Throughout his short life Wilfred Owen seems to have had a nightmare fear of tunnels, holes, areas underground. Such features may be found in the poems both early and late, from "Death's trapdoor" and "Chaos murky womb" in the 1912-13 DEEP UNDER TURFY GRASS right up to the "profound dull tunnel" and "sullen hall" of STRANGE MEETING. The late 1917 fragment CRAMPED IN THAT FUNNELLED HOLE has its "death's jaws" and "many mouths of hell". "We cringe in holes," he writes in EXPOSURE, and in that horror poem THE SHOW we read:
From gloom's last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes,
(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)
Did his upbringing in a Calvinistic household, with its insistence on the reality of hell contribute to his fixation? Certainly what happened to him in France during March-April 1917 may have prompted his quick response to an event that occurred in Staffordshire some months later.
At Bouchoir, near Le Quesnoy-en-Santerre, Owen fell into some sort of well (which he describes as "a shell hole in a floor, laying open a deep cellar") and finished up at No. 13 Casualty Clearing Station at Gailly. A psychological shock perhaps as well as a physical one. Then at Savy Wood, near St.Quentin, came the episode that led to his invaliding home with shell-shock. As he relates, "For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out." (Reference to the Manchesters' War Diary suggests that Owen was confused with the number of days an indication, perhaps, of the severity of his shell-shock). Blown in the air, "I passed most of the following days…… in a hole just big enough to lie in," with a colleague for company who "lay not only near by but in various places around and about."
We move forward. January 1918 finds Owen with the 5th Manchesters in Scarborough where he reads of an underground colliery disaster at Halmer End, North Staffordshire, in which more than one hundred and fifty miners, boys as well as men, are killed. Easy to imagine old fears returning to haunt him. With an emotion recollected in anything but tranquillity, within a week MINERS had been "scrawled out on the back of a note to the editor" of THE NATION and accepted for publication only days later. It was Owen's first poem to appear in print nationally.
So sombre a subject demands a minor key and he achieves it by heavy use of pararhyme (a feature of each of the eight four-line stanzas) and by shortening each poignant or punchy fourth line.
"Sigh" (2) and "wistful" (3) establish a subdued note from the outset which finds Owen day-dreaming by the fire, remote (in distance if not in thought) from the war. As a boy, geology fascinated him, and the burning coal leads his mind toward those primeval times of great heat when coal measures and fossil relics were being formed over millions of years in swampy deltas and the earth's first forests. In his musings warmth rises from "steam-phantoms" simmering "From Time's old cauldron" (9-10) as thoughts centre on a foreshadowing and
…………the low sly lives
Before the fauns.
Before the fauns; before, too, those who aeons later will lead "low sly lives" below ground.
With stanza 4 comes a changef of approach. The coals are murmuring of not just the past but the present, of "their mine" (13). Reverie makes way for tension, pointing to the recent disaster. There are echoes of other poems. "And moans down there" (14) will reappear in STRANGE MEETING - "or down the flues made moan"; line 15 recalls ASLEEP; "writhing for air" (16), the man in DULCE ET DECORUM EST who, inhaling poison gas, "….plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." In a similar way, boys who, down the mine, slept their "wry sleep" (15) and the men "writhing for air" (16) are shown to have their counterparts across the Channel, other men and boys who died for their country in a different sphere of operations.
In stanza 4 Owen is listening. In stanza 5 his mind's eye is finding parallels between the tragedy in the mine and tragedies personally witnessed on the battlefield: "White bones in the cinder-shard" (17). (Shard - broken coal), (Shrapnel - fragmented shell). "Many the muscled bodies charred" (19). Different circumstances, same result. And afterwards "…..few remember". Though some may think this a generalisation too far.
Stanza 6 and Owen continues to reflect, directly on the miners who perished, indirectly on his own dead comrades. "Dark pits of war" (21-2) may equally apply to the coal mine and the dug-outs, trenches, tunnels that marked the Western Front. All are places
……….where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed. (23-4)
Here Owen indulges his liking for personification. To intimate-what? We might suppose recompense for the fallen were it not for the following stanzas which cast on the forging lines a suspicion of irony.
Stanzas 7-8 focus on a different set of people, those who benefit from the miners' toil, (if only toil itself were the end of it!). They sit "sift-chaired" (25). Their "rooms of amber" (26) could suggest rich bright textures, or possibly recall for us what amber is made of - fossil resin from plants and animals, dead now and, aptly, long underground. That these beneficiaries should be gladdened, should be-
By our life's ember; (27-8)
comprises a paradox. For "ember" indicates a dying fire, and Ember days are days of fasting and particular solemnity; a paradox pointing to the dissociation of the "soft-chaired" from as Owen expresses it elsewhere, "truths that lie too deep for taint".
In the final stanza he identifies with the victims by using the personal pronouns "we" and "us". How should we interpret the "rich loads" which "centuries will burn" (29)? Plentiful yields? Wealth for the owners, wealth that in terms of lives is expensively obtained? What of "With which we groaned" (30)? Groaned on account of hurt? Discontent? Literally under the weight? The weight of sacrifice? Owen's diction always makes us think.
However, we can assume that the "dreaming" (31) of those who bask in the coal's warmth "while songs are crooned" (32) is of a different order from Owen's compassionate imaginings.
Writing to his mother about MINERS, Owen said, "I get mixed up with the war at the end." In fact the echoes of the war reverberate throughout the poem. It may be true that
………they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground.
Nevertheless it is certain that Owen himself will dream of them, Owen with his phobia and his past experiences to prompt him, whether the ground they are left in be a coalfield in Staffordshire or a battlefield on the Western Front.
Copyright Kenneth Simcox 2001