Miners - Language, tone and structure

Language in Miners

Fireside dreams of the past

Miners begins as a reverie. Owen is gazing into the fire and musing on the geological formation of the coal that warms him. The language of the opening three stanzas is comfortable and cosy. The poem is set by ‘my hearth’ l.2, a warm place representing home and safety. The only challenge to the reader is the concept of geological time: ‘before the fauns’ l.8 and ‘before men had children’ l.12. Owen imagines the coal forming in the earth from ‘leaves’ l.5 and ‘ferns’ l.6. There is a sense of mysticism about the whole process: ‘steam-phantoms’ suggests ghosts and ‘Time’s old cauldron’ suggests magic brews.

Mining disasters

However Owen portrays the coals as not longing for their past but rather mourning the death of the miners who hewed them. Owen uses alliteration to emphasise this. The coals are ‘murmuring of their mine’ l.13 and the ‘moans’ of the dying men. 

The language changes to depict the horror of death: ‘men writhing for air’ l.16 and ‘white bones...without number’ l.16-17. This is further emphasised by Owen’s use of enjambement from lines 15 to 16 as the language replicates the struggle the men have for breath. 

The war’s impact on the future

At this point Owen’s language shifts the scene from miners to the military, from the present day disaster to an imagined future. Owen’s diction, drawn from the colliery, is equally applicable to the trenches, depicted as ‘dark pits / Of war’ l.19-20. Again the words to describe the dead are drawn together by alliteration:

Digging the rock where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed l.22-4

Owen again involves us with his reality - no longer dreams by a warm fire but the stuff of his nightmares. Picking up the geological references of the early stanzas, he shows future people will sit in ‘rooms of amber’ like the insects captured in that fossil resin. As the miners were trapped and killed extracting the fuel to warm people, so the sacrifice of the soldier’s lives will ensure future warmth and safety for the nation. The poem which began for Owen at his warm fireside ends with future generations warming themselves at the fire of his and his comrade’s sacrifice, while they lie forgotten in the cold ground.


The sounds which Owen recreates in Miners are an important part of how the language works. Through his use of onomatopoeia Owen takes us from the dreaming past through the pain of the present to a future insensitive to the harsh reality of war:

  • Owen recreates the sound of the coals as they burn in his grate and as gases escape with ‘whispering’ l.1, ‘sigh’ l.2 and ‘simmer’ l.9. These quiet, sad sounds lead into the personification of the coals as ‘Wistful’ l.3.
  • However, another subdued sound, that of ‘murmuring’ l.13 is a turning point, preparing us for the ‘moans’ l.14 of the trapped and dying miners, which Owen echoes with ‘groaned’ l.30, summing up the sacrifice made by the dead.
  • Owen sadly returns us to the world of sleep (‘lull their dreaming lids’ l.31) and lullaby (‘crooned’ l.32) which for him create a false sense of protection for the living from the dead.


Owen’s thoughts and feelings determine the changing tones of the poem. He moves through a dream-like tone, in which he fantasises about the coal longing for its prehistoric origins, to bitter resentment. There is pity in the tone of the stanzas recalling the pit disaster. Owen’s mood shifts in the sixth stanza when he remembers the nightmare of the dark pits - the hell of the trenches. Anger and resentment touched by some sense of inevitability colour the final three stanzas. These reflect on the comfortable life of those who ‘will not dream’, l.33, of the dead who won that comfort for them with their lives.

Investigating language and tone in Miners

  • In Miners much of the poem’s effectiveness rests on the language used to describe the pit disaster but which also serves to describe the war. Make a list of the words and phrases Owen uses which are common to both.
    • For each, write a sentence to show how Owen has used the language of the pit to illustrate the pain and suffering of the war.

Structure in Miners

In Miners Owen moves us in the course of nine quatrains from warmth and comfort to the coldness of death. The first eight verses have the same shape: the first and third longer lines punctuated by the short second and fourth lines. He uses these to carry painful messages such as ‘moans down there’ l.14, ‘writhing for air’ l.16 and ‘left in the ground’ l.34.

The final stanza has a similar pattern but is a sestet. Owen presents us with a complete idea in each of the first seven verses; each ends in a full stop. However stanza seven ends with a semicolon which links its sense to that of the final verse. These last two stanzas are made up of four statements, each separated by a semicolon, which allow Owen to build up the tension until the last line where the dead are ‘left in the ground.’



The pararhymes, which Owen uses so consistently throughout the poem, serve to re-inforce the long and short lines, but the patterns created have very specific meaning:

  • ‘coal’ / ‘recall’ l.2,4 present the poem’s essence
  • Both ‘ferns’ / ‘fauns’ l.6,8 and ‘simmer’ / ‘summer’ l.9,11 create a sense of great lengths of ancient time
  • The linking of ‘cauldron’ and ‘children’ l.10,12 ominously links ancient magic with young life
  • Both ‘chaired’ and ‘cheered l.25,27 suggest comfortable complacency
  • The warm orange ‘amber’ and ‘ember l.26,28 contrast fossilisation with sacrifice
  • With ‘loads’ / ‘lids’ / ‘lads’ l.29,31,33 Owen relates the burden of the dying to the comfortable sleep of the living and the reality of the men and boys whose sacrifice has enabled that
  • ‘groaned’ / ‘crooned’ / ‘ground’ l.29,31,33 link the pain of the dying with the soothing of the living and the uncompromising fate of the dead.


Owen uses irregular rhythmic patterns in Miners, with some lines having unsettling extra syllables (e.g. l.1,9,13). Often he reverses a foot (e.g. ‘Writhing’ l.16, ‘Digging’ l.23) for emphasis or uses spondees to slow the pace (‘Frond-forests; and the low sly lives’). He also intersperses two beat feet with those of three beats: ‘But they / will not dream / of us / poor lads’, the speed of the longer middle foot indicating the dismissiveness of people in the future.

Investigating structure and versificartion in Miners

  • Owen’s cousin Leslie Gunston told him that the pararhymes offended his musical ear. How does the unexpected half-rhyming Owen uses in this poem make the reader more aware of the ‘pity of war?’
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