“You may feel keen enough to buy this week’s Nation. I have at last a poem in it, which I sent off on the same evening as writing it!!”
Wilfred Owen to his cousin Leslie Gunston, 26 January 1918.
The poem Owen was referring to in this letter was Miners, written almost exactly 100 years ago, after an explosion tore through the Minnie Pit in Halmerend, North Staffordshire, costing the lives of 155 men and boys. Britain’s worst war-time mining disaster was caused by an explosion of gas and coal dust, and 44 of the fatalities were boys aged under 16. Owen’s response to this tragedy places it in a broader context, and makes a thoughtful comparison with the boys and young men who were casualties of war:
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 fawns
My fire might show steam-phantoms simmer
From Time’s old cauldron,
Before the birds made nests in summer,
Or men had children.
But the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.
And I saw white bones in the cinder-shard
Bones without number;
For many hearts with coal are charred,
And few remember.
I thought of some who worked dark pits
Of war, and died
Digging the rock where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed.
Comforted years will sit soft-chaired
In rooms of amber;
The years will stretch their hands, well-cheered
By our lives’ ember.
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,
Lost in the ground.
A century on, it’s difficult for us to conceive of the significance of coal for Owen and his readers. After years of decline in the industry, the last deep coal mine in the UK closed in 2015. However, in the Britain of 1918, over 1 million men and boys – out of a population of around 34 million – were employed in the mining industry. Coal was everywhere; it was heat, light, transport. The smell of it would have hung in the air, practically every single person (unless you were wealthy enough to employ servants to light your fires) would have handled it on a daily basis. Wilfred Owen probably had coal dust under his finger nails, or on his uniform, as he sat by the fire working on this poem.
I point this out to emphasise that Owen was writing about a substance which was as commonplace to his readers as chocolate bars or smartphones are to us. Coal fires have a kind of aspirational holiday-cottage aura now, and it’s easy to read the “sigh of the coal … grown wistful” in this romantic light. But Owen was writing about the basics of everyday life. He takes mundane, grimy reality and – with lines like “rooms of amber” and “warmth that lulls our dreaming lids” – not only does he make it sound magical, he uses it as the starting point for a highly imaginative poem. That’s actually really innovative, and kind of brilliant.
Owen the station master’s son probably couldn’t imagine a world without coal, or coal miners. But however essential coal was, he goes on to speculate in the final four stanzas, that both the miners and his fellow soldiers will ultimately be forgotten by future generations.
On first reading it seems like he’s missed the mark. We do remember – and rightly so – the huge sacrifice that Owen and his generation made in “the dark pits of war”. But what would he have thought about the Murdoch/ Rothermere-fuelled jingoism which cries foul if political leaders don’t bow low or sing loud enough, whilst rushing towards Brexit with utter disregard for the importance of friendly cooperation between our European partners? “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” he wrote in Strange Meeting , hinting that perhaps the true enemies of ordinary soldiers were not, after all, the differently-uniformed soldiers in the trenches on the other side of No-Man’s Land. Owen despised those who clung to “the old lie” of Dulce et Decorum Est, and the old men who would lose “half the seed of Europe one by one” rather than sacrifice their own pride. I suspect he would look at the world of 2018, and conclude that he’d predicted right. We may pin our poppies on with pride, but do we really appreciate the peace that the soldiers of both world wars gave their lives for? Are we just snoozing in our soft chairs, forgetting how hard previous generations worked for us to enjoy this comfort?