The Reindeer and the Engine - Commentary

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The poem 'Reindeer and Engine' by Josephine Jacobsen is an extract from the poet's 1966 work 'The Animal Inside'. The poem is about a reindeer who is fleeing from a steam engine, in the forests of Finland. However, wherever the reindeer seems to turn, engine tends to follow.

The poet Josephine Jacobsen introduces a very relevant issue, from the title of the poem itself – that of nature versus technology. In a sense, the reindeer and the engine are contrasting ideas. Both represent 'motion' but whereas the reindeer has been given a definition of peace and serenity, the engine has been given a destructive and foul character. Therefore, the theme of the poem could be said to be one of nature vs. industrialisation.

Jacobsen uses the first stanza of the poem to introduce the main idea of the poem. The use of the term 'engine' in the title of the poem turns out to be very essential, because this helps the reader to understand what Jacobsen is referring to when she mentions the 'great round eye'. This is probably a reference to the front light of the train. When the poet mention in lines 1 and 2 that:

'The reindeer
fastened to the great round eye'

the reader gets the feeling that that the reindeer is being 'controlled' and the 'great round eye' in the form of the engine was infringing its freedom. The reindeer 'runs runs runs runs runs' almost instinctively, because this is almost a completely futile situation for it. The engine, to the reindeer, represents danger and death. The 'blast of light' that is referred to in line 6, is dynamic, as though death is running towards the reindeer to finish it off. As a result the reindeer will 'not look back'. This phrase signifies two things. On a superficial level, the phrase 'not look back' signifies the time constraints (the pressure) that the reindeer was under. It could waste no more time as its death in the form of the engine was fast approaching. On the other hand 'not look back' is a predictive phrase – it implies that the reindeer has been killed and that there is no turning back possible. The first stanza also manages to give the reader an insight into the setting and location of the poem (the forests of Finland).

Jocobsen's introduction to the second with the words 'will not'. These two words strike the reader to be very strong and determined, therefore possibly reflecting the mentality of the reindeer. Considering that this is a continuation from the previous stanza, the reindeer is telling us that it will not look back. It is determined to survive, and even though the situation may appear to be a lost cause, the reindeer believes that there is a chance for it to save itself. This is an effective ploy to engage the reader – whereas in the first stanza the reader may feel that the reindeer is completely taken over by the situation, just the first two words of the second stanza are enough to convince the reader otherwise, and enable him to hope that the reindeer can survive. This determination of the reindeer is carried forward to line 9, where Jacobsen writes 'look back, or aside, or swerve'. The concentration of the reindeer does not waver, and its primary focus is to escape this situation. For some reason, the deer does not consider the option of running off the track:

'into the black tall deep
good dark of the forests of winter'

This may seem very odd to the reader, as to the human mind this may seem the easiest and most logical option. However, what one must realise is that this is not the mind of a human, but that of animal. Perhaps the fact that the forest is 'deep' and 'dark' is what prevents the reindeer from changing it's route. Maybe the light from the train had an attractive force to it towards the reindeer which prevented it from doing so. Jacobsen then goes onto mention:

'that light that thrust through his brain's nerve
its whitehot splinter.'

These lines once again show us how the reindeer's...
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