Mid-Term Break is a remarkable poem by a writer at the height of his powers. Heaney says he wrote it very quickly many years after the event with virtually no revisions.
The story is told in a very under-stated way. There are no vivid descriptions of displays of grief; everything is very matter of fact. Even the title is understated; this is about the death of a child but the title is simply Mid-Term Break – something that could cover totally mundane events.
The understatement is typical of Heaney and doesn’t mean there was no emotion, but rather that extravagant language is superfluous in moments of such extreme tragedy. The loss is so great that it needs no embellishment, and the poem gains so much of its power from its simple approach in describing what happened.
The young Heaney has to wait all morning in his school’s sick bay waiting for his neighbours to drive him home. The line “counting bells knelling classes” suggests the tedium of waiting for the morning to pass but it also suggests funeral bells that will echo later.
The next few verses conjure up the awkwardness of funerals where people have no words to express their grief. Big Jim Evans says it was a hard blow, which seems a woefully inadequate description yet reflects the way people may speak when faced with indescribable tragedy.
Heaney feels all the awkwardness of a young boy suddenly being treated with sympathy and respect by adults who would usually treat him as a child. In this time of sorrow, they stand up to shake his hand and say they’re “sorry for his trouble”.
The reference to “poppy bruise” in the final verse creates a sense of frustration and impotence that such a small looking blow could have such a devastating effect. The poppy, of course, is a flower associated with death and remembrance.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
We already know someone has died and with a four foot coffin we know it must be someone young, In spite of these warnings, the final line still comes as shock, creating intense emotion.
These last two lines are the only lines in whole poem that rhyme. The effect of the rhyme is to bring a sense of finality, as in the finality of death.
This BBC video provides a reading and dramatisation of Mid-Term Break. John Hegley explores the background to the poem and examines its qualities.
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