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An Analysis of the Tone of the Poem "Midterm Break"


Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-Prize-winning poet whose work spanned just short of a half century, considered his childhood in County Derry a thing "to be trusted." Nowhere does his trust in the truth of his early experiences ring truer than in the poem "Midterm Break," a poem that links him to painful family tragedy and holds back the flood of Heaney's emotions. Stone-crafted Derry has taught him to hold his peace in tragedy.

Ironic Death on a Holiday

"Midterm Break" is a happy, promising title that belies the experience of the narrator; the irony of a death in the family over midterm has robbed not only Heaney's joy in family nostalgia but all his horror and grief as well. His tone is quietly reflective "in the college sick bay" -- he may have been told of his brother's death in that setting. As he encounters other mourners, each more intense than the next -- his neighbors, his crying father, Jim Evans, an emotionally ravaged family friend -- his tone takes on an aura of embarrassment. Heaney retreats emotionally at their hollow comforts.

Tone of Restraint

Heaney's detached tone never gives way to heavy grieving, which has the effect of intensifying the heaviness: he hears the reproach of strangers who describe him as "away at school" -- as if his presence could have made a difference -- and hears his mother's "angry tearless coughs" with equanimity. Heaney writes that "Whispers informed strangers that I was the eldest," which only solidifies his emotional wall. With no betrayal of despair, he reports that the ambulance arrives with his brother's corpse "stanched and bandaged" as if he were describing a package newly delivered, and he says nothing about the vigil that follows.

Structure Holds Back Emotions

He sees the corpse "for the first time in six weeks" the next morning; his reflective tone returns as he recounts the images of "snowdrops and candles [that] soothed the bedside." This gentle metaphor seems to promise peace except that Heaney is noticing the corpse's "poppy bruise ... no gaudy scars" since "the bumper knocked him clear" with the unemotional reserve of a coroner. The poem itself, free verse divided into tercets, increases Heaney's measured emotional response; like the Moirai of the Greeks, Fates who impersonally cut life short, Heaney's triads keep his emotions in check.

An Emotional Break

The poem breaks its tercet pattern at the end: A single line describes his brother's coffin -- "A four-foot box, one foot for every year." This is the single sentence in the work with a degree of mixed emotion in its tone: regret, nostalgia and fatalism. The reader, confronted with the age of the deceased, feels intense horror, but horror is missing from Heaney's emotional state; if he feels it, he doesn't tell anyone.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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