Mid Term Break by Seamus Heaney | Summary and Analysis

 

Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney is a poignant poem dealing with the themes of loss, family, suffering and attempts at coming to terms with reality. Inspired by the tragic death of Heaney’s brother in 1953 Mid-Term Break traces the complex events following the sudden death of his brother who was hit by a car.

Mid Term Break | Summary

The poem opens in  a first narration with the narrator “I” describing his situation. He is at the school infirmary counting the classroom bells when he is suddenly taken home by his neighbours. On reaching home, he sees his father crying. The house is visited by neighbors and old men are standing to shake hands with him. The ambience is replete with sorrow and grief. The speaker’s mother holds his hands and they wait till 10 o’clock when the ambulance arrives with the dead body. Next morning, he goes to the room and sees his brother for the first time in six weeks. He is lying in the four foot coffee, with a pale complexion and a poppy bruise on his left temple, resulting from the accident. The the poem ends in a very sad note :
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

 

Mid Term Break | Title of the poem

The poem Mid Term Break by Seamus Heaney has an ambiguous title which presents a gap between expectation and reality. Normally, one would expect the poem with such a title to deal with the joys of holiday or the relief at the term being over. However, this seemingly innocent title reveals that unlike any other mid term break, this one is going to be totally different from what has been widely expected by the narrator as well as the reader. The title hides more than what it reveals and by the end of the poem we come to know that what has been hidden by the title all this while is the unfortunate death of his brother.

Mid Term Break | Analysis

Mid- Term Break | Stanza 1 & 2

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 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 poem opens in an intensely personal note where the speaker uses first person narrative to enter into the poem :
I sat all morning in the college sick bay

The element of uncertainty is present at the beginning of the poem. We do not know the reason for his stay at the college sick bay. This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that it is his neighbours (and not his parents) who come to take him home. Notice the use of the ‘l’ sounds (bells knelling) and alliteration (classes to a close) which creates a languid atmosphere. In the second stanza, the speaker meets his father in the porch where he is crying. Big Jim Evans says it was hard blow. The image of a crying adult male is a rare sight in stereotypical behavioral expectations ( considering the patriarchal 50s Ireland ) thus revealing the gravity of the situation. This stanza also leads the reader to the realm of the family which is a major theme in the poem.

Mid- Term Break | Stanza 3 & 4

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

The baby cooes and rocks the pram when the speaker goes in. He is embarrassed to shake hands with the old men who are waiting for him. Notice the use of contrast between the indifferent, innocent, peaceful cooing of the baby and the palpable grief of the old men – two different kinds of people living through the different contrasting phases of the human condition. The men tell him they are sorry for his trouble. The strangers are informed in hushed manner that the speaker is the eldest son. His mother holds his hands and coughs out “angry tearless sighs”. The silent suffering is clearly felt in this stanza and the Mother’s fearless sighs bespeaks a certain attempt at toughening up against the tragedy. Also, note the use of the word “angry” which lends a certain sense of ambiguity: What is the mother angry at? The people? The situation ? Or, does it have something to do with the manner of death? Was it an accident or perhaps lapse of responsibility on the part of some adult?

Mid- Term Break | Stanzas 5 &6

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,

The ambulance arrives at ten o’clock with the corpse “stanched and bandaged by the nurses”. Notice the use of the term ‘corpse’ provides a cold, neutral tone to the event highlighting the impersonal nature the body has acquired. Next morning, the speaker goes into the room where Snowdrops and candles soothe the bedside. Both are symbolic in nature, representing hope and warmth. Snowdrop, being the first flowers of the year represent transformation from winter to spring . One may regard the presence of these elements as the psycho- emotional aspect of the speaker’s mind : the expectation of hope on the part of the speaker despite the overwhelming evidence of a dreadful reality.

Mid- Term Break | Stanzas 7 & 8

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.

This poem makes ample use of enjambment, a literary technique where lines run into each other carrying the meaning of one line to the next. “Paler now..” from stanza six runs into ” Wearing a poppy bruise” in stanza seven. Similarly, “my mother held my hand” in the last line of stanza four merges with the beginning of stanza five “In hers and…” Enjambment is usually used to capture the rapidity of unbroken thought which, in this poem is also used to capture the rapidity of action, the whirlwind of sights and sound which overwhelms the speaker in a state of emotional turbulence.
The speaker sees his brother for the first time in six weeks : his brother is tinged with pale complexion, wearing a “poppy-bruise” on his left temple. The use of flower imagery for the second time (after Snowdrops in Stanza 6) not only captures the red color of the poppy flower but also alludes to its opiate properties which is used to dull the senses and reduce pain. This interpretation becomes even more relevant when one considers that poppy was often used as pain reliever, something very necessary in the present situation. His brother lay in “the four foot box”, the sight of which is made even more poignant by likening the image of the boy in his coffin to the manner in which he used to lie in his cot . The bumper of the car had knocked his head clear, leaving no significant trace of the hurt. The poem ends in an alliteration which drives home the harsh reality of the premature death of his brother :
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

 

 

 

 

 

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