How does Heaney set the tone in the first line of “Mid-Term Break”?

Quick answer:

Heaney sets the tone in the opening line of “Mid-Term Break” by referring to the speaker's illness when he was a boy. The young lad is sick, which adds to the somber tone of a poem that deals with how people cope in the aftermath of a great tragedy.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The very first line of Heaney's “Mid-Term Break” sets the tone for what is to follow. The speaker, a young schoolboy, has sat all morning in the school sickbay, where he has been counting down the bells until it's time for home.

The reference to sickness in the first line introduces a somber tone, one that is maintained throughout the remainder of the poem. The boy's four-year-old brother has been killed in a tragic car accident, and so the tone is entirely appropriate to what follows.

Although the main focus of the poem is on the dead boy's relatives and how they're coping rather than the dead boy himself, the youngster's death haunts almost every line. All the tears and the coughs and the “angry tearless sighs” are the direct result of this terrible loss. Even before we know that a death has occurred in the speaker's family, the chime of the school bells prefigures what is to come.

To some degree, the action has come full circle. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker was sitting in the school sick bay waiting to go home. And now, he and his parents, sick with grief over the tragic death of a loved one, wait for sufficient time to pass to begin, perhaps, the healing process.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial