Mid-Term Break: Poetry of Seamus Heaney

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In the poem “Mid-Term Break” belonging to the collection “Death of a Naturalist” (1966), the poet Seamus Heaney thoroughly explores the theme of children sometimes being forced to grow up. The memory poem presents the tragedy which forced Seamus Heaney to come of age, laying out in snapshot-like form the instances that marked the influential day. Called away from school, he faces the reality of his younger brother’s death, and the new expectations which fall upon him. Through the poet’s detached tone, due to the shock he experienced, the burdens of upscaled responsibilities and the new realities forced upon the young Seamus Heaney are evident. This integration demonstrates how children may be obligated to shoulder parts of adulthood prematurely.

Firstly, the tone in the composition which is evident through the use of several literary feature, is almost entirely devoid of emotion. Maintained by the poet as he remembers this impactful event of his life, it is indicative of his shock, of his sense of a disturbed reality- stark against the backdrop of childhood- which forced him to grow up and adjust. A clear example of this is found as the poet details his entrance into the house full of members of the grieving community, as he says: “And I was embarrassed / By old men standing up to shake my hand”[8-9]. The poet here lays out his awkwardness at being treated like an adult through the visual imagery of the old men standing up to express their condolences, showing that due to the tragedy, he is now being treated like an adult, and finds it difficult to behave accordingly as he states that he was “embarrassed”. Interestingly, this is the only occurrence of a directly stated emotion, which shows the significance of this particular feeling to the young poet. This shows that he is not used to this treatment, and is being forced to react to it, which he does uncomfortably. Further, the word choice in “old men” emphasizes the poet’s then youth, as he sees the adults present as “old”, which stands out to him, again showing him being forced to deal with an unprecedented situation through the detached tone as he simply describes his reactions without much introspection. The poet chronologically details the tragic day, beginning with his removal from school, using clear time references, as is the norm for reminiscence. A grim example of this occurs as the poet depicts the scene of the arrival of his brother’s cadaver, saying: “At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived / With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses” [14-15].

Here, the poet uses a specific time reference (“At ten o’clock”) before proceeding to describe the arrival of his younger brother for his final night at home, showing that this particular incident stood out in his memory. This instance-specific way of recalling events is repeated throughout the poem, and emphasizes the shock and detachment of the poet, as his memory encompasses only those striking events of the tragic day but highlights them extensively. Furthermore, the visual imagery evident in (“With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses”) exhibits a clinical description of a highly emotional situation, which is unexpected from a child, and shows a forced reaction to an unprecedented situation. In addition, the word choice in “the corpse” instead of, for example, “my brother”, again confirms the detachment of the young Seamus Heaney, as he refuses to accept the reality of the situation, which shows that he is still shocked, and confirms the detached tone. This is because he defers from explicitly referring to the identity of the corpse, and his close emotional ties to the person now dead before him, showing the difficulty which the poet, as a child, faced in dealing with the tragedy. This tragedy exposed him to the harsh realities in life and forced him to change, which is evidenced by the shocked tone which shows difficulty and uncertainty in dealing with a situation.

Last is the poet’s description of the reactions of others to his presence, a clear indicator of the new circumstance forced upon him, as shown through: “Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest, / Away at school, as my mother held my hand” [11-12]. Here, the poet details his entrance to the house full with numbers of the bereaved community. The poet’s lack of reaction to the auditory imagery present in (“Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest”) shows his detachment, as he lays out his memory as a series of sense perceptions, mostly devoid of emotion. This is evidence of shock, which is carried by the tone. Moreover, as communities in Northern Ireland were known to be particularly close, the failure of adults to recognize the young Heaney again shows his youth, and that he is distinctly out of place, as whispers inquiring about his identity immediately sprang up at his entrance. The contrast which appears between “I was the eldest” and “my mother held my hand” shows the opposition in the way the Heaney is perceived. He presents the child, holding his mother’s hand, while society views him as “the eldest”, expecting him to grow up prematurely, pressuring him to rise to a role for which he is not yet ready.

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