Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Poem by Seamus Heaney

I have found the poems that have struck me with the most impact always by accident, at times when I wasn't looking for power, or even poetry, at all. I wish I were capable right now of analyzing this poem, dismantling the poetics of this piece and explaining the things that stood out for me, the why and how of its effect. For now, just read it for yourself:

Mid-term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close,
At two o'clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying--
He had always taken funerals in his stride--
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble,"
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on the left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in a cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

by Seamus Heaney



  1. The surprised girl counts bells to fill her mind of something, anything other than what she has to face after the blank ride home. Reality sets in when she sees her father crying. It would have to be bad, real bad, and close, real close for him to cry. And Big Jim saying such a thing further confirms the severity of the situation for her. The seeming audacity of the greeting men sets a surreal tone in that stanza. Seeing her baby brother like that (“stanched and bandaged”) still didn’t seem real to her, as this was a surprise death, no forewarning of its arrival. In the sixth there is a sense of night has passed, and soon, another day. Then his face (from six weeks ago) flashes in her mind as her expectations of what was underneath those bandages also flashed. Then the paleness of sad reality sets in with an observance, minute relief, and finally the irony of the four foot box/ four years old comparison.

    What I think works for this piece (and really could work against it for some readers) is the way it only tells you just enough, allowing (after a few reads) the imagination to fill in the rest. I think this poem is made up of a few vivid images mix with a few milder ones that pull the reader along, telling the tale and bringing it full circle with last four lines, three of which paints a more peaceful landscape with only a “poppy bruise on the left temple.”

    Then the last line brings us in, and whispers of the boy, leaving us with just enough until this moment.

  2. *sigh*
    I just wrote out such a hugely long reply as to my impressions from this poem, and blogger ate it. I'm not doing it over again :|

    I just want to thank you for yours, and say a couple of things...

    The first strophe is so full of the sense of dread, and the symbolism of waiting for that pending final bell - so perfect, so very very good.

    There are so many subtleties within this piece that I could write (did write) volumes about them.

    The emotional imagery (topography, as if you could touch this piece and feel the creases of pain) of this piece, even though it's told from the POV of a sibling (who is obviously female despite the author's gender) are so very perfectly true to life, well written, vivid, striking and as close to genius as I've ever seen.

    We don't actually find that the deceased is a child untl the very end but there are so many clues that only in retrospect did I even see - and they're used to carry on that sense of dread (beautiful tension!) throughout the piece that is so much more obvious in S1.

    It's a beautifully written piece, and I think a perfect example to be used when trying to explain the difference between poetry as written word, and poetry as a craft.

    In one word: rich.

  3. Of course, I am suffering from sleep deprivation, so everything I wanted to discuss, I didn't.

    I do agree about the first strophe. It's definitely dread I see. As well as the waiting that you mentioned, this could actually imply this be the last time she went to class, thus a very symbolic quality indeed, I could go on and on about that.