Mid Term Break by Seamus Heaney

I tried to read this poem to my son (it’s one of life’s pleasures – persecuting your child by insisting he/she just sits for a minute to listens to whatever it is that has just possessed you!) but I found I could hardly finish it. The grief of the last few lines is so potent. It’s by Seamus Heaney, about the death of his little brother:

Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

I found it in a lovely new collection called, simply, 100 Poems. The ideas for I t began with Heaney himself – to put together a selection of poems that would lead you through his work – from early poems to the latest. As it turned out he ran out of time didn’t have the time – so his family have chosen for him, following the same plan, with a bias towards the poems that hold the greatest meaning for them (which seems to add to the potency of the poems somehow.)

Mid Term Break by Seamus Heaney

Pleasing billows of debauch

These debates about the Irish border in Northern Ireland reminded me of this poem from Seamus Heaney, written during the Troubles about the possession and repossession of his land by the rapist across the water.

What are these latest debates, but new inexpert fumblings from the old disabled debauchee.

OCEAN’S LOVE TO IRELAND

I
SPEAKING broad Devonshire,
Ralegh has backed the maid to a tree
As Ireland is backed to England

And drives inland
Till all her strands are breathless:
‘ Sweesir, Swatter! Sweesir, Swatter! ‘

He is water, he is ocean, lifting
Her farthingale like a scarf of weed lifting
In the front of a wave.
II
Yet his superb crest inclines to Cyntia
Even while it runs its bent
In the rivers of Lee and Blackwater.

Those are the splashy spots where he would lay
His cape before her. In London, his name
Will rise on water and on these dark seepings:

Smerwick sowed with the mouthing corpses
Of six hundred papists, ‘as gallant and good
Personages as ever where beheld’.
III
The ruined maid complains in Irish,
Ocean has scattered her dream of fleets,
The Spanish prince has spilled his gold

And failed her. Iambic drums
Of English beat the woods where her poets
Sink like Onan. Rush-light, mushroom-flesh,

She fades from their somnolent clasp
Into ringlet-breath and dew,
The ground possessed and repossessed.

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Pleasing billows of debauch