‘Many poems enable us to understand other people’s feelings and experiences’.
Think of a particular poem that helped you understand the situation of a particular person or a group of people.
‘Mid-Term Break’ by Seamus Heaney
In this poem Seamus Heaney recalls the memory of when his brother Christopher died. Heaney was a young teenager at the time, at boarding school. Heaney effectively conveys how awkward and uncomfortable the boy Heaney was in the face of his first real encounter with death. Heaney’s feelings of dread are adroitly evoked in his description of how he ‘sat all morning in the college sick bay/Counting bells knelling classes to a close’. He describes how he was ‘embarrassed by old men standing up to shake my hand/And tell me they were sorry for my trouble’. His awkwardness in accentuated by the whispers that ‘informed strangers’ that his was the eldest. His awkwardness and his unfamiliarity with death is clearly conveyed as he seems almost paralysed in the room as his mother ‘coughed out angry tearless sighs’, The boy Heaney emerges as an awkward and vulnerable person in the face of such tragic devastation.
What is the central message of the poem?
The theme of this poem is death. Heaney effectively conveys the fragility of life as his four year old brother was tragically killed in a car accident. The tragedy is further underscored by the fact that the little boy only bore a ‘poppy bruise on his left temple’. The poem portrays the devastation that ensues from such a horrific tragedy. The boy Heaney recalls how he met his father in the porch ‘crying’. This, we are told was unusual since ‘He had always had always taken funerals in his stride’. However, there is nothing commonplace about the death of a child. It defies the natural order of things. Heaney effectively conjures up the image of a grief-stricken mother through the image of her coughing out ‘angry tearless sighs’. The last poignant line recapitulates the theme of this poem in that life is fragile: ‘A four-foot box, a foot for every year’.
How does the poet succeed in introducing the situation of this person/group of people?
How does the poet develop a sense of understanding, acceptance or empathy among readers?
You should consider how the various poetic techniques used by the poet enhanced your understanding of the person or the group of people.
The poet Heaney effectively introduces the reader to the experience of death in a number of ways. Firstly, Heaney’s interesting title helps underscore the tragedy of this poem as it does not have connotations of death and grief. When I saw the title first, I had no idea as to what events are about to unfold before me. Heaney employs effective aural imagery to convey how awkward the boy Heaney felt in the college sick bay ‘counting bells knelling classes to a close’. Heaney continues his deft use of aural imagery into the second stanza wherein we are presented with the image of the father ‘crying’. The use of aural imagery adds to the foreboding atmosphere. The poet describes how his father had always ‘taken funerals in his stride’, thus accentuating the reader’s sense of unease. The playful aural image of the baby who ‘cooed and laughed and rocked the pram’ is juxtaposed with the solemnity of the old men who stand up to tell the speaker that they are ‘sorry for [his] trouble’.
From this point on, there seems to be a gradual decrease in the volume of the aural images. We are told of the ‘whispers’ that inform strangers that Heaney was the eldest, away at school. This gradual lowering of the volume is indicative of the solemnity in which we greet death, culminating in the mother who coughs out ‘angry tearless sighs’.
This phrase connotes the annihilating devastation that this family has encountered through the death of a child so young. Heaney deftly employs visual images that effectively conjures up the peace and tranquillity of the room wherein lay the corpse: ‘Snowdrops and candles soothed the bedside’ creating almost a false atmosphere of ease. Heaney describes matter-of-factly how he hadn’t seen his brother in six weeks. The use of enjambment depicts the poet’s personal crisis:
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple’.
Through the use of a heart-breaking metaphor, Heaney conveys how his little brother lay in his coffin ‘as in his cot’. This accentuates my feelings of sadness for Heaney and his family, who must come to terms with the death of a family member. Through effective use of economy of expression we are presented with a chilling snapshot of the accident: ‘No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear’. Heaney’s deft use of staccato image in the final line and his skilful use of the fricative ‘f’ sound adroitly intensified my sympathy for Heaney and his nnfamily.