The poem explores the tragic death of the persona's younger brother. This poem is inspired by a real life event, as the poet's younger brother was killed in a car crash when he was four.
At the beginning of the poem, the persona is in school. There is a suspenseful and ominous tone, as the persona can sense that something is wrong. The school day is described as monotonous, dull and uneventful, as all he does is listen to the bells signifying the end of lessons. The "bells knelling classes to a close" are also indicative of funeral bells, foreshadowing the child's death.
After the school day comes to a close, the persona is driven home. Here he finds his extended family gathered together, grieving. They prepare for the funeral. At this stage of the poem the reader is not aware of whose funeral it is, only that it is someone very close to the family who is greatly missed. Friends and family members offer words of sympathy, such as the colloquial phrase "it was a hard blow."
The persona then has a flashback to a previous memory with his younger brother. It is here that we realize it is the brother who died. In his memory, his brother is loving and overjoyed to see him. The small child's life is characterized by laughter and happiness. This is a stark contrast to his death, which prompts intense sorrow and grief. The persona is then pulled out of his flashback by the sound of friends and family expressing their condolences.
The persona holds his mothers hand while he waits for the ambulance to arrive. At 10-o-clock the ambulance comes. The body of the small boy is pulled out of the ambulance - he is bound in bandages and clearly dead.
The next morning, the persona goes up to his deceased brother's room. He describes the things he can see in this room, such as snowdrops and candles, before he looks at his younger brother. He notices that the corpse is pale, fragile and bruised, but not excessively scarred. The persona describes that the body is placed in a small wooden box that is four foot long, representing his four years of age.
In this way, the poem occurs over a tight time frame. It takes place over the course of two days. The first day describes the family's preparations for the funeral, and contains a flashback with positive childhood memories. In the second day, the persona looks over the body of his deceased younger brother and laments his loss.