The poem is written in the style of an elegy, as it commemorates a dead youth. The first stanza establishes the ominous and foreboding tone that characterizes the poem. The first line has a sense of mundanity and banality, as it appears to describe a typical, every day situation - "I sat all morning in the college sick bay." This banality is then immediately undercut by the following lines which focus on the remarkable family trauma. This juxtaposition between everyday reality and intensely disastrous events illustrates the unpredictability of life.
The description of the "bells knelling" is deeply symbolic. On a literal level, it refers to the school bells that signify the end of a lesson. However, "knelling" is a verb that is loaded with significant connotations. This verb suggests the slow toll of a funeral bell, introduces the key theme of death in a subtle and clever way. Internal rhyme and alliteration in line 2 also create a sense of time slowing down, capturing the reader directly in the events of the poem. The line "At two o-clock neighbors drove me home" is clinical and dispassionate. This objective tone is unexpected in a poem about the death of a child, and illustrates that the persona is in denial and a state of confusion.
Stanza two focuses on the grief and emotions of the family. The father is characterized as sturdy and strong, as can be seen through the colloquial statement "he had always taken funerals in his stride." This image of a strong man is then undercut by the description of him crying. This juxtaposition emphasizes the tragedy of the death. Stanza two also contains a confronting play on words. Big Jim Evans' statement "it was a hard blow" literally means that the family were in a difficult situation. However, it also tragically echoes the events of the car accident which led to the child's death.
In the third stanza, the tone shifts from mournful and ominous to joyful and innocent. This tonal shift emphasizes the unfairness and tragedy of the death. A sense of optimism and joyful pace is also captured through the iambic pentameter in the line "the baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram." This playful tone is also evident through the persona's awkwardness, as he is "embarrassed" by his family members. In this way, stanza three represents an idyllic family life of harmony and mutual joy. However, this feeling is short lived, as the family unit is disrupted by the death of the infant.
Stanzas Four and Five
These stanzas focus on the mother's reaction to her child's death, as well as the brutal reality of his death. A strong sense of support is evoked through the line "my mother held my hand in hers." The soothing atmosphere is furthered through the alliteration of the soft 'h' sound. This illustrates that the persona and his mother are united in their shared grief, as they have both lost a beloved family member. The mother's grief is also strongly conveyed through cacophony in the quote "coughed out angry tearless sighs", which creates a sense of pathos and a strong sense of defeat.
The poem then momentarily reverts back into its objective, clinical tone through the factual recount "at ten o'clock the ambulance arrived". The poem is filled with stand-alone factual statements. These are essential as they illustrate that the disaster has left a lasting impression on the persona. This factual tone is then completely undercut by the grotesque visual and corporeal imagery of the "corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses." This brutal imagery is highly emotive.
In the sixth stanza, the poet completely confronts the reality of his brother's death when he goes up to his room. An ominous, foreboding tone is evoked in the line "Next morning I went up into the room." He describes the room in great detail, listing deeply symbolic elements such as the snow drops and candles. While these images symbolize life and hope, they are also indicative of funeral rites. In this way, optimistic and tragic symbols intertwine to emphasize the injustice of the brothers early death. The persona directly addresses his deceased brother and describes him through the superlative "Paler now." This description is significant because it does not dwell on his current state, rather, it laments the past and what was lost when his brother passed away.
The motif of nature is continued in the final stanza, with the reference to the "poppy bruise." Here, the poppy represents death and sacrifice. Poppies are also traditionally associated with remembrance, illustrating that the child will live on in his family's memories. The final images of the poem are gripping and confronting. The simile "as in his cot" reiterates his youth and juxtaposes images of life and innocent childhood to tragic images of death and stillness. The final line "A four foot box, a foot for every year" also powerfully conveys the injustice of his early death.