‘The Miner’s Helmet’ by George Macbeth is a twenty-three line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines are written in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. That being said, the lines are generally close to the same length, consistent in margin width and unified through their narrative progression.
It becomes clear very quickly when beginning this piece that it is narrative in nature. This means that it tells a story, and in this case, one that involves the speaker. It is generally considered that Macbeth is the speaker of the text. He’s the one searching through his father’s belongings and finding the “miner’s helmet.” Unlike traditional narrative poetry, this piece is not written in metered verse though.
Summary of The Miner’s Helmet
The poem begins with the speaker finding his father’s miner’s helmet. He examines it and remembers the stories he was told of what life was like then. The speaker thinks of the helmet and its main job, to protect his father’s head. This it did until his father was able to take on the role of a draughtsman and draw blueprints instead of mine.
The speaker tries on the helmet and considers the fact that his father “abdicated it.” He also wonders about his own “royalty,” as if his father’s god-like position in the speaker’s mind, could be passed on. This, he decides against. In fact, by the end of The Miner’s Helmet his opinion of his father decreases as he considers how he moved to work above ground while other miners were still underground. By the end of the poem, the helmet is back on the shelf, gathering dust.
You can listen to The Miner’s Helmet here at folksway.
Analysis of The Miner’s Helmet
In the first lines of The Miner’s Helmet the speaker begins in the middle of discovery. He has been searching through his father’s belongs and comes across something that a reader will immediately associate with the title, a miner’s helmet. It is not until the fourth line that the word “helmet” actually makes it into the text.
The speaker knows that his father wore it when he was, “working coals at Shotts” when the speaker was only one year old. This is a mine located in North Lanarkshire, Scotland. These are pieces of information that have been relayed to him as he grew up. He also knows that during this time period that his mother made sure to have broth for her husband and at the same time take care of the speaker. She rocked his cradle with her “shivering hands.”
These first few lines paint a portrait of a family with few means. The mother is cold, the father is working a hard, demanding and dangerous job, and they are eating broth. This shows a fragility to their situation.
The fragile nature of their lives is contrasted with the “black helmet.” It is described as a line of protection for the father’s “fragile skull,” as he moved “Through miles of coal.” To the speaker, although the helmet references a dangerous period of time, it also speaks of protection and safety from the worst of those dangers.
In the second part of the sixth line, the speaker continues to describe what comes to his mind when he thinks of his father wearing the helmet. There are images of danger and safety as mentioned above, but he also imagines what his father was thinking about during these years. While he worked, he focuses on images of “pit-props.” This is kind of lumber used to prop up the roofs of tunnels in coal mines.
An idea for these props was inside his head, within the shell of his skull and the helmet. His brain held the “blue-printed future.” The speaker compares these layers to a womb. But instead of growing a child, it is growing an idea.
Macbeth jumps back to the present at this point and describes the discovery of the helmet. He saw it on a shelf, among “sheaves of saved brown paper.” When he moved it from the shelf, it left behind “an oval” in the “weeks of dust.”
Upon taking the helmet into his hands, the first thing the speaker does is put it on his head. There are “laced straps” that move so his “larger brows” can fit into the “shell.” Macbeth uses a simile to describe the way that putting on the helmet felt like a king’s abdication. The crown has long since been abandoned, by choice. It is “thirty years ago”that the previous king wore it.
The comparison continues into the next lines as he considers taking on the “royal” role. His fingers run over the shape, feeling its “image firm.”
In the next lines of ‘The Miner’s Helmet’ the speaker describes how his hands, since he was one year old, have grown into “kings’ hands.” He continues to compare himself to his kingly father. He has hands that are “calloused on the pink” and feet that are slow “like kings’ feet.’ The speaker is lacking something his father had.
At one point he looks up to try and see himself in the helmet, but the “image blurs.” It is not quite right. The comparison shatters at this point. The speaker states that there are “no crusades,” something very emblematic of the kings of old. His father was not a king, or at least he did not die a king’s brave death.
His father died as a “draughtsman” making plans to improve the mines. This is something of a weaker position, in the speaker’s mind. The new kings, who took on his father’s role, were below him. They were the “usurpers” who were able to take control because he abdicated his throne. Now, any meaning that the helmet seemed to be imbued with disappears. It is just a piece of history that the speaker puts back to “gather dust on the shelf.”