The Lesson and Mid-term Break
“The Lesson” tells the story of a 10 year old boy who has lost his father in the duration of school time. It goes on the say he’s trapped and although he feels grief for the death of his father he realises that he can use the death to “bind the bullies’ fist”.
“Mid-Term Break” is about the loss of a brother. It goes on to say that life goes on even though he has lost his brother and he witnesses things he does not normally experience (his father crying).
The meaning of “Mid-Term Break” is to tell the story of an accident involving a young child and a vehicle. He tries to explain how life goes on and the death of the boy’s brother doesn’t mean that life stops. It goes on to show that because his brother has died certain things happen that he doesn’t usually see “I met my father crying” and ” Old men standing up to shake my hand”. It ends with the powerful and chilling line “a four foot box, a foot for every year” This shows that the boy was very young and had a small coffin because he was only 4 years of age.
The poems structure is very neat and very tidy. He chooses to write in three line stanzas because this allows the poem to flow easily and allows the stanza below it the link in with its predecessor. By also having three line stanzas helps the last line have more of a “punch” feeling because it breaks the mould.
Heaney avoids using rhyme in this piece because we usually associate rhyme with happiness and glee. Because of this reason Heaney purposely makes this poem sad and hopeless.
The mood changes throughout the poem. At the start the mood is sombre, sad and mysterious but when it reaches “next morning” the mood has changed to a happier tone as if it shoes life goes on oblivious to his brother’s death.
In the first stanza the poet uses lines to describe how the child sits alone without any idea about what is going on “Sat all morning” and “counting bells knelling classes to a close”. This shows he has been alone, sitting all morning. Also “counting bells knelling classes to a close” shows alliteration to allow the line to flow and shows that he’s so bored that he’s counting the school bells ringing (later we discover that kneeling is also the sound a funeral bell, a glimpse of what is to come). Also the boy comes across another unforeseen incident ” Neighbours drive me home” This shows something extremely uncommon and shows the importance of the circumstance that even his parents cant pick him up. At this stage so many things must be going through the boys mind and he must be very confused.
The next stanza starts with another uncommon sight “in the porch I met my father crying”. This shows that it must be very a serious incident that even his father, someone who is supposed to never cry and always show his strong side, has been broken by all that has happened. It even goes on to say that “he had always taken funerals in his stride” so this particular circumstance must be much more serious than all the other funerals he had ever been to.
The next stanza begins with “the baby cooed and rocked the pram” not only does this use onomatopoeia (cooed) but also implies that life goes on and the bay is completely oblivious to the death of his brother. Also another uncommon instance occurs when he meets “old men standing up to shake my hand”. This shows that the boy has to mature fast and take his place in life.
The next stanza uses enjambment because it links on from the latter stanza “and tells me they were sorry for my trouble”. He uses this to help the flow of the poem so it continues smoothly. In the last line of this stanza boys “mother held my hand” which that the mother is living up to her stereotype as the caring considerate parent.
In the fifth stanza the mother “coughs angry tearless sighs” which shows the mother was devastated by the loss of her son and wished she could have done something to help. Then it goes on to say the ambulance arrived with the “corpse” which is an interesting use of a word because it implies that the boy was cold, dead and lifeless.
In the following stanza the mood completely changes “Next morning” implying that time has changed and life is continuing. The boy goes to see his brother and all the while snowdrops are outside. Snowdrops represent innocence and I think Heaney is trying to relate innocence to the death of the boy’s brother. The boy looks at his brother “paler now” which may mean the body is paler because of death or the boy hasn’t seen his brother for so long his brother is paler in his mind.
The last but one stanza explains how the boy died “the bumper knocked him clear”. This helps the reader understand more easily how the child died and also gives us an idea of how tall the boy is. Bumpers are very low so the child must have been very small.
The final stanza finishes with the chilling line “a four foot box, a foot for every year”. The word box must suggest that coffin is very small and also the size of it tells us the boy is 4 years of age.
Comparisons of This poem and the next
Comparisons between the next poem and mid-term break are that they are both about the death of a family member and they both try to explain that life goes on.
The meaning of the lesson is very similar to that of “Mid-Term Break. The poet captures the boy’s emotions at the moment he learned of his father’s death. He focuses on the realisations that the boy reached during this particular incident. Not too much detail is given of the actual story, but more focus is given to his reactions and feelings.
The structure of “the lesson” is very different to “mid-term break”. In the lesson there are only two stanzas because the poet wants us to take in all the information at once rather than read it partially. In “Mid-Term Break” you are introduced to several members of the boys family whereas in “the lesson” tells the story through the boys emotions. So by using two large stanzas rather than many small stanzas the poet makes you take in all the information at once.
A 10-year-old child has been called into his headmaster’s office to be given the news of his father’s death. The headmaster breaks the news in a rather hard, matter-of-fact manner. There is no attempt at emotional contact; we see this emotional distance in the rest of the poem too. The speaker seems to be concentrating on external detail – he notes that his headmaster is bald. Indeed, the two things he seems to be concentrating on are the bald head (“his shining dome”) and the tobacco jar on his desk.
As soon as he is told, he starts crying, but as he tells us, these are not the tears of grief which we might expect. He says that the upon hearing the news he “Splintered at once in tears” – this is a curious word to describe tears. We might expect a softer, more “watery” word such as “dissolved”. “Splintered” is a hard, sharp word that might be used in connection with glass or ice – both hard, cutting substances.
This gives us a clue about the speaker’s feelings. There is some hard, practical part of him which immediately sees how the news of his father’s death might be of use to him. It will give him, for a short while, a kind of advantage. Because he is the boy who is supposedly grieving the loss of his father, he will not be beaten up by bullies for “a week or two”.
The feelings in this stanza are complex, even though they must have shot through the speaker very quickly. He is aware that he is not grieving; he is bitter and ashamed, because his mind has instantly rushed to seek out the advantage in his father’s death. He is aware of what he should feel, but he cannot feel it. And although he feels shame that his thoughts are only of himself, his ultimate feeling is of relief that, for a while, he won’t be bullied.
These emotions are rather far from what we have been taught to expect, so we might feel shocked to learn, in stanza two, that the speaker was only 10 when this happened. Where are the purity and innocence of childhood?
Stanza two describes the reaction of his schoolmates to the news. Everyone falls silent when his “grief came in”. It is interesting that the entire school focuses on his grief, when he has just told us that he actually felt none. Everyone else is reacting to him in the conventional way, even though his feelings are unconventional. They no longer see him, they only see his “grief”.
The speaker notes the goldfish swimming quietly in their bowl; they “were indifferent”. The description of the bowl (a round, shining object) connects it to the earlier descriptions of the headmaster’s bald head and the tobacco jar. The speaker is focusing on external objects rather than on inner feeling. The indifference of the goldfish again reminds us of the speaker’s detachment, his distance from grief. Their eyes are turned away from him, just as he turns away from sadness.
However, “All the other eyes/ Were turned towards” the speaker, and he is the centre of attention. The earlier reference to bullies suggests that the speaker was not too happy at school; but now, for once, he is the recipient of attention and sympathy. Because of this, he suddenly experiences another emotion we do not normally associate with someone who has just learnt of a parent’s death.
“Pride, like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin”: we can imagine the goldfish swimming in their bowl, perhaps set in the sunshine on a windowsill. The sun catches a goldfish at a certain angle, and the gold of its scales suddenly shines brightly. The speaker, caught in the sunshine of all this attention and sympathy, suddenly feels pride shining in him.
At no point in this poem does the speaker express sadness at the loss of his father. However, he is aware that he should feel something, and his shame at the lack of feeling is in conflict with his relief and his pride. What is uppermost in the speaker’s mind is the confined little world of the school (rather like the “shining prison” of the goldfish bowl). His life is centred on school, the bullying, his other school-mates.
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