Seamus Heaney has Vivid Memories of his Childhood. Analyse Two Poems That Reflect Heaney’s Childhood Memories. Refer to the Poems In Detail and Use Quotes to Illustrate Your Points.
Seamus Heaney is an established Irish poet who was born on April 13th 1939. He was the oldest of nine children and was brought up on a remote farm in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He has a lot of typically Irish memories which he includes in his poems. The three main memories that he brings up in the two poems ‘Mid-Term Break and ‘Follower’ are the death of his brother Christopher, farm life and breaking the family tradition. At 18, Heaney left his small village to pursue his English career, unaware of just how talented a poet he was. It wasn’t until he attended Queens College to study a degree in English and got involved with a group of poets, known as ‘the Group’. He graduated in 1961 and then went on to earn his teachers certificate at St. Josephs College in Belfast.
His first poems that were published was in 1965. They were a short collection of eleven poems, conveniently called ‘Eleven Poems’. Since then, Heaney has published over 14 anthologies which have won many prizes and awards.
Seamus Heaney writes about his childhood memories in a number of poems. However, the two poems I have chosen to analyse are ‘Mid-Term Break’ and ‘Follower’.
The first poem I have chosen to analyse is Mid-Term Break. This is about Heaneys memory of losing his brother, Christopher by a car accident. Before reading the poem, the title ‘Mid-Term Break’ would suggest the feeling of happiness, and creates the idea of relaxation and calmness. As you begin to read the poem, you realise that Heaney was being bitterly ironic.
The poem itself is about Heaney losing a loved one, by being run over by a car, who we believe to be his brother, Christopher. It goes into so much detail, that each scene leaves a vivid picture in your mind. Heaney is able to do this by not showing any emotion at all from himself, but from other people’s reactions to the circumstances. Heaney actually wrote this poem 13 years after the incident, so it is clear this has deeply affected him emotionally.
There are many people in ‘Mid-Term Break’. Each of these people is significant. Heaney is the most important, because the poem is describing his memory. However, because Heaney is writing as an observational poet, without the other characters emotions, the poem would be bland and without feeling.
In the first stanza, you find out that it is written in the first person narrative and the persona is most likely to be Heaney himself. It begins in the college sick bay, where Heaney has been waiting all morning, not knowing why. At this point, Heaney could be feeling bored, isolated and lonely. It would give him time to analyse the situation, and think why he had been sent there. The poem suggests he was there for a long time by using phrases like:
‘I sat all morning….’ and
‘Counting bells knelling classes to a close.’
The first phrase used obviously referred to how long he had been there, but the second was a little harder to fathom. If he was ‘counting bells knelling classes’, this would mean several classes have already started. Due to the large time gap between each lesson, he could have been waiting there for well over an hour. Also, the use of the word ‘knelling’ describing the bells, implies a funeral bell, and not a lesson bell. This immediately sets a sad mood in the poem along with the feeling of time dragging.
In the second line of the stanza, Heaney uses both alliteration and assonance to describe the many bells ringing. The repetition of the sounds and letters could symbolise the many bells that had rung during his wait at the sick bay. The last line says
‘At two o’clock, our neighbours drove me home’.
I think that Heaney has added this line to emphasise the fact that something unusual has happened, because it isn’t a regular thing to have your neighbours pick you up from the sick bay.
In the second stanza, you notice that there has been a time leap from the college to Heaneys house. The first and second line talks about Heaneys father:
‘In the porch I met my father crying-
He had always taken funerals in his stride-‘.
When Heaney sees his father, it is clear that what has happened was very distressing, because his father had never cried at any funerals, and creates the idea of him being a rock for the rest of the family. Also, there was a hyphen at the end of both lines 1 and 2 for added effect. The fact that his father was unable to control his emotions could have made Heaney feel under pressure to take his fathers place and to hold the rest of the family together. The last line uses the phrase:
‘…a hard blow….’
I think Heaney was being ambiguous when using this phrase. This could mean one of two things. It could mean the hard going, meaning it was very bad news and must be tough for him to handle, or a hard blow from the car. I think Heaney intended to use that to add a clue to what exactly as happened, because you don’t yet know what has happened.
In the third stanza, he uses a baby cooing and laughing as a contrast to how everyone else is feeling. The baby could symbolise innocence because it is oblivious to the sorrow. This is in the first line:
‘The baby cooed and rocked the pram’.
The next two lines are the only lines in the poem which refer to Heaneys own feelings, but this wasn’t even about the loss of his brother, it was about his embarrassment.
‘When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand’.
This shows that he had to take his fathers place and how he doesn’t know how to react in this situation. He is being forced to grow up very quickly and try to control his emotions, whilst supporting the rest of the family. Heaney could have included his embarrassment to show that he still feels like a young boy inside, even though he had to act differently on the outside. He could also be embarrassed for being the centre of attention. In this stanza, the contrast used from the baby really gives a sense of grieving, tension and sadness. This mood was to continue in the next stanza.
The third stanza ran straight into the fourth, by the use of enjambement. This helped the poem to flow and the mood to continue. In this stanza, you learn that Heaney is the oldest child and he was away at boarding school when it says:
‘Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand’.
The last part of the second line emphasises the fact that Heaney had to be a rock to the rest of the family. Instead of putting, ‘I held my mothers hand’ he said that his mother was holding his, showing that she was looking to him for support, instead of the other way round. The use of the phrase
‘Whispers informed strangers’,
is a very effective way of creating vivid imagery of people seeing Heaney and feeling sorry for his loss. The method of emjambement runs through to the next stanza to keep the same scene and imagery in the next stanza as the previous.
In stanza five, Heaneys mother is showing uncontrollable sadness. She is bewildered, angry and confused. In the poem, it says that she has cried so much there are no tears left:
‘…..and coughed out angry tearless sighs’.
This creates fantastic imagery of Heaneys mother in so much misery that she has cried all her tears out and is quite an emotional line. It goes on to talk about the ambulance coming to drop off his brother. In the second line, Heaney refers to his brother as a ‘corpse’. He does this to disassociate himself from the body by calling it a ‘corpse’ instead of his brother. In the last line, Heaney uses the words ‘Stanched’ and ‘bandaged’ to emphasise to stopping of blood, and metaphorically the stopping of human life.
In stanza six, the mood has totally changed. Heaney was able to do this so definitely by using specific words to soften and calm the mood. The main words he used were ‘snowdrops’, ‘candles’ and ‘soothed’. These words give quite poignant imagery, making the mood more tranquil.
The next stanza is started with enjambement, to keep the poem flowing and to keep the mood the same. It uses personification in the first line to describe the bruise on his dead brothers’ head:
‘Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple’.
This creates powerful imagery of Heaneys’ dead brother and makes the mood even more disheartening. In the second line he uses a contrast of death and life, by comparing a coffin and a cot.
‘He lay in the four foot box as in his cot’
This shows that Heaney has a very cynical outlook on death. It isn’t only till the second to last line when we find out just how his brother was killed. I think Heaney did this to create suspense.
Heaney breaks the tradition of the three line stanza, by having just one line at the end. This was to add shock, because in the last line, you actually realise it was a four year old child who has been killed.
‘A four foot box, a foot for every year.’
Heaney also uses assonance in this line to add effect. Also, the last two lines of the poem rhyme, which is different to the rest of the poem. As a whole the poem has an erratic rhyme scheme, which reflects Heaneys own emotions. Heaney has also used the iambic pentameter, 10 beats per line for most of the poem. He uses this quite effectively throughout his poem because it creates a rhythm. There are various themes that run through this poem, such as the ‘loss of childhood’, which Heaney is obviously annoyed about, as it shows through his poems. Another is the constant mood changes, enjambement, the steady structure until the last line, as if it was an outburst of anger and family relationships.
Personally, I enjoyed the poem, and I respect a lot more as a piece of poetry now we have broken it down and analysed it. I feel I know understand the poem a lot better and I think that Heaney portrays each scene with sufficient detail for you to vividly picture each part of the poem. I think the poem was effective because of Heaneys use of the iambic pentameter, the alliteration and assonance used and Heaneys ability to create different moods in each pert of the poem.
The next poem, follower, has a similar family theme and is also about Heaneys childhood.
Before reading this poem, the title ‘Follower’ would suggest somebody following somebody else and makes the reader think of various reasons why one would be doing this. On the other hand, this could mean metaphorically following somebody or something, for example ‘following’ the family tradition. As you begin to read the poem, it becomes clear that Heaney was using the title follower on a literal level. This is because at one point Heaney had to follow his father whilst he worked. However, Heaney could be being ambiguous, as the poem is also about Heaney not following the family tradition.
The poem itself talks about Heaneys childhood upbringing on a farm, and the pressure he was under to carry on the family tradition. However, Heaney broke the tradition of farming to pursue his career at college and university. This poem portrays his struggle to break away from his father and farming, and move towards his own ambitions. In this poem, a lot of farm language is used when describing how his father works. The detail Heaney goes into when explaining how his father works symbolises the detail Heaneys father must have gone into whilst he worked.
The first stanza uses alternate rhyme, and is describing Heaneys father at work. In the second line, Heaney uses both alliteration and a simile to emphasise how well his father worked. The use of alliteration helps the line to flow, creating the thought of his father working continuously throughout the day. The simile is used to create the imagery of something great and broad:
‘His shoulders globed like a full sail strung’
This is also a nautical reference, which are used several times throughout the poem. As we begin to read this stanza, we also find out the poem uses the iambic tetrameter to create a steady rhythm, which is similar to the constant following of Heaney or Heaneys father. Heaney uses a disjointed rhyme scheme to show how the feelings toward him by his father and to his father by him, change throughout.
In the second stanza, Heaney fully describes how his father works. This shows that Heaney is an observer, too young to help, but he watches his father with admiration as he deals expertly with his tasks. He uses very technical terms to describe the processes:
‘…..He would set the wing
and fit the bright steel-pointed sock.’
In that line he also uses enjambment to help the line flow.
He also uses it again at the end of the stanza and the beginning of the next:
‘…. a single pluck
Of reins, …..’
In this stanza, there is also another nautical reference:
‘The sod rolled over without breaking’
Here he is referring to a wave. Heaney uses these references to show just how much he idolized and adored his father and his work.
In the third stanza, the topic of his fathers work is continued. Heaney does this so well by using enjambment which helps keep the poem flowing. He uses a contrast between his father, working effortlessly, and the horses, which are described as a ‘sweating team’.
Nautical references are again included with the phrase:
‘Mapping the furrow exactly’
This was as if he was navigating a ship. He uses this phrase because it shows that Heaneys father is being as precise as would a ship navigator. This could show how important Heaney thought his fathers work was, and that he saw a farmer not as simple, but highly skilled.
In the fourth stanza, the persona has changed. Instead of talking of his father, he now talks about himself. He uses a contrast of the organized, calm work of his dad, to the constant falling and tripping of himself. In the first line, he uses the words ‘hobnailed wake’. This means his clothes are ripped and dirty from all the running behind his father he’s been doing. Another nautical reference is used on the last line:
‘Dipping and rising’
This could be describing the movement of a ship. As many of the nautical references are made about his fathers’ movement and thoughts, Heaney makes it clear that his father is much like a ship. This could mean he thinks of his father as strong, sturdy and well-balanced.
In the fifth stanza, Heaney talks about wanting to follow in his fathers footsteps, and actually uses the word ‘follow’ to reflect the title. In the last line:
‘In his broad shadow round the farm’
Heaney could be being slightly bitter because Heaney is constantly in his fathers’ shadow. However, Heaney could be using his father for protection.
At the line:
‘All I ever did was follow’
Heaney could be starting to get bored of following his father. He also uses a contrast between the past and the present:
Past: ‘I wanted to grow up…..my arm’
Present: ‘All I ever did was follow’.
The sixth stanza breaks the tradition of a four line stanza, by using just one line:
‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling’
I think the one line stanza was used because for Heaney, it was self-realization of how he used to be. It could also be on its own, because he could be remembering the point in his life when he decided to break the family tradition, and so portrayed that by breaking the tradition of the four line stanza in the poem itself. At the end of this stanza he uses enjambement to help the current mood of the poem to continue..
In stanza seven it is clear that Heaney no longer wants to be a farmer, and it changes into the present, by using the phrase ‘But today…’. The last line of the poem is significant and has different interpretations:
‘But today, it is my father who keeps stumbling behind me and will not go away’
In this line the tables have completely turned. It could mean that Heaneys father is old and is stumbling behind him wherever he goes, but mainly that Heaneys father now watches as Heaney works and could admire him. It is significant, because it shows that Heaney and his father are still in contact and so Heaneys’ father must have forgiven Heaney for breaking the family tradition.
This poem creates very vivid powerful images and gives the impression that Heaney is now quite resentful towards his father. It is a circular poem which uses a wide range of vocabulary, such as specialized terms from ploughing: ‘wing’, ‘sock, ‘headrig’, and colloquial vocabulary. The theme of growing up is a main factor of this poem along with the theme of family.
The two poems, ‘Mid-Term Break’ and ‘Follower’ have many similarities in themes, literary devices and style. The themes that both poems use are the themes of family and childhood memories. Both poems are emotionally detached and are bitter about his father. The language used is blunt and to the point, and both poems are wrote in first person narrative. Heaney is able to show the progression of time extremely well and use enjambement to help both poems flow.
The poems also have many differences. For example, ‘Mid-Term Break’ uses the iambic pentameter and ‘Follower’ uses the iambic tetrameter. The settings are also different, as well as the rhyming scheme and the nautical references that only appear in ‘Follower’.
To conclude, I have found that ‘Mid-Term Break’ and ‘Follower’ reflect Heaneys childhood extremely well, as they describe what Heaneys life was like as a child on an Irish farm, and how him and his family reacted when his brother died. ‘Follower’ also describes how hard it was for Heaney to break the family tradition of farming to pursue his career in English. Even though I enjoyed reading both poems, I preferred ‘Mid-Term Break’ due to the tense mood Heaney was able to create and the shock of the one line stanza at the end.