Compare and contrast the presentation of death and grief in both poems
In this essay I will be comparing and contrasting the presentation of death and grief in the two poems, ‘Tropical Death’ and ‘Mid-Term Break’. Grace Nichols, the poet of ‘Tropical Death’, was born in Guyana, 1950, and then migrated to England at the age of 27. In all of her writing, her own history and that of her country have clearly had a profound impact as she says, “I am a writer across two worlds; I just can’t forget my Caribbean culture and past, so there’s this contrast interaction between the two worlds: Britain and the Caribbean.” Seamus Heaney, the poet of ‘Mid Term Break’, was born in Ireland in 1939 as the eldest of nine children. Many of his works concern his own family history as well and also seems to focus on characters in his own family: they can be read as elegies for those family members.
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The content of both the poems presents the themes of death and grief. Both poems deal with two poetic voices discussing and dealing with death. In “Tropical Death” she is planning the end of her life whereas in “Mid Term Break” he is dealing with the loss of his brother. In ‘Tropical Death’, the content consists of a Caribbean “black woman” wanting “a brilliant tropical death”. Grace Nichols discusses going back to her home country because she is planning the end of her life and would like a dramatic, traditional death. I think this as she suggests so much of her own death that the reader presumes she has come to the end of her life. I, as a reader, find the poetic voice in the category of integrity. This is because she is feeling ready for her own death and is hence planning for it. We also know she wants a dramatic death because it says, “no quiet jerk tear wiping, a polite hearse withdrawal”, proving the woman wants an ‘over the top’ end to her life. The poetic voice wants a tragic death, as it also states “all the sleepless droning/ red-eyed wake nights”. This suggests vigil. In “Mid Term Break” the content consists of an account of a family tragedy. In the poem the poetic voice attends the funeral of his younger brother who, at the age of four, was run over. We know this because it says “my mother held my hand”, “met my father crying”, “they were ‘sorry for my trouble’” and “I was the eldest”. All these quotes tell us, as the reader, what the family is going through. This makes us feel pathos for the poetic voice. The poetic voice is actually Heaney’s own as this really did happen in his life. This make the peace feel more heart-felt and emotional because all these things Heaney talks about were real.
The ideas the poets may have wanted us to think about presents the themes of death and grief. In ‘Tropical Death’, an idea Nichols wanted us to think about was how she knows and has identified the way in which she would like to die. “Woman want”, she is portrayed as always wanting which shows pride, determination, self-radiance, independence and strength. She had thought so much about her death that she knows every detail, down to what dress she would like to wear, “blue sea dress/ to wrap her neat”. When I first read this I thought the poetic voice meant she wanted to drown, “dress” being the waves and “neat” meaning to take her life quickly and painlessly. Yet having re-read it, I realised the woman was actually just referring to her plans for her traditional Caribbean outfit in which she wanted to be buried in. In “Mid Term Break”, an idea Heaney wanted us to think about was the imagery used to express ideas of death. Heaney uses a metaphor to describe the only mark on the boy’s body, “poppy bruise”. This is also the only colour talked about in the piece which makes this one mark more intense. It says he had “no gaudy scars” because “the bumper knocked him clear” and having this one little bruise, although it was probably quite small, seems extremely vivid and sickening. The colour also contrasts with the boy’s skin, which is described by the poetic voice as “paler now”. This also emphasises the “poppy bruise” for us, as the reader, to imagine the mark to stand out quite spectacularly. Another image Heaney wants use to imagine is the four foot box, which is alliteration. This device emphasises the negative tone and harsh nature, making the thought of this coffin more believable and realistic. My favorite device Heaney uses is onomatopoeia; “whispers”, “coughed”, “sighs”. This helps create the effect that we are actually there, hearing what the poetic voice is hearing. It makes the scene so much more real, again, like we are actually there- this emphasises the quite sadness.
The mood and atmosphere of both poems present the themes of death and grief. In “Tropical Death” the mood is quite exotic and I, as a reader, could almost imagine a Caribbean woman saying these things. This was because it was written in a language that captures the Caribbean dialect, but I will go on to write more about this later on. Grace writes, “No quiet jerk tear wiping”. This is not ‘Standard English’, emphasizing the Caribbean influence, and there is no punctuation throughout the piece. The mood is tropical, the writer talks about “heat” and “cool” and “shade” which suggests the temperature, making the reader feel as if we are there, in the Caribbean. The mood is also quite upbeat, with colourful words such as; “brilliant”, “blue sea dress” and “red eyed”. This vibrant text makes us think of the bright colours on the island. After “all the sleepless droning” the mood softens, “her mother’s sweet breast”, “cool bless”. These peaceful descriptions lower the tension levels to make the last couplet seem stronger. In “Mid Term Break” there is a noticeable change in atmosphere between stanza five and stanza six. In the first five stanzas the atmosphere is tense and cold as the “ambulance arrived” and the arrival of the corpse “stanched and bandaged”. The energy level of the poetic voice is low throughout these first five stanzas, like the poetic voice is tired and drowned from all that is going on. However, in the final few stanzas the atmosphere changes peaceful, “snowdrops”, “candles soothed”, “he lay”. These bring down the tension levels as we picture the calm, relaxed mood around the cot. Heaney uses pathos, “I met my father crying”. This emphasises the bleak tone of the poem, playing on the readers feelings.
How the poems are written present the themes of death and grief. The poem “Tropical Death” has a refrain which is repeated at the start of every stanza (except for the fifth one). Having the same line every time we start a new paragraph of the poem helps us, as a reader, to be brought back to what the whole poem is about, as a constant reminder. This repetition is an eternal rhyme and it’s a connotation of death. It is also alliteration, a device Nichols uses throughout her poem. The refrain also stands out due to its stressed syllables, which are short and staccato vowel sounds. The ‘t’ and the ‘k’ letters make the beat hard and unappealing. Repetition is thought to originate from the call and response tradition of Africa; it could be a big part in her writing due to Grace Nichols’ background. The poem also hints at several lovely parts of death; “blue sea dress/ to wrap her neat”, “polite hearse”, “in the heart/ of her mother’s sweetbreast”, “in the shade/ of the sun leaf’s cool bless”, “in the bloom/ of her people’s bloodrest”. This tells me, as a reader, that “the fat black woman” awaits the end of her life with dignity, her head held high having fulfilled her planned life and is subsequently planning her own death for when it may arrive. The structure of “Tropical Death” is divided into five stanzas and one ending couplet. Stanza one, two, three and four all start with the line “the fat black woman want”. The fifth stanza doesn’t start with this but then the couplet does, also the fourth and fifth stanzas are longer than the first, second and third. This could be to emphasise the final image more, by giving the reader a break from the refrain and also the length of the two stanzas before outline the short and snappiness of the ending couplet. This break is to not detract from the message and there is also no punctuation in the couplet, this is so the reader is left with a strong image. This image has been building up throughout the piece, “the fat black woman want/ a brilliant tropical death yes”. “Tropical Death” is written in a language that captures the Caribbean dialect. It uses some unfamiliar vocabulary, e.g. ‘hibiscus’ is a plant native to warm tropical regions; ‘blue sea dress’ is a traditional African dress. It creates as strong sense of the voice of the speaker. It clearly sets the poem in a culture other than that represented by ‘Standard English’. By using a mixture of Standard English and a dialect form it emphasises a particular idea, in this poem the idea is of wanting to go back to her home country. This technique gives a sense of the dual ‘voice’ that the poet possesses. Nichols enjoys exploring these cultural differences: ‘I like working in both Standard English and Creole. I tend to want to fuse the two tongues because I come from a background where the two worlds were constantly interacting, though Creole was regarded, obviously, as the inferior of the colonial powers when I was growing up.’ In “Mid Term Break” the rhyme scheme is non-existent. I believe this is to make the tone of the piece more serious and grown up. It is written like an episode rather than a poem. This highlights the realist mood and atmosphere. The finishing couplet is more memorable as the middle is slower and bland. The rhyming couplet seems to sooth. Heaney writes, “No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear/ A four foot box, a foot for every year”. This decreases the tension and affirms the ending of the peace. The dialect is Standard English, with punctuation. This helps us to imagine the poetic voice to live somewhere cold and unappealing because the language used is harsh and unwelcoming.
How the poems are similar presents the themes of death and grief. Both poems finish with a punchy line, to leave the reader with an image to take with them. In “Tropical Death” this is the fact that the poetic voice wants to go back to her home country to die in a traditional way yet in “Mid Term Break” this is the fact that a boy has died young from a tragic accident. These final images conclude both poems strongly. Both poems have a similar layout, with regular stanzas and a final shorter stanza. Both poems overall talk about the same things, but “Tropical Death” discusses in a more up-beat, lively and natural sort of way- it is the natural order of life. Whereas, in Heaney’s poem, it is written in a more dejected and sad kind of way.
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How the poems are different present the themes of death and grief. In Nichols’ poem she talks about the planning of her death whereas in Heaney’s poem he talks about a boy who has died young- his life was cut tragically short, without any notice. Nichols is basically saying all that the boy in Heaney’s poem had, she doesn’t want. She says “not a cold sojourn/ in some North Europe far/forlorn”. That is exactly what the little boy in Heaney’s poem got. Nichols says she doesn’t want “a polite hearse” and yet that’s what Heaney’s poem has, “sorry for my trouble”, “whispers”. The “fat black woman” wants “some bawl”, “Sleepless droning” unlike the boy had in Heaney’s poem, “coughed out tearless sighs”, “I was embarrassed”. All these things prove that everything Heaney describes in his poem is everything Nichols is saying she doesn’t want; both poems sum up the cultural norms. Our culture is presented in Heaney’s poem as cold, “snowdrops” with lots of secrecy, “whispers”, and this contrast greatly with Nichols’ culture which is described as lively and welcoming. The coldness and grayness hit us in Heaney’s poem, “no gaudy scars” and white “snowdrops”. This is such a contrast from Nichols’ vivid and warm piece, “heat”, “tropical”. In “Mid Term Break” there is tension, “embarrassed”, there is forced politeness and secrecy. It is a hint that we don’t have a welcoming culture, unlike Nichols’ culture, ours seems cold and behind doors, “a cold sojourn” as described in “Tropical Death”.
In conclusion, these two poems present death and grief in two different ways- we hear the negativity of Heaney’s traumatic experience, which completely contrasts with Nichols’ positive request to return to her homeland for her death.
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