Mid-term Break – by Seamus Heaney

I can detect from his demeanor that Seamus Heaney R.I.P. was very upset reading his own poem about a brother who had died as a wee infant. I studied this poem for the Junior Cert Higher cycle and was very enthralled with it. It’s a very poignant poem.

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Mid-Term Break

|Opening the Poem  |History of the Poem

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 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.

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Opening the Poem

  • Seamus Heaney wrote this poem as a reflection on the death of his infant brother, Christopher, who died in a car accident in 1953 when Heaney was fourteen. His comments on the accident can be read in the Responses page.
  • He was at boarding school forty miles from home at the time his brother died.
  • The title has multiple meanings. It refers to both an official and an unofficial school break.
  • The word knelling is often associated with death (as with the “knelling” of a funeral bell) so this adds a morbid tone to the opening of the poem.
  • The fact that he is picked up by his neighbours not his parents leads us to wonder why his parents cannot pick him up.
  • Heaney brings the reader with him as he has to walk into the house through the porch to meet his father; “Big Jim Evans”; the baby in its pram; the old men gathering in the living room; and finally his mother coughing out “angry tearless sighs”, which show she was hiding how she really felt, perhaps for the sake of her son.
  • The baby does not realise what is happening.
  • There is a contrast between the way the mother and the father react to the son’s death. The mother is more angry than sad while the father is filled with tears.
  • His feelings at the house when he gets there were those of embarrassment as he was treated like a mature adult by old men standing to shake his hand.
  • Heaney uses the snowdrops and candles to show how people need ceremony and ritual to soothe the pain of losing a loved one.
  • The poet’s brother died because he was hit by a car. We discover that it was a car accident in the second-last line.
  • Even though he never says how he feels, you get the sense that he is deeply unhappy.
  • In losing his four-year-old brother, Heaney also lost his own childhood innocence, as he discovered the brutal reality of the world.
  • The effect of the isolated last line is to focus on the tragedy of the boy’s death.
  • This poem records his experience quite dispassionately; we know how other people feel but not much of how he felt. Yet he remembers everything of that day.
  • Heaney is in between the very young and the old. He is outside.
  • Apart from the last line which reveals the brother’s age, the poem is written in 3-line unrhymed stanzas.
  • The poem has such a powerful effect because the emotions are so understated. Heaney describes only what he sees, not commenting, never letting any feelings reach the surface. His emotions are restrained.

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History of the Poem

Mid-Term Break was first published in the Spring issue of the Kilkenny Magazine in 1963. (Read Heaney’s comments on this in the Responses page.)

book coverIt next appeared in a small 16-page pamphlet called Eleven Poems, published in November 1995 by Festival Publications of Queen’s University, Belfast. This slim volume collects some of Heaney’s earliest poems. Ten of these eleven poems were later published in his first book.

In May 1966, when Heaney was only 27, his first book coverfull-length collection, Death of a Naturalist, was published by Faber and Faber. Mid-Term Break was one of thirty four short poems in this award winning volume. It earned him the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Prize. The celebrated Irish poet Austin Clarke, reviewing it on Radio Eireann said that unlike most first books, this one is mature and certain in its touch.”

The Chief Examiners Report on the Junior Certificate examination of 2003 stated that, in the Foundation Level paper, the most frequently selected poem was Mid-Term Break.

book coverOn the last day of the last century (31st December 1999) The Irish Times published a list of the 100 Favourite Irish Poems of all time. More than 3,500 readers of the paper had written or e-mailed their choices. Mid-Term Break was the third poem on the list. Heaney had ten of his poems included on this list.

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