Book Review: “Mid-Term Break” By Seamus Henry

“Mid-Term Break” By Seamus Henry is a seven stanza poem, formally structured in sets of three lines, or tercets. Every stanza is a tercet except for the last one. The closing line is separate from the preceding stanza and acts as a point of summary for the entire poem. While “Mid-Term Break” does not follow a specific rhyme scheme, the last two lines form a rhyming couplet. This rhyming pattern emphasizes the lack of life in the poem, giving rise to a more impactful and memorable story. 

The poem takes place in a college sickbay. The mood is quite morbid as the speaker depicts himself feeling trapped within the medical center. While he waits, he “Count[s] bells knelling classes to a close." Here he alludes to a funeral as a church bell “knells.” With such reference, the poet successfully sets a somber mood. In line three the speaker states, “At two o'clock our neighbors drove me home.” This leaves the reader questioning why his neighbor is picking him up rather than his own parents. It also leaves the reader with a high level of curiosity, as where the poem is heading is uncertain. There is a lack of correlation between the poem’s title and the path the poem is heading, adding to the suspense.

The reader’s interest is further heightened and further driven by the start of the next stanza. The speaker faces his crying father on the porch of their house. The poem is taking a clear turn and heading towards a certain direction that both the speaker and the reader is not yet ready to experience. 

In the next stanza, "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." This scene symbolizes the change the speaker is going through. It highlights the stark contrast in the speaker's social roles prior to and following the midterm break. The baby cooing reflects the speaker's past sense of naivety and innocence; shaking the elder's hand reflects the present maturity and responsibility. This stanza also provides insight into how the speaker is coping. The speaker is caught off guard and feels embarrassed, for he does not know how to respond. Such a reaction may be a reflection of how the speaker truly feels about his future. In other words, he feels lost and confused about how to cope and step up to such an extreme life change.

In the fourth stanza, it is made clear that it is not his mother who has died. As strangers speak to him, his mother holds his hand in comfort. In the fifth stanza, “In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs. At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses,”  we see how the speaker is coping. He distances himself emotionally from the deceased by using "corpse" as a label.

In the second to last stanza, the speaker is finally able to confront the body. This is the first time the boy has seen this person in “six weeks.” It is unclear how long it has been since the accident that killed this loved one, but the boy has been away at school for quite some time. This period of six weeks may be a reference to how long it took him to come to terms with the death.  He uses personal pronouns; “ I saw him”,  “He lay”, “his cot”, establishing a relationship with the person that passed away. This impacts the audience in the sense that they now sympathize with the speaker to a greater degree.

Imagery is effectively used throughout the poem to guide the audience to envision themselves in the speaker’s shoes. Without imagery, the audience is left unaffected by the speaker's narrative. An example of imagery would be when the speaker goes up to the room in which the body is kept the “Next morning” and sees the “Snowdrops / And candles” beside the bed. Such imagery results in a calming scene where the speaker and audience contemplate trauma and grief. The reader is likely able to connect with the speaker, as they have their ideas of what grief looks like and how it has changed their  Thus, relatability certainly plays an active role in the poem's success.

Alliteration is another poetic device that is used quite clearly. For example, in the first stanza, the poet uses several words that start with a “/k/” sound. These include: “college,” “counting,” classes,” “clock,” and “close.” This letter elicits a short harsh sound, playing into the grim mood. The last line, “Four-foot box for every year” reveals the person’s identity. 

The body had belonged to the speaker’s brother, who had only been four years old when he was tragically hit by the car. His body rests in a coffin suited for his age and size. Four feet long, the same length as the years he lived on the earth. The alliteration in the last line utilizes /f/, as it is voiceless and only a stream of air. It has a very soft sound resulting in him delivering the news to the reader in a melancholy tone. It is as if the speaker is giving the impression that he is saying his final goodbye. 

In her lecture, Dr. Kathleen Marks emphasizes that the speaker was the oldest and that he had to learn how to quickly grow up in these circumstances. Unlike normal breaks, this one is a “forced break and an interruption” that clearly stuck with the poet. Thus, the speaker is essentially a different person than when he had left school before the break. When the speaker visits his little brother, he notes that he is “Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple.” Poppy is associated with death and sleep; thus, the speaker is reflecting that the only sign of death in his temple was the “poppy bruise."  

Heaney dedicated this poem to his brother who had died in a car accident in 1953 when he was only four years old. Heaney was 14 at the time and through this poem, the audience can see Heaney trying to understand social roles. The poem is very personal and moving as Heaney immortalizes his experience, in order for us to sympathize with him. Heaney honors his dead brother, letting the world know of him. In Heaney’s experience, his brother will help the world to understand loss and grief. 

“Mid-Term Break” reminded me of “Ozymandias,” by Percy Shelley and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by John Keats”. The urn in the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by John Keats”  is a symbol of timelessness and beauty. The speaker uses the term, “Sylvan historian,” to show the urn has the capability of telling a story. The word sylvan comes from a Latin word meaning forest. The term is used in the poem to portray how the urn is a historian of the forest. The urn is represented as a preferable storyteller than the poet himself because it can continue telling its story to future generations, while the poet physically can’t due to the inevitability of death. This corresponds to the poem, “Ozymandias,” by Percy Shelley, where we have the king’s generation-long dead; but his statue similar to the urn in, “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” remains and tells their enigmatic lesson. This resonated with Heaney's story in the sense that although his brother passed his story will live on through this poem.

I chose this poem because I was able to relate to it the most. On line 10 Heaney states, “And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’. The situation that occurred is “trouble”, rather than a personal loss because of the fact that he is the older sibling. I very much relate to this and feel for Heaney,  as I understand what it is like to be in such a situation. When my brother got into a car accident, being the second oldest, you feel the pressure to remain emotionally and mentally stable. There is a stoic expression that dominates as one has to tend to their younger siblings. By telling Heaney they are sorry for his troubles, they are reminding him of such responsibilities.



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