Old Miners, Harold Massingham – an Analysis


Says it all really 😦

Gut Reaction
Nothing but sympathy and respect for miners. The strikes of 1984-5 may be a little vague in my childhood memories but I can still appreciate the risk and toil of a miner’s life.

What does it all mean?
A glance into the regular life of a regular miner.

Caged, their manhood dropped a mile,
Their stomachs like up-ended beehives.

Being a woman, I can’t imagine the feeling of, ahem, things…dropping, but I’m told it is unpleasant (bizarrely this usually happens after a well-placed knee. Can’t think why…). However, being a little scared of lifts and that horrible jolting feeling in lifts and at take off, this feeling I know. Having to do that daily into the abyss below also known as your place of work… Where to even begin?

Down there under woodland, under professions,
There are two things I dislike about this line, and both are because of the image they create rather than the language itself. Firstly, ‘under woodland’, under very Nature itself? And ‘under professions’, as if mining itself is not a profession but below that of all others?

Lungs could suffer like new quarries,
‘Like new quarries’, when fresh dust kicked up in the air, creating an unnatural haze from which to breathe?

Heart-valves pump enough to haul wagons,
Hearts pounding under the pressure of hard labour.

Biceps and backs develop like beech-boughs.
The repetitive motion of mining must put unimaginable strain on the body and like all monotonous movement, the body would begin to stoop.

Homeward, their clogs slurred
Walking home stumbling on heavy, wooden-through-work feet.

Like scouring-stones. Thumbs hooked on belts,
Scuffling along, dragging their weary feet heavily along the pavement like an old-fashioned cleaner.

(Thumbs hooked on belts,) Such hobnail-stubborn men made fear and evasion kick
In whale-bone wombs. But all body?

Strike the Yorkshireman pose….
In seriousness. This job, this fearful profession… What these men must have faced on a daily basis is just unimaginable, and no matter how tough they appeared, the internal worry must have been immense.
‘Whale-bone wombs’ describes to me again the cages used to transport miners from the surface, and that then gives me the image of a grim-looking man, stern and rigid on the outside yet fear raging on the inside.

(But all body?) All blood and engine? All piston, all sweat-gland?
These miners gave everything of themselves, to their bosses, to the public who bought the coal and other mined products, to their families. Their bodies weakened over the years, constantly under pressure, constant exertion. They really couldn’t give any more.

The father’s black and white silent-film face
I can’t imagine there would be much energy left for any ‘hi honey, how was your day?’ after a day down in the pits, just a lot of blank expressions and silence.

Over cool dinner, the sour hoppy breath,
Dinner probably cold because of getting home late from the mine and the minor relief of a beer.

Plates to be dashed quicker than discuses,
And a household on tenterhooks,

I can imagine tempers being frayed constantly constantly blown at the slightest thing (‘quicker than discuses’) and a family treading on eggshells trying to avoid setting tired, weary dad off.

Betokened magnetic anger –
Maybe mum has warned the kids to behave in front of their dad, but he is drawn to the whiff of an argument as an outlet for his pent up fear and rage.

A powerful stare at life as at nothing:
What soul he owned, like compressed air.

Here I picture a man staring off into the distance seeing nothing but the bleakness of his monotonous hard labour, only interrupted by the fear of an accident. He feels like he is lacking, his soul merely ‘compressed air’ – a nothingness of tension.

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Three stanzas of six lines each.

Grim and real-life.

Suggested rhyme scheme
Free verse, run on and end stopped lines using masculine rhyme.

Similes and metaphors
Beautiful simile use here; up-ended beehives, new quarries, beech-boughs, scouring-stones, compressed air.
Under professions – feeling like a lesser being, of no equivalence to those in regular jobs ‘above’.
Metaphors, many, the most striking for me is this thought of ‘under profession’. Miners were just not afforded the same respect as other professions, despite how essential and dangerous their work was.

Author’s relationship with their subject

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
This poem seems to be hidden and yet not hidden; not listed on the normal poetry sites I normally use, can’t understand why. And without trawling the internet for hours on end I can’t see much in the way of analysis. Affection for Massingham yes, analysis, no. It seems Massingham was a beloved character who clearly had an impressive talent for evoking imagery with his words. Perhaps he was Mexborough’s finest?

Signing off
I said earlier that I had a vague recollection of the Miner’s strike and that’s true, but there’s an even more vivid memory in my head that has now surfaced; the Chilean mining accident. I remember being fixated with the news and waking up early just to watch the first rescue, the wave of emotions for these 33 strangers surprising. I remember being relieved but in tears on the commute to work that day.
Another random reminder that a distant in-law died in a mining accident, and I guess I have a little more interest in mining than I thought.
I guess the thought I’m having is that I hadn’t realised what respect I have for miners, former miners and their families. One of the riskiest jobs in terms of both short and longterm illness, potentially fatal, poorly regulated even today, and underpaid and underappreciated hard work.
What troubles me most at the moment is the actual definition of mining ‘disaster’. Apparently a mining accident only gets labeled a disaster when there are five or more fatalities, like these. Surely, the loss of one life, preventable or not, is a disaster?


Yorkshire Post

Harold Massingham

Miners Strike 1984

When I read this I think of the song… Into the Fire


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