Saturday, 20 March 2010

Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney

With the title 'Mid-Term Break' Heaney suggests that this is a poem focusing on a childhood memory. This was, however, no happy break from school. The first stanza does not explain what the reason for the break was, but Heaney's wait in the sick bay sets up a feeling that something is wrong. The use of the word 'knelling' rather than 'tolling' for the school bell has connotations of death. We discover during the course of the poem that Heaney was returning home for the funeral of his younger brother who had been killed in a road accident.


The second stanza shows how devastating this tragic accident was for Heaney's family. Heaney remembers that he met his father 'crying- / He had always taken funerals in his stride'. The third stanza, in contrast, opens with a description of the baby of the family that 'cooed and laughed and rocked the pram', showing that in some aspects family life went on as usual amid the grief.


The third and fourth stanzas are linked by enjambment and by the description of Heaney's feelings on confronting those who had come to pay their respects. Heaney felt 'embarrassed / By old men' as they stood up, shook his hand and expressed their sorrow. It must indeed have been strange and probably uncomfortable for a young boy to find himself in a situation of reversed roles. He was aware of 'whispers' as acquaintances told strangers that he was the eldest child of the family and attended boarding school.


The fourth and fifth stanzas are also linked by enjambment and show how different Heaney's mother's reaction to the event was from his father's. As she held his hand she 'coughed out angry tearless sighs', conveying the sense that she was too upset to cry but sensitive to the need of her eldest child for comfort.


In the fifth stanza Heaney describes in a matter-of-fact way that the ambulance brought the 'corpse', giving a sense that at first Heaney could perhaps not think of the body as being that of his brother. The tone changes, however, in the sixth stanza as Heaney goes up alone to see his brother's body the following morning. He describes the presence of snowdrops and candles as soothing the bedside; this is a transferred epithet, as they actually soothed his feelings. Heaney again uses enjambment to link this stanza with the seventh, mentioning that his brother now looked paler than the last time he had seen him six weeks previously. He uses the metaphor 'Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple', poppies being the colour of blood as well as a symbol of the dead. Heaney uses the word 'box' rather than coffin, and is reminded as he looks at his brother of the way he saw him in his cot. The final line of the seventh stanza tells us that the little boy had no 'gaudy scars' as the car knocked him to one side rather than running over him.


'Mid-Term Break' ends with a single line in contrast to the previous stanzas which are each three lines long. 'A four foot box, a foot for every year' describes poignantly how young the boy was and how tiny his coffin was. Heaney reserves the use of rhyme for the final two lines of the poem, where 'clear' and 'year' form a rhyming couplet.


The poem begins with factual statements almost devoid of emotion. It then moves through a phase of describing discomfort and difficult emotions in the presence of strangers, where the sentences become more complex. As Heaney reaches the point where he spends time alone with his brother's body, there is a feeling of calm. It is, however, extremely moving. Such a tragedy must have had a profound effect on Heaney and this poem conveys his feelings beautifully.


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