Mid-Term Break

Discussion questions and related resources for the poem "Mid-Term Break" by Seamus Heaney

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 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 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. Snowdrops¹
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.

¹ snowdrop: a kind of flower that blooms in early spring

Questions for Discussion and Writing

1. Describe the structure of the poem—its meter, rhyme scheme, and layout. How do Heaney’s structural choices influence the overall effect of the poem?

2. What event precipitated the scenes described in the poem? What clues in the poem build up to this revelation? What is the effect of this narrative structure?

3. How is the title ironic, and how does this irony relate to the overall tone and style of the poem? Discuss how other details of the poem contribute to this tone and style. (Some examples to consider: the double meaning of “hard blow” in line 6, the baby’s cooing and laughing, and the speaker’s descriptions of his own mental state.)

4. What does the “poppy bruise” (line 19) indicate (literally and figuratively), and why are there “no gaudy scars” (line 21)? What is the effect of the repetition of “four foot box” in lines 20 and 22 and the detail “a foot for every year” (line 22)?

From Wikipedia: “Poppies have long been used as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death: Sleep because the opium extracted from them is a sedative, and death because of the common blood-red color of the red poppy in particular. In Greek and Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead.”

5. Discuss Heaney’s use of symbolism in the poem. Cite specific examples and analyze their rhetorical effect.

Related Resources

“Mid-Term Break”: Poem and Discussion Questions (PDF)

“Mid-Term Break” read by Seamus Heaney (YouTube)

The Poetry Foundation: Seamus Heaney (Biography, selected poems, related content)

Seamus Heaney on His Life and Work (NPR interview with audio and transcript)

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996
Amazon | Parnassus | Powell’s

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Questions © 2018 and 2019 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.