“The Explosion” is a short poem of twenty-five lines made up of eight unrhymed tercets and a final, isolated one-line stanza. It is written in trochaic tetrameter with a number of metrical variations and substitutions. The speaker of the poem is an observer and commentator on the crucial event of the poem, an explosion at a mine. The language is clearly that of a speaker who is more highly educated than the working-class people that the poem represents. He is not involved in their lives but attempts to render their nature and experience as fully and truthfully as possible. The title of the poem announces the event and suggests its significance: It is “the” explosion rather than “an” explosion. The poem also begins with a description of the world surrounding the event. In the first tercet, the speaker describes how “On the day of the explosion/ Shadows pointed towards the pithead.” These “shadows” are an omen of the terrible event that is to follow, but they are balanced, to some degree, by the sun in which “the slagheap slept.” Both the sun and sleeping suggest the continuation of a peaceful world.
The next three tercets deal with the mine workers. They are defined as a group rather than singled out as individuals. Their “oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke” define them as men of the working class at ease with one another. One of them is more adventurous and active as he hunts some rabbits. The rabbits escape, but he finds a nest with a lark’s eggs in it. He does not destroy or harm this nest but shows it to the others and returns them to their place in the grass. The fourth tercet sums the miners up as types: “So they passed in beards and moleskins,/ Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter.” Significantly, they pass through the “tall gates standing open.” The scene is normal and benign; they pass to their usual work and all is “open” and apparent.
It is significant that poet Philip Larkin does not describe the actual explosion but rather its effects on the outer world. With the tremor, cows stop chewing and the sun is “dimmed.” Readers do not see its effect on the miners who are dying under the earth. That horror and suffering is hidden from view; clearly, it is not what Larkin is interested in about the event. The sixth tercet is in italics and announces a change in speaker and language. It is now the language of church, formal and stately and attempting to provide consolation: “The dead go on before us, they/ Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,/ We shall see them face to face.” The next two tercets return to the ordinary language of the speaker and that of the miners’ wives; it also alters the comforting religious view of the church speaker. The wives of the dead miners see their men in a new way, “Larger than in life they managed.” After this transformation, the final line of the poem recalls the miners as they were and as they are: “One showing the eggs unbroken.” Their lives and their deaths were a harmonious, unbroken whole.
“The Explosion” is written in trochaic tetrameter without rhyme, both of which are very unusual in the poetry of Larkin, who used the iambic meter, usually pentameter and hexameter, and brilliant rhyme. There must have been something in the event and his treatment of it that insisted on this meter. Perhaps it was the transformation of very ordinary workers into people on a higher plane that demanded he abandon his usual metrical...
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practice. Trochaic tetrameter does have a parallel in American literature: It is the meter that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used inThe Song of Hiawatha (1855). Larkin does not fall into the monotone chant that Longfellow did, but the meter does have a propulsive effect as it moves from the announcement of the event to its occurrence and consequences. Larkin does use the traditional sound patterns such as alliteration: “In the sun the slagheap slept.” The miners are also portrayed predominantly through the use of verbs: “One chased after rabbits; lost them;/ Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;/ Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.”
There is also some significant imagery in the poem. For example, the first tercet contrasts the shadows that “pointed” to the pithead with the sun that “slept” on the slagheap. The slagheap is also an indicator of the world with which the poem deals: a mining community with its own special landscape. The workers are also defined with a few class-specific images: They wear “pitboots,” their talk is “oath-edged,” and they cough “pipe-smoke.” The men, unaccustomed to talk, are described as “Shouldering off the freshened silence.” It is a gesture that says more than words about the type of people these workers are. They speak with their bodies to relieve the silence.
There is an interesting shift in diction, tense, and speaker in the sixth tercet, which is presented in the formal and resounding language of the preacher in a church or, more likely, a chapel. The preacher uses the future tense, while the wives use a past tense that reunites them with their men. This formal language is also contrasted with the simpler words ascribed to the wives of the dead men, and the passage uses a significant metaphor. The dead miners are “Gold as on a coin, or walking/ Somehow from the sun” toward their wives. The metaphor defines the transformation of the miners from ordinary working men to men of value and even greatness as the figure on a gold coin suggests. Furthermore, the sun image also returns at this point of the poem. The sun is no longer sleeping at the slagheap; rather, it is behind the men as they are walking to their spouses.
The description of one of the workers finding a lark’s eggs is an image that develops into a metaphor and, finally, a symbol. The worker does not destroy these eggs or displace them; he shows them to his fellow workers and then returns them to the grass. In the last, isolated line in the poem, the worker is evoked once more. He is “showing the eggs unbroken.” The unbroken eggs are a symbol of the world and lives of the miners. Even in death, their world remains as it was, or perhaps it is even enhanced; it is unbroken.