Hey now, just because Emily Dickinson didn't get out much, doesn't mean that she totally lost touch with the world. Though the "Belle of Amherst" is infamous for rarely leaving her hometown – or even her homestead – she still had a great many observations about the changing world around her, some of which we see in "I like to see it lap the Miles." Dickinson's father, Edward, was actually an instrumental part of the committee involved in bringing the railroad to their town (Amherst, MA) in 1853, so the 23-year-old poetess must have heard a whole lot about the arrival of the world-changing "iron horse" over the family dinner table.
Interestingly, though her father proudly watched the arrival of the first train in the town, Emily herself watched from a distance, in the woods.* This same distance – a combination of fascination and wariness, perhaps – stands out in "I like to see it lap the Miles." The coming of the railroad definitely meant a change in sleepy Amherst's way of life, and in Emily's own. We have to wonder what personal impact this change of pace made to this reclusive poet and the rapidly modernizing world around her.
*For an interesting and very sophisticated discussion of this family connection, check out Chapter One of Domnhail Mitchell's book, Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception, available at Google Books.
Do you remember the look on your parents' faces when they got their first cell phones? Tried to figure out how to use your PS3 to play a Blu-ray movie? Sent their tentative first texts (something some of our moms and dads thankfully still haven't mastered)? This poem captures some of that childlike blend of wonder, excitement, and trepidation that always greets new technology – whether it's an iPad or, in this case, a railway train. Though it's hard to imagine a world in which trains were the newest, craziest, and most exciting inventions out there (and we're not talking about high-speed bullet trains – the trains of Emily Dickinson's time were old-school steam locomotives), the feeling is familiar: we may have grown somewhat accustomed to the wonders of technology in our day and age, but every time something new and innovative comes along, it's still pretty thrilling.
The flip side of this sense of wonder, admiration, and enchantment, however, is also familiar: uncertainty. Dickinson describes the train in uneasy terms, as something that interacts with the natural world, but doesn't belong to it, and similarly, obeys man (for now), but is clearly more powerful than human beings. The immense power she depicts seems tamed, but might not be. After all, how much can you trust something that seems "docile," but is also "omnipotent" (15) as it charges onwards through a landscape that seems devoid of human life?
This brings us to a tried-and-true sci-fi problem: how much can we trust technology? How far can we push the limits of our inventions, before they start to push back at us? Of course, the real question latent in this is one that writers love to speculate about (think Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica…we could go on forever). Namely, when are the robots going to rise up against us???
Whoa, OK – hold yer (iron) horses. We didn't mean to get carried away there, and Dickinson certainly wasn't forecasting any kind of Terminator-style robot apocalypse or anything. Far from it. The tone of "I like to see it lap the Miles" is principally admiration, and the low-lying fog of unease that we see drifting around it seems pretty speculative.
Dickinson doesn't go so far as to suggest that the brand-spankin' new train is necessarily dangerous, or even bad…but it does seem like this new, powerful manmade creature is something of an invasive species. The speaker's not sure how it's going to get along with the rest of the familiar world yet, and it seems that she's kind of suspending judgment on it for now.
Reading this poem in our current moment, we can't help but pause for a moment and think about the impact that technology has had, and will continue to have on the natural world, and on our human society – and wonder about technology's own strange, artificial "life."