Analysis of Philip Larkin's "The Explosion"

Analysis of Philip Larkin's The Explosion

Usually when Philip Larkin writes about religion and death, he speaks about the erosion of religion and the loneliness of death, but in this elegy he offers comfort to the widows and hopefulness for the future. Philip Larkin was asked to write this poem for the memorial service of miners that died in a mine disaster in 1969. Mining in Europe ended not long after this disaster. Larkin is detached from this event, because he did not personally experience it. His detachment is evident in the way that he speaks matter-of-factly about the explosion; he does not write with an intense feeling of dread or sorrow, instead, he merely glosses over the event without describing any of the violence that ensued. The three main themes of this poem are death, fate, and love. Larkin reflects on human fate; he offers many clues throughout the beginning of the poem that something bad was going to happen, but there was nothing that anyone could have done to prevent it. Love never dies; love lives on in our hearts long after our loved ones have passed away. In this poem, death is not the end; the miners come back enveloped in a gold haze, in order to comfort their wives at the memorial service. The last line of the poem offers hope, and proves that life goes on.

This poem is an elegy and it consists of eight stanzas, which consist of three lines each. The elegy is concluded with a single line set apart from the rest of the poem that serves to emphasize a sense of optimism for the future. The language of this poem is conversational and casual, and is meant to be read aloud. The first five stanzas all end with a full stop (meaning a period), and each focuses on a single thought. The last ten lines run on like stream-of-consciousness; the first five stanzas talk about what had happened, but the last ten lines deal with what is currently happening. There is no rhyming pattern in this poem, because the explosion interrupts throws-off the normal pattern of the day; rhyme is used to show a flow of events or words, but the explosion interrupts this flow.

The opening line of this poem sounds mundane; it sounds very factual, which leads us to think that Larkin did not actually observe the events of the poem. "Explosion" is a word that is supposed to evoke fear, but Larkin couples it with "on the day," in order to soften the trauma of the explosion. I believe that Larkin did this to give those who are grieving some hope or solace that the explosion is merely an event that happened on one day, and does not happen every day; so when the widow's feel like their life has ended they will be reminded that life goes on and grief does not last forever. "Shadows" is used to describe the miners walking towards the "pithead," which is the main entrance to the mine, to go to work. The men are described as shadows, which foreshadows their deaths; soon their souls will leave the earthly plain and become ghosts or "shadows" of the men that they once were. The "slagheap" is a pile of scrap or refuse. "The slagheap slept" is an example of personification; the "slagheap" is not a living being so it can't sleep. Larkin uses the slagheap to once again foreshadow the ensuing danger. The slagheap is likened to a sleeping monster and when it awakes it will bring destruction to everything in its path.

"Lane came" is an example of assonance (the repetition of identical or near identical stressed vowel sounds in words whose final consonants differ, producing half-rhyme). "Pitboots" are special boots that miners would wear to work in the mine pits. These men coughed, swore ("oath-edged" means cursing), and smoked pipes. The coughing probably occurred from the combination of breathing in the mine dust and smoking pipes or being around those who smoke pipes. The men shouldered "off the freshened silence" of the mourning, which means that they brought talking and laughter to a place (the mine) that had previously been undisturbed and quiet. This can also be considered foreshadowing; the mine was asleep and harmless before the men came to work, but their work caused the explosion and ultimately their death.

One of the miners "chased after rabbits," which is something that is typically done by kids; the mining industry has had a history of hiring young boys to work in their mines, because of their small size they had the ability to fit in small spaces, and also they weren't paid as much as the men. It is unclear if the person being described in this stanza is in fact a young boy, or barely a man (like 18), or is the child of one of the miners accompanying his father to work. I believe that Larkin included this stanza to show the innocence of the miners, which is exhibited by the fact that the man/boy took the "lark's eggs" that he found and "lodged" (to deposit for safe keeping) them in the grass. Larks typically build their nests on the ground. The man/boy wanted to protect the eggs, so that they would have a chance to hatch and live; the eggs represent innocence, hope, and new life.

The men had beards and wore clothes made of the heavy fabric called moleskin. There were several generations of men working together; whole families of men would work in the mines together. These men were not only friends, but they were family; they shared nicknames, laughter, and the walk to the mine. "Through the tall" is an example of alliteration (the repetition of initial consonant sound or consonant cluster in consecutive or closely positioned words). The "tall gates standing open" is an ominous image foreshadowing death to the miners that pass through them to the mine. The "tall gates" are also a metaphor for the gates of hell and the pearly gates (heaven).

Noon splits up the day much like the explosion split up that day. The sun is the brightest at noon and then proceeds to grow darker as the day goes on; the explosion interrupts this pattern and causes darkness to come much earlier than usual. "There came a tremor" is a very mundane way to say that the explosion occurred, and is somewhat anticlimactic. In the title of the poem, we are told that an explosion is going to occur, the first four stanzas build-up the tension, and then stanza five says that there was "tremor" period; there is no description of the actual explosion. "Tremor" seems to be used as a euphemism (the figure by which something distasteful is described in alternative, less repugnant terms). "Explosion" has been used twice in this poem thus far to set up the plot, but here when the actual explosion happens Larkin chooses not to use this word, why? I believe that he wanted to spare the widows the violent image of an explosion; instead he gives them "tremor," which a less threatening word. The explosion lasted only a second, which is evident by the cows that only stop feeding for a second; animals do not eat when they sense danger or are under stress. Cows grazing make it seem like the explosion was not that big of a deal; things happen and you have no choice but to keep on living your life. Larkin uses a simile to describe how the sun looked right after the explosion; it looked like a scarf had been wrapped around the sun. The sun was dimmed by the dust cloud that sprang forth from the mine after the explosion.

From this point on the punctuation of the poem changes, and marks the beginning of the memorial service for the miners that perished in the explosion. In this stanza, the preacher is saying a prayer that is commonly read at funerals. This prayer is meant to give comfort to those who have been left behind; their dearly departed loved ones are in a better place, and one day you will be reunited with them.

"Plain as letter" probably refers to a bible verse or prayer that is commonly spoken within the chapel. A chapel is a private or subordinate place of worship, which connotes that the mining town is not very wealthy. Given that these people were not very well-off to begin with, the death of these men will cause the poor to become even poorer because the men who died in the explosion were most likely the bread-winners of the family. The prayer that was read in the previous stanza causes the widows to see their husbands for a second, which is also how long the explosion lasted; they don't physically see them, but the men appear to their wives in order to assure them that they are alright.

The men appeared larger than they had in life, both physically larger and spiritually larger. They managed to achieve their ultimate purpose of being human, and have gone on to something much greater. "Gold as on a coin" is a simile; the men were surrounded in a golden haze much like the golden haze described in line fifteen. Or, the men were walking towards their wives with the sun on the backs, causing them to be surrounded by golden rays from the sun. In Christianity, gold symbolizes perfection and the light of heaven (Biedermann).

This last line serves as a paradox (an apparent contradiction). One of the men held the lark's eggs in his hands, showing them unbroken; the explosion killed the men, but the eggs are still intact. This line shows the fragility of life, and also offers optimism. The connection/bonds between those killed and those that are left behind are still intact; just because someone dies does not mean that they leave the hearts and minds of those who love them, they will live on forever. When tragedy strikes, life can seem overwhelming, but there is also something to look forward to. People die and others are born, it is the cycle of life; you can't have one without the other.


Beidermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian, 1989. 154.

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