Seamus Heaney – Mid Term Break
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors 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.
Basic Analysis (Michael Woods, Sheerpoetry)
“The subject of this poem is the death of Seamus Heaney’s younger brother, Christopher who was killed by a car at the age of four. It is a tremendously poignant poem and its emotional power derives in large measure form the fact that Heaney is very muted and understated with respect to his own emotional response. He chooses to focus more upon the reaction of his parents in order to convey the shocking impact of the death of their little boy. Usually, we must careful not to assume the “I” in a poem is, in fact, the poet. In this case, though, we may be sure that Mid-Term Break is purely and intensely autobiographical […]
Just as there are “No gaudy scars” visible on the poor child’s body, so too there is no lurid concentration upon injury or any self-indulgent displays of grief. The final line is, in a sense, “knocked clear” of the rest of the poem through Heaney’s decision to separate it. There is a heartbreaking logic in the statement that reminds us both of the small stature of the child and the brevity of his young life.”
The movement of verbs in the first stanza rushes the reader through the long experience of waiting “in the college sick bay”. The subject “sat”, “counting” the “knelling” bells and was driven home; his passivity is contrasted with the oscillatory potency of the bells which continue to chime “classes to a close”. The thick alliteration and insistent lateral consonant “l’s” help to first concretize the strong image of tolling bells before the next line moves briskly away from such padded language with an everyday time expression and bare idiomatic report.
At the beginning of the second stanza, the adjective “crying” hangs at the end of the line: “in the porch I met my father crying”, so it could refer to either the father or the subject. Since the first person speaker has so far remained a detached observer, we assume that the adjective attaches to the father, and the following lines bear this out. The assonance of “stride” and “crying” links two features of the father together – he is strong, but not strong enough to hold the family crisis chronicled in the poem. The fact that he is a “father crying” and not a “crying father”, and that he is standing in the porch, on the fringe of the home – represents the sudden alienation that he feels from his own household. The order has been shaken.
Thus we see a number of other masculine figures (Big Jim Evans) hoping to provide limp consolation; their graveness throws in sharp relief the cheeriness of the baby who is somehow unaware of the upsetting events unfolding around its pram. There is death in the poem, but there is, here, a vision of insouciant life. Once again, we have a word – “embarrassed” – that just seems to dangle, and we might think for a moment that the speaker is embarrassed about his tiny sibling’s lack of appreciation for the morose, elegiac mood. However, it is revealed to be the self-consciousness of the narrator that is responsible for the moment of shame. He is a shy adolescent who dislikes suddenly becoming the center of considerate attention. The awkwardness is reflected in the comma break in the middle of the line, which breaches the lilting iambic rhythm of “the baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram” and turns the poem towards introspective brooding.
“Whispers” become self-contained entities which threaten the privacy of the speaker. And the act of holding hands ends two consecutive stanzas, somehow equating the mother’s touch with those of the old men and making the whole gesture lose any comfort value that it once had. Furthermore, as the mother holds the speaker’s hand, enjambment continues into the next stanza with the redundant “in hers”. There is a sense of estrangement and hollowness; the subject’s passivity extends to the fact that he doesn’t even reciprocate his mother’s grief-stricken attempt at affection.
The unpoetic detail that “at ten o’clock the ambulance arrived” recalls the semantically identical line from the first stanza. There is a haunting echo, perhaps, of an announcement of death: “at four o’clock 4-year old Christopher Heaney was hit by a car”. The repetitive focus on time and measurements in the poem: “two o’clock, the eldest, ten o’clock, six weeks, four foot box” illustrates the awareness of the importance of time, a unique awareness that only the death of a child can provide. Even the “four foot box” connects to this: the coffin stands out in the way that it symbolizes the tragic youth of the corpse inside.
The poem is ultimately about a “hard blow” in at least two senses. While the “bumper knocked [the brother] clear”, the car also strikes down his family. We are left with a mixture of measurements and sparse poetic devices juxtaposed with banal statements of fact. Candles are able to “sooth the bedside”, yet nothing is able to warm the despondency of the speaker. Lifeless objects move about whilst people stand helplessly still. The car that the speaker gets in at 2 o’clock and the ambulance that arrives at 10 o’clock are in fact potential murder accessories that are capable of even more senseless killings. The experience of the poem is enervating, and I suggest that it is because the death of a child on the road is such a vapid, trite and horrifyingly meaningless incident that it drains the significance of everything. Roadkill happens all the time, it leaves not a scar, and although your favorite brother may have died, you can climb into another car yourself the very same day.