Cross Cultural Poetry – Mid-term Break, by Seamus Heaney & Funeral Blues, by W.H Auden
Mid-term Break, written by Seamus Heaney and Funeral Blues by W.H Auden are two poems that share the same themes and ideas and deal with the same issues. Both poems deal with the death of a loved one, trauma, grief and mourning; but both do so under different circumstances and from different perspectives. Mid-term break depicts a boy returning home, where he is informed of the tragic and sudden death of his younger brother, following a catastrophic car accident; whereas Funeral Blues is spoken by an adult dealing with the death of a lover.
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Mid-term Break at first glance, seems to be a fairly simple, straight forward poem, in the way that (at first) it seems to lack emotion and has a child-like quality and feel; but as you read on, you notice various elements and techniques that Heaney has subtly incorporated into the poem to make you think otherwise. In fact, this poem is very cleverly written and is extremely emotional. Heaney uses a range of really effective techniques. Because there is no rhyme and lack of rhythm the poem flows more and seems more natural, enjambment also makes the poem flow easily between lines and stanzas. Onomatopoeia are used to express emotion during the poem; such as “cooed,” “whispers,” “coughed,” and “knocked”. The use of these words seems to give the poem a definite and discrete sound.
The theme and tone throughout “Mid-term Break” being expressed in a simplistic manner, (yet pays a lot of attention to detail) reflects the boy’s voice. The title plays a part in revealing the main theme; death. At first the reader thinks the title “mid-term break” is deliberately misleading for affect, but as you look at it more it has another meaning. “Mid-term”, meaning in the middle. So the title means that the boy’s life has been broken, he has died in the middle of his life. He has died too young.
Mid-term Break opens with a boy “Sitting the college sick bay”; the reader assumes that the boy speaking is ill, “Counting knelling classes to a close”. Immediately the theme of death in introduced to us, with a knell being a funeral bell, this begins to give the poem a sombre tone, as the reader can hear the bell in their head. It is also like the “classes to a close” is the boy’s life coming to en end. The first stanza in particularly effective because the title is deliberately misleading, the title paints a picture in the reader’s head that “Mid-term Break” is about a happy time, the title implies that the poem may be about a school holiday or half-term. The deceptiveness makes the opening more dramatic as it is unexpected that the poem is about or is connected to death.
After arriving home, the boy is met by his father whom is crying in the porch. Here you notice that the stereotypical roles of the parents have been swapped around, with the father crying, and the mother “coughing out tearless angry sighs”. This really emphasizes the traumatising experience that this family are going through. It illustrates how painful a death of a loved one is for anyone.
“My mother held my hand in hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs”. This quote is by far the most effective and poignant in the poem. The mother is clinging on to the boy’s hand; it is almost like she feels if she doesn’t cling on to him she will loose him too. “Coughed out angry tearless sighs”. This part of the quote is particularly effective, as Heaney has used juxtaposition. By putting these actions, feelings and adjectives together it highlights the contrasts between them but also shows how they link together to show that the mother doesn’t ‘know what to do or even how to feel, but whatever she does or feels wont help in any way the extreme pain of a practically broken heart. The reader empathises with the mother so mush here, as it feels so real
It is noticeable that funerals and deaths are quite common, “He had always taken funerals in his stride”. But this time it is different, no-one ever imagined that something so terrible would hit so close to home, or to their hearts. The parents are no longer spectators, the ones trying to comfort others by giving sympathy. This time they are the ones in need of comforting.
“I was embarrassed by old men standing up to shake my hand”. Throughout the poem, there is a strong contrast between young and old; where the young is representing life, and the old, death.
“The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram”. This really puts emphasis on the innocence of the young, this is such a depressing and cheerless place, and time, yet the baby is still happy, totally oblivious to the situation and the feelings of others.
“Mid-term Break” is almost split in to two sections. As the last two stanzas (and a line) has a very different tone and atmosphere to the beginning of the poem. At the beginning of the poem the narrator, the young boy, seems to be very distant and detached from the scene; and there is a lot going on, a lot of people there. The first half has a darker, sombre atmosphere, and this has been created by the use of depressing words such as: “funerals”, “knelling” and “corpse”. Whereas in the second half, the boy seems to open up more, it is just him speaking. The atmosphere has become more peaceful and relaxed overnight. In this half quite a bit of light/colour imagery has been used, for example, “snowdrops”, “candles”, and “paler”. Along with these words, the fact that he says “I went up” makes the atmosphere heavenly and pure. Although dead the boy is portrayed as angelic and perfect, as there are no scars.
Imagery is used “Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple”; this lays emphasis on how the boy’s death was unnatural and so unfair; as the “poppy” is a symbol of war, of soldiers, young soldiers who were too young to die!
At the end of the poem the boy says “A four foot box, a foot for every year”. This is an excellent ending. It is shocking, as it is very blunt and straight to the point. The fact that it rhymes with the previous line means that it stays in the readers head, haunting them.
In the same way that “Mid-term Break” explores the ideas of grief, trauma and death; so does Funeral Blues, but with a different approach and from a different perspective.
“Funeral Blues” is about mourning the death of a lover. It has a very sad, depressing, heart-breaking tone and atmosphere that makes Auden the voice of the poem.
With the title including the word “funeral” the theme of death is immediately introduced to us; and “blues” re-establishes the fact that it is not going to be a joyful poem.
Like “Mid-term Break” the poem seems to be split up into two sections. The first half of the poem is very angry, like a list of irrational imperatives. Auden calls for silence and wants to be cut of from the world and to shut everybody out; hence the line “stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”. Also the words “stop” and “cut” mean the end of something, in this case, the end of life. “Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come”; it is like Auden wants people to mourn and wants them to be as unhappy a he.
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In the second stanza, Auden uses personification “moaning” and “scribbling”, he gives the aeroplanes human facets in order to inform everybody that “He is dead”. This person meant so such to the Auden, he wants this person’s death acknowledged and written in the skies for everybody to see. He wants everybody to stop; he wants time dedicated to this person. He wants a royal-like funeral where “policemen wear black cotton gloves” and “white ribbons” are tied “around the necks of the public doves”. The “moaning” makes the tone really depressing and miserable, the reader can hear the sound in their head; and the “scribbling” adds a sense of speed; Auden wants these commands to be done now.
Although the first two stanzas have a very angry tone, Auden has used assonance; this gives a bit of a softer sound to some of the words; “muffled”, “drum”, “come”, “public”, “doves” and “gloves” all have a quiet and gentle feel to them.
In the second half of the poem, the mood changes, it goes from being almost outraged; to the speaker becoming very personal, Auden is opening up and giving a lot more emotion which makes him seem a bit vulnerable. Therefore the reader feels more sympathetic; like they are being let in, this makes them feel as if they are part of the poem.
“He was my North, my South, my East and West”, here Auden is basically saying that this person meant everything to him, he was his whole world. In the third stanza Auden writes “I thought that love would last forever – I was wrong”. Although love does last forever, here Auden feels that after the pain that this person has caused him, he can’t possibly still love them.
In the fourth stanza the mood is slightly irrational again. “The stars are not wanted”. Auden feels like nothing is wanted anymore, nothing is “any good” or use, nature’s beauty is not worth anything now that the love of his life has gone. “Pack up”, “put out”, “dismantle”, “pour”, “sweep”, he wants to break everything, remove them. There is also reference to light “stars” and “sun”; he wants them gone, in affect he wants to live in darkness.
There are some similarities between “Mid-term Break” and “Funeral Blues”. Them being that; both of the poems have very similar themes, ones of death, grief, trauma e.t.c. Also both “Mid-term Break” and “Funeral Blues” are written and spoken in the first person, this allows the reader to feel part of the poem and empathise. But where “Mid-term Break” is spoken from a child’s perspective, which has lost a sibling, “Funeral Blues” is spoken by an adult, who has lost a lover. In addition both poems start off very cold and distant, (angry in “Funeral Blues”) then as they go on the voices seem to open up and get more personal, more vulnerable. Furthermore both “Mid-term Break” and “Funeral Blues” have a immature quality, in the way that “Mid-term Break” shows it’s child- like innocence through the simplistic structure and wording, whereas “Funeral Blues” shows it in the way that the speaker is making irrational demands, some that are close to impossible.
On the other hand there are many differences. “Mid-term Break” is set in Ireland, which means that it is a Catholic funeral, and the poem is about the grief and trauma of the whole family. Whereas “Funeral Blues” is state like, orthodox funeral and the poem is concentrated on just one person’s pain and mourning.
Also “Funeral Blues” has a very clear rhyming pattern and is very rhythmic, like a song. In contrast “Mid-term Break” doesn’t have any rhyme scheme at all, and doesn’t have much rhythm. Instead it is more natural and unforced, and has enjambment to reflect this.
In conclusion, it is obvious that both poems have austere similarities. On the other hand they also have several distinct differences. Both poems are extremely cleverly written, but the more effective of the two is “Mid-term Break” by Seamus Heaney; for the reasons that it is so natural and unforced. The reader is transported to the scenes while reading it, it is so moving and magnificently poignant, you can really tell that whilst writing this poem, Heaney was writing form the heart.
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