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Both Seamus Heaney and D.H Lawrence wrote frequently about their childhood experiences and feelings. This is especially true for the poems; ‘Mid-Term Break’ and ‘The Early Purges’ by Seamus Heaney, as well as ‘Piano’ and “Discord in Childhood’ by D.H Lawrence. There is no doubt the writers’ backgrounds definitely had an impact on these poems, as there are clear associations with their own lives. Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in Northern Ireland, at the start of World War II.
This would have meant Heaney had to grow up in times of War, a difficult experience in itself. His family were Catholic and he was the eldest of 9 children. Heaney grew up on a farm in the countryside, where his father used traditional farming methods as a way of keeping family tradition, although Heaney himself chose not to become a farmer, perhaps breaking the tradition. Heaney reminisces about rural life on the farm in ‘The Early Purges’. At the age of 12 his parents send him to a boarding school, away from his family, which is mentioned in ‘Mid-Term Break’.
David Herbert Lawrence, commonly known as D.H Lawrence, was born in 1885 in Nottinghamshire, many years before Heaney. Lawrence was one of five children and his father was a miner so didn’t make a lot of money. His father was also a heavy drinker, leading to violence, which is one of the themes of ‘Discord in Childhood’. Lawrence’s mother, on the contrary, was a schoolteacher until she had children and was therefore intellectually superior to her husband, possibly causing more problems within the relationship.
Lawrence despised his father, though had a good relationship with his mother, who encouraged him to read and write. Unfortunately his mother died in 1910 from an illness that she could no longer bear. Lawrence recalls the love he had for his mother in ‘Piano’. Nevertheless, his childhood was still dominated by poverty and problems in the family.
In ‘Mid-Term Break’ Heaney casts his mind back to his first experience of death, the devastating memory of his younger brother being killed in a car accident. Our first expectations, from looking only at the title itself, are of something pleasant, as usually breaks away from school are associated with holidays and happy memories. However this is not the case, and in fact we later find out that this break is not for a joyful occasion at all, but for the death of his brother. This gives the reader a false sense on security, so that when the true meaning of the poem is realised, it shocks the reader much more than if a sense of sorrow had already been hinted at in the title.
The first verse immediately gives the reader the sense that this is an especially personal poem for Heaney, as it is in 1st person narrative. We also get the impression that he has been isolated and left on his own, away from everybody, as he has been left to sit “in college sick bay”. This could well be because many people do not know what to say to a person who is dealing with the death of a loved one, so feel it is best if they were just left alone. It is from the word “knelling” we get the sense of a funeral, as this literally means to ring slowly and solemnly, especially at a funeral. Heaney also includes alliteration on the words “classes” and “close” for additional effect. In the last line of the verse again we get a feeling that everything around him is impersonal, as now, instead of his parents or any relatives at all, his “neighbours drove me home.” This could be because his parents are too busy or for many other reasons, but nevertheless it definitely gives the poem an impersonal feel.
In the second verse we instantly get a sensation of shock from seeing his father crying, since it is unusual to witness any man crying, let alone your own father. This may possibly be the first time in his life he has seen his father crying, in which case it would be even more of a shock. The next line, “He had always taken funerals in his stride” adds to the agonizing shock both the reader and the boy must feel, and emphasises the seriousness of the situation. This is accentuated again when it says, “And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow,” because obviously he is not a close family member, so if he is upset again it shows how serious it is. Furthermore, his nickname as “Big” Jim Evans gives the impression he shouldn’t be affected by the loss. The words “hard blow” could also have a double meaning, as in hindsight it could be interpreted as the hard blow the car gave to his brother.
In the third verse the words “cooed and laughed and rocked” give us the impression of innocence, as the baby is oblivious to what is going on around him and is therefore incongruous with its surroundings. Heaney then has to take on a role reversal, as he himself is forced to grow up and pretend to be older than he is, even though he is not ready for it. We can see this as he is “embarrassed by old men standing up to shake my hand”. In the fourth verse there is then the euphemism “sorry for my trouble”, a clichï¿½ trying to describe something unpleasant in more pleasant terms, as if trying to distance the boy from reality. In the rest of this verse again we see the adults giving the boy further responsibility, this time as he is the eldest.
The sixth verse is the first time we meet Heaney’s mother. With her we see a complete contrast to the father and to what we would probably expect. Instead of feeling sorrow and crying as we would expect, she is angry, and this shown when she “coughed out angry tearless sighs.” Perhaps she is angry with the driver or even with herself for letting this happen, as often mothers do feel responsible for their children even if they had no power whatsoever to stop it happening. We then see “the ambulance arrived with the corpse.” There is nothing out of the ordinary with this quote, but rather the wording that Heaney has used. He doesn’t use the words ‘brother’ or even ‘his corpse’ to describe his brother as we would expect, instead using the words “the corpse”. Once more this makes it seem impersonal and unsentimental, as if he is distancing himself with reality by trying to make it seem that the corpse isn’t his brothers, or perhaps he just hasn’t found his real feelings yet.
The seventh verse begins on a new day, signifying a change in mood. Here it could be argued that Heaney is being slightly too sentimental where he says, “Snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside” as the language he uses here seems almost to go over the top. The thought of optimism and life is also reflected in this quote, as snowdrops are the first flower of spring and candles symbolise life and new beginnings. However a sense of guilt also lingers when he says, “I saw him for the first time in six weeks” showing he is guilty he hasn’t seen enough of his brother recently. In the next verse a “poppy bruise” is mentioned as the only visible injury to his brother, and the “four foot box as in his cot” shows he is young and looks like he is only sleeping. The final line of the poem, “A four foot box, a foot for every year” is certainly the most effective of the whole poem, as this is the point at which the reader finds out exactly how young the child is. It also stands out on its own, has alliteration to emphasise the age of his brother and is the only line to rhyme throughout the poem.
‘The Early Purges’ maintains Heaney’s theme of death, again in another childhood memory, although this time somewhat differently to ‘Mid-Term Break’. Compared to ‘Mid-Term Break’ there is not a lot you can infer from the title ‘The Early Purges’, apart from that it is probably about a childhood memory and, from the word “purges”, may be about getting rid of something unpleasant. In hindsight we can observe that this could be meant as getting rid of the unpleasant memories of the pests, perhaps even getting rid of the guilt. The first words, “I was six when I first saw kittens drown,” are extremely harsh and blunt, intended to shock the reader immediately. This is a contrast to the beginning of ‘Mid-Term Break’, where the idea of death is introduced slowly into the poem and built up. The actual words of, “the scraggy wee shits”, add realism to something that may seem unreal to many people, and the wording makes these kittens seem worthless, something to be disposed of. Words like “frail” and “soft” also make the reader sympathetic to the kittens. There is a similarity here to ‘Mid-Term Break’, where a baby is mentioned in its cot, young and innocent, similar to the kittens that also seem helpless and innocent.
The next two verses describe how the kittens are carelessly “slung” into buckets, which are then “soused” with water, effectively drowning them. There is alliteration for further effect and words like “scraping” to appeal to our aural senses. Direct speech is included to try to reassure Heaney the reader and the simile “Like wet gloves” is used to show they are useless. “Glossy and dead” is also used to describe the kittens, an incongruous juxtaposition, as they are not two words you would expect to find next to each other. Glossy is a word to usually describe something beautiful, having a shiny or lustrous surface, certainly not something dead. However, the word glossy does have another meaning; something having a false or deceptive appearance of air, so perhaps Heaney has hidden this behind the word as well.
Unlike in ‘Mid-Term Break’, where Heaney purposely does not show any emotions in the poem, here in verse four Heaney’s emotions are displayed when he says, “Suddenly frightened.” Conversely, just after this Heaney says, “I sadly hung round the yard” referring to the dunghill the kittens had been thrown onto. Much like ‘Mid-Term Break’, here Heaney is trying to come to terms with what has happened to the kittens, as he did with his brother. Again there is some feeling of guilt seen in both poems, until he forgets about the kittens. However “the fear came back” when he sees rats, rabbits, crows and hens being killed. For a second time Heaney uses very violent, harsh language such as “snared”, “shot” and “sickening tug” to give the impression these animals are worthless.
The next verse sees the beginning of a complete change in perspective. Whereas before, in his childhood, he was disgusted by how little they cared for these animals, he now has a different view. An adult view that, no matter how much he liked or disliked it, he has to accept it as part of life. Now he says, “I just shrug, “Bloody pups”. It makes sense.” This shows that he doesn’t care now and also almost echoes Dan Taggart’s own words, as if he has now taken on his attitudes. There is a parallel here to Mid-Term Break, where he is forced to become an adult and take on an adult’s perspective even though he is not ready for it. Here in ‘The Early Purges’ once more he is forced to change his perspective about killing the animals. However when he says, “It makes sense” it seems like he is trying to reassure himself, as maybe he still needs to repeat the reason for killing the animals to himself. The last line of the poem provides us with the reason; that “on well run farms pests have to be kept down.” Revealing that this is a necessity that, as in ‘Mid-Term Break’, Heaney has had to come to terms with and realise the reality of it.
‘Piano’, like Heaney’s poems, continues the theme of childhood memories and, in a way, death, with the knowledge that Lawrence’s mother had passed away. ‘Piano’ is an exceptionally short poem, only three verses with four lines in each verse. It has rhyming couplets throughout the poem, although there is an irregular rhythm. The title itself obviously links to music, but also to softness and quietness, as this is what it literally means in musical terms.
The first word is, in fact, “softly”, setting a peaceful mood emphasised using caesura. A woman who is singing to him is then introduced, and although she remains anonymous this evokes memories in Lawrence’s mind of his mother. He then has a mental view “back down the vista” of himself as a child sitting under the piano while his mother plays. Lawrence uses onomatopoeia here with words such as “boom” and “tingling”, making the reader recall these sounds in their mind a form a picture of this memory themselves. The mother is described very positively, with “poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.” This gives the impression she is especially elegant and confident, emphasised by the alliteration.
The second verse forces Lawrence to go back into the past, as if the song is so powerful it creeps up on him so he can’t help himself from reminiscing about the past. He craves having his mother back so much “the heart of me weeps” to be there once again. Lawrence uses personification here to again underline the sadness he feels, a contrast to the happy memories he remembers such as the “cosy parlour”. The final verse returns to the present, where “it is vain for the singer to burst in clamour”, suggesting it is futile for the piano to try to bring him back to the present, as he is completely lost in his thoughts of his childhood. The metaphor, “Cast down in the flood of remembrance”, emphasizes how much Lawrence is overwhelmed by his thoughts, as the “flood” represents his mind being flooded with memories. Even though as a man he shouldn’t show this degree of emotion, here he does and so becomes a child again by weeping for the past.
Persisting with theme of childhood, in ‘Discord in Childhood’ Lawrence reminisces another childhood memory, this time of his father and mother arguing. ‘Discord in Childhood’, similar to ‘Piano’, is also extremely short, this time with two verses with four lines in each verse. Again the poem rhymes throughout but here there is an irregular rhythm, as the rhyme pattern changes after the first verse from alternate rhyme to the pattern ABBA. This disrupts the flow of the poem as it not what the reader expects to happen, perhaps reflecting the poem itself. The title itself immediately gives a sense of a lack of harmony, since it is an incongruous juxtaposition as the words Discord and Childhood are unusual side by side. This is because when you think of childhood your immediate thoughts turn to the absent-minded happiness of childhood, something you wouldn’t associate with the word discord, already suggesting a disharmony.
The first verse describes a storm that is going on outside the house. Here Lawrence uses a number of techniques to create a violent, harsh, dark atmosphere. This includes using metaphors such as “whips” to describe a tree’s branches, although could also be associated with violence. Alliteration, onomatopoeia with “lash” and personification when the “storm shrieks hideously” all put emphasis on the power of the storm. The shrieking could also be describing the mother screaming. This whole verse is actually pathetic fallacy, where the weather reflects human emotions.
The second verse looks within the house, where “two voices”, presumably the mother and father, are arguing fiercely. Yet still, as we have seen from ‘Piano’, the mother is seen in a much better light than the father. She is described by “a slender lash” and “she-delirious rage”, whereas the father is described as “dreadful”. Again metaphors and alliteration are used to accentuate the ferocity of the father’s voice. Both parents are obviously enraged and at first only words are exchanged, until there is silence and “it had drowned the other voice in a silence of blood.” This suggests physical violence, but the most frightening thing for Lawrence is most likely to be the silence that follows, as he probably cannot see and only hear what is going on. The tree is also mentioned again, linking the poem back to the beginning as well as showing that the storm continues outside, even if inside it has finished. This suggests that nature is perhaps more powerful than man.
There are other comparisons we can make between ‘Piano’ and ‘Discord in Childhood’. Firstly, and obviously, they are both sad and emotional poems about D.H Lawrence’s childhood. But we can go deeper than this. Both poems cause some pain to Lawrence for different reasons, causing a significant contrast between the two poems. In ‘Piano’ it is the loss of his mother and the great memories that he can no longer share that causes this pain, something extremely emotional but something that he loved and cherished. Whereas in ‘Discord in Childhood’, his parents arguing to the degree of violence and also the lack of knowledge can be frightening. It is a terrible memory of violence and hatred that Lawrence will never forget, but for the wrong reasons, unlike the happy memories described in ‘Piano’. The perspective and how Lawrence tells each poem is also contrasting. In ‘Discord in Childhood’, Lawrence does not mention himself at all, perhaps trying to distance himself from the memory, whereas in ‘Piano’ the poem is told from his perspective as an adult, as maybe he wants to keep these memories with him.
There are many comparisons and contrasts we can make between the way D.H Lawrence and Seamus Heaney describe childhood memories and feelings. Firstly, there is the obvious contrast in rhyme, rhythm and structure. All of Lawrence’s poems that I have looked at rhyme in some way, whereas only ‘The Early Purges’ had a rhyming pattern in Heaney’s poems. However, perhaps Heaney did not want ‘Mid-Term Break’ to rhyme, as it is not meant to be a happy, flowing poem. On the other hand, all of Lawrence’s poems are in a way unhappy, so why does he choose to use rhyme? Possibly he feels it adds emphasis, especially when the rhyme is disrupted. Maybe Lawrence prefers to have the same effect with the rhythm of his poems, as all of them have irregular rhythm. In contrast Heaney has a constant rhythm for both of his poems. In addition, Lawrence’s poems are significantly shorter than Heaney’s, possibly showing that Lawrence feels that these types of emotional poems are most effective kept short. Another similarity we can make between the two poets is that in all of the poems, in some way both authors try to distance themselves from reality. In ‘Mid-Term Break’ and ‘The Early Purges’ this is because Heaney can’t quite comprehend what has happened to the animal and his brother. In ‘Piano’ Lawrence is lost in his memories, far away from reality, and in ‘Discord in Childhood’ Lawrence distances himself by not mentioning himself throughout the poem.
Finally, my last comparison between Heaney and Lawrence are that all of these childhood memories deal, in some way, with death or violence. This could have, and most probably was, because both actually did experience death or violence in their childhood. Also death is an extremely emotional and difficult subject that many people can relate to, which could have been an incentive to writing about death, to catch the reader’s attention.
Overall, out of these four poems I think ‘Mid-Term Break’ is my particular favourite. This is because, although I do not know how it feels first hand, I have experienced through other people who have lost relatives how devastating, but also how unreal, it can feel. This poem is also just what caught my eye the most due to a number of reasons. I think it is well written, especially the ending, which gave me a huge shock and connected with my emotions. Even though there is not a lot of complicated language I still felt it was well written, because without complicated language to me it makes the poem feel more realistic. Also being around the same age as Heaney in the poem, I felt that I could relate to the part where responsibility is forced upon him and he is forced to grow up.
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