The Explosion ~ Philip Larkin
On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept.
Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence.
One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark's eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open.
At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.
The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God's house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face -
Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion
Larger than in life they managed -
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,
One showing the eggs unbroken.
Death & Resurrection
Whether in the fields of fashion, economics, sciences and social life, we all need its certain language to communicate. Likewise, the literature also owns its language of systematized combination of signs governed by rules. In structuralism, as some structuralists believed, the structure (system) and value of a text can be discovered through analyzing the binary oppositions, the verbs, adjectives, subjects, significations and so on. Therefore, I chose a poem by Philip Arthur Larkin, The Explosion (see appendix), as a text to criticize from these perspectives. Basically, the theme of this poem is that although the miners die of explosion, their spirit and dignity is immortal. Assessing this poem in terms of structuralism, I found the major binary opposition (death and resurrection) is composed from miners' relationship with explosion, which is interrelated with three minor binary oppositions (shadow - sun, talk - silence, oath - freshness). The usage of some verbs also has something to do with the major binary opposition and the significations of two words (rabbits & eggs) are suggestive of the theme of this poem.
Simply speaking, the primary opposition in the poem is that between men's sacrifice and their apotheosis after the explosion. In the beginning, the poem depicts the scene around the shaft and the miner's usual talking and behaviors. In the middle (the 5th stanza), the explosion occurs and then the miners dying of explosion (the dead) are transformed to the sublime figure in the end since they are the apotheosis of those sacrificing their lives for mining. In a word, the dominant meaning the poem conveys is that the miners are highly esteemed and their spirit and dignity are still alive regardless of their death. That' s why the miners' wives could see them bright and holy (sitting in God's house) though they died. Furthermore, from other aspect, such apotheosis can be thought of the resurrection of the dead. Their bodies are not live; still their souls are immortal. Some part of themselves is dead while some part is turning stronger and more vital. As a result, the most obvious opposition is that between death and resurrection, to which all the other binaries are related. First of all, in the 1st stanza, there is a minor opposition between 'shadow' and 'sun' relevant to the primary binary and generating the tension in the beginning. The shadow that points toward the pithead suggests both its darkness and coming disaster. On the contrary, the scene of the slagheap presents the sunlight (sun), which accentuates the concept of the lightness and optimism. Besides, the pithead, the entrance of the shaft, is as the gate to death because miners would die soon after they enter the pithead. As for the slagheap, the waster material left over from mining, is as the incomplete corpses of miners after explosion. The shadows around the pithead hint the upcoming death. The sunlight on the slagheap implies that the death is not totally tragic and passive. Consequently, the contrast this binary exposes corresponds to the primary binary (death & resurrection) and also reveals two viewpoints about death: as a tragedy or as an epitome of honor.
The second binary opposition between talk and silence is also connected to the major one of death and resurrection, and contributes to the looming of another tension on the mood. Apparently, in 2nd stanza, the opposition is that between 'talk' and 'silence' or as that between the sound of the explosion and the silence after the explosion. 'Talk' means the lives of miners while 'silence' means the death because the dead cannot talk. What we can only hear is silence. In addition, the silence could also suggest the peaceful state in which the men are after resurrection. As for 'the oath-edged' (talk) and 'the freshened' (silence), the opposition between them explains well the symbol of transformation of the miners. The miners' casual talks filled with the oath underscore the social status of the miners; however, 'the freshened' implies the purified state of the dead with sacred status. This binary between the oath and freshness alludes to the transition of the miners' status and purification of their minds after resurrection. Briefly, the three minor binaries are as three different circles surrounding the same core of death and resurrection.
Except for the binary oppositions, the usage of verbs is relevant to the theme of the poem and the major binary as well. In the first stanza, the motion of the shadows is pointing, which means the shadows own the power to move or to control. It seems the disaster comes at any moment it wants. On the contrary, the incomplete corpses the slagheap symbolizes could only sleep, which reveals the powerlessness of the miners. After they enter the pithead, their lives are not decided by themselves. These two verbs, 'point' and 'sleep' engender a power relation between death and those miners. Death is powerful; the miners themselves are powerless. Nevertheless those miners in the end turn into the apotheosis, the rebirth in which they are alive from spiritual perspective and can maintain their power. Interestingly, there are other two verbs resulting in the tension at the turning point in the 5th stanza. The explosion (tremor) occurs in this stanza leads to the apotheosis of the miners. For the two verbs, 'came' and 'stop', the contrast manifested here is that between motion and motionlessness. It is like that something is coming and something stops all of a sudden. Such opposition forms a tension, which accentuates the mood the turning point show.
Referring to the sign, I found that the signification plays an important role in manifestation of the theme. The apparent and significant examples are 'rabbits' and 'eggs.' The third stanza depicts one of the men chases after rabbits but lost them. The rabbit's (signifier) combination with vitality (signified) results in a sign (men). Consequently, the loss of the rabbits alludes to the miners' lack of enough power and forebodes the loss of their lives. After losing the rabbits, the one brings back a nest of lark's eggs. The transition from rabbits to eggs reflects the shift of the miners' shape. Most of the time, when we think of an egg, we believe there is a life developing in it. Hence, the eggs (signifier) join with the concept of birth (signified) to form a sign: the miners' resurrection (apotheosis). More important, the third line in the third stanza, 'showed them; lodged them in the grasses,' corresponds to the positive ending. The image that the eggs put in the grasses makes we envision a scene that many little larks are emerging from the eggs. The optimism represented in this line foreshadows the miners' rebirth. Likewise, the last line of the poem emphasizes that the eggs are unbroken. Another signification is that the eggs (signifier) and its unbroken shape (signified) become a sign that underlines the continuality and perpetuity of life. In other words, during explosion, the bodies of the men could break into pieces; still their spirits never break as the unbroken eggs.
At last, through analyzing the structure, I found the binaries, verbs, significations all echo with each other. All of the arrangements of the structure achieve the representation of the theme. Indeed, the miners risk their lives to work for mankind's well-being's sake. The dignity and value of their lives do not vanish with the explosion. Thus, we ought to cherish what we have now and show respect for those sacrificing for human beings.