Night Mail Background Information

Topics: John Grierson, Night Mail, Benjamin Britten Pages: 5 (1690 words) Published: February 14, 2015
Night Mail Background Information

Night Mail is a 1936 documentary film about a London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train from London to Scotland, produced by the GPO Film Unit. A poem by W. H. Auden was written for it, used in the closing few minutes.

The film documents the way the post was distributed by train in the 1930s, focusing on the so-called Postal Special train, a train dedicated only to carrying the post and with no members of the public, traveling on the mainline route from Euston station, London to Glasgow, Scotland and on to Edinburgh and then Aberdeen. External shots include many of the train itself passing at speed down the tracks, some interesting aerial views, with interior shots of the sorting van.

As recited in the film, the poem's rhythm imitates the train's wheels as they clatter over track sections, beginning slowly but picking up speed so that by the time of the penultimate (one before the last) verse the narrator is at a breathless pace. As the train slows toward its destination the final verse is more sedate(unhurried). The opening lines are "This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order".

According to Forsyth Hardy's biography of Grierson, "Auden wrote the verse on a trial and error basis. It had to be cut to fit the visuals. Many lines were discarded, ending as crumpled fragments in the wastepaper basket.

Night Mail was a genuinely collaborative effort. Stuart Legg spoke the verse, timed, with Britten's music, to the beat of the train's wheels.

W. H. Auden: Poems Summary and Analysis of "Night Mail"
The train is crossing the border overnight with mail, bringing letters and checks and orders for rich and poor. Though the way is steep, she is still on time. She passes moors and boulders, her white steam flowing behind her. She noisily passes through the “silent miles” of grassland. Birds peer at her, and sheepdogs cannot make her alter her course. Passing one farm, the dwellers sleep on, but a jug “gently shakes.” In the dawn she descends into Glasgow. There she heads toward dark furnaces set up like “gigantic chessmen.” All of Scotland craves her arrival, for the men want news. There are letters of all sorts and for all people: receipts, invitations, applications, declarations of love, gossip from around the world, news both “circumstantial” and “financial,” letters from family members, letters with doodles in the margins, letters from all over Europe, letters of condolences, all written on papers of every color imaginable. The letters have all tones and styles: catty, friendly, cold, boring, clever, stupid, long, short. Some are typed, some are printed, some are misspelled. Thousands still sleep and dream and have nightmares. They are asleep in Glasgow, asleep in Edinburgh. They dream on, but they hope that when they awake they will have letters. Their hearts will pound when they hear the knock on the door of the postman, for “who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” Analysis

The charming poem “Night Mail” was written in 1936 to accompany the documentary film of the same year and the same title. The film concerned a London, Midland, and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train traveling from London to Scotland. It was produced by GPO Film Unit, directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg. Auden’s poem was read toward the end of the film, set to music by Benjamin Britten. Lines were chopped and changed to fit the film. The basic intent of the film, at least superficially, was to reveal how the mail was distributed by train. The rhythm of the film matches the train’s movement, and dreamy loneliness pervades much of it. It has become a classic in film circles. Auden is said to have written the verses with the aid of a stopwatch as he set them to the film. A reader can almost hear the train chugging along as it brings the letters to the people of England and Scotland, especially in the first...
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