Sunday 9 November 2014

Sunday War Poet ~ Author's Choice ~ Claire Dyer

It's Remembrance Sunday and I  am delighted to  introduce


Claire Dyer 

and her choice of  Sunday War Poem

I wanted to choose a poem written by a woman and, when looking at the Poetry By Heart website  discovered the work of Helen Mackay (1891 – 1965).

What appealed to me about this poem was its insistence on a domestic narrative. Not for it are the battlefields or the horrors and privations suffered by so many soldiers, but rather it focuses on the tragedy of a motherless family saying goodbye to their father who is leaving on a troop train. 

Train – Helen McKay

Will the train never start?
God, make the train start.

She cannot bear it, keeping up so long;
and he, he no more tries to laugh at her.
He is going.

She holds his two hands now.
Now, she has touch of him and sight of him.
And then he will be gone.
He will gone.

They are so young.
She stands under the window of his carriage,
and he stands in the window.
They hold each other’s hands
across the window ledge.
And look and look,
and know that they may never look again.

The great clock of the station-
how strange it is.
Terrible that the minutes go,
terrible that the minutes never go.

They had walked the platform for so long,
up and down, and up and down-
the platform, in the rainy morning,
up and down, and up and down.

The guard came by, calling,
“Take your places, take your places.”

She stands under the window of his carriage,
and he stands in the window.

God, make the train start!
Before they cannot bear it,
make the train start!

God, make the train start!

The three children, there,
in black, with the old nurse,
standing together, and looking, and looking,
up at their father in the carriage window,
they are so forlorn and silent.

The little girl will not cry,
but her chin trembles.
She throws back her head,
with its stiff little braid,
and will not cry.

Her father leans down,
out over the ledge of the window,
and kisses her, and kisses her.

She must be like her mother,
and it must be the mother who is dead.
The nurse lifts up the smallest boy,
and his father kisses him,
leaning through the carriage window.

The big boy stands very straight,
and looks at his father, 
and looks, and never takes his eyes from him,
And knows that he may never look again.

Will the train never start?
God, make the train start!

The father reaches his hand down from the window,
and grips the boy’s hand,
and does not speak at all.

Will the train never start?

He lets the boy’s hand go.

Will the train never start?

He takes the boy’s chin in his hand,
leaning out through the window,
and lifts the face that is so young, to his.
They look and look,
and know that they may never look again.

Will the train never start?
God, make the train start!

‘Train’ was published in ‘London, One November. Poems’ in 1915.

With piercing emotional insight, Mackay describes the scene with a painterly eye. We see the tableau of the father, his children and their nurse as a static and a moving thing; there is, in the scene and in the poem an unbearable tension between the desire for the train to leave so that the moment of farewell will have been faced and survived, and the desire to delay it’s leaving for as long as possible.   Furthermore, Mackay’s attention to detail encompasses both the vast: the station, the train, the father’s unknown destination and the tiny: a man touching his son’s chin to lift his face so that they can look at one another for what could be one last time.

Also, for a poem published in 1915 it eschews the formal conventions of the time in terms of structure, phrasing and rhyme schemes. Rather, it is a loose narrative with stanzas of differing lengths and the use of the repeated refrains, for example: ‘Will the train never start?/God, make the train start!’ The language is commonplace and she uses adjectives sparingly with those she does use being neat, ordinary and fitting.

This is a poem which will stay with me. I hope it will stay with you.


Claire Dyer is the author of

Eleven Rooms
The Moment
The Perfect Affair
Falling for Gatsby

Huge thanks to Claire for sharing her personal choice of war poem for my Sunday feature on the 

War Poets of World War One.



  1. Thanks Josie for finding Claire and thanks Claire for finding this harrowing little picture of a family possibly split for ever. ...... and the train. Make it start, will it never start - for goodbyes are always hard, and this one so difficult to deal with.

    1. My pleasure Susan - thanks for your continued interest..

  2. what an amazing poem and as Claire says it makes a change from one all about the front line, troops and the war. Thanks for sharing
    Gill x

    1. Thanks Gill - glad you liked it and thanks for visiting.

  3. What a tender and moving poem. A perfect choice for Remembrance Sunday, when we saw the pain on the faces of people around us as they remembered perhaps the last time they'd seen a loved one who never returned and we remembered that last sight of someone we lost. Two minutes - so very brief, so painfully long.

  4. Hello Karen - thanks for your comments. I agree the poem is very emotional and completely encapsulates the feeling of love and loss.


Thanks for taking the time to comment - Jaffareadstoo appreciates your interest.