Seamus Heaney's Mid-Term Break: Death Makes Strangers of us All.
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At ten 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 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 that 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 a four foot box, as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
Death's devastating reality often engenders a conspicuous unreality in the ways in which mourners try to deal with their loss.
Heaney's ' Mid-Term break 'revisits his younger self's confrontation with the tragic death of his four year old brother. The considerable pathos of the poem emanates from the delay in the poet's articulation of his brother's death; we do not know that the child is dead until the final stages of the poem. In fact he arrives as an 'anonymous' corpse at first, deferring the revelation of his death until the inescapability of the last line.
This delay shows how literally incredible death is. The poet opens the poem in a sick bay, the only place in his boarding school able to accommodate the mourner before he can return home. The ambiguity of the word 'sick' is obvious and drenched in a painful awkwardness. Death has isolated the poet and the activity of marking time through 'counting bells knelling' again underlines the ironic disassociation of the poet from the reality of his brother's death. In retrospect he uses the vocabulary of death: 'knelling' yet there is a real sense that he is too shocked to acknowledge the correspondence.
The economic situation of the poet's family is flatly told in the line:
'At two O'Clock our neigbours drove me home.'
It also delays the moment of reunion with the poet's family: he has not seen them for six weeks and a cataclysmic event now separates them. Time has estranged the poet from everything and everyone. He feels an outsider even unto himself.
The poet meets his father crying in the 'porch'. The humanity and fragility of this spatial detail is palpable. The porch is a place 'outside' the main activities of the home.It is a retreat from home's designated roles; from the masculine 'composure' of maleness. I am reminded always of Katherine Mansfield's 'Life Of Ma Parker' which ends:
'Wasn't there anywhere in the world where she could have her cry out - at last?
And now it began to rain. There was nowhere.'
The abject isolation and hopelessness of Ma Parker resonates for me with Heaney's memory of his father.
He is no longer the bold, capable figure of 'Digging' .He has become a stranger. The poet tries to claw back some stability through the resource of cliche: 'And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.' He seems almost trance-like.
The unreality of the poet's feeling is accentuated by the disjunction between the baby's joy at all the animation in the home and the reason for all this sudden animation. The poet's admission of being 'embarrassed' works relates to both his sibling's seemingly 'inappropriate' joy at seeing him and the now adult way he is greeted and perhaps expected to behave as a chief mourner.
And then death may make us both exclusive and excluded: 'Whispers informmed strangers I was the eldest.' The irony of this deference is evident.
Yet intimacy is still achieved.The poet's mother needs him and recognises his need. Her abject grief, a grief 'tearless' and 'angry.' The sanitised alienation of:
' the corpse, stanched and bandage by the nurses.'
That is the reality and yet is is not. The medical register affects a distance that is momentary and shocking. The machinery of death has to be acknowledged before it can be overcome. The arrival of a loved one in a coffin has to be one of the most wretched sights that any of us has to face.
And then there is a hiatus; a pause. Time has granted the poet the dignity of privacy and we now see the poet with his dead brother in his room, transformed into a spiritual sanctuary :
'Snowdrops/And candles soothed the bedside..'
The fragility of the flowers echoes the transience of the boy's short life.
'Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple..'
How ironic that the seemingly innocuous bruise on his brother's temple should have killed him? The translation of the bruise as a 'poppy' is very revealing. For not only might it highlight the arbitrary ways in which our existence may be extinguished but also the ways in which we need to reshape reality in order to survive. Thus the deadly bruise is retranslated as a 'poppy'; a symbol of poignant remembrance and wasted life.
The casuality of 'the bumper knocked him clear..' conveys the emptiness of the observation. 'Clear' of the car is also clear of life. Once again Heaney uses reveals the complexity and treachery of language and the narratives by whcih we tell the stories of ourselves and others.
The final hiatus delivers the final blow. Simplicity kills.
'A four foot box, a foot for every year.'
Such abject dignity!