Via initial uneasy changes to his daily school routine and dawning reality, Heaney, then a fourteen-year-old schoolboy, confronts his four-year-old brother’s death (as result of a car accident in February 1953). He witnesses his parents’ grief. Brought home from school he experiences the moving responses of those around him before finally coming face-to-face with the body of his deceased brother.
School has seen fit to segregate the boy in the college sick bay; his mind wiles away the time Counting bells knelling classes to a close (the use of ‘knell’ sounds a foreboding that the youngster has not yet grasped for himself).
Abnormality is confirmed when ‘others’ pick him up from school. Once home he finds that, never experienced before, his father is in tears: He had always taken funerals in his stride; to the youngster’s discomfort, acquaintances use terms of condolence: a hard blow … shake my hand … ‘sorry for my trouble’. Only the baby in its pram, unaffected by events, is pleased to see him as if nothing was. He is aware of whispered remarks amongst strangers gathered there about his status in the family. He registers his mother’s grief as she coughed out angry tearless sighs.
He recalls the specific moment Christopher’s body is brought home by ambulance, stanched and bandaged by the nurses, to lie in the family home.
Next day the boy stands before the coffin where, to highlight the fragility of both beauty and innocence Snowdrops/ And candles soothed the bedside.
He recalls the pallor and the poppy bruise of a face seeming more asleep than dead, the corpse otherwise spared ugly bruising: No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
As he laments the death of one so dear and so young, the poet’s abiding memory, reflecting the moment when the finality of severance hit him, is couched in the pathos of the final line: A four foot box, a foot for every year.
- 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. Much more than a passing reference to time-off-school its usage here refers to the more poignant severing of previous ties;
- Heaney’s second published poem (written in early 1963 and first published in the Kilkenny Magazine); he reveals it was composed one evening (in a student flat he shared with 2 biochemists) one evening 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 (Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones p.67);
- 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;
- poem constructed in 7 10-syllable tercets plus a final maximum-impact line;
- there is no formal rhyme scheme; this is offset by a series of assonant effects: [e] bells knelling; [əʊ] close/ drove/ home/ blow; [ai] crying/stride; [ai] + [au] coughed/ out;
- and 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 ;
- poppy bruise: the mark of injury resembles the British emblem of Remembrance of those who fell in military conflict after 1914;
- early intimations of mortality and the incomprehension of a child confronted by injustice and grief (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.67);
- the familiarity and predictability of home is immediately violated;
- use is made of stock phrases deliberately pitched so as not to awaken active grief in the boy; ‘Sorry for your trouble’ is a common Ulster expression (ibid p.35);
- the final line is a tragic equation (ibid p.68);
- Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones 22 reveals that the event was instrumental in the family’s decision to move from Mossbawn to The Wood near Bellaghy;