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seamus heaney


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About the Poet

The celebrated 1995 Nobel Laureate poet, Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in County Derry, Northern Ireland. He grew up on a farm and was one of nine children. He is well educated, having attained a first reading English at Queen's College, Belfast. He remained in Belfast and became a lecturer at St Joseph's College and later at Queen's College, and has lectured at various institutions since that time.

Heaney has published several volumes of poetry including the award-winning Death of a Naturalist, Station Island, The Haw Lantern and more recently, Seeing Things. His poetry is usually quite accessible to readers of all types and he continues to be one of the most popular present-day poets.

 

      Mid-term Break

      I sat all morning in the college sick bay
      Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
      At ten o'clock our neighbours 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 that 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 his left temple.
      He lay in a four foot box, as in his cot.
      No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

      A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Commentary 

This is an incredibly sad poem. The mood is set almost immediately in the second line: Counting bells knelling classes to a close. Notice how Heaney uses assonance and alliteration to emphasise the funereal sound of the bells and the feeling of time dragging. The stanza begins with the ' morning' in line one but it is two o'clock in line three showing that hours have passed in waiting.

The second stanza begins with the image of Heaney's father ' crying' . Having come across Heaney's father in poems such as Follower in which he appears to be a strong man of few words, this contrary picture evokes powerful emotion in the reader. Heaney skilfully takes the reader with him as he enters the house through the porch - we meet his father, ' Big Jim Evans' , the baby in its pram, the old men congregated in the room and finally Heaney's mother coughing out ' angry tearless sighs' .

Lines 14-15 again show Heaney using assonance, this time in his repetition of the short 'a' - 'At', 'ambulance', 'arrived', 'stanched',  and', 'bandaged' - emphasising the stopping short of blood and life.

We learn in the sixth stanza that Heaney hadn't seen his brother for six weeks having been 'Away at school' . The words 'Paler now', hang at the end of the stanza causing a sad pause before the sentence continues and describes how little changed in appearance the boy is in death, the difference being his paler complexion and 'poppy bruise'.

The final line stands out on its own. Almost every word is emphasised so that the reader must take in the line's message and the shock and deep grief that the family must have felt. There is an element of shock for the reader reading it for the first time also, when they discover who has died and that he was a mere four years old.

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