I can easily picture Louis MacNeice -- that urbane and questioning figure -- deep in thought in a smoke-filled train. Perhaps he is on his way to Holyhead to catch a boat to Ireland. (In fact, R. S. Thomas has written about encountering W. B. Yeats on that route: "Memories of Yeats Whilst Travelling to Holyhead.") Or perhaps he is headed to western Scotland and the Hebrides. And, sure enough, MacNeice did write his share of train poems, among them "Corner Seat," "Train to Dublin," and "Trains in the Distance." I think that this is my favorite.
Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.
And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.
Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems (1966).
Given the circumstances of its composition, "Star-gazer" inevitably has a bitter-sweet air about it. MacNeice wrote it in January of 1963. He died unexpectedly of pneumonia in September of that year, just short of his 56th birthday.