Opening a discussion of our attitudes towards change, evolution, and development, Stephen Jay Gould points out that Queen Victoria first rode in a railway train in 1842, and continues:

Beyond this royal symbol, 1842 was a good year for change in general. Darwin composed his first sketch of the theory natural selection (followed, in 1844, by an expanded draft and finally in 1859, by a published version, The Origin of Species). And Alfred Tennyson wrote, in Locksley Hall, the most famous of all Victorian lines about the inevitability of change: "Let the great world spin for down the ringing grooves of change."

I unite Tennyson's line with Victoria and rail transport for several reasons, most literally because Tennyson himself later wrote that his striking, though peculiar, metaphor for change (both visual and aural) arose from a misperception during his own first journey by rail: "When I went by the first train from Liverpool to Manchester (1830), I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line." [133]

Curiously, the poet's mistaken belief that the wheels of railway locomotives and carriages ran in grooves rather than, as he later learned, on top of the rails, provides the special force, the power, of this “striking, though peculiar, metaphor for change.” “Ringing down the grooves of change” has certainly established itself as a topos or commonplace for the inevitability of change. Googling the phrase first produced 60,000 results (in .23 seconds) and then, when I tried a second time, 826,000 results in (0.14 seconds). When I added “Tennyson” to the search, it shrunk to about 14,000 items (in 0.15 seconds).

Appropriately, Tennyson's phrase provides the title of Andrew Swift's The Ringing Grooves of Change: Brunel and the Coming of the Railway to Bath as it does for in I.F. Brown's The Grooves of Change: Eastern Europe at the Turn of the Millennium, Doug Cocks's “The Ringing Grooves of Change: Mid-future possibilities for the global system,” and Cyril Renwick's collected papers, 1963-1976. It also appears in the title of a discussion of "Law School Futures, Past and Present," an episode of Words and Music on BBC Radio that presents a “selection of poetry and prose on the theme of revolution and change.” It appears in many titles — for example that of a chapter in a novel by Colum McCann, of an entry for May 5, 2010 in Tim Heald's blog, of another from 1999 on Nooventures: Mind Ventures in the Quest for a Life-Sustaining Civilization Design, and (one of my favorites) as the basis for an article on Art Pepper's jazz in the July 1964 issue of Downbeat Magazine. And these examples are only from the first two screens of the web search!

The question is, would Tennyson have created such a powerful, long-lived commonplace if he hadn't made a mistake?


Gould, Stephen Jay. “Lucy on the Earth in Stasis.” Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural History. New York: Harmony Books, 1995. 133-46.

Last modified 15 November 2011