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Analysis of Poem "Mid-Term Break" by Seamus Heaney

Updated on September 4, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney | Source

Seamus Heaney and Mid-Term Break

The early poem Mid-Term Break was written by Heaney following the death of his young brother, killed when a car hit him in 1953. It is a poem that grows in stature, finally ending in an unforgettable single line image.

"My poems almost always start in some kind of memory..." Seamus Heaney said, and this poem is no exception. He was only 14 years old when the accident happened but the poem captures the family funeral atmosphere in a subtle and sensitive manner.

The reader is unsure at first just what might unfold, after all, the title suggests that this might be a poem about a holiday, a chance to get away from school work and relax. Instead, we're gradually taken into the grieving world of the first person speaker, and the seriousness of the situation soon becomes clear.

Heaney uses his special insights to reveal an emotional scene - remember this was the patriarchal Ireland of the 1950s - one in which grown men cry and others find it hard to take.

Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay

Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble'.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Themes

Death

Family Grief

Rites of Passage

Opened Ground: Poems, 1966-96
Opened Ground: Poems, 1966-96

I have a hard back copy of this classic Heaney book, one of my prize possessions because it is signed by him in black ink. I fully recommend this paperback Opened Ground as it gives the reader a chance to scan all of his early poems, including Mid-Term Break, and on into the maturer work. So, from classic Heaney poems such as Digging, you can follow the progress of one of the world's great poets up to the mid 90s, and appreciate just how versatile an artist he was. This book also includes his Nobel prize speech.

 

Analysis

A poem with an ambiguous title, Mid-Term Break appears on the page as an orderly set of tercets, finished off with a single line, as if underlining everything that has gone before. Perhaps the poet wanted a neat, arranged form to control what could be a seriously upsetting scenario?

So, twenty two lines with an echo of traditional iambic pentameter in each stanza, plus odd bits of occasional anapaests and spondees to reflect the varying emotions at play.

Note the use of dashes, enjambment and other punctuation to slow and pause proceedings, or to let them flow; and the syntax is, as always with Heaney's early poems, worked in a formal conversational fashion.

  • There are two full end rhymes, at the end, clear/year, which is a kind of closure on proceedings. Assonance is used throughout, helping to tie things together - close/drove/home/blow/old...o'clock/rocked/coughed/box/knocked...whilst alliteration occurs in the second, twentieth and last lines - counting/classes/close....four-foot/a foot.
  • The second line is interesting as it contains both alliteration and assonance, plus the combination of the hard c and silent k suggest a confusion of sorts. Why is the speaker in the sick bay in the first place? Knelling is a word more often associated with church funerals (alternatives would have been tolling or peeling or ringing).
  • Stanzas six and seven stand out - the syntax alters in stanza six to meet the contrasting circumstances as the speaker enters the room where the little body lies. He is metaphorically wearing the poppy as a bruise. Note the punctuation and enjambment play a particular role in slowing everything down, carrying us on to the next stanza and that final devastating line.

Further Analysis - Stanzas 1 - 4

How does grief affect those family members and friends close to us? In Mid-Term Break Seamus Heaney takes the reader right into the bosom of the family and provides first hand observations of people present at home, following the death of his young brother.

Interestingly, we don't know if this is a brother or not. It is a male but the speaker informs us only of the 'corpse' which is delivered by ambulance.

From the start, there is a suggestion that something isn't quite right. The speaker has to sit in a sick bay with little to do but listen to the ominous sound of bells - foretelling of doom? The word knelling implies that the occasion is solemn.

This is a little bit morbid, a touch ironic, because the title tells of a break, a holiday away from responsibility and formality. When we are told the neighbours, and not family, are the ones taking him home the intrigue deepens.

Atmosphere and tension are building by the second stanza as we learn of the father, the patriarch, being reduced to tears, and a family friend, Big Jim Evans, affirming the difficulty of the occasion. Tough men are showing emotion which is something the speaker isn't used to.

Heaney softens the mood slightly by introducing us to a baby in the third stanza but this is countered when old men offer their hands to shake. Again, you can picture the speaker, the eldest son, trying to take it all in as 'sorry for your trouble' repeatedly hits home.

The eldest son is going through a rite of passage, in a sense this profoundly sad death in the family is forcing him to grow up and he's finding it understandably hard.

More Analysis Stanzas 5 - 7

It's the mother who takes on some of the grief in the form of anger as the speaker holds her hand in a room of strangers and prepares himself for the arrival of the body 'stanched and bandaged. Compare the role of father with mother in this respect, at opposite ends of the grieving spectrum.

Heaneys use of "corpse" is clinical and a little cold, suggesting that the speaker is too upset to mention the child's name. The next day however he feels compelled to go upstairs to have one last personal meeting.

Snowdrops are the first flowers to show in winter, bursting through the cold earth, sparked by the increasing light. They are a symbol of hope - even in the depths of darkness life prevails. Candles are associated with prayer. The use of the word soothed reflects the healing qualities of the peaceful room where the body lies.

There is the dead child "wearing" a bruise, which implies it's not a part of him, a temporary thing. Poppies are linked to peace and also are a source for opiates which ease pain. Because the car hit the boy directly on the head there are no unsightly scars; the boy reminds the speaker of when he was a baby in his cot.

The last line is full of pathos, the four-foot box measuring out the life of the victim in years. Note the full rhyming couplet which seals up the poem, reminding us of how easy it is to die, from a single blow of a car bumper, but how challenging becomes the grieving process that must inevitably follow.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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