Interpreting Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney

Let’s look at the meaning of this moving short poem by Seamus Heaney.

Mid-Term Break

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

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

     ~ by Seamus Heaney


  • college sick bay: school sick room
  • knell : (verb) 1 to ring in a slow, solemn way 2 to sound ominously or mournfully; (noun) 1 the sound of a bell, esp. of a bell rung slowly, as at a funeral 2 an omen of death, failure
  • porch: a covered and (usually) raised shelter at the front or back door of a house
  • take in his stride: not becoming upset when faced with misfortune or setbacks
  • hard blow: something very upsetting 
  • cooed: made a gentle sound
  • pram:  baby carriage
  • corpse: dead body
  • stanch: stop a wound from bleeding  
  • snow drops: a type of bell-shaped flower with white petals
  • poppy: a type of flower 
  • bruise: the bluish mark left on your skin after you’ve been by something
  • cot: baby bed
  • gaudy: obvious, like ‘showing off ‘
  • scar: the mark on your skin left after you’ve suffered a cut or burn
  • bumper: a horizontal bar along the lower front and rear part of a car that gives some protection to the car in case of accidents


This poem was first published the in the collection ‘Death of a Naturalist’. Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1995.

This is a straightforward narrative poem about the death of a brother.

Mid-term break is the school holiday which traditionally comes half way through the winter/spring term. After seeing this title, the reader might expect to the poem to be a joyous one—maybe one about children at play—but this is a much darker poem.

The first line immediately shows that this poem is not about the normal kind of mid-term break that we might have expected. The narrator is in the sick room of his boarding school. Surely, if this was the mid-term break holiday, he should be at home and not still at school. The next line confirms that it is not a holiday at all—classes are in session. The poet’s choice of word “knelling” is important. The classroom bells didn’t ring; they knelled. Note the following dictionary definition of the word:

verb: 1 to ring in a slow, solemn way; toll 2 to sound ominously or mournfully

noun: 1 the sound of a bell, esp. of a bell rung slowly, as at a funeral; 2 an omen of death, failure

The word ‘knell’ carries with it connotations of death.

The fact that the father, who normally isn’t so upset by funerals, is crying, tells the reader that the dead person is a close family member.

The baby, unaware of the tragedy is simply cooing. Here you can see the continuation of life. Although one life has been cut tragically short, another is just beginning.

The next line is an interesting one. It is the only time where the narrator explicitly states his feelings: he was embarrassed. He doesn’t know how to respond to the words of condolence offered by the men. Why doesn’t the narrator express his other feelings—the more important feelings regarding the death of his brother—more openly. Are these feelings more private? Are they impossible to express? Are they too unclear?

The boy’s body is brought home for the wake. A wake is a type of funeral service in which the body rests at home and relatives, friends and well-wishers come to pay their respects. When the corpse (the dead body) arrives, it has been stanched and bandaged. It is clear that the death was accidental. The nature of the accident is revealed toward the end of the poem in the line “the bumper knocked him clear”. The boy had been killed by an automobile.

The only evidence of the accident is a poppy shaped bruise on the boy’s forehead. A poppy is a type of flower. In the West, it is also associated with death—during Remembrance Day ceremonies, people wear poppies to commemorate those who died in war.

The last line is heartbreaking in it’s simplicity—”a four-foot box, a foot for every year.” This line emphasizes the youth of his brother in terms of both size and age.

The last line stands alone. Rather than the three lines of all the preceding stanzas, there is but one. The last stanza has been cut short, just as his brother’s life had been cut short. However, in the final two lines, the rhyme of ‘year’ with ‘clear’ gives the poem the feeling of being finished. There are no other rhyming lines in the poem, so the rhyme at the end creates a feeling of finality. Although the poem seems to have been cut short, it also seems complete. Is this what the narrator is trying to tell us about his brother’s life?

The Poem’s Inspiration

This poem is based on something from the writer’s own life. While Heaney was studying at St Columb’s, his younger brother Christopher was killed at the age of four in a road accident.

Your Interpretation

How do you feel about the poem? How would you interpret its meaning?

~ by longzijun

Interpretations of Poems

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