by Michael Woods
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.
The poem opens with a line that might easily describe any child but the second line introduces a darkly foreboding atmosphere:
“I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.”
The word “knell” is appropriate in the context of a poem about death because it is the sound of a funeral bell. We do not normally associate school bells with death but this day was to prove horrifically different for the poet. The rhythm and alliteration also reinforce the mournful tone. The ‘c’ an ‘l’ sounda, as well as the internal rhyme of “bells” and “knelling” help to suggest both the idea of finality and of time seeming to slow down. The poet is driven home by his neighbours and not his parents, another unusual event preparing the reader for the idea that something is terribly wrong. The fact that Heaney remembers the precise time, “two o’clock” is convincing as we all tend to remember precise timings when recalling traumatic, like changing events.
Stanza two concentrates on the poet’s father’s emotional response who is “crying”. Heaney tells us that his father “had always taken funerals in his stride” but this death is unnatural as well as personal. The be bereft of a little child is unbearable for the normally rock solid father who would, we assume, be the sort of man to offer words of comfort to others just as “Big Jim Evans” offers his to Heaney’s family in “saying it was a hard blow.” (line 6) There is a terrible double meaning in the phrase “hard blow” because Jim Evans, by referring to the emotional impact of Christopher’s death, also unwittingly uses language that recalls the impact of the car that killed him.
The third stanza presents us with another contrast, the baby’s innocent joy at seeing his elder brother. Remembering the title of the poem, we might be tempted to hope, along with the Heaney family that this event is some terrible nightmare that might be woken up from. The baby’s normal behaviour, though, only accentuates the reality of the situation. From a technical point of view, Heaney’s skilful use of the iambic pentameter helps to emphasise the family drama that is played out in the poem. The baby’s innocent obliviousness to the tragic circumstance of his elder brother’s return from school is captured in, “The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram.” The bouncy emphatic rhythm is in direct contrast to the opening stanza’s measured pace. The unusual aspect of the situation is developed further in lines 8-11 as the young Heaney is “embarrassed” by the proffering of sympathy from “old men”. Their awkwardness is economically conveyed through their euphemistic use of language in telling him that “there were sorry” for his “trouble” (line10). The sibilant alliteration in “Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest” (line 11) captures the hushed, muted atmosphere in the house.
Heaney goes on to concentrate upon his mother’s reaction to her little boys’ death who says nothing but holds his hand in her own as she “coughed out angry tearless sighs” (line 13). The implication here is that she has cried so much that there is nothing more to cry but incensed by the driver’s failure to avoid her son. Line 14 begins with another precise time reference and the reality of the family having to receive “the corpse”. This is the first time that we know that the “trouble” is connected with.
The sixth stanza recounts the poet’s visit to his brother’s room. Heaney conveys the feeling of being unable to name the reality of the situation:
“Next morning I went up into the room.”
He does not go on to say that this is where his little brother is lying dead. Instead the surrounding details emphasise the atmosphere of quiet as the boys are reunited after “six weeks”. The snowdrops and candles are symbolic of life but they are also ritualistically funereal. The word “soothed” may be applicable to both the idea that the flowers and candles are placed as a comfort to the dead boy but they are also for the solace of the grieving family. Unable to articulate the reality of his brother’s death, the poet chooses to present his earlier self, noticing that he was “Paler” (line 18). Another flower image draws attention to the apparently insignificant injury that had such a devastating effect, as well as the fragility of life with which the poppy is traditionally associated:
“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.”
The description here becomes almost unbearably powerful because of the restraint Heaney exercises. The young boy could easily be asleep but, tragically, it is only as if he were asleep. He will never wake up again. The word “cot”, along with the earlier use of “pram” in stanza three emphasises the unnatural eruption of death into the life of a family with very young children. It also helps to highlight the horror faced by any parent who is predeceased by a child. The final couplet is consistent in tone with the remainder of the poem. Heaney chooses to add a single line stanza to complete the poem that has seven three line stanzas preceding it. The effect of this is to present a terrible equation on its own, something that stands out baldly and inescapably. Just as there are “No gaudy scars” visible on the poor child’s body, so too there is no lurid concentration upon injury or any self-indulgent displays of grief. The final line is, in a sense, “knocked clear” of the rest of the poem through Heaney’s decision to separate it. There is a heartbreaking logic in the statement that reminds us both of the small stature of the child and the brevity of his young life.
As a lyric poem commemorating a terrible event, it is difficult to imagine anything to surpass it for control, truthfulness and austere reverential beauty.