A Reflection on the Welsh Colliery Disaster
The Speaker, June 1, 1901
The Speaker, June 1, 1901
A certain degree of uncertainty hung, and still hangs, over the precise material character of the terrible and destructive event in the Welsh colliery by which so many families are to-day left desolate. It is apparently approximately certain that the accident was the result of an explosion of coal dust; but the details are hidden from us by the very depth and destructiveness of the event. Down in her nameless and countless crypts the earth did some dreadful thing to them; and they died far from any help or even farewell. It may be, and it should be, that there are many practical and scientific lessons which should be learnt from this tragedy. But there is one social and spiritual lesson which we ought pre-eminently to learn, and which we ought to have learnt long ago. It is the lesson of the silent and continuous courage of humanity, of which we never hear except from the noise and illumination of these sudden failures. In the middle classes we tend continually to forget how small a thing we and our order are in the vast ramified system of life. Our comfortable class is nothing but one padded packing-case carried hither and thither upon a vast national network of transport and toil. The coal which burns in our grate was gained by men who went into these abysses and who sometimes, as in this case, never return. The world has not been wholly wrong in paying honour and decoration to the soldier, the most obvious of the "dangerous trades." It may seem strange that a feather or a handfull of ribbons should recompense a man for the risk of blotting out in one flash the world and all the stars. But the miner, when he waits for that flash, has not even a feather or a ribbon to comfort him. Again, there can be no comparison between the horror of the two battles. A battle with shot and shell may be horrible to sight, and touch, and smell, but to the mind it is explicable, it is the product of folly clashing with folly, and when it comes to folly we are all at home. But to die like a rat in a hole in one of the impenetrable dungeons of Nature: to fall secretly in a war which we know neither the justice nor the end: to be beaten blindly to the earth by forces which we cannot forgive, and which we cannot even blame- to face this is courage. Compared with that there is about being blown into a thousand pieces by men something of the homelike feeling of a family quarrel.
The more a wide-hearted and thoughtful man thinks of modern life, the clearer it becomes that whatever is wanting in the present civilisation it is not the material of romance. We are not, as depicted by the duller type of poet, men searching in vain for the marvellous with the lantern of Diogenes; we present rather the mysterious spectacle of men seeing griffins and mermen go past them and preserving a genial composure. Of all the marvellous fairy tales of civilisation to which we are blind, we in our blindness are the most marvellous. Stories are round us in a positive tangle; it is not poems that are lacking but poets.
There could hardly be a stronger instance of this than the utter neglect we exhibit of the heroic and saintly element in these dangerous trades. Not only are miners engaged like soldiers in a war, but they are engaged par excellence in the war. They are the direct and true descendants of the heroes of the morning of the world. Sigurd and Hercules fought with brainless monsters, who were half deliberately conceived as the embodiments of these loose and irreconcileable forces, the huge outlaws of our little human colony. If it be urged against the conception of an epic of the mines that the energies against which the miner stakes his life are sombre and anonymous, the same must be said of the energies whose overthrow was the glory of St. George and King Arthur. Dragons are not witty diplomatists. Minotaurs do not enliven a battle with light and pungent allusions. The hydra does not issue an ultimatum. Struggles of this kind can in no case give the peculiar excitement that arises from record, altercation, and clear cause of quarrel; no bitter remarks coming from dragons are recorded, and the coal cliffs, even when brutally mangled with a mattock, preserve the same disquieting silence.
But the particular kind of struggle which makes eternally fresh and lyric the huge myths of human and bestial war of which I have spoken, this belongs truly and essentially to the miner, the fisherman, and many other common labourers. They are the eldest sons of the Commonwealth, and if there were really any belief in priority, should be its princes.
We live in a country which cannot be stingy, in which vast good is done with careless promptitude, and of which the very crimes are munificent. We need not go very far afield to see a case in which we might have avoided the continuance of the blackest and most disastrous things if we were a wiser nation or else a meaner one. From this we know that anything that is needed in the practical world for the assuaging of this awful calamity or the prevention of its recurrence will probably be done. May I be permitted to make this one plea for another kind of comfort and reparation, a kind that will appear to many of my countrymen the queerest irrelevance and moonshine. Can we not make some effort to be sure that we think of men like these and speak of them and to them as if they were indeed the soldiers of the oldest guard, the men who stand between death and us? It is not always the head or the stomach that is alone sensitive. Even in the weary and the ignorant there are strange spots of sensibility, to touch which may lead to love, estrangement, or even to explosive crime. Our mere materialistic magnanimity is not always a success, and when we go forth to obliterate another people, which has its own aims and institutions, it is not so much with claims as with gifts that we insult them. I plead for some trial of the work of reverence on these men; that we show our knowledge of their knowledge of death. After all the jeremiads that have been uttered over the discontent of men, man is after all so very easily pleased, as a child is pleased with a stick or a straw. Tie a tape round his arm or a trinket on his coat, and in his sublime dandyism he will make that comfort him for a leg or an eye. So, I fancy, it would be with the other dangerous trades, if only this spirit could be assured in us: if only the wretched worker sweating among the hellish gases of some vast factory, could really believe that Society from top to bottom took off its hat to him like one man. Of course it would be easy to make fun of this idea, and, indeed, there is much that is humorous in the notion of transferring military honours to these grimy callings. It is amusing to think of a visitor entering the room with a slight swagger, conscious that he was a gallant gentleman and in the coal business. There is something funny in a far-off way about the thought of a fisherman in epaulettes. There is something attractive in the idea of a Welsh collier attending all state functions in his gorgeous and symbolic uniform of purple and gold. But this is not the only aspect of the matter, and I could never understand why it should be considered as anything against the truth of an idea that it was funny: to me it appears that its funniness should be rather in its favour. If it appears strange to us to think of blowing the trumpets before a collier, it proves little except how much we have neglected him. While I write this men are going down into these eternal death-traps, shrinking no more because of those eighty dead than if they were so many locusts. Whether we honour them or dishonour, whether we lift them to some dignity in the State or leave them dingy and unromantic, this great work goes on, to the refutation of a score of acrid sages; and men are living and laughing at their work lower than the graves of all the dead, deeper than last lost hell of mythology.