Mid term break' by Seamus Heaney: Poem Based on a Real Tragedy

Death and dying is a natural and unavoidable process that all living creatures will experience at some point in life, whether it is one’s own person death or the death of a close friend or family member. Along with the experience of death comes the process of grieving which is dealing and coping with the loss of a loved one. Any living thing can grieve and relate to a loss, even children.

In 1953, Heaney’s second youngest brother Christopher was killed in a road accident at the age of four. This tragic event is commemorated in one of his most famous poems, ‘Mid-Term Break’. 

The poem is  an emotional poem that expresses a family’s grief and bereft of their 4 year old child being hit by a car, and being killed. The narrator of the poem is taken to be Seamus Heaney himself, and expresses his emotional trauma that has come about due to the accident and the way he perceives his parents dealing with the grief. The poem follows no rhyming schemes, but uses enjambment to affect the rhythm of the poem, and to highlight its points. The use of strong imagery and physical emotions express the sombre and depressing mood that is the theme throughout the poem. The poem consist of a 3 sentence structure for 7 stanzas, and a one sentence stanza to finish the poem. Each stanza focuses on a different aspect of grief. 

The first stanza focuses on the suddenness of the situation and how it cannot be contemplated. This shows how the death has not yet registered with the young Heaney. The second stanza focuses on his father’s emotions and how he is absolutely bereft with grief. The poem then proceeds to focus on the reaction of others outside the Heaney family, especially their closest friends. 

A shift is seen at the beginning of the third stanza as Heaney is making a recollection of what it should be like when he comes home, as if his brother is still alive. The poem proceeds to Heaney’s mother’s reaction and how they was no way they could have helped him. A shift in tone is apparent as Heaney’s realisation of the situation is expressed and how he has come to terms with what has happened. The poem finishes conveying the deep sadness and solemn atmosphere that was apparent throughout the poem. 

Using strong visual imagery and alliteration the narrator is able to convey this very solemn atmosphere to the reader, and it also uses very powerful words to accentuate the difficulty of this situation.A foreshadowing and solemn atmosphere is created by Heaney as symbolism and alliteration are used in the first stanza. Symbolism to funeral bells is expressed by the poet as he was “Counting bells knelling classes to a close”. This symbolic represents funeral bells and foreshadows the events the follow. The alliteration and rhythm of the line also creates an idea of finality and time slowing down. “At two o 'clock our neighbours drove me home” represents the seriousness of the situation as his neighbours driving him home represent as unusual occurrence which foreshadows the events to come. The foreboding and solemn atmosphere is also contributed to by a precise time, as usually when a precise time is remembered it relates to a traumatic, life changing event.

The following stanza focuses on the emotions of his father who is ‘crying’ and how the narrator perceives them. “He had always taken funerals in his stride” expresses how his father is dealing with an unfelt sadness, as this death is unnatural and personal for him. It also expresses how Heaney perceives his father, as he has never seen his father this sad before showing the difficulty of losing a little child. “And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.” 

Has a double meaning to it, as it refers to the huge emotional impact of losing a child so suddenly, but also unwittingly is used as a cruel pun as it relates to the child being hit by the car.  The numbness feeling of the poet is expressed to the reader as “The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram” expresses the immense shock felt by this situation, and how it feels like it cannot be real. This line also expresses the baby being unaware of the events that have taken place as Heaney is relating to its innocence. The baby is oblivious to the tragic events that have taken place. This only accentuates the reality of the situation. The euphemistic use of language in telling him that “there were sorry” for his “trouble” expresses the awkwardness of the situation. “Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest” captures the hushed, muted atmosphere in the house.

Heaney’s mother’s reaction to her little boys’ death is the concentration of the next stanza. “Coughed out angry tearless sighs” expresses how she has cried so like that she has nothing left but anger towards the driver that was unable to avoid her son. The family having to receive “the corpse” reveals what the “trouble” is connected with.

Heaney begins the sixth stanza with him recounting what it was like to visit his brother’s room again. “Next morning I went up into the room.” Conveys Heaney’s feelings, as he is unable to name the reality of the situation. He is unable to say that this is where his little brother is lying dead conveying the blunt reality he is facing. The boys are reunited after “six weeks” apart and the details of their surroundings emphasises the atmosphere of quiet and soothing. The “Snowdrops” and “candles” symbolic represent life and death as they are ritualistically funereal. The word “soothed” suggest the idea of the flowers and candles being there for the solace of the grieving family and to comfort the little boy’s with his own death. The strong emotions brought to the poet from seeing his dead brother made him unable to articulate the reality of the situation. Heaney chooses to present his earlier self, noticing that his brother was “paler” now. 

The seventh stanza gives an almost unbearably powerful description because of the restraint Heaney exercises. “Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple” expresses the recurring theme of how unreal the situation feels. The use of another a “poppy” is used to symbolise remembrance as poppies are often associated with. “Wearing” suggest that it could be removed and the young boy could be woke up as if he were sleeping, yet tragically, this is not the case. He will never wake up again. “Cot” is used euphemistically to represent the child’s coffin. A cot is usual associated with a safe place, which the child is now in. The use of ‘cot’ and ‘pram in an earlier stanza emphasises the unnatural death of a little child. It highlights the horror faced by any parent who is predeceased by their child. There are “No gaudy scars” visible on the poor child’s body, just as there is no concentration on self-indulgent displays of grief or injury.Heaney changes the structure of the poem for the last stanza, as it goes from a three line couplet to a single line stanza. The effect of this and the repetition of ‘four foot box’ is to present a powerful and emotional equation, which stands out baldly and inescapably to the reader. 

A four foot box, a foot for every year.” Displays insight into Heaney and how humanity has been taken away from his brother. This present his heartbreaking logic which demonstrate the small stature of the child and the brevity of his young life.

24 May 2022
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