Evelyn Aargh examines the role of this icon of public transport, and what it has meant to generations of authors throughout the world

The bus shelter is one of the most powerful metaphors of all world literature. It has been used to express longing, sorrow, loneliness, and a myriad of other emotions and themes, ranging from post- war Communism to an almost Hegelian stance against the size of today's bus tickets.

But this is not merely a modern literary device, rather one of the eternal icons of writing in all languages, at all times. After all, how many of us can deny having had a deeply cathartic existential experience while waiting for the bus home, if only once or twice a week? Writers have long been fascinated with the many qualities that make the bus shelter what it is - a siphon of intellectual achievement throughout the history of Man.

We can trace this theme back to the ancient Greeks, and Plato's Socratic dialogue Euthyphro:

SOCRATES. And so, my dear friend, what is a bus shelter?
EUTHYPHRO. That is (indicating one across the pantheon).
SOC. That may be so, but I have no time for such exemplifications. At present I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not given, my friend, to the question, What is a bus shelter? In reply, you only say that object is there.
EUTH. And that is true, Socrates.
SOC. I dare say so, Euthyphro, but there are other bus shelters.
EUTH. There are.
SOC. Remember I did not ask you to give me an example of a bus shelter, but to explain its general definition. Is there not something which makes a bus shelter a bus shelter?
EUTH. There is.
SOC. Tell me what it is then, that I shall have a criterion with which to judge an object and say whether it is a bus shelter.
EUTH. I will tell you, if you like.
SOC. I should very much like.
EUTH. A bus shelter, then, is a covered structure under which one waits for buses.
SOC. Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me just the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether it is true or not I can not as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.
EUTH. Of course.
SOC. Come then, and let us examine what we are saying. That place where we wait for buses under a covered area is a bus shelter. Was that not said?
EUTH. Yes, that was said.
SOC. And so, when one does not wait there for buses, it is not a bus shelter?
EUTH. No, it is still that.
SOC. So, my good friend, if one waits elsewhere for buses, it is still a bus shelter?
EUTH. Yes.
SOC. Even though it no longer retains the purpose which you said defined its being?
EUTH. I suppose not.
SOC. And so your definition cannot be correct.
EUTH. It seems so.
SOC. Then I will ask you again - what is a bus shelter?

It was such notions of the bus shelter as an indefinable evocation of classical society that inspired Shakespeare's use of shelters as images of purity in an otherwise cruel society. His plays make frequent reference to modes of transport, most obviously expressed in A Midsummer Night's Tram and As You Bike It. Yet it is in his sonnets that Shakespeare most movingly displays his affection for the bus stop, though not necessarily the ride which followed it:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's bus journey?
Thou art less tedious and far less sweaty.
Warm climes do stifle the darling bus of May,
Especially if you're sitting next to Aunt Betty!

The romantic movement in English literature was quick to react to Shakespeare's idea of the bus shelter as a glorified and unchanging entity. Despite their yearning for a more unsullied and pure way of life, the Romantics were unsure of the bus shelter's place. William Blake was one of the first to realise the inherent vulnerability of the bus shelter's once-noble, classical form:

Bus shelter, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee glass, and made thy metal
That bends just as a young flower's petal;
Gave thee paint of dullest grey,
That soon will crack and peel away;
He is meek and he is mild,
He cannot cope with vandals wild.
Man from the council, he made thee,
Man from the council, God help thee!

Across the Atlantic, the ground-breaking writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe was introducing the bus shelter motif to an unsuspecting American public. To Poe, the shelter was almost a symbol of his life, its sturdy metal frame beginning to buckle under the increasing pressures he was at that time facing:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I waited weak and weary
At a bus stop I had never waited at before -
While my bus-fare I sought fumbling, suddenly there came a rumbling
As of something nearby trundling, though I dared not hope for more-
"'Tis some delivery truck," I muttered, "bound for some department store-
Only this and nothing more."
Ah distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December
And that wrought iron bus shelter shielded me from the downpour.
Eagerly I watched it coming, hoping a ride I could be thumbing
To stop my bones from slowly numbing, for this was the 44.
"Do you go to Boston," said I, "via the night's Plutonian shore?"
Quoth the driver, "Nevermore!"

By the latter half of the 19th century, the novelists also were beginning to toy with themes of transportation, perhaps best expressed in Jane Austen's Northanger Cabby and Mansell Park, biting in the acerbic wit for which the novelist was justly famous. Thomas Hardy was more matter-of-fact in his portrayal:

One afternoon in the latter part of August, shortly after the century had reached two-thirds of its span, a middle-aged man was waiting patiently at a bus shelter for the No.72 Wessex Flyer. He was plainly but not ill-clad, though the grim surroundings did not lend themselves to enriching his appearance. Presently the bus pulled up driven by an elderly man humming a wandering tune.

"Good day t'ee, driver," said the man.

"Good day, sir," said the driver.

"Begging your pardon, driver; are you bound for Wessex?"

"I fear not, sir, for Hardy's Wessex is merely an artistic creation," said the driver, "But I can take you to modern day Dorset if that's any good..."

It is easy to see the attraction of the bus stop image to today's poets, and a glance at America's contribution suggests that it is perhaps Robert Frost who is most aware of the need for bus shelters in our society. Consider the opening of his celebrated work Acquainted with the night:

I have been one acquainted with the night,
I have walked out in rain- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

This of course prompts the obvious question - why didn't he just get a bus? Clearly the need for more bus shelters (particularly North of Boston) subconsciously influenced Frost's early work. Only later did this theme surface explicitly in his writing, with the classic Three and Four:

Some say the next bus will be 3
Some say the 4.
From the timetable I can see,
I hold with those who say the 3
But if it's held up any more
I think it's going to be the 4.

When T.S.Eliot was searching for classical references and modern images for his epic masterpiece The Wasteland, the bus shelter immediately presented itself as the bridge between the two. The following extract speaks for itself; with it, we have come full circle in our representation of the bus shelter in literature - originally a symbol of Man's quest for enlightenment, it now becomes a symbol of that symbol. I thank you...

Bus shelter
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
An empty longing wait
Corpora serpentum baculi violaverat ictu.
"When is the bus coming?"
Cold wet arrival
Steaming hiss of doors opening-
Vroom vroom vroom
Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare
Exhaust fumes
Taxicabs slide
Out of reach
These tickets I have saved against my ruins
Dalta. Dayadhuam. Damyata.
Vroom vroom vroom.