An Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-term Break’

‘Miditerm Break’ is a deeply melancholic poem written by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, as a way of coping with the grief and pain associated with losing a loved one. Thus, ‘Midterm Break’ is a personal poem. A work of art is said to be personal when it is based on the personal experiences of its author. Heaney lost his younger brother Christopher during childhood in a road accident. ‘Mid-term Break’ is a narrative poem that recreates the sad moments following this loss based on the poet’s recollection or re/memory.

‘Mid-term Break’ is organised in eight stanzas. All the stanzas except the final one are rendered in tercets. The final stanza is just one line. A one-line stanza is called monostich. The poem is written in run-on-line or enjambment. It is also written in free verse. The first stanza goes thus: ‘I sat all morning in the college sick bay/Counting bells knelling classes to a close./At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.’

 In the poem, the persona recounts finding himself in the sick bay of his school. It is obvious that the narrator is the poet himself. He must have learnt of the sad news and fallen sick with grief, hence his being taken to the sick bay. It might also be a practical routine to relieve him of school work and set him apart from the rest of the students for care and attention. The second line of the first stanza contains alliteration with the repetition of the voiceless velar plosive in ‘counting’, ‘classes’ and ‘close’. The word ‘knelling’ has an onomatopoeic texture and constitutes a pun as well. The bells do not only announce the end of classes in the school, it, by metaphoric extension, also announces the end of a life; in this case, the life of young Christopher. The stanza ends with the neighbours coming to collect the persona. This is one of the instances of abnormality in the poem. It should have been the parents coming for the boy.

In the second stanza, the persona has got home and seen the father crying. The assertion that the father has always taken funeral at his strides is ironic when paired with the first expression which depicts the man in tears. This contrast serves to highlight how painful this particular loss is to the man, so that he cannot help but cry. No wonder another character in the poem by name Big Jim Evans refers to the loss as ‘a hard blow’, an expression that constitutes metaphor in the poem.

The third stanza reads: ‘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’. The first line of this stanza is a loose sentence and the entire stanza is presented in paratactic style. The description of the baby’s innocence deepens the mood of tragedy in the poem. The word ‘cooed’ is onomatopoeic as it describes the sound made by a baby. Together with ‘laugh’, it constitutes auditory imagery which is very rich in the poem, as can be seen in words like ‘crying’ and ‘knelling’ in the first stanza. The word ‘rocked’ is a movement word and constitutes kinesthetic imagery, as well as ‘standing’ and ‘shake’. The act of old men standing up to greet the young persona is used to suggest the abnormality of the situation at hand. It is not an every-other-day situation. It is not normal for old people to courtesy a young person; neither is it normal for a boy to die while old people mourn him. It should be the other way round.

The fourth stanza of the poem continues from the third and recounts how the elderly mourners attempt to console the poor young persona. The occasion also provides an avenue for the family information or history/gossip to be passed round by the mourners: ‘Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest/Away at school’. This is an example of personification as ‘Whispers’ is imbued with a human attribute. The mother holding the persona’s hand denotes an attempt at either consoling him or comforting herself that she still has a child left in the world, or both.

The fifth stanza is equally a continuation from the fourth stanza. It presents a paradoxical situation as it indicates that the mother’s reaction to the loss is that of anger, tearlessness and sighs compared to the outright crying earlier reported about the father. The words ‘coughed’ and ‘sighs’ exemplify auditory imagery in the poem. The stanza uses visual imagery in reporting the arrival of the ambulance, which is a symbol of death and tragedy in the poem. The presence of words like ‘ambulance’, ‘corpse’, ‘stanched’, ‘bandaged’ and ‘nurses’ constitutes visual imagery which are drawn from medical or hospital register. The arrival of the corpse authenticates the story that the poem narrates. It is like the presentation of evidence to prove one’s account of an event. The word ‘stanched’, in the poem’s context, denotes the use of cotton to stop the flow of blood or the insertion of cotton in the nostrils of a corpse.

In the sixth stanza, the persona recounts going upstairs to the room where the remains of the younger brother are laid. The expression ‘Snowdrops/And candles soothed the bedside’ is an example of personification. ‘Snowdrops’ is a type of flower; in this case, it is a symbol of grief and mourning, as well as a celebration of the dead. It is used to pay tribute to the departed. The same interpretation goes for the candles. The persona states: ‘I saw him/For the first time in six weeks. Paler now’. The third person pronoun ‘him’ as used in the expression refers to the deceased. By this statement, it is clear that the brother has been away at school for six weeks during which time he was apart from his brother. Conventionally, midterm break takes place within the sixth and the seventh week of the term. It would appear that his has come a week too soon. It could also be that that the persona is going to use his midterm break to mourn his brother. The title of the poem could also refer to the temporality that signals the demise of the poet’s beloved brother. The idea of midterm break might suggest an abrupt interruption of the persona’s studies to mourn his deceased brother. The expression ‘Paler now’ is a sad euphemism because it describes the deceased’s complexion. Pale is the complexion of death and the dead.

The penultimate stanza is a continuation from the sixth stanza. It continues the description of the corpse. The expression ‘poppy bruise’ is another euphemism which describes the wound incurred by the late brother when the accident occurred. The word ‘poppy’ is an adjective and constitutes a visual imagery in the poem. The expression in the second line, ‘He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot’, is another tragic euphemism, as the phrase ‘four-foot box’ refers to a child’s coffin, which is compared to a cot, a child’s sleeping space. Thus, death is compared to the act of sleeping in this poem. The simile should not be lost on any reader of the poem. The last line of the stanza also uses euphemism to represent the brutal way the brother died: ‘No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear’. ‘The bumper’ is an instance of synecdoche as it represents the car that hit the deceased. The final monostich presents the numeric significance of the deceased’s coffin: ‘A four-foot box, a foot for every year’. Christopher was only four years old when he died. ‘Mid-term Break’ can thus be read as an elegy or a threnody.

Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. He was born in 1939, the year World War II started. He died in 2013.


How does Seamus Heaney represent death and grief in ‘Mid-term Break’?

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4 thoughts on “An Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid-term Break’

  1. excellent points altogether, you just gained a new reader. What would you recommend about your post that you made some days ago? Any positive?

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