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Lynn Sear


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A Writing Root for Night Mail

£5.00 (inc. VAT)

KS: Upper KS2

Year Group: Year 6

Literary Theme: Crossing Borders

Author(s): W H Auden


Summaries, analysis and performances

Main Outcome:

Poem with similar structure


10 session, 2 weeks

Overview and Outcomes:

This is a two-week Writing Root using the poem ‘Night Mail’, which was written in 1936 to accompany the documentary film of the same year and the same title. The film depicted a London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train travelling from London to Scotland. It was produced by GPO Film Unit, directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, and narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg. Auden’s poem was read toward the end of the film, set to music by Benjamin Britten. Lines were chopped and changed to fit the film. The intention of the film was to show the public how the mail was distributed by train. The rhythm of the film matches the train’s movement. Auden apparently used a stopwatch as he set the lines to the film. The form of the poem is made up of eight rhymed, four-beat couplets.

Synopsis of Text:

Auden's poem for the sequence, entitled "Night Mail", was written at the film unit's main office in Soho Square. Watt described his work area as "A bare table at the end of a dark, smelly, noisy corridor", a contrast to the more peaceful surroundings that he was used to working in. He paced it to match the rhythm of the train's wheels "with a stopwatch in order to fit it exactly to the shot". Grierson biographer Forsyth Hardy wrote that Auden wrote the verse on a trial and error basis, and was cut to fit the visuals by editor Richard McNaughton in collaboration with Cavalcanti and Wright. Many lines from the original version were discarded and became "crumpled fragments in the wastepaper basket",including one that described the by the English-Scottish border as "uplands heaped like slaughtered horses" that Wright considered too strong for the landscape that was shot for it.

Text Rationale:

We chose this poem by prolific British-American poet WH Auden to highlight to children the connection between poetry, film, music and history.  Children will enjoy the performance aspect of poetry, especially how the rhythm fits with the movement of the train, and how the visuals from the film bring the words to life.  The poem will act as inspiration for their own poetry writing, which can also be performed to an audience. 

Links and Themes:

Film, trains, poetry, poems, verse, rhythm, music

Date written: June 2014

A Spelling Seed is available for Night Mail.

Spelling Seed Overview:


This is a two-session spelling seed for the book Night Mail by W H Auden.  Below is the coverage from Appendix 1 of the National Curriculum 2014.

Spelling Seeds have been designed to complement Writing Roots by providing weekly, contextualised sequences of sessions for the teaching of spelling that include open-ended investigations and opportunities to practise and apply within meaningful and purposeful contexts, linked (where relevant) to other areas of the curriculum and a suggestion of how to extend the investigation into home learning.

There is a Spelling Seed session for every week of the associated Writing Root.


Word List Words

communicate, frequently, secretary, rhyme, rhythm, vehicle

Spelling Rules and Patterns

Words containing the letter-string ough

View Night Mail Spelling Seed

Literary Leaves within the same Literary Theme

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