Seamus Heaney himself is the narrator in the poem, Mid-term Break, a sad story from his childhood. It depicts the reactions of everyone around him and of himself to a death in the family. It does this through the poem’s three parts: the waiting at school, the behaviour of everyone at home, and his solitary viewing of the body. This poem is unsentimental but full of emotions.
The first stanza introduces Seamus sitting alone at school, in the “sick bay”. He is waiting, and time passes slowly as he counts “bells knelling classes to a close”. This tells the reader that the mid-term break is not a school holiday, as classes are still taking place. The boy is eventually picked up by his neighbours, which shows the reader that his parents are too busy to pick up their son, so it must be an important occasion. The next stanza starts with Seamus arriving home, and in the porch meeting his father, who is crying. This stanza tells us that we are witnessing a funeral. The reader still does not know who has died, but we know that it is a family member, perhaps a sibling or even the boy’s mother. In the third stanza, the baby “cooed and laughed”; this shows the baby’s innocence and lack of awareness of what is happening.
At this point the only emotion that the narrator expresses is embarrassment by the way older men are treating him; like an adult. The fourth stanza describes the way the guests at the funeral react to the boy. He is conscious of the way he is being observed and talked about; this reinforces the idea of the boy having to grow up for this event. The last line in the stanza introduces the boy’s mother; so another family member is eliminated from the mystery of who has died. The next stanza begins with his mother expressing her emotion: “angry tearless sighs”, a contrast to both the boy’s stated emotion and his father’s reaction. In this stanza, the ambulance arrives, and the “corpse” is taken into the house.
The sixth and seventh stanzas depict the next morning and the boy visiting the room where the body is laid. Everything he observes is understated, and we find out that the funeral was that of someone who had been hit by a car and killed. In the last stanza we learn that it was a young child who has died, and come to realise that it was in fact Heaney’s brother. This makes the stanza brutal, hard, shocking and unforgettable, as a child has lost his life before it has truly begun. The words are nearly all emphasised, so the reader must take in the line’s message and the shock and deep grief that the family must have felt. The shock for the reader is that as we find out who died, we also find out that the boy was a mere four years old.
There are eight stanzas in the poem. The first seven consist of three lines, and the last comprises only one. The rhyming in the poem is not strict: for example “close” and “home” both have the ‘o’ sound but are not total rhymes, and “crying” and “stride” both have the “i” sound. This very loose rhyming scheme is present throughout most of the poem and creates the impression of story telling. The exception to this is the last two lines, which form a rhyming couplet to make an impact: “no gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear. /A four foot box, a foot for every year”.
The poem contains eight sentences, which run through the lines and the stanzas, making the poem less like a poem and more like a story. The sentences are a mixture of lengths, which makes some of them very simple, for example “Next morning I went up to the room.” Others, in particular the sentence which starts with the third stanza and runs through into the fifth, are very descriptive and show that he is taking everything in at once.
The mood in the poem is sombre and sad. The tone of the poem is one of sorrow, grief, hurt and distress. The father is crying, the mother is so distraught she cannot cry. Heaney does not state his own emotions, but it is clear that he is hurting and however much he hides it, the reader can sense it through the poem’s tone.
The language in the poem is vernacular or every-day, simple, sparse and clear. This almost “un-poetic” language reduces the poem to its bare essentials and this makes the impact of the awful event stronger and more effective. Just as the body has no “gaudy scars” the poem has no flowery, overblown descriptions. Onomatopoeia, such as “cooed” and “whispers” are used to reinforce the quietness of the poem and of death. Others, such as “coughed” and “knocked” break the silence and show the horror of what has happened. When the body first arrives, Heaney distances himself from it by calling it a “corpse”; he is reluctant to admit that it is a person. However, as soon as he sees the body, he admits to himself that his sibling is dead, and uses personal pronouns such as “him”, “his” and “he”. The title of the poem can have lots of meanings.
At first the reader might think of a holiday, the normal meaning of a mid-term break, but after reading the poem, we know that this was not the case. Instead, the title can be associated with the boy who has died; mid-term, as in mid-life, in other words the untimely and unexpected death. Another meaning can be that the family has been broken in the middle of every-day life. The reader himself can decide which of these Heaney meant the title to be. The alliteration in the poem brings out sounds to aid the images. The hard ‘c’ sounds at the start and the end, “Counting bells knelling classes to a close” and “knocked him clear”. The harsh sound is suggestive of his way of dealing with grief, letting his locked up emotions come out in his words. Those hard sounds contrast with the soft “s” sounds in the seventh stanza: “Snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside”. These soft sounds show that Heaney is literally soothed by the candles and flowers.
There are very strong images in the poem, the first of which is in the second line: “bells knelling” are associated with death and “to a close” also suggests the finality of death. One of the more striking images is the image of the “snowdrops and candles”. Snowdrops are white and pure, which suggests innocence. Snowdrops grow up through frost and they represent a symbol of new life after death. The candles have a symbol of remembrance, and give a hint of religious significance. There is one main metaphor in the poem: the dead child is “wearing a poppy bruise”. The idea that he is wearing the bruise gives the idea that it can almost be wiped off, or that it is not really part of the boy. This shows the reluctance of Heaney to admit that his younger brother is dead. This is echoed in the simile of “He lay in the four foot box as in a cot”; he would rather that his little brother is sleeping, not dead.
In twenty-two lines of simple language, almost prose; Seamus Heaney has created a striking and shocking picture of the tragic death of a child. The poem is deceptive in its simplicity because it is full of imagery and has a deep impact. Without allowing himself any sentimentality, Heaney leaves us with a deep impression of the effect of the boy’s death on the whole family. The last line in the poem, “A four foot box, a foot for every year”, is one that is very famous. This is because it stays with the reader long after they have read the poem.