A Close Reading of Seamus Heaney’s, “Mid-Term Break”

For this week’s post I’ve decided to do a close reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Mid-Term Break”, first published in his collection titled Death of a Naturalist. We briefly looked at this poem in my English 220 class but ever since then I’ve been wanting to go back and dig a bit deeper into it.

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http://www.gwarlingo.com

Before we get started, I think I should define what exactly a ‘close reading‘ is for those who aren’t familiar with literary criticism. A close reading is like taking a single text and putting a magnifying glass up to it. When you close read you pick apart and analyze every last bit of the text you can and pull all of the information out of it that you can. You have to look at not only every day literary devices that the author uses but also out-of-the-box sort of things such as the title itself and even the shape of the piece your analyzing as well as that of each individual paragraph or stanza.

Normally you would end up with page after page of analysis, but I won’t be going too in-depth here as this is only a short blog post. I’ve reproduced the text for you below so that you can follow along. Feel free to do some close reading of your own! Enjoy!

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 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 to 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.

The first thing I notice about the poem is the title’s reference to the events that occur in the poem. The word ‘break’ is a reference to the severing of ties between the speaker and his younger brother. Heaney continually builds up the funeral to express the abnormality of the situation, describing his unusual pick-up from school and telling us that his father “always took funerals in his stride” but is now weeping uncontrollably. Another thing to note is the “poppy bruise” on the deceased boy’s forehead, which resembles the British emblem of Remembrance given to fallen combat soldiers during World War 1. This could hint at the speaker’s reverence for and remembrance of his brother as he is viewing the casket.

It is also worth noting that the poem consists of seven three-line stanzas and one one-line stanza, all with no discernible rhyme scheme. There are, however, instances of consonance such as classes/close/clock and assonance like close/drove/home/blow. Heaney uses that final line, “A four-foot box, a foot for every year,” as a final ‘punch line’, revealing just how young his brother was at the time of his death and thereby giving the reader a sense of finality along with an idea of the suddenness and heartbreak of his loss.

  1. Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996. New    York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

 

Modern Myths

You’ve probably heard a lot of people say how our modern works of fiction are heavily influenced by ancient Greek myths, but has anyone ever actually sat you down and shown  you the parallels? Unless you’ve studied the topic, you may not have encountered a single example of this phenomenon. In that case, today is your lucky day! I’ve picked out a particularly good example that happens to be part of the reading for my 220 English class, Eudora Welty’s  Shower of Gold, a short story published in her book titled The Golden Apples (1945). This particular short story bears a striking resemblance to the ancient Greek myth of Danae. In case you’ve never hear the story of Danae, it goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time in ancient Greece, King Acrisius of Argos had a daughter named Danae. After hearing an oracle prophesy that his grandson would eventually kill him, he locked the then-childless Danae in a tower so that there was no way she could become pregnant. Despite all his efforts, however, Danae becomes pregnant after Zeus took a liking to her and appeared to her as a golden rain. Danae gave birth to a son, Perseus, soon after.

When Acrisius found out about this, instead of killing his daughter and grandson and thereby incurring the wrath of the furies, he decides to stuff them in a chest and throw it into the ocean. Danae and Perseus survive the ordeal and Perseus eventually ends up in Larissa to compete in some olympic-style games. Unaware that his grandfather was also in attendance at the games, he accidentally threw a discus off course which struck and killed Acrisius instantly, fulfilling the prophecy.

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http://www.greekmythology.com

Ok, so how does any of that correlate have to Welty’s short story? Well, lets look at the plot. The story is set in Morgana, a small town in rural Mississippi, and is told by a character named Miss Katie, who talks about recent events in the life of her neighbor and friend, Snowdie MacLain. Snowdie’s husband, King, has run away since marrying her and only returned once, briefly, resulting in Snowdie becoming pregnant and giving birth to twin boys. Sound familiar? King actions cast him almost as a carbon copy of Zeus, as he briefly appears to Snowdie, impregnates her, and leaves, never to be seen again. King is also rumored to have fathered children with other women, something else Zeus was well-known for. Snowdie, an albino, seemed fated to remain unmarried much the same as Danae was thought to be. And, of course, the obvious reference in the title to the method in which Zeus appeared to Danae is icing on the cupcake.

You’d be surprised just how much ancient mythologies, not just that of the Greeks, permeate our modern stories and our culture at large. Keep one eye in a book of mythology and the other on the lookout, and you never know what you might find.