Week 450: The Collier, by Vernon Watkins

This ballad by Vernon Watkins (1906-1967) interweaves memories of an idyllic childhood with the grim reckoning demanded by adulthood in the form of a life down the coal-pit, culminating in a mine disaster, while at the same time working in allusions to the biblical story of Joseph. I think it is one of his best pieces, a poem in which he seems to find his own voice, more so than in much of his work, which is a little too heavily influencd by his lifelong devotion to W.B.Yeats. If I have reservations it’s about a certain detachment from reality in the poem’s ending. In ‘Station Island’ Seamus Heaney has the ghost of his cousin, victim of a sectarian killing during the Troubles, reproach the poet for romanticising his death in his earlier poem ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’: ‘for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew/the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio/and saccharined my death with morning dew’. By the same token Watkins could be accused of saccharining the choking claustrophobic death of miners in a pit disaster. All the same, one has to admire the skill with which he handles the ballad form, in a way somewhat reminiscent of that other modern master of the ballad, Charles Causley.

The Collier

When I was born on Amman hill
A dark bird crossed the sun.
Sharp on the floor the shadow fell;
I was the youngest son.

And when I went to the County School
I worked in a shaft of light.
In the wood of the desk I cut my name:
Dai for Dynamite.

The tall black hills my brothers stood;
Their lessons all were done.
From the door of the school when I ran out
They frowned to watch me run.

The slow grey bells they rang a chime
Surly with grief or age.
Clever or clumsy, lad or lout,
All would look for a wage.

I learnt the valley flowers’ names
And the rough bark knew my knees.
I brought home trout from the river
And spotted eggs from the trees.

A coloured coat I was given to wear
Where the lights of the rough land shone.
Still jealous of my favour
The tall black hills looked on.

They dipped my coat in the blood of a kid
And they cast me down a pit,
And although I crossed with strangers,
There was no way up from it.

Soon as I went from the County School
I worked in a shaft. Said Jim,
‘You will get your chain of gold, my lad,
But not for a likely time.’

And one said, ‘Jack was not raised up
When the wind blew out the light
Though he interpreted their dreams
And guessed their fears by night.’

And Tom, he shivered his leper’s lamp
For the stain that round him grew;
And I heard mouths pray in the after-damp
When the picks would not break through.

They changed words there in the darkness
And still through my head they run,
And white on my limbs is the linen sheet
And gold on my neck the sun.

Vernon Watkins

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