Summary of Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney ‘Mid-Term Break’ The main theme of ‘Mid-Term Break’ is the tragedy of the death of a young child, whose life ‘break[s]’ when he is only four years old; this tragedy also ‘break[s]’ the lives of others, specifically the child’s parents and brother. The tone of the poem is very sombre, as it explores the manifold ways in which lives are broken and shattered by death. In literal terms, the title refers to the ‘Mid-term Break’ of a school vacation; in this sense it is highly ironic, as the holiday the poem’s narrator gets from school after ‘six weeks’ of classes is not for a vacation, but for a funeral.

However, as indicated in reference to the theme, ‘break’ has other meanings relating to the broken life of the dead child and to the broken life of those close to him. Additionally, ‘Mid-Term’ can be read not just as referring to a school holiday, but to a term of life; thus the child’s life has been broken prematurely, in ‘mid-term. ’ So while on a literal level the title refers to a school vacation, on a metaphoric level it refers to a life which has been broken before its natural p.

Though the poem is set out in even three-lined verses, except for the anomalous last line, it is actually structured around three geographic locales, locales which are also distinguished from each other in temporal terms: the ‘college,’ location of the first verse, in which the narrator remains ‘all morning’ until ‘two o’clock,’ the narrator’s house, mainly the front porch and front room, where the narrator remains until ‘ten o’clock’ at night when the body is brought home and, finally, the upstairs room where the corpse is laid out, which the narrator visits the ‘Next morning. The movement is one from the exterior world of school and non-familial acquaintances, to the interior world of the house, friends and family, and finally to the upstairs room where the narrator stands alone with the body of his brother. This movement can reflect the way in which death isolates us and sets us apart: as the narrator is increasingly isolated, finally left alone with the corpse, so death separates us from normal human interactions and leaves us alone to confront our mortality. This sense of increasing alienation from the world of normative human existence is marked throughout the poem.

The first people the narrator refers to, in the first verse of the poem, are the ‘neighbours’ who drove him home; however, once at home, he is disconcerted to find his ‘father crying,’ an action which the narrator regards as disturbingly abnormal for a man who ‘had always taken funerals in his stride. ’ The baby’s actions in ‘coo[ing] and laugh[ing] and rock[ing] the pram’ also disturb the narrator, as he clearly finds them incongruous; he is further ‘embarrassed/By old men standing up to shake [his] hand//And tell [him] they were ‘sorry for [his] trouble. ’ Alienation is increased as the narrator now uses personification to create a sense of disembodiment: ‘Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest;’ he is further distressed by his mother’s reaction, as she ‘coughed out angry tearless sighs. ’ Here, the unusual collocation of ‘coughed’ and ‘sighs’ works to create a sense of disturbance and discord: it is almost as if the mother’s actions make no logical sense.

Finally, the narrator feels alienated even from his young brother: it is not his brother who is brought home at night but a ‘corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses. ’ Thus the narrator feels increasingly set apart from the world around him, even distanced from the body of his brother, profoundly alienated and intensely self-conscious of his own alienation. This self-consciousness, finally, is emphasised by the extensive use of the subject pronoun ‘I,’ the object pronoun ‘me’ and the possessive determiner ‘my’ in the first six verses of the poem.

The narrator declares ‘I sat all morning;’ ‘our neighbours drove me;’ ‘I met my father;’ ‘I came in, and I was embarrassed;’ ‘to shake my hand;’ ‘tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble;’’ ‘I was the eldest;’ ‘my mother held my hand;’ ‘I went up into the room’ This extensive self-reference is only abandoned in the last few lines of the poem, when the narrator finally looks at the body of his brother, ‘him,’ as ‘Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,/He lay in the four foot box as in his cot…. the bumper knocked him clear. ’ From a state of almost morbid self-awareness, therefore, the narrator is brought into a contemplation of his brother’s body, a contemplation that leads him to reflect not just upon the subjective embarrassment he feels, but upon the objective tragedy of his brother’s death.

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