Seamus Heaney 1939 - 2013
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.
This beautiful lyric poem is certainly enormously moving. It presents an elder brother having to deal with a terrible trauma. As is frequently the case with Heaney, there is an arresting amalgam of manliness and tenderness in the writing that lends it both warmth and astringency at the same time. This poem is powerfully moving because of its emotional restraint and control of tone. Heaney concentrates on observed details and it is the accumulation of these details that helps to make the poem so memorable.
An elegiac tone is established at the beginning of the poem. An elegy is a poem written to commemorate a dead person who is traditionally resurrected in a benign landscape. Here, though, the little boy is recalled with clarity and realism; Heaney finishes with the rueful and terrible equation “A four foot box, a foot for every year”, which starkly conveys the shocking loss of a young child.
Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney
I sat all morning in the college sick bayCounting 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.