From the very beginning of the poem, Heaney hints that the speaker is preoccupied with thoughts of grief and death. The setting of the sick bay is a reminder of bodily weakness and, obliquely, death, though the speaker himself is not physically ill. The ringing school bells, meanwhile, evoke church bells ringing to indicate a death. These hints suggest that the speaker is dwelling on his loss, even if he does not speak of it directly. Meanwhile, Heaney's virtuosity with sound is evident here: the internal rhyme of "knelling bells," and the alliterative "C" and "CL" sounds, create a subtly dirge-like musical quality.
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
These lines suggest that the speaker feels ill-equipped to deal with his new role: that of a grieving but stable oldest child. Without his consent or awareness, he has assumed a new set of responsibilities, both to his family and to the wider community, who expect him to behave in certain ways following his brother's death. The speaker feels pressured and alienated by these rituals of grief, which cause him to become self-conscious and therefore to pay attention to himself rather than to his brother. It is only when he is able to encounter his brother in the absence of other mourners that he can truly think about the child's death and his own loss.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.
The poem conceals the identity of the deceased up until its last line, suggesting that the speaker is too shocked or sad to name the loss, and that the other mourners feel uncomfortable speaking of it directly. Instead, the speaker slowly rules out potential losses by naming them one by one: both parents, for instance, are revealed to be alive. Only in the poem's last line does Heaney tell us the full extent of the loss, letting us know that a young child has been killed. Even here, the speaker's grief is understated, largely expressed not through words but through form. By setting aside the poem's final line in a stanza of its own, breaking the established pattern of tercets, Heaney indicates that the brother's death has made normalcy impossible.
Mid-Term Break Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Mid-Term Break is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.