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"And the signals flash through the night in vain"

Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club often quotes Winston Churchill, the avatar of the desperate hour.

In a recent discussion of the financial mess on both sides of the Atlantic and the tendency of government to avoid taking action until a problem is catastrophic, and then to do all the wrong things, Fernandez writes -

. . .One man who knew the feeling of watching, helplessly, as things went to hell in a handbasket was Winston Churchill, whose forebodings were so primal that a poem he learned as a schoolboy flashed through his mind.

"Although the House listened to me with close attention, I felt a sensation of despair. To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one’s country, and not to be able to make Parliament and the nation heed the warning, or bow to the proof by taking action, was an experience most painful. . . .There lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown writer about a railway accident. I had learnt them from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school at Brighton.

"Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For Death is in charge of the clattering train."

However, to death Churchill always opposed his life.

Comments (3)

Interesting! You can find the whole poem, and the story behind it as well as the author, one Edwin Milliken, on this fascinating forum on 'Lost Poetry Quotations': http://www.emule.com/2poetry/phorum/read.php?7,153503 Apparently the poem (very long) was written in reaction to a very minor accident of a locomotive (no train) in 1890. Milliken, apparently, did the literary bits of Punch. He's marginally better that the Rev. McGonagall on train-wrecks; but then, who wouldn't be?

Todd Willmarth:

Churchill also memorized hundreds of lines of Lord Macauley's Lays of Ancient
Rome:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods."

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