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Peer Reviewed

A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein

Linda Fleming and Edward Cohen



An Everyday Story

Published in the People’s Journal for Glasgow and Edinburgh, 6 January 1883, p. 3.
The pointsman stood at the crossing
   For eighteen hours in the day,
Watching the trains fly past him,
   And turning the points each way.

He was blithe, alert, and watchful
   The first twelve hours of the day,
The last six hours he grew drowsy,
   And so would you, I should say.

But the drowsiness creeping o’er him
   He strove with and kept at bay,
Yet shapes came flitting before him
   From Dreamland, not far away.

For eighteen hours, with precision,
   He was turning the points that day,
And then came a dread collision,
   For the pointsman mistook the way.

O what a scene of terror,
   What terrible forms of pain!
All through a moment’s error
   Of an overwearied brain.

Why was that brain o’er-wearied?
   Why? Let his masters say;
Why was the pointsman working
   For eighteen hours that day?

Most people are selfish and foolish,
   And so such a system thrives;
Too selfish to care for the pointsman,
   Too foolish to think of their lives.

And so we see death and disaster,
   With anguish, affliction, and tears,
And want is the poor man’s master,
   And oppression goes on for years.

They will keep to their heartless system,
   And many such scenes will cause,
As long as the law permits them;
   How long shall we bear such laws?
“The Pointsman” expresses Bernstein’s sympathy for the switch operator who labors “eighteen hours” a day and her contempt for the “heartless system” that cares little for the working person or for the public safety. As the subtitle suggests, the poem is based not on a specific incident but upon a “story” that might occur everyday. The poem was published in the People’s Journal for Glasgow and Edinburgh, a weekly newspaper with “thoughtful leaders on social topics.” Two weeks earlier, in the issue for 16 December 1882, the paper had reported on a meeting in Glasgow of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for Scotland. Tensions had arisen between the men, who had “frequently to work 70 and 90 hours in the week” but had demanded “a day of ten hours,” and the directors of the several railway companies, who had declined to confer with them. A representative for the petitioners insisted that “the concessions asked are not only reasonable, but absolutely necessary to the interests and the safety of the traveling public.” Just one week later, in a grim coincidence, the same newspaper reported three serious railway collisions—near Glasgow, at Kilbirnie, and at Essendene—in which three miners were killed and scores of passengers were injured. All three accidents occurred at junctions. In nineteenth-century Scotland, one scholar observes, “women poets were often reluctant radicals, attempting to reconcile piety and a desire for respectability with an acute awareness of injustices” (Bold 257). But not Marion Bernstein. For poetical purposes, she conflates the incidents into one and imagines that an “overwearied” operator has failed at the switch.