Poem of the Week: 1/11/09-1/17/09

This week’s poem of the week is “Death and His Brother Sleep” by Edwin J Milliken. This poem’s main claim to fame came by way of Churchill. He says in his memoirs that the last 6 verses came to his mind as he was filled with despair over the British failure to prepare for the coming war with Hitler.

Due to the fact that we could not find a suitable location to link to, we are reproducing the poem below the fold.


Death and His Brother Sleep

by Edwin J Milliken


Who is in charge of the clattering train?

The axles creak, and the couplings strain.

Ten minutes behind at the Junction. Yes!

And we’re twenty now to the bad–no less!

We must make it up on our flight to town.

Clatter and crash! ‘That’s the last train down,

Flashing by with a steamy trail.

Pile on the fuel! We must not fail.

At every mile we a minute must gain!

Who is in charge of the clattering train?


Why flesh and blood as a matter of course!

You may talk of iron and prate of force;

But, after all, and do what you can,

The best – and cheapest – machine is Man!

Wealth knows it well, and the hucksters feel

‘Tis safer to trust them to sinew than steel.

With a bit of brain, and a conscience, behind,

Muscle works better then steam or wind.

Better and longer and harder all round;

And cheap, so cheap! Men superabound

Men stalwart, vigilant, patient, bold:

The stokehole’s heat and the crow’s-nest’s cold,

The choking dust of the noisesome mine,

The northern blast o’er the beating brine,

With dogged valour they coolly brave;

So on rattling rail, or on wind-scourged wave,

At engine lever, at furnace front,

Or steersman’s wheel, they must bear the brunt

Of lonely vigil or lengthened strain.

Man is in charge of the thundering train!


Man, in the shape of a modest chap

In fustian trousers and greasy cap;

A trifle stolid, and something gruff,

Yet, though unpolished, of sturdy stuff.

With grave grey eyes, and a knitted brow,

The glare of sun and the gleam of snow

Those eyes have stared on this many a year.

Tho’ crows-feet gather in mazes queer

About their corners most apt to choke

With grime of fuel and fume of smoke.

Little to tickle the artist taste –

An oil-can, a fist-full of “cotton waste”,

The lever’s click and the furnace gleam,

And the mingled odour of oil and steam;

These are the matters that fill the brain

Of the man in charge of the clattering train.


Only a man, but away at his back,

In a dozen cars, on the steely track,

A hundred passengers place their trust

In this fellow of fustian, grease and dust.

They cheerily chat, or they calmly sleep,

Sure that the driver his watch will keep

On the night-dark track, that he will not fail.

So the thud, thud, thud of wheel on rail

The hiss of steam-spurts athwart the dark,

Lull them to confident drowsiness. Hark!


What is that sound? ‘Tis the stertorous breath

Of a slumbering man, – and it smacks of death!

Full sixteen hours of continuous toil

Midst the fume of sulphur, the reek of oil,

Have told their tale on the tired man’s brain,

And Death is in charge of the clattering train!


Sleep– Death’s brother, as poets deem,

Stealeth soft to his side; a dream

Of home and rest on his spirit creeps,

That wearied man, as the engine leaps,

Throbbing, swaying along the line;

Those poppy-fingers his head incline

Lower, lower, in slumber’s trance;

The shadows fleet, and the gas gleams dark

Faster, faster in mazy flight,

As the engine flashes across the night.

Mortal muscle and human nerve

Cheap to purchase and stout to serve

Strained too fiercely will faint and swerve.

Over weighted and underpaid,

This human tool of exploiting Trade,

Though tougher than leather, tenser than steel.

Fails at last, for his senses reel,

His nerves collapse, and with sleep-sealed eyes,

Prone and helpless a log he lies!

A hundred hearts beat placidly on,

Unwitting they that their warder’s gone;

A hundred lips are babbling blithe,

Some seconds hence they in pain may writhe.

For the pace is hot, and the points are near,

And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear;

And signals flash through the night in vain.

Death is in charge of the clattering train!


2 thoughts on “Poem of the Week: 1/11/09-1/17/09

  1. Surfing around stumbleupon.com I noticed your web site book-marked as: Poem of the Week: 1/11/09-1/17/09 » The Ethereal Voice. Now I am assuming you bookmarked it yourself and wanted to ask if social book-marking gets you a lot of targeted visitors? I’ve been looking at doing some bookmarking for a few of my websites but wasn’t sure if it would produce any positive results. Thank you.

  2. I far as I know, no one involved with this site booked marked that link on stumbleupon. I did notice that the poem seemed to get a surprising amount of traffic, but I never bothered to look into why it did. Perhaps stumbleupon is the answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *