One of the most dangerous occupations in the world, and throughout history, is that of the coal miner. When all goes well, the lingering certainty of respiratory disease looms in the background, a natural consequence of digging miles into the earth to dredge up the black substance that has heated homes for centuries. When all does not go well, death comes either instantly to those near the explosion that constitutes a daily hazard of mining coal, or slowly to those trapped below ground by the avalanche caused by the explosion. Black Lung disease (Pneumoconiosis, caused by inhaling coal dust) is a particularly unpleasant cause of death. Philip Larkin’s poem “The Explosion,” inspired by a documentary he viewed on a real-life coal mine disaster, references that common side effect of working in the mines: Down the lane came men in pitboots/Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke . . .” The more prevalent cause of a miner’s downfall, as clearly suggested in the title, however, is the ever-present threat of an explosion caused by the inadvertent rupture of a methane gas repository. So sudden and violent is the explosion, that there is little or no warning, which maximizes the number of dead. Larkin’s poem captures the suddenness of these occurrences by leading the reader through two abrupt transitions. The first transition involves the routine depiction of the miners heading to work down the long, dark mine shaft, followed by the muffled sounds of the explosion:
So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.
Larkin then, switching for this stanza alone to a different font or print type, delivers his second transition, the consequences of the “tremor”:
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -
That quickly, untold numbers of miners are dead, their widows and children left alone and destitute. Larkin has succinctly acknowledged and immortalized the sacrifice of individuals who confronted this danger every day for minimal compensation. He does not, however, suggest that the soul has perished with the body, and his poem clearly reflects a need to believe that the suddenness with which these lives were taken has not precluded a further meeting among loved ones lost. The scene shifts to a chapel where a memorial service has taken place, and during which the fallen are remembered as a unit or a team working as one and assuming their place in another world, forever together:
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
Philip Larken was British. The history of coal mining in Great Britain is one of perpetual economic servitude in which one generation follows the next down the mines, opportunities for advancement or alternative means of sustenance minimal at best. If one grows up in a mining town, one is expected to spend one’s life a miner. Such cultures spawn a sense of camaraderie and unity that is vital to the safest possible operation of the mine, so minimal is the room for error. “Gold as on a coin” suggests the value of these lives and the commonality among their communities.
Early in his poem, Larkin refers to a “nest of lark’s eggs.” The meaning of this reference is unclear until one reaches the end of the poem, and contemplates the author’s meaning with regard to the stanza that ends “Somehow from the sun towards them . . .” Again, the unity of the miners is recognized, both in life and in death. Eggs come in bunches, and are obviously fragile. Miners work as a team, each dependent upon the other, in the confined spaces in which eggs are laid (and subsequently packaged). The poem ends with this line: “One showing the eggs unbroken.” The miners return to their wives in a spiritual sense, together and unbroken. The fragility of life has not deprived them of the strength of their convictions or of the formidability of their bonds.