and highlights the universal human need for connection, irrespective of social or economic status.

The poem also offers a subtle reflection on society. The industrial imagery of Glasgow, with its “fields of apparatus” and towering furnaces, hints at the changing face of Britain during Auden’s time, a nation in the throes of industrialization. Yet, amidst this backdrop of change, the timeless human emotions of anticipation, hope, and the fear of being forgotten remain constant.

The poem underscores the human desire to be remembered, to matter, and to connect. The universal anticipation of the postman’s knock and the deep-seated fear of being overlooked resonate with readers across ages. In “The Night Mail,” Auden transforms a seemingly ordinary subject—a mail train’s journey—into a profound exploration of human connection, communication, and the diverse landscapes, both physical and emotional, that we navigate in our lifetimes.

Additional/Extra questions and answers

1. What is the poem about?

Answer: The poem is about the journey of a mail train called the Night Mail from London to Scotland and how it carries letters, news and hopes for human connection.

2. Where is the Night Mail train heading to?

Answer: The Night Mail train starts from London and heads towards Scotland over the course of a night. It passes through different regions and landscapes on the way.

3. What does the Night Mail carry for the people?

Answer: The Night Mail carries cheques, postal orders, letters, news, notes, bills, invitations, applications, declarations, gossip etc. for the people living in various parts of UK. It carries mail for both the rich and the poor.

4. How has the train been personified in the poem?

Answer: The train has been beautifully personified as a woman figure who is calm, dutiful and determined in her journey. She climbs steadily, passes through regions methodically and brings hopes of connection for people.

5. What does the line “Letters for the rich, letters for the poor” signify?

Answer: This line signifies that the mail train carries letters for people from all strata of society, whether rich or poor. It highlights how the mail service connected everyone equally.

6. How does the train start its uphill journey initially?

Answer: In the beginning, the train starts by slowly and steadily climbing up Beattock. The gradient or slope poses a difficulty but the train is on time in her climb. She moves dutifully through the uphill path.

7. What different regions and landscapes does the train pass through?

Answer: The train passes through cotton grass fields, moorlands with boulders, miles of wind-bent grasses, farm lands where people are asleep, sheep dogs guarding sheep, and finally reaches industrial Glasgow with furnaces, cranes etc.

8. How do the sheep dogs react to the passing train?

Answer: The sheep dogs try to turn the course of the passing train but are unable to do so. They lie down with their paws across, after failing to divert the train.

9. Why don’t the sleeping farm people wake up as the train passes?

Answer: The farm people along the way are used to the train passing by every night, so they continue their slumber undisturbed even as the train passes. Only a jug shakes slightly.

10. How is the industrial area of Glasgow described?

Answer: Glasgow is described as an industrial zone with fields of apparatus, giant furnaces, steam tugs, glades of cranes etc. The furnaces are compared to gigantic chessmen, arranged methodically.

11. What does the simile “like gigantic chessmen” refer to?

Answer: This simile refers to the furnaces in Glasgow area which are set up almost like chess pieces on a chess board, implying industrial planning and building.

12. What are the different types of letters carried by the train?

Answer: The train carries personal as well as formal letters – letters of thanks, job applications, lovers’ declarations, gossip, news, invitations, condolences, holiday photographs and more.

13. How are the tones and styles of letters described?

Answer: The letters’ tones are described as friendly, cold, boring, admiring, clever, stupid, short, long. The styles are hand-written, typed, printed, misspelt.

14. Why do the Scottish people long for the mail train?

Answer: The Scottish people anxiously await the Night Mail and the letters/news it brings because it connects them with loved ones and the world. They don’t want to feel forgotten.

15. What colours and types of stationery are used for writing letters?

Answer: Letters are written on stationery of all colours – pink, violet, white, blue etc. Some are hand-written while some are typed or printed.

16. What are the Scottish people dreaming about at night as the train approaches?

Answer: The Scottish people are dreaming of either terrifying monsters or friendly gatherings at night as the train approaches. Their dreams reflect their longing for connection.

17. Why does the postman’s knock quicken people’s hearts?

Answer: The postman’s knock quickens people’s hearts in anticipation of some letter or news for them. It reawakens their hope of being connected.

18. What is the significance of the line “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”

Answer: This rhetorical question conveys that no one wants to feel forgotten or isolated from their loved ones. We all seek connections through letters or any medium.

Additional/Extra MCQs

1. What does the Night Mail train carry?

A. Only letters B. Only cheques C. Letters, cheques, news etc. D. Furniture

Answer: C. Letters, cheques, news etc.

2. How is the train personified in the poem?

A. As an angry man B. As a destructive monster C. As a dutiful woman D. As a tired bird

Answer: C. As a dutiful woman

3. Where is the Night Mail train heading towards?

A. The Americas B. Scotland C. Africa D. Switzerland

Answer: B. Scotland

4. How does the train start its initial journey?

A. With great speed B. With loud noises C. With a slow, steady climb D. With sudden jerks

Answer: C. With a slow, steady climb

5. What do the sheep dogs try to do as the train passes?

A. Attack it B. Stop it C. Chase it D. Ignore it

Answer: B. Stop it

6. Why don’t the farm people wake up as the train passes?

A. They are heavy sleepers B. They are used to it C. They wear ear plugs D. They take sleeping pills

Answer: B. They are used to it

7. How is Glasgow described?

A. As a quiet village B. As an industrial area C. As a holiday spot D. As a dense forest

Answer: B. As an industrial area

8. What does the simile ‘like gigantic chessmen’ refer to?

A. The sheep dogs B. The moorlands C. The furnaces D. The cranes

Answer: C. The furnaces

9. What do the Scottish people await?

A. Furniture B. Clothes C. Letters and news D. Food

Answer: C. Letters and news

10. What tones are used to describe letters?

A. Angry, rude B. Aristocratic, pompous C. Friendly, boring, cold D. Pleading, begging

Answer: C. Friendly, boring, cold

11. Different stationery colours mentioned in the poem are:

A. Red, green, yellow B. Pink, violet, blue C. Black, brown, grey D. Orange, peach, purple

Answer: B. Pink, violet, blue

12. How do the Scottish people pass their night as the train approaches?

A. Partying B. Cooking C. Dreaming D. Painting

Answer: C. Dreaming

13. Why does the postman’s knock quicken people’s hearts?

A. Fear B. Excitement C. Anxiety D. Nervousness

Answer: B. Excitement

14. What does the line “For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” convey?

A. People enjoy isolation B. Forgetting is bliss C. No one wants to feel isolated D. Some people like being forgotten

Answer: C. No one wants to feel isolated

15. The train passes through which landscapes and regions?

A. Mountains, glaciers, rivers B. Beaches, cliffs, deserts C. Cotton grass, moors, farm lands D. Jungles, swamps, valleys

Answer: C. Cotton grass, moors, farm lands

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