Wilfred Owen’s Miners is about the colliery disaster at Halmend in January 12, 1918. The Minnie Pit was named after Minnie Craig, the daughter of one of the owners. The pit was 359 yards deep, and was extremely profitable before the disaster. On the day of the disaster there were 248 men working in the mine, and of those men 155 of them died from cave-ins or inhaling poisonous gas. Among the 155 men that died 44 were under the age of sixteen. It took twelve months to recover all of the bodies. This tragedy happened towards the end of WWI, and the effects were devastating to an already poor people. Wilfred Owen enlisted on October 21, 1915, and due to his sheltered upbringing the effects of the war were not entirely real to him until he was injured in battle. He was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital were he was treated for shell shock. While he was there he met the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, and they became friends. Owen suffered from horrific nightmares, which is symptomatic of shell shock; these nightmares greatly influenced his writing. One image that was prevalent in his dreams was the mouth of hell. In this poem, the mine is the mouth of hell and the miners are its victims.
There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.
I listened for a tale of leaves
And smothered ferns,
Frond-forests, and the low sly lives
Before the fauns.
My fire might show steam-phantoms simmer
From Time’s old cauldron,
Before the birds made nests in summer,
Or men had children. (lines 1-12)
This poem begins with an image of someone sitting in front of their fireplace listening to what the coal has to say. Throughout this poem coal is personified; it is the speaker’s story teller, and it feels sorrow. The speaker says that the coal is wistful-feeling or showing a timid desire-of its origin in the earth.
The coal has memories, which something that is considered very human. The speaker waited for the coal to tell him a story about nature before mankind existed. He expected to hear a story about leaves, ferns, and fronds-a usually large divided leaf especially of a fern or palm tree-not a story about man. Fauns are a Roman god similar to but gentler than a satyr.
In the third stanza, the speaker tells of other possible tales that he expects to hear from the coal. Time is also personified in this stanza. I envision Time’s cauldron as a macrocosm and inside of the cauldron are the microcosms that make up the world. Time controls everything; it is there when life begins and it is there when life ends, it is undefeatable. A phantom is typically defines as something that is apparent to sense but has no substantial existence. Continuing on with my interpretation of Time’s cauldron, the steam-phantoms perhaps mark the birth of a new life or the soul leaving the earthly plane. Another possible explanation of steam-phantoms can also have to do with coal; many engines used coal to produce steam-power, which propelled large vehicles such as trains. In this case, Time’s old cauldron would be a coal mine. Different elements from the earth combine together over a long period of time to create coal, much like cauldrons were used to make food or as in common folklore to mix potions.
But the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air. (13-16)
Instead the speaker got a story about the mine where the coal was originally found. The coal remembers the moans of the miners who worked in the Minnie Pit; the forty-four boys and the 111 men who lay at the bottom of that 359 yards deep shaft. The coal remembers the sleeping bodies; sleeping connotes that the miners were either dead or near death. They “slept a wry sleep” means that the boys lay in a bent or twisted shape, their bodies were left contorted from the blast. The men were left writhing-gasping for air, twisting and turning in pain.
And I saw white bones in the cinder-shard,
Bones without number.
Many the muscled bodies charred,
And few remember. (17-20)
The speaker shifts to first person as he recalls seeing the white bones in hot fragments of partly burned wood or coal. This part of the poem can been seen as partly a flashback of his war service, and partly about what happened to the miners in the Pit. White bones give an image of torn way flesh, and or decayed bodies. In both mining and war, explosives and explosions happen and bodies get mangled. He recounts that there were so man bones and possibly fragments of bones that it was impossible to tell how many there were. It gives the image of a mass grave where bodies are dumped together in a big hole. The muscled bodies are charred, meaning they were burned by charcoal.
I thought of all that worked dark pits
Of war, and died
Digging the rock where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed. (21-24)
In this stanza, it is clear that the speaker is talking about the war. The “dark pits of war” are tunnels that were dug under no-man’s-land to the enemy trenches where explosives could be detonated to kill the enemy. The miners that dug these holes were often killed in the tunnels beneath no-man’s-land. Incidentally, no-man’s-land is the area between two opposing forces that belongs to no one, but is littered with the dead bodies of soldiers from both sides. This place is where Death, which is also personified, believes peace lies. Death inevitably ends the war and thus the pain and suffering that soldiers experienced during combat. WWI was a particularly brutal war; soldiers were not fully prepared for what they had to face, in fact even seasoned military didn’t know exactly what to expect.
Comforted years will sit soft-chaired,
In rooms of amber;
The years will stretch their hands, well-cheered
By our life’s ember; (25-28)
People will live long lives in comfort due to the soldiers and the miner’s sacrifices. Amber is a yellowish or brownish fossil resin used especially for ornamental objects, and it is the color of resin. Ember is a glowing or smoldering fragment from a fire. Life ember’s can be interpreted as one’s soul; these miner’s and soldier’s gave up their lives and souls for the good of society. Their deaths changed helped to create a safer and better future.
The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids, while songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground. (29-33)
In this last stanza, the coal and the speaker become one. Their stories are similar even though one of them is human and the other is a mineral. The world will continue on for centuries because of the sacrifices that were made by the soldier and the miners. The coals warmth will lull-soothe or calm-the survivors to sleep. The songs that are crooned could be lullabies. The cliché “out of sight out of mind” is the message of the last two lines; most people don’t dwell on the negative aspects of life, such as war and death. A lot of soldiers find it hard to come home from war, because they have to reemerge themselves into a society that is not consumed with killing the enemy; they have a hard time relating to others who haven’t been through the atrocities that they have.
The Minnie Pit can be viewed as a mouth of hell. Men and boys died in there because man needed fuel and poor men needed jobs. The miners working in the Pit were buried alive when the Pit collapsed creating a mass grave. The pain and fear that they must have felt is unimaginable. War can also be seen as hell; societal conventions don’t exist in no-man’s-land. You do what you have to do survive without knowing if you will even make through the day. Death is a nightmare that never ends; once you experience death it is with you forever.
Owen, Wilfred. “Miners.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. New York: Norton, 2006. 1971, 1973-4.
Wikipedia contributors. “Minnie Pit Disaster.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Dec. 2010. Web. 21 Apr. 2011.