‘Mid-Term Break’ was published in Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s most-famous volume, in 1966. It is dedicated to Heaney’s brother who died in a car accident in 1953 when he was only four years old. Heaney was 14 at the time. The text is incredibly personal and moving while at the same time analytical as Heaney tries to understand social roles.
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Summary of Mid-Term Break
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is being quarantined within a “sick bay” of his college. It is here he waited for his neighbours to come and pick him up and take him home. The boy has suffered a loss, one which does not become clear until the final line of the poem.
He travels home and is met by his suffering family. His father is crying, and his mother is unable to even speak. There are many strangers around attempting to sympathize with the family, but their efforts appear awkward and are often unwanted.
The body arrives via ambulance the next day and the boy takes a look at it when he is alone one morning. There are no great injuries that he can see but he knows this is due to the fact that this person was thrown by the bumper of a car. The final line states that the coffin will only be four feet long, the same length as the child’s age, making clear to the reader that the speaker has lost his young brother in a terrible accident.
You can read the full poem Mid-Term Break here.
Themes in Mid-Term Break
In ‘Mid-Term Break’ Heaney engages with themes of loss and grief. It focuses on the aftermath of the car accident that killed Heaney’s younger brother. The accident is in the background of how everyone around Heaney responds. There is anger, pure sorrow, and detachment that he observes in his family members. The death threw off the family dynamic and shifted the way that everyone responded to everyday events. Gender roles shift, and the reader is left to contend with their own ideas of what grief looks like and how it can change one’s life.
Structure and Form of Mid-Term Break
‘Mid-Term Break’ by Seamus Heaney is a seven stanza poem which is made up of sets of three lines, or tercets. These tercets remain consistent throughout the poem until the reader comes to the final line. This line is separate from the preceding stanzas and acts as a point of summary for the entire piece. ‘Mid-Term Break’ does not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but is still unified through the similar line lengths and the moments of the half and full rhymes that exist throughout its text.
Literary Devices in Mid-Term Break
Heaney makes use of several literary devices in ‘Mid-Term Break.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, caesura, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important techniques a poet can make use of in their work. Without imagery, the reader will likely leave the poem unaffected by what they’ve read. For example, these lines from the first stanza: “Counting bells knelling classes to a close. / At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.”
Alliteration is seen quite clearly in the first stanza in which the poet uses a number of words that start with a “c” sound. These include, “college,” “counting,” classes,” “clock,” and “close,” all within three lines.
Caesura and enjambment are formal devices that impact the way readers understand the lines. Enjambment is concerned with line breaks while caesura is focused on pauses in the middle of lines. For example, the last line of the poem reads: “A four-foot box, a foot for every year.” There are several examples of enjambment as well. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of stanza six as well as line three of stanza four and line one of stanza five.
Analysis of Mid-Term Break
I sat all morning in the college sick bay
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he has been trapped within a “sick bay” of his college medical center for the entire morning. One might initially think that this is due to an illness that the speaker has contracted, something that requires he be kept separate from the rest of the student body. This is and isn’t the case. As the reader will learn in the following stanzas, the speaker has lost someone very close to him and the “sick bay” is where he is made to wait for his “neighbours” to drive him home.
The poet has chosen to emphasize the alienating impact that loss has on someone by keeping the speaker separate from any friends or colleagues he might have in the school. He is made to suffer alone so no one has to see what he is going through.
While waiting, he knows the school day is going on outside the wall of the office. He can hear the bells ringing and understands that it is “two o’clock” before anyone comes to get him. The depth of his loss is made clear by the fact that it is not a family member who retrieves him, but the neighbours.
In the porch I met my father crying—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
In the second stanza, the speaker has arrived home and the first thing he sees is his father on the porch crying. This is a shocking sight, as in the past, when they have attended funerals before, the father has always “taken [them] in his stride.” He has never been very moved, at least on the outside, by death. But there is something different about this loss.
A neighbour, named “Big Jim Evans,” comes up to the speaker and tells him that this loss was a “hard blow” on the speaker’s father.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
By old men standing up to shake my hand
He is now inside the house and with his closest relations. There is a baby in the room, blissfully unaware of the mourning going on around it. It is there, “cooing” in it’s “pram.”
The men in the room, associates of his father’s and friends of the family, stand up and “shake [his] hand” when he comes into the house. He is caught off guard and embarrassed by this action. He does not know how to respond to it. At this point, the reader still does not know who it is that the speaker has lost.
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In the fourth stanza, it is made clear that it is not his mother who has died, as she is there holding his hand as all the strangers speak to him. Endless numbers line up and tell him how sorry they are for his “trouble.” Even here, at this funeral, the men and women are unable to confront what has happened. It is “trouble” that has occurred, rather than the death of a loved one, or important loss.
The strangers are all around the small family. The young speaker is able to hear them telling one another that he is the “eldest child” who was “away at school” when whatever happened, happened.
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
The mother is still holding her son’s hand. She is unable to express herself, all she can manage is coughing out “angry tearless sighs.” The loss is too great for real meaningful words.
Finally, the ambulance arrives. An amount of time has passed since the boy first learned of this loss and the corpse has been processed. It has been “stanched and bandaged by the nurses.” It is no longer bleeding, and all serious wounds have been covered.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
In the second to last stanza, the speaker is finally able to confront the body. He goes up to the room in which the body is kept the “Next morning” and sees the “Snowdrops / And candles” beside the bed. It is a peaceful scene, one of meditation and quiet contemplation.
This is the first time the boy has seen this person in “six weeks.” It is unclear how long it has been since the accident that killed this loved one, but the boy has been away at school for quite some time.
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.
In the final stanza, and in the hanging the last line, the identity of the person is finally revealed. First, the speaker gives some details regarding the state of the body. There is a red, “poppy” coloured bruise on the side of the person’s head, but other than that there are no “gaudy scars” that would tell of what happened in the accident.
In the next phrase, it is revealed that the body is in such a state because the “bumper knocked him clear” of the greater accident. Whoever this person was, they died from the impact of a car.
The final line is that which makes clear the person’s identity. The body belongs to the speaker’s brother, who was only four years old when he was killed. His body rests in a box that is suited for his age and size. It is only four feet long, the same length as the years he lived on the earth.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Mid-Term Break’ should also consider reading some of Heaney’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘Digging,‘ ‘The Other Side,’ and ‘The Harvest Bow.‘ The latter was published in Heaney’s 1979 collection Field Work. It speaks of nostalgia and memories connected to childhood. ‘The Other Side’ explores themes of division and difference in religion as well as the possibility of reconciliation. These are common topics in Heaney’s work in regard to Northern Ireland. ‘Digging’ is also considered to be autobiographical in nature. It depicts Heaney sitting inside while his father works outside in the garden.