A Journey to Face Death in "Mid-Term Break" by Seamus Heaney

Published: 2022-03-18
A Journey to Face Death in "Mid-Term Break" by Seamus Heaney
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Poem
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1406 words
12 min read

"Mid-Term Break" is one of the most powerful, poignant, and touching Seamus Heaney's poems. Its immediate effect upon the reader is fierce and uncompromising. The poem composed of seven tercets and one one-line stanza is constructed as a psychological journey on which the main character embarks and which leads him to the recognition and acceptance of the death of his younger brother, a four-year-old boy. Every stanza resembles a step taken by the young man and brings the narrator closer to the inevitable necessity to face the tragedy. These stanza-steps are connected into one journey by the means of run-on lines. The reader follows the narrator from the college sick bay to the porch of his house, into the living room and finally into the bedroom where the child's body is lying. This journey ends with one of the most expressive and pregnant with emotion lines in the modern poetry which professes death, but also immense brotherly love and suffering.

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The journey starts in the very first tercet where the reader is yet ignorant of the event that caused the "mid-term break" of the narrator. The title of the poem subtly suggests that there must be something out of the ordinary but no explanation is given. In the first tercet, however, a sinister premonition is created through the use of the alliteration in the words "all - college - bells - knelling" and "classes - close" which functions as an onomatopoeia imitating the plangent rhythmic sound of the funeral bells. Another prominent feature of the poem introduced in this tercet is the time count. The young man is crushed under the weight of the sad news, and in this state, the time is dragging on for him only too slowly. The narrator is counting bells, and he knows exactly at what time his neighbors picked him up to drive him home. Later on in the poem, this time count continues and closely resembles the narrator's internal countdown to the precise moment when he will be forced to face and accept the fact that his younger brother is dead.

The second tercet brings the reader to the porch and introduces the narrator's father who cannot master his feelings. This is not at all like him: he is used to taking "funerals in his stride" (5). Asyndeton in the first and second lines of the stanza as well as an elliptical grammatical construction in the third line help the author convey the narrator's dismay and confusion at his father's break-down. Big Jim Evans is the only character of the poem whose name is given. This touch certainly adds credibility to the narrative. But it also highlights the juxtaposition of the "big" boys, the adults, who are broken by the tragedy, and the narrator who has unexpectedly become an adult - in the next tercet old men are standing up to shake his hand - and is acting with more restraint and composure than the older generation.

The third tercet acts as a kind of a recess from the emotional pressure that is constantly

building up. It metaphorically portrays the beginning of life as a baby that is cooing in the pram and its timely and logical finale represented by the old men who are standing up to shake the narrator's hand. This is the natural order of things which is broken by the death of a little boy: he was supposed to grow up and become an old man one day. Polysyndeton in the first line of the stanza, in which "the baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram" (7), symbolically conveys the continuity of the sweet little emotional reactions that the elder brother's arrival arouses in the baby. The baby's innocent and blessed ignorance of his brother's death and finality of life build a sharp contrast with the grief that the other characters are experiencing.

The fourth and the fifth tercets juxtapose personified faceless, nameless, probably quite indifferent "whispers" that inform strangers who the narrator is, and his mother who is quite real, is holding the character's hand and whose grief is so deep that it cannot be expressed in either words or tears. It is metaphorically compared to consumption because it is slowly eating her from inside and she can only cough out "angry tearless sighs" (13). The fifth tercet is also the most emotionally challenging in the whole poem as it makes the reader face the reality of death when the ambulance arrives "with the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses" (15). Though no indication of whom the corpse belongs to is yet given, the sheer naked physicality of this description cannot but have a profound emotional effect on the reader.

The next two tercets are trying to soothe the harshness of the sterile, medical precision with soft and light tones of somber mourning and brotherly tenderness seen in the way the narrator talks about the boy as somebody not yet dead. When the young man says that he sees his brother "for the first time in six weeks" and that he is "paler now", his words sound like a remark that could have been as well said about a living little boy. The child is lying "in the four-foot box as in his cot" (20) as if he were sleeping. Death is euphemistically portrayed as an eternal sleep. The narrator is consciously or unconsciously trying to postpone the moment when he will have to accept the truth. In painful anticipation of this moment, he is adoringly scrutinizing the boy. "Snowdrops and candles" that "soothed the bedside" serve as symbols of the child's innocence and cleanliness. He has not been disfigured by death. He is still endearing in the peculiar and touching way of little children. Or, rather, this is the way that the narrator prefers to see and remember him without any "gaudy scars" (21). The boy is "wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple" (19) as if he has been playing in a meadow full of flowers and stuck one of them behind his ear. It takes a moment for the reader to realize that this metaphor, in fact, refers to the fatal injury that caused the little boy's death. In this context, the jolly and bright poppy turns into a symbol of mourning and remembrance.

The last stanza of the poem is introduced, connected with the previous one by the means of rhyme. This rhyme is so unexpected for the reader, that it immediately attracts attention to this very short one-line stanza. In it, the narrator returns to the image of the box that the little boy is lying in. In that box the child resembles a toy, beautiful, clean, but immovable, quiet, devoid of life. Only now the final painful details are given to the reader - the cause of death and the boy's age. The finality of death is eventually realized by the narrator. And he pours his suffering, hopelessness, and anger into the very last elliptical line: "A four-foot box, a foot for every year" (22). This line implies that like any other child the boy was growing every year, he was supposed to be growing on and become a grown-up one day, but now this growth will stop forever, cut short by the edge of the box. This extremely short stanza composed of only one line literally embodies the unnatural brevity of the little boy's life. But the narrator cannot find words to describe this tragic abnormality. He prefers to focus on the object that in his eyes personifies the cruelty and absurdity of this untimely death. In the way Heaney manages to covey the immense human suffering through an inanimate object he is very close to Hemingway's proverbial shortest and saddest six-word story: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn" (qtd. in "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn"). And finally, the narrator, who has been previously portrayed as an observer of the sad events, takes on a very real form of a struggling, lost and desperate human being. The journey on which Heaney has taken the reader is at its very end. The despair seems final and hopeless. The only ray of light in this darkness is the narrator's brotherly love that cannot but strike the reader as a force more powerful than death.

Works Cited

"For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn." Quote Investigator, Jan. 28AD, 2013, quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/28/baby-shoes/.

Heaney, Seamus. "Mid-Term Break." Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57041/mid-term-break.

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A Journey to Face Death in "Mid-Term Break" by Seamus Heaney. (2022, Mar 18). Retrieved from https://speedypaper.com/essays/a-journey-to-face-death-in-mid-term-break-by-seamus-heaney

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