The title’s play on the word break (‘time off school ’) refers more poignantly to a tragedy to which Heaney was exposed at the age of fourteen and led to a moment of severance that would affect his whole life.
From peculiar changes in his daily routine, via stages of dawning reality, to the heart-rending visual impact of a corpse laid in its coffin, Heaney comes to understand the irreversibility of his younger brother Christopher’s death (as result of a car accident in February 1953). Driven home he responds impassively to the reactions of family and neighbours before coming face to face with his departing brother and finding a formula for expressing his growing awareness.
The schoolboy is segregated in the college sick bay; his unquestioning mind wiles away the time Counting bells knelling classes to a close (the word-choice provides the reader with a sense of foreboding that the youngster has not yet grasped for himself).
However out of the ordinary ‘others’ picking him up may have seemed, once home, he came face to face with his father in tears, unprecedented in a man who had always taken funerals in his stride; then he is embarrassed by the protocols of condolence of neighbours: a hard blow … shake my hand … ‘sorry for my trouble’. Only the baby in its pram, unaffected by events, seems pleased to see him for his own sake. He is aware of whispered remarks within the gathering about his status in the family (the eldest/ Away at school). He registers his mother’s grief-stricken responses (coughed out angry tearless sighs).
His young mind registered the precise time Christopher’s body was brought home to lie in the family home, by what means (ambulance) and in what state: the corpse stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next day the boy stood before the coffin where, symbolizing the fragility of both beauty and innocence, Snowdrops/ And candles soothed the bedside. He notes the pallor and the poppy bruise on a face as much asleep as dead, otherwise spared of ugly bruising: No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
Faced with one so dear, so young and so small the boy is suddenly hit by the enormity of it and finds the only way he knows of expressing his pain: an emotionally powerful schoolboy-like mathematical sum: A four foot box, a foot for every year.
The poem succeeds very movingly in meshing different themes: the sense of finality that hits the speaker only slowly; the silence and solemnity of the Irish Catholic pre-funeral process itself; how grief affects people differently.
- break: (dual intent) school break; moment of severance;
- sick bay: room set aside for sick pupils;
- knell: solemn bell sounds announcing a funeral; bring to an end;
- in his stride: dealt with (something unpleasant) in a calm way;
- hard blow: sudden shock, setback: euphemisms of sympathy;
- cooed: murmured softly like a pigeon;
- away: referring to time spent not at home but in his boarding school;
- cough out: expel sudden sharp sounds expressing grief;
- corpse: dead body;
- stanched: variant of staunched; cleaned of bloodstains;
- snowdrop: delicate white, late-winter flower symbolic of innocence;
- soothe: bring a gentle calm to;
- poppy bruise: discoloured impact-injury shaped like a poppy flower; the mark of injury resembles the British emblem of Remembrance of those who died violently in military conflict after 1914;
- temple: facial area between forehead and ear;
- cot: baby’s bed;
- foot: traditional British unit of linear measure (approx. 31 cm.)
- Heaney’s titles often play on words or phrases to enhance the theme or foster reflection; half-term is a formal break in the school calendar: this usage is both an interruption of learning and a more poignant severing of previous ties.
- Heaney’s second published poem (written in early 1963 and first published in the Kilkenny Magazine); the poet reveals it was composed ‘one evening (in a student flat he shared with 2 biochemists) after a day’s teaching at St Thomas’s school, sitting in an armchair waiting for one of those guys to produce the evening meal’ (DOD67);
- MP refers to the ‘early intimations of mortality and the incomprehension of a child confronted by injustice and grief; the familiarity and predictability of home is immediately violated’ (67); use is made of stock phrases deliberately pitched so as not to awaken active grief in the boy; ‘Sorry for yer trouble’ is a common Ulster expression (ibid35);
- DOD (p22) indicates that the event was instrumental in the parental decision to move from Mossbawn to The Wood near Bellaghy;
- poem is constructed in 7 10-syllable tercets plus a single maximum-impact line;
- there is no formal rhyme scheme; this is replaced by a series of assonant effects: [e] bells knelling; [əʊ] close/ drove/ home/ blow; [ai] crying/stride; [ai] + [au] coughed/ out;
- alliteration: [k] classes/ close/ clock; cooed/ rocked/ came; strong presence of sibilant [s]: in line with the solemnity of proceedings: whispers/ strangers/ tearless/ sighs; or decency: corpse stanched; or peaceful repose: snowdrops/ candles/ soothed/ bedside;
- tone and tempo are both very measured; there is little imagery ;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
- the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first sentence, for example, weaves together sibilant variants [s] [z], a cluster of plosives (bilabial [b],alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside nasals [n] and [m];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ ang