Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney
13 February 2002


The title of this poem is very ironic, almost cynical, as the poem is about the death of a four-year-old, told from the point of view of his eldest brother - probably in his teens, as he talks about being at college.

And leaving college, for a day or two, for his brother's funeral; which, of course, is where the title comes from. There is little or no actual grief expressed by the narrator. Either he is numb, as in shock, or doesn't care. I prefer to think the former.

This one is truly sad, more so than One Parent Family, and not just for the rather obvious reason that this poem deals with the ultimate loss of bereavement. I think it's the numb passiveness of the narrator. He doesn't seem to relate at all to his surroundings or other people: sits blankly in the sick bay all morning; sees his father outside of himself, crying, an unusual sight ("He had always taken funerals in his stride"); allows his mother to hold his hand as she grieves dry-eyed. In the last stanza he observes the body of his younger brother coolly, almost clinically, and observes: "A four foot box, a foot for every year". He seems detached and distant.

The parts I like: The way the images follow one after another, disjointed and magnified, as the narrator would have seen them; the baby laughing, inappropriately, offsetting the solemnity around it; the "old men standing up to shake my hand". I recognise the embarrassment of this last one. I still recall meeting my extended family, cousins all of them, and all ancient, at an aunt's funeral when I was 12. I had never seen these archaic objects before, I had know idea how I was related to them and less of where to stand or what to say. And, while I relate only to this image, I sympathise with the rest. Well told, they appear in my mind like a slide show.


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