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Seamus Heaney

Mid-Term Break

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary and Study Guide


“Mid-Term Break” is one of the best-known poems by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, featured in his 1966 debut collection Death of a Naturalist, published when Heaney was only 27. It describes the poet’s childhood memory of returning home from school following the death of his younger brother in a car accident. The poem’s use of regular stanza forms and tight control of meter mark it as a typical example of Heaney’s formalist style, which followed in the footsteps of earlier Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), whose work frequently sought to marry deeply personal material with a tight formal control. However, Yeats’s poems are often highly emotive and sometimes mystical, while Heaney’s verse is more restrained, showing the influence of the English poets W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender—so much so that some Irish critics accused Heaney of being too keen to follow in the English poetical tradition. Yet Heaney always maintained a strong connection with Ireland, and in particular the rural areas he grew up in which provide the setting for “Mid-Term Break.”

Poet Biography

Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 on a farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, as the eldest of nine siblings in a Catholic family. He attended the local primary school until winning a scholarship to study as a boarder at St. Columb’s College in the nearby town of Derry at age 12. The event memorialized in “Mid-Term Break”—the death of his second youngest brother, four-year-old Christopher, in a car accident—occurred shortly after.

In 1957, Heaney went on to study English Literature at Queen’s University in Belfast. He became acquainted with the lecturer and poet Philip Hobsbaum, an early mentor who encouraged Heaney to hone his poems into what would become his first collection Death of a Naturalist (1966), which debuted to glowing reviews. After since qualifying as a teacher in 1962, Heaney taught in Belfast, publishing his second collection, Door into the Dark, in 1969. In 1972 he and his pregnant wife Marie moved to a cottage in rural County Wicklow, an experience that influenced the poems in the collection Wintering Out (1972).

The 1970s saw increasing violence in Northern Ireland, as the Catholic IRA fought a campaign against the British army and Protestant paramilitary groups. Bombings and murders were frequent on both sides, with innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. In 1975, Heaney, his wife, and their three young children moved to Dublin. Heaney’s poems in the collection North (1975) address contemporary violence and violence throughout history, frequently focusing on forgotten victims—for instance, human sacrifices whose bodies were preserved in the peat bogs of Ireland and Denmark. The 1979 collection Field Work also addresses these themes, along with self-scrutiny about the purpose of poetry in a society that seemed to be becoming more and not less violent.

With an increasingly global reputation, Heaney was a visiting professor of poetry at various US universities, including Harvard, where he received tenure in 1985, though he continued to live in Ireland. After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Heaney grew increasingly conscious of the public and political weight of his position, and in the same year his poem “From the Republic of Conscience” showed his ongoing commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland. In 1999, Heaney’s translation of the medieval epic Beowulf into English won him a surprise mass audience and was heralded as displaying masterful technique, gaining him his second Whitbread Prize. Heaney suffered a stroke in 2006; the poems dealing with this experience in his 2010 collection Human Chain won him the Forward Prize, the only major poetry prize he had not yet won. Heaney died at home in 2013, at age 74. His funeral in Dublin was broadcast live on Irish state television, a measure of the stature he had achieved as one of Ireland and the world’s most famous poets.

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus, "Mid-Term Break" (1966). Poetry Foundation


The title of the poem “Mid-Term Break” alludes to the short holiday half way through a school term, and the poem’s opening lines identify the speaker as a school student listening to the bells ringing for the end of classes while he waits in a college infirmary to be taken home. There is no suggestion that he is ill however, and the arrival of neighbors to pick him up and drive him home, together with the sight of his father crying in the porch on his arrival home strongly hint that a tragedy has befallen the family.

After an awkward exchange with a man named Big Jim Evans, who says "It was a hard blow,” (Line 6) the speaker goes past a baby in its pram and inside the house where various “old men” shake his hand (Line 9), causing him to feel embarrassment. The speaker feels overly observed and the unpleasant center of attention, overhearing people whispering about him, saying to “strangers” that he was “the eldest” (Line 11). The speaker’s mother holds his hand, unable to say anything and instead reduced to “angry tearless sighs” (Line 13). Finally, the tragic cause of all these events appears in the form of an ambulance bearing the body of the speaker’s younger brother, “stanched and bandaged” (Line 15) after the car accident which caused his death.

At the start of the sixth of the poem’s seven full stanzas, we are told that a night has passed and it is the morning after. The speaker visits the body in the room where it has been laid out in accordance with Catholic funeral tradition, with candles and snowdrops by the bedside. The speaker closely observes the dead body of his brother, noting details such as the “poppy bruise” on his forehead (Line 19) and the small size of the coffin. The poem continues to dwell on this image, reminding us in the last of its 22 lines that the length of the coffin, four feet, is the same as the number of years his brother was alive.

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